18 February 2021
18 February 2021 - Written by Colin Pantall
In 2015, Heleen Peeters’ father Michel, held a family meeting. The purpose: to decide on the future of the family’s horse meat business. The result: Peeters and her father embarked on a tour of 10 countries on four continents to see how ‘horses and horse meat are viewed’. This book is the product of that tour.
It’s not an easy book if you love horses. And since most of us have a certain affection for horses that we do not have for cows or chickens or sheep say, that’s how the book starts; with an overview of the place the horse holds in our hearts, the way in which it features in art, in literature, in film, and a visual exploration of how the horse is valued in a way that is surpassed only by dogs and possibly cats. There are Peeters’ own photographs of the majesty of the horse, and there are illustrations and paintings such as the one of Whistlejacket by Stubbs. This holds pride of place on the first floor of London’s National Gallery, a testimony not just to the wild splendour of the horse, but also (by fitting into Stubbs’ wider oeuvre) of the move to regarding the horse, and animal life and the natural world in general, as not something of the land, but rather as something that can be tamed, controlled, and improved by man.
So for all our love of the horse, Peeters suggests, embedded within the romanticisms of horse-racing, of farming, of the horse as a signifier of a particular lifestyle, is the broken horse, the horse replaced by a tractor (this is what caused Peeters’ family to take up the horse meat business in the first place), and the horse outgrown by the children it was bought to be a plaything for.
In the old days, what happened to these horses? They ended up in what the British call the Knacker’s Yard. That’s where Boxer is sent by his pig masters at the end of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. He’s old, he’s weak, he’s knackered and he ends up being sent to be slaughtered for dog meat.
Horse is in a way a look at the harsh realities that are a by-product of our love of horses. Peeters talks about the ways in which landscapes have been horsified, how fields that were once wildflower meadow or used to grow crops, have become pastures for horses to graze in. The rural landscape has become a leisure landscape.
Peeters travels to the USA, to Argentina, to Kyrgyzstan, to see how horses and horse meat are regarded. In the USA, horses are a national icon; they are central to the founding myths of America, they are the animal at the heart of the exploration, the colonisation, and the genocide that we can witness in full technicolor glory in a host of films where the horse plays a major supporting role.
In the USA, the horse is regarded as man’s (second) best friend, and ‘hippophagy, the eating of horse meat, is therefore a taboo’. In 2006 the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act became law. Horse slaughter became very complex, resulting (says Peeters) in landscapes overpopulated by wild horses (though there are arguments that say that the horse population is sustainable, that cattle and sheep farming has a worse effect on the environment).
So there is a tension between the romanticised idea of the wild horse, the myth of the horse as the co-founder of the USA, and the sentimentality that comes attached to this idea. This is best seen in the image from the Extreme Mustang Makeover showing ‘the most obedient horse’ lying on his back, hooves in the air as his trainer sits astride his belly in a red headband and white shorts. It’s not a good look.
The zenith of Peeters’ travels is Kyrgyzstan, a nation where, according to an old Kyrgyz saying ‘horses are the wings of the people’. In the countryside, horses are used for herding livestock and travelling into the inaccessible interior. They are central to the nation’s most popular sport, and horse meat and horse milk feature heavily in the nation’s diet. In Kyrgyzstan, horses are a symbol of wealth and their meat (the fattier the better) is considered a delicacy. We see horses on the steppe and in the market. We see them walking into distant mountains. And we see the meat, boiled and laid out in great slabs on plates for the guests at a wedding to feast on.
Kyrgyzstan was, for Peeters’ father, a revelation, a country where the horse is revered both as livestock and as foodstock. And that is what is at the heart of this strangely voiced, but actually very good book. How and why do we value certain animals above others, how do we sentimentalise them, how do we exploit them, how do we really treat them. In this book, the horse meat industry is laid bare in some ways (yes, they did use to slaughter horses by putting a blindfold on them and smashing their heads in with a sledgehammer – and there’s a picture to prove it), but there is also a subtext about industrialised meat consumption and processing that lies beneath the surface.
And that perhaps is the take-out. The USA may not send as many horses to slaughter in Mexico and Canada (44,000 horses sent in 2020 compared to 150,000 in 2006 ), but it still has its godawful feedlots, the British might turn their noses up at horsemeat but they still eat chickens reared in battery sheds, and Pope Gregory III might have banned the consumption of horse meat and described it as ‘a filthy and abominable custom’ in 732CE, but Catholics still eat pigs reared in conditions where the sow has no space to even turn around. So compared to all of those things, eating an old horse (and the meat tastes better the older it is) is positively a good thing. Or not as the case may be.
Horse by Heleen Peeters
Published by The Eriskay Connection
Concept, artworks and text by Heleen Peeters // Design by Rob van Hoesel
Paperback with wrapped cove // 232 pages // 20 x 30.5 cm
Heleen Peeters studied photography at London College of Communicated in the United Kingdom before obtaining a master’s degree in photographic studies at Leiden University in The Netherlands. In her projects she combines her voice as an author with multiple perspectives to create a new fictional space for imagination.
Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.