The yurt smelled of horse. Not in a way I was familiar with–like the nutty odor of a wet saddle pad, which makes me pine for a mountain trail. This eau de equino was the smell of cooked horse meat. And it wafted from a platter being passed in my direction.
This was my first encounter with Kazakhstan’s popular dish beshbarmak. It’s made of boiled horse meat, served on a bed of noodles. Under the light of a bulb strung from the yurt’s rafters (powered by a bank of solar panels outside), the boiled noodles glistened and the fatty meat sparkled. It looked slippery, giving me hope that I could choke it down without making a scene.
Out of respect for horses, Americans don’t eat them. Out of respect for their horses, Kazakhs do.
My hosts were a family of herdsmen living in the Altai Mountains, along the border with China. They were modern-day incarnations of the steppe nomads who domesticated the horse 6,000 years ago. As an American cowboy, I’ve always been curious about these cultural antecedents. Traveling to Kazakhstan felt like the journey of a salmon spawning upstream to his natal gravel bed. I did not realize that, upon arrival, my diet would be the very animal linking me to these people.
I admire Anthony Bourdain’s take on culinary travel: “…eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head…” But as a spoonful slithered onto my plate, my cursed American sensibilities caused a small gag reflex.
“Come on,” I thought, “you’ve had horse before. Remember that mortadella in Italy? The arik you drank in Mongolia? And who knows what was in those Argentine empanadas.”
Cowboys revere the horse. The deepest thinker I know on the subject is cowboy poet Joel Nelson. He wrote the ode “Equus Caballus,” one of the few poems I’ve ever bothered to memorize. Raising a forkful of meat and noodles to my mouth, a few stanzas rang in my ears:
I’ve made knights of lowly tribesmen and kings from ranks of peons
I have given pride and arrogance to riding men for eons.
I have grazed among the lodges and the tepees and the yurts.
I have felt the sting of driving whips, lashes, spurs and quirts.
I am roguish—I am flight—I am inbred—I am lowly.
I’m a nightmare—I am wild—I am the horse.
I am gallant and exalted—I am stately—I am noble.
I’m impressive—I am grand—I am the horse.
“Tasty” did not make the list.
So why do Americans shudder at horsemeat?
The truth is, at many points in our history, Americans have eaten horsemeat. But the invention of the automobile caused a cultural shift. Previously, something had to be done with all those carriage, riding, and work horses at the end of their tenures. Why not eat them? They were viewed on par with other utilitarian livestock, like work oxen.
But as the number of automobiles increased, the demand for horses dropped. Fewer were bred each year. Soon, it was expensive to own horses, making them a luxury item. In other words, they became pets, attaining the asylum status of dogs.
Kazakhstan’s history is different. At the time when Henry Ford was wheeling out the Model T, Kazakhstan wasn’t that far removed, culturally, from the era when Genghis Khan swept across the steppes. Their nomadic culture was centered on the horse as a mode of transportation and food. When the Soviet Union enveloped it, Kazakh society was jolted into modernity. Today, though it has its share of automobiles, horsemeat continues to rein.
I bit down. The meat was chewy, like elk or moose. And like those game animals, horse meat is a healthy source of protein. Kazakhs credit it with a slew of benefits that verge on shapeshifting. It’s said to make men virile into their nineties. It’s credited with making people faster, stronger, more agile, and wiser. Noticing my bald spot, one of my hosts speculated that maybe horse meat was to credit for Kazakh men’s enviable heads of hair. He urged me to eat more.
Is U.S. Wild Horse Protection Misguided?
In America, the horse slaughter debate gets pulled, as if by magnetic force, into a discussion of the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 1971. The law federally protects feral horses (a.k.a. mustangs) that live on public lands. Having achieved the goal of bringing mustangs back from the brink of eradication, the Act’s iron-clad protections are now being questioned. The program has succeeded to the point that mustangs threaten to overrun the land on which they once were endangered.
