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English translation of Équi-Libre article by Pearl Duval

Are Horses really Herbivores?

By Pearl Duval

As strange as this statement may seem, a new book has just shaken our knowledge about the feeding habits of horses, which we thought we knew so well.

Some time ago I was contacted by Mr. CuChullaine O’Reilly, Founder of The Long Riders’ Guild, an association of long-distance horsemen, with the souls of adventurers, dedicated to reviving the long tradition of the horsemen of the past and increasing the knowledge, collected over centuries, of horses (their site has more than 3,000 pages of material from various periods and articles on an incredible variety of topics).

Mr. O’Reilly asked if I would be prepared to read his latest book, Deadly Equines and to send him my comments.  With a title like that, you can imagine I jumped at the opportunity!  In fact, he shared electronic copies of his book with Members of the Guild, as well as with horsemen, journalists, veterinarians and others in the equestrian world, in order to gather the maximum number of reactions before officially releasing it.

I plunged into this intriguing work and found myself rapidly confronting a reality that I had never suspected:  according to the author’s research, there have been numerous cases over the centuries of horses who not only survived difficult conditions by eating meat, but who, in some cases, had attacked and killed human beings, and also wild animals such as cougars.

We all know that horses can be dangerous, whether on purpose or not.  Because of their size, they can bite a finger while grabbing at a carrot, break a nose by shaking their heads, or send us rolling in the dust with a kick.  It is, indeed, one of the first things we are taught when we start riding lessons:  with horses, safety is essential at all times.

But from there to attacking humans?  I began to doubt this book.

The author explains to us that when he started his research, ten years ago, it was in order to produce the most complete international guide to equestrian travel.  And when you talk about journeys in different parts of the world, you are faced with different cultures, different customs, and therefore different food, for humans as well as for horses.  That’s when he made an intriguing discovery:  he realised that in some countries people have, for centuries, been giving meat to their horses to supplement their diet.

He also found several written instances (myths, legends, eye-witness accounts) spread over hundreds of years, regarding horses which could, on occasion, attack and kill human beings, and even eat their flesh.

Very disturbed by these discoveries (as one would be), the author claims that horsemen today seem to have completely forgotten (or hidden) any reference to this aspect of horses being potentially dangerous, and not the gentle Disney-esque herbivores they tend to dream about.

The book thus alternates between examples of meat-eating horses found on all continents, including Antarctica (see side-bar) and horses which attack humans.  Yet it is very clear to the author that these two aspects are not connected.  In fact, one of the aims of the book is simply to make the equestrian community understand that horses are not only herbivores, but omnivores, as we are.

A few questions to ask oneself

I do have an open mind, but I must admit that at this stage of the book, I stopped reading and asked myself two questions:

1.                   Can horses digest meat?  I don’t know much about equestrian digestion except for the fact that horses cannot vomit and that they have a digestive system relatively small for their size.

2.                  What about their teeth?  Since they can grind cereals, surely they can chew meat.  But shred a carcase?

I therefore asked for the advice of Dany Cinq-Mars, Ph.D., agronomist and deputy professor from the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Science at the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Laval in Quebec.

This is his response:

The horse is a monogastric herbivore.  It is different from the ruminants because the fermentation takes place at the end of the digestive tract rather than at the beginning, as with ruminants.  Evolution has allowed the horse to develop flight as a means of defence.  In order to be able to flee, the prey must be extremely fast, faster than its predators.  He needs, therefore, a digestive system which is not too cumbersome. The ruminant has a more voluminous and bulky digestive system which slows it down.  But bovines can defend themselves with their horns, and they are usually in a group.  They too run away, but the horse remains faster.  It’s true that the horse’s digestive system is a little less efficient than the ruminant’s in digesting forage, but there is not a very great difference.

Even though the horse was designed to eat forage, the small intestine can’t differentiate between an animal or a vegetable protein.  The advantage of animal protein is its composition in amino acids which, on the whole, are better than those in vegetable protein.  The digestion of protein requires digestive enzymes which are similar, whether it’s concerning animal or vegetable protein, so there is no digestive problem for animal proteins. 

Regarding the second question, he continues:

“The grinding of vegetation requires different dentition adapted to this food.  The horse’s dentition is completely adapted to prepare vegetation to be ingested and subsequently digested in the intestine.  Whereas to tear a carcase apart, for example, requires more prominent canines, as well as cutting incisors which the horse does not possess.”

He concluding by saying that he himself had seen horses eating meat or licking blood.

His analysis of the horse’s dentition agrees with two studies mentioned in the book Deadly Equines and easily accessible on the Internet.

