This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
“Eating a horse is like eating your own child,” an American horse-lover once told Belgian photographer Heleen Peeters.
In some cultures, horses are considered noble creatures who belong on posters in children’s bedrooms, while in others they’re happily devoured from a plate. And in some countries, both those things can be true. Peeters became fascinated with these cultural differences, eventually visiting ten countries on four continents to capture the dichotomy on film.
Peeters knows better than anyone how emotional people can get when it comes to horses. Her grandfather was the founder of Equinox, a horse meat distributor near Antwerp, where her father also worked. I spoke to Peeters about the impact the factory had on her childhood, her relationship with horses and her book Horse.
VICE: Hi, Heleen. What was it like growing up in a family that sold horse meat?
Heleen Peeters: I grew up in a village where everyone knew each other, so I usually didn’t have to explain what my father did. At my riding school it was more of an issue. The first few weeks of horse-riding lessons were fun, but when the instructor found out my family sold horse meat I was only allowed to ride a pony that had to walk at the back of the line because she kicked other ponies. Needless to say, my horse riding career didn’t last long.
Did you involve your family in your photo project?
My first destination was Kyrgyzstan, and two weeks after I got there I got a call from my father. He was curious to know what I’d learned about the local customs around horse meat. When we talked about it he got so enthusiastic that he immediately booked a flight to Bishkek, the capital, to accompany me on the rest of the trip.
After that, he joined me on all of my trips and he was a really big help. The horse meat industry is often portrayed negatively in the media, but because of our own background the butchers and abattoirs trusted us to give an honest portrayal.
It was really special to travel with my father. On our trips he would tell me stories about my grandfather and the family business. Back then, I was the only member of the family who wasn’t employed in the company, so it allowed me to connect with that world a bit more.
In your book, you mention that people have eaten horse meat since the Ice Age. When did it become a taboo?
There have been discoveries of horse bones near the French city of Solutré, and paintings in the Lascaux caves show that hunters in the Ice Age hunted horses. It was an important source of food in many ancient civilisations.
The taboo surrounding horse meat is based on religion. Pope Gregory III banned the eating of horse meat in 732 for unknown reasons. Some say the ban was meant to undermine the pagan rituals of Germanic people, who sacrificed horses and ate their meat on religious holidays. Others claim the Pope wanted to prevent the slaughtering of horses because he needed them for his troops in their battle against the Lombards. Horse meat has had a bad reputation ever since.
What’s your stance on eating horse meat? Do you eat it yourself?
I don’t eat meat that often, but I’ll have horse meat once in a while because I was raised in a culture where it’s the most normal thing in the world. I always try to get quality products from the butcher.
Horse meat is a safe choice, because it’s actually always a sustainable product. Horses are not bred for meat. The older the horse, the better the meat. With beef, it’s the other way around, because the meat of younger animals is more tender. Horses are also bred as leisure animals, and most of the time they’ve led a good life before they end up at the abattoir.
Horse meat is so taboo in the US that abattoirs were made illegal about 15 years ago. What happens to American horses when their lives are over?
Horses can’t be slaughtered in the US, but they can be bought and shipped off to other countries where it’s not illegal to slaughter them. Since the closure of abattoirs there’s been a market for so-called “kill buyers”, who visit American livestock markets to buy the animals. After that, the horses are sent across the border to Canada or Mexico to be slaughtered. So, many American horses still end up at the abattoir, via a detour.
Of course there are owners who refuse to sell their horse to a “kill buyer”, but can’t keep the horse themselves for a number of reasons. Horse shelters everywhere are full – they don’t have room for new animals. Some owners choose to set their horse free. The internet is filled with stories about dumped horses in different locations, whether it’s in public or simply in someone else’s horse trailer.
For your book you went to Kyrgyzstan, among other places. How do they perceive horses?
Horses are a symbol of wealth in Kyrgyzstan. Animals are expensive and used for transportation and the production of dairy products, for example. Besides that, nearly all popular sports in Kyrgyzstan involve horses. Because they’re so important for Kyrgyz people, the meat is pricey. They only serve horse meat on special occasions, like to celebrate a baby being born, an important birthday or a wedding.
’Horse’ is available to purchase at the Eriskay Connection.