Should We Eat Pony Meat?
Should We Eat Pony Meat?
Most people in the UK are horrified at the thought of eating these beautiful creatures that roam free on Dartmoor. While cheval (French for "horse") is on the menu in many European countries, it's taboo in the UK—but one company is trying to change that and bring pony meat to the British table.
When trying to get to the core of why we're so horrified about eating pony, the main objection seems to be that ponies are gentle, intelligent creatures. Unfortunately, so are many of the other animals that we eat. Perhaps it boils down to the length of time that ponies have been domesticated (since about 3000 BC) and the close working relationship between us—the symbiosis between rider and horse.
Would You Eat Ponies to Save Them?
Dartmoor ponies have been roaming the moors for about 3,000 years. They are part of its ecosystem, maintaining the land through grazing, which tourists can enjoy all year round.
Many people think they are completely wild creatures, but in fact there are about 12 herds of Dartmoor pony. Each herd belongs to commoners who have grazing rights, and whose responsibility it is to keep the herds healthy.
Once a year in autumn, the ponies are rounded up in what's known as the 'drift.' The foals are then weaned, and any filly foals to be kept as breeding mares are branded and left with their mothers.
All the other foals are removed. A few males will be gelded and returned to the moor to grow on into riding ponies, but the remainder are sold at the autumn pony sales in Chagford and Hatherleigh.
Unfortunately, the value of Dartmoor ponies has dropped dramatically. They make good children's riding ponies, as well as driving ponies, but a foal sold at six months won't become a riding pony for five or six years.
Foals were being sold for 50p a few years ago, well below the cost of maintaining the ponies. Auctioneers then agreed a set price of £10 per foal, which just left lots of foals unsold.
Unsold foals are slaughtered and given to zoos for animal feed.
The number of ponies has dropped dramatically, from tens of thousands (difficult to get accurate numbers, but probably 30,000) to a current figure of around 1100 mares, producing about 900 foals a year.
And so, a company called Dartmoor Conservation Meat was set up to try and give the breed a value. The company's goal is to make the ponies viable for the farmers to keep, and to continue to maintain the moor in the traditional way.
What's the Alternative?
Not everyone agrees with eating ponies to make the herds viable. Local rescue charities would rather work with the hill farmers and look at ways of reducing overbreeding, such as providing mares with contraceptive injections. Charities worry that eating the ponies could increase overbreeding and perhaps lead to the production of bigger ponies for meat (there is a breed standard that no mare or stallion should be taller than 12.2 hands, otherwise they are not tough enough to withstand the severe winters on the moors).
Is Pony Meat Healthy?
Well, like beef, it's a red meat, and we've all been urged to eat less. However, it's a lean meat, grazed for three years (the age at which they may be killed for meat), and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The meat is naturally free range and the animals have not been given any chemicals, which makes it a healthy choice.
What Does Pony Meat Taste Like?
In the name of research, we bought some burger meat, stewing meat, and tried a little of the steak.
Cost-wise, the meat was comparable to any well-bred free-range meat.
Pony meat has an ancient name in the Devon dialect, taffety, which translates as tasty, or 'delicate on the tongue.'
It's texture similar to beef. The flavour is like beef with a slightly sweeter, game taste.
I really enjoyed the steak that I tried, but the gamey-ness of the burger translated to fishiness when cooked, that I didn't enjoy so much.
From a chef's point of view, the leanness of the meat might mean that you have to add a little extra fat when cooking (depending on the dish).
Would I try pony meat again? If I was going to buy a free-range red meat for a special occasion, I'd certainly consider it. Guests and small children might need to be pre-warned, though.