The first study was led by Dr. Bruce McFadden, Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Museum of Natural History in Florida, and author of the book “Fossil Horses” (2005).  He uses new scientific methods (meso-wear of teeth and their chemical composition) to find traces of the kind of food chewed by the dentition of prehistoric horses.  Mc Fadden is convinced that horses in that long-ago period ate a wide variety of foodstuffs.

He explains thus that modern equids such as horses and zebras are grazers who have developed, over time, longer teeth because they graze on cereals and abrasive grasses, where as browsers such as deer mainly feed on leaves, and have shorter teeth.  According to observations made by the researcher, prehistoric horses varied their diet enough to leave traces in the evolution of their dentition, and in the chemical composition of their teeth.

McFadden notes that “even though modern horses are grazers they can, if necessary, eat small fruits and leaves if forage is not available.  Horses adapt very quickly and exploit all the food sources they can find.  After all, since we find them from the tropics to the coldest regions, does that not demonstrate a very high capacity for adaptation?”

The second study was conducted recently by two professors of anatomy at the College of Osteopathy at the Institute of Technology in New York, on 6500 fossils of prehistoric horses representing 222 different populations, of 70 extinct species of equines, spread over 55 million years.

The researchers discovered that the dentition of these fossils indicated a delay of a million years between the moment when the type of food in their environment changed and the moment when their teeth finally adapted to this change, often caused by prehistoric fluctuations in the climate.

This study showed that not only has the variety of species of horses greatly diminished in the last few million years, but also that their diet has become much more limited.  “The least one can say is that today’s horses are hardly representative of that vast group of mammals with a very varied diet,” said one of the researchers.

History definitely still has its uses

Now that my two questions had been answered, I resumed my reading with more confidence.  Thus I discovered, to my surprise, an equestrian community, unsuspected yet quite obvious if one takes the time to rummage in the various historical archives, as CuChullaine O’Reilly had done so thoroughly.

For example, one of the first examples mentioned by the author is this one, taken from a book of 1891, “From Paris to Tonkin across Unknown Tibet”, written by Gabriel Bonvalot (1853-1933), a French explorer, author and legislator who, from 1880, crossed Central Asia on horseback.

It was during his third journey, from Paris to Indochina via Russia and Tibet (about 6,000 miles), that Bonvalot witnessed the way in which the Tibetans had been feeding their ponies for hundreds of years.  I was lucky enough to find a copy of this book, and this is how he describes his encounter with Tibetan ponies:

For us, they saddled little fiery Tibetan horses, who eat raw meat, which we confirmed with our very own eyes.  These carnivores have wonderful legs, are very acrobatic, can keep their balance on ice, through bogs and, picking themselves up, leap onto the path.  They carried us with a much faster trot than we were used to.  It seemed as though the little devils found us as light as feathers; indeed, we had no spare flesh, as our thinness was ascetic.”

This habit of giving horses meat to eat or blood to lick to restore strength and vitality was captured on film in 1938 by Dr. Ernst Schäffer, an eminent German scientist and explorer, sent to Tibet by SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler.  Even though he did not share his commandant's esoteric rantings*, Schäffer brought back from his journey a large number of books on Buddhism, visited Lhasa, made geomagnetic experiments, and ensured that his team recorded all aspects of Tibetan life, which resulted in more than 60,000 photographs of Tibet before the Chinese invasion of 1950.

In addition, he made a documentary which can be seen on Youtube.  Between  minutes 48 and 50 one can clearly see a horse, which has just arrived in the village to deliver the mail, being fed with tsampa (a blend of barley flour, yak butter and salty Tibetan tea), mixed with the blood of a sheep killed for the occasion.  The mixture returns strength to animals exhausted by a long journey.  The narrator confirms that the horse calmly eats the food presented to it.

Bruno Beger, the anthropologist who accompanied Schäffer’s expedition, related later how the members of the group were astonished at the behaviour of the horse, and the way he seemed fortified by the mixture, and asked themselves how their European horses would react to such a diet.

That’s fine, elsewhere, but what about here in Quebec?

Throughout the book, the reader travels from one continent to another, from anecdote to legend, from epoch to epoch, following the author’s line of research.  But as I continued reading, a thought started tugging at the back of my mind:  had Quebec’s horsemen also seen horses eating meat?  I vaguely remember an anecdote recounted once long ago in the classroom by a teacher of the history of New France  (or did I read it somewhere?  I can’t remember now.)

Anyway, it seems that during the early years of the colony, some of the colonists let their horses loose during the winter, being too poor to feed them adequately.  They reasoned that the strongest would manage to survive through winter.  According to certain eye-witnesses, some of the horses, driven by hunger and thirst, would break the  ice with their hooves in order to drink and eat fish.

