Why Don’t Americans Eat Horses? | Why Do We Say We’re Hungry Enough to Eat a Horse? 

We’ve all been hungry before. We’ve all probably hyperbolically said we were hungry enough to eat a horse. Ambitious, considering that even lighter-bred horses average between 900 and 1,400 pounds. But why do we say we’re hungry enough to eat a horse? There are lots of other big animals we keep around for food. Also, food for thought. The idiom is commonly used in America too—where eating horses is not only functionally banned (we’ll get into it), but is generally considered socially unacceptable. Which might have you asking “why don’t Americans eat horses?” Yes, America’s history with horse meat is a little more complicated than “horses are sentimental” (though that is part of it). 

Earliest Uses

The earliest written use of our horse-related idiom dates back to at least the 18th century, from a guy named Tobias George Smollett. Smollet was born in 1721 and was a Scottish novelist and playwright. Also, he was a surgeon during the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1742; these experiences would later inform a lot of his later novels. Tl;dr Britain went to war with Spain over South America and it didn’t go well. He was active novelist from 1748 to 1771, publishing his last novel (The Expedition of Humphry Clinker) just a couple months before he died in September, 1771. A lot of his works would later be edited pretty liberally by printers, which is probably why we found Smollett using “hungry enough to eat a horse” in an edition of The Novels of Tobias Smollett published in 1821. 

Anyway, here’s the line: “I should feel heart-whole, if so be as yow would throw the noorse a’ter the bottles, and the ‘pothecary a’ter the noorse, and order me a pound of chops for my dinner, for I be so hungry, I could eat a horse behind the saddle.”

The work in question is The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves, the fourth novel Smollett penned and published in 1760. It’s largely inspired by Don Quixote, though apparently comparisons to Cerventes’s work are “unfavorable.” 

America and eating horses

So we promised to talk about America and horse meat, and apparently America has a pretty… weird relationship with eating horses. More weird Western meat beef, American beef is actually banned in the EU. This is partially due to the mad cow disease scare in 2003, but the ban persists now because the growth hormones used in America are banned in the EU. 

Anyway, horses. Slaughtering horses for meat in the US is actually (functionally) banned. Obviously, one of the key reasons horse meat hasn’t taken off in the US is because people like them, in the same way that eating dogs is taboo in the US. We’ll put that aside for now, because America’s relationship with eating horses, as we said earlier, is weird. 

Poverty, beef, and horses

Eating horse meat was taboo if you followed the Book of Leviticus, as horse meat was declared pagan meat or something by Pope Gregory III in 732. Eating horse meat was also a capital offense in France in the 16th century, which we’re only really bringing up because they love it there now. The Imperial West generally began to leave the taboo behind during the Enlightenment Era and during the Napoleonic Wars—key holdouts, though, were Britain and America (America inherited the taboo from Europe). This is likely because neither nation actually needed horses to source red meat, and horse meat was stigmatized as the food of poverty (given that experimentation with eating horses was fueled in part by the Napoleonic Wars. 

Eventually America experimented with horse meat in the 1890s, but the Beef Court scandal of 1899 slammed the brakes on the horse-meat industry. People incorrectly speculated that contaminated beef was actually horse meat, but the damage was done. 

Horse meat became popular again during WWI because beef got expensive, but was discarded as soon as beef became affordable again. This happened again during WWII when there were food shortages, though horse meat, again, was really only on the menu because beef was too expensive. This kind of went back and forth for a while, but horse meat has generally been culturally associated with being the “poor man’s beef” in the States—. Horse slaughter was also always super poorly regulated, and the industry was effectively shut down with the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act in 2006. All of this, generally, is to say that Americans don’t eat horse meat because the industry was never regulated properly and eating horse meat made people look poor. 

Which we guess kind of makes it funny that the Trump Administration tried to bring horse slaughter back in 2017 to cut costs. 

See if you know your presidents and horses here.