Iceland: They eat horses, don’t they?

May 11, 2014

Now nearly halfway through their driving trip that will circumnavigate Iceland, Jack and Marcia Schnedler are seeing more horses than they can ever remember anywhere else. That’s the focus of this report from Blood Dirt & Angels’ peripatetic correspondent.

All the pretty horses. © 2014 Marcia Schnedler

All the pretty horses. © 2014 Marcia Schnedler

By Jack Schnedler
for blood, dirt & angels

GAUKSMYRI, Iceland — Icelanders have a passion for their horses. There are said to be 80,000 of the small and shaggy-maned Icelandic steeds on this mid-Atlantic island smaller than Arkansas.

There are about 80,000 of the small, hardy Icelandic horses in Iceland, whose human population is only four times larger. ©2014 Marcia Schnedler

There are about 80,000 of the small, hardy Icelandic horses in Iceland, whose human population is only four times larger. ©2014 Marcia Schnedler

That’s nearly one horse for every four humans here. If the same ratio prevailed in the United States, we’d be talking about 80 million or so American horses. In fact, there are about 900,000 of them — one for every 360 of us. That’s why horses don’t turn up along practically any stretch of U.S. highway as they do here.

Marcia and I have seen (and photographed) so many horses in the first 11 days of our 24-day trip, circling Iceland on its ring highway with assorted lesser-road detours, that they’ve almost become part of the background blur.

We’ve learned from the Iceland volume of Insight Guides that despite their relatively small stature (13 hands, or 52 inches, on average), Icelandic horses are renowned for their strength and stamina. They have played a key role in the history of Iceland, which for centuries was a land without roads or bridges to speak of.

They are known by an Icelandic endearment that translates as “Most Useful Servant.” Even today, when Iceland has an abundance of bridges and paved roads, they play a vital role during the autumn roundup. They herd the myriad sheep from remote mountainsides.

Said to be surefooted, intelligent, affectionate and sometimes headstrong, Icelandic horses are also known for their five gaits. Along with the conventional walk, trot and canter/gallop, they also do the toit (running walk) and the skeid (flying pace).

Horse riding is said to have become Iceland’s No. 1 leisure activity, with riding clubs flourishing everywhere. There are ample chances for foreign tourists to go riding, on short jaunts or multi-day adventures.

I haven’t ridden a horse since my teen years. Marcia last saddled up more than a decade ago in northern Arkansas. So we’re staying out of the saddle here, using our senior-citizen status as a slightly lame excuse.

We’ve also avoided another aspect of Iceland’s equine culture — one that would appall and outrage many Americans. Icelanders still eat horse meat with equilibrium, and it has turned up on a number of menus at places we’ve dined.

An article last year in Iceland Review magazine reported that the production of horse meat increased by 71 percent in Iceland in 2012, from 878 to 1,500 tons. Exports almost tripled between 2011 and 2012, from 311.7 to 875.6 tons. Domestic sales increased by 23.3 percent in the same period.

“Most of the meat goes to markets abroad, except maybe that of foals [horses under 1 year old] ,” Hulda Geirsdottir, manager of the Horse Breeders’ Association of Iceland, told the Fréttablaðið newspaper. According to her, the meat mainly goes to Japan, Russia, Italy and France, where there is a tradition of eating horse.

Hulda stated that the reason for Iceland’s sizable increase in the production and sale of horse meat is the high cost of keeping riding horses and the growing demand for horse meat.

Few farmers breed horses specifically for meat production, she added. But she said the meat is a good byproduct, since slaughtering horses is necessary for maintaining quality when breeding riding horses.

In response to American indignation at the killing of horses for their meat, Icelanders could offer a cogent retort. They could point out that most Americans think nothing of having countless millions of pigs slaughtered each year for their tables, even though pigs are known to be distinctly more intelligent than horses.

A strict and devout vegetarian might stand on moral high ground in condemning the killing of horses or pigs or any other animals to fill the dinner table. The rest of us should think hard about our own consumption of flesh before wagging the no-no finger.

So far, Marcia and I have taken a pass on ordering horse steaks or horse tartare. Neither of us has a moral compunction about consuming horseflesh, but it hasn’t struck our fancy yet.

We have ordered pork several times, and it has been as flavorful as back in Arkansas — where we savor it with equilibrium.

Icelandic horses come in a range of hues, white standing out against the fields. © 2014 Marcia Schnedler

Icelandic horses come in a range of hues, white standing out against the fields. © 2014 Marcia Schnedler

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