Not being able to remember exactly where I heard or read about this, and memory being a faculty which can sometimes forget or alter one’s recollections, I wrote to the President of the Association of the Canadian Horse, as well as the historian Jacques Lacoursière, to ask if they knew anything about my anecdote.  I have not yet received a reply, but if either of them does answer, I will let you know.

Meanwhile, Mr. O’Reilly sent me a letter in which he mentioned having received word from a Quebec man telling him how he had seen a horse eating meat. Mr. Martin Verschelden from the Lanaudière, whom I had the pleasure of contacting, allowed me to use his anecdote for this article.  He remembers how his girlfriend’s horse, a superb Quarter-Horse gelding, was accustomed to sharing everything which his owner offered him: ice-cream cones, apples, chocolate bars, cookies, bread etc.  He had complete faith in her.  That’s why, when she offered him, as a joke, her roast beef sandwich, thinking he would never touch meat, she was flabbergasted when he took a large mouthful and swallowed it greedily, going so far as to demand a second helping!  Since then, every time he noticed that she was eating a meat sandwich, he insisted on having some.  In Martin’s opinion this horse seemed to love meat.


When I started reading Deadly Equines I really doubted the veracity of the facts reported by the author.  Yet after checking up on several facts, I can assure you that the author’s research is excellent.  In fact, it wasn’t the fact that horses might be omnivores that disturbed me so much.  It was the possibility that I was being told tall tales.

Throughout the book, Mr. O’Reilly demonstrates a faultless methodology and journalistic rigour, constantly furnishing references to the examples he delivers, drawing heavily on history to remind us how much humans have forgotten about the true nature of their most beautiful conquest.

Since reading this book, and after having sent a few letters here and there, I myself have collected stories from horsemen who have seen horses eating meat, or at least licking blood.

If you have any stories you would like to share, do please send them to me.  I would be delighted to forward them to Mr. O’Reilly, who must have had about a hundred eye-witness accounts since he shared his book with the international equestrian community.  He will be very happy to put them all together and publish them one day.


Gabriel Bonvalot, De Paris au Tonkin à travers le Tibet inconnu, Grands Voyageurs, Librarie Hachette (1891), Hachette-Stock, 1980, p. 141

Dietary Change and Evolution of Horses in North America by Mihlbachler, Florent Rivals, Solounias, and Gine Semprebon.

Florida Museum Scientist: Ideas about fossil horses undergo evolution in thinking, by Cathy Keen.

O’Reilly, CuChullaine, Deadly Equines, The Shocking True Story of Meat-Eating and Murderous Horses, from the LRG Investigative series, 2011.

Sidebar - Ernest Shackleton and Antarctica

An Anglo-Irish navigator and explorer who was considered one of the most influential of the 20th century, Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) tried several time, unsuccessfully, to mount expeditions to reach the South Pole (first in 1908, then in 1914 on board the Endurance which, stuck in the ice, had to be abandoned) and died of a heart attack during his last expedition on board the Quest.  He started his career as an explorer by taking part in Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition in 1901-1904, when they got to within 600 miles of the South Pole.  He became ill with exhaustion and had to be rapidly evacuated.  Nevertheless, this first experience of the Antarctic continent made a deep impression on him, and he worked ceaselessly to find sponsors so he could mount his own expedition, which he succeeded in doing from 1907.

Thanks to the experience gained with Scott, and after listening to the advice of Arctic explorers, he decided to take with him, as well as the usual sledge dogs, a dozen ponies from Manchuria (an ancient name for a region in the north-east of China) to help him reach the South Pole.  According to accounts by his colleagues, one horse alone could do the work of ten dogs.

However, having no knowledge about the care and feeding of horses, Shackleton consulted a manual published by the British Army veterinarians, Animal Management.  It is surprising that, already at the beginning of the 20th century, the British Army was aware that if meat were added to the horses’ feed, it could return them their strength.  And they give several examples taken from historical chronicles going back to the 19th century.

As a result of this information, Shackleton took with him 10 tons of compressed cereal (oats, bran, straw), large quantities of maize and, in accordance with the military manual, asked the staff at Aldershot, one of the most respected military establishments in England, to create a mixture called Maujee Rations, which consisted of dried beef, carrots, milk, sugar and raisins.  The horses became so fond of it that they preferred it to their normal rations. 

In spite of this, a series of unhappy accidents meant that none of the horses or the dogs survived the 1908 expedition.  Shackleton did, however, succeed in bringing back all his men alive.

* Nazi mysticism is a quasi-religious undercurrent of Nazism; it denotes the combination of Nazism with occultism, esotericism, cryptohistory, and/or the paranormal. It generally ascribes a religious significance to the person of Adolf Hitler and his doctrine.  Modern organisations or related philosophies include Ariosophy, Armanism, Theozoology, Armanen-Orden, Artgemeinschaft, and Esoteric Hitlerism. (Wikipedia)

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