An environmental assessment estimates that public rangelands can support 26,000 mustangs—a number wild horse advocates dispute, saying it could be higher if other domesticated livestock, like cattle and sheep, weren’t taking up so much space. To maintain that target population, the BLM culls the herd (often using helicopters). These excess horses are put up for public adoption. Mustangs can make good saddle horses, especially young ones that can be trained before their wildness becomes hard wired, making them dangerous. I once adopted a two-year-old mustang named Crow, which I rode for three years as a wrangler in Montana before selling him to a ranch family with kids. I loved that horse.
But only one-in-three mustangs get adopted. The rest, 47,000 animals, are sent to holding facilities that basically look like feedlots. Protecting mustangs costs taxpayers $77 million a year.
The crux of the situation is depicted in a new documentary, Unbranded. The story follows four Texas cowboys as they adopt and train 14 mustangs, and then ride them 3,000 miles from the Mexican to the Canadian border. I joined the guys on a four-day stretch through Montana. Those were good horses. But the film doesn’t pull any punches about the BLM’s impossible task. Written between the lines, there seems to be a call for a “reset” on the whole program.
Some people have asked, why not slaughter the excess horses? The #FutureOfFood movement has caused people to rethink our food taboos, like crickets and dog meat. One expert suggests horse meat could be a low-cost source of protein in the fight against hunger.
Though illegal, BLM mustangs do sometimes get slaughtered. Recently, a Colorado horse trader was found to have sold 1,700 mustangs to kill buyers in Mexico. Animal welfare regulations are pretty lax south of the border. As one in-depth analysis points out, Federal protection has created a “train wreck” where the glut of horses causes protected horses to slip through the cracks. The same happened in Europe, in 2013, when horse meat was discovered in ground beef. Kazakhstan played no part in that scandal, although that didn’t stop John Stewart from taking a few jabs at the country that’s been a cultural punching bag ever since the movie Borat.
Wasting a Sustainable Protein
But America’s mustang fiasco makes Kazakhs wonder, who are the crazy ones? They marvel at the idea of so much horse meat going to waste. As the second-largest consumer of horse meat in the world (behind China), Kazakhstan doesn’t have enough animals to fill demand. The collapse of the Soviet Union had the same effect on the horse population as it did on their cattle. (See Going Home, Home…On The Steppes of Eurasia.)
Perhaps because horse meat is taboo, statistics are hard to come by. The Guardian newspaper created an interesting infographic about Europe’s horsemeat trade, as part of it’s coverage of the 2013 horsemeat scandal. It shows how Bulgaria acted as a staging ground for redistributing horsemeat to Kazakhstan (and Russia). It collected 6.6 million pounds of horse meat from Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and Spain. It then exported 2.2 million pounds to Kazakhstan (and 1.2 million to Russia). Canada is another large supplier of meat to Kazakhstan, sending 4 million pounds that same year.
One upshot of the European scandal was, surprisingly, increased demand for horse meat. The Guardian’s takeaway was, bring consumption out into the open. It’s a more sustainable source of protein than cattle.
In that regard, the Kazakh breed of horse deserves a closer look. It’s been bred over centuries for the quality of its meat and milk. The backfat can grow several inches thick. A mare’s udders hang down like a goat’s. And as natives of the steppes, horses are adept at grazing far and wide, distributing their impact on the land. In the winter, they can survive when temperatures plumet to -20 F, eating snow for water and pawing through ice to find grass.
In America, the closest equivalent would be wild mustangs. They’re grass fed (Canada, by contrast, uses feedlots to fatten horses for slaughter) and free of the veterinary products used on privately-owned horses, many of which are hazardous for human consumption.
I overcame the gag reflex and swallowed the beshbarmak. My Kazakh hosts asked if I liked it. Would I dare say no? They had taken me in and shared their food. In response, I forked some more horsemeat and ate it down. It was the respectful thing to do.
Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project #ComradeCowboys. Follow his adventure on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Get updates about his work at Storify.