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When I first heard about carnivorous horses over the weekend, I was prepared to write it off as the over-enthusiastic work of one particular guy. CuChullaine O'Reilly is the founder of the "Long Riders Guild," takes very long horseback rides (e.g. across Pakistan) and recently released a book titled "Deadly Equines: The Shocking True Story of Meat-Eating and Murderous Horses." Surely this was just another case of one eccentric person with a lot of time to ruminate and a fixation on proving conventional wisdom wrong.
But the more I looked into it, the more stories I found online - first person accounts - of horses killing and eating other animals. In fact, online magazine The Horse [registration required] recently opened up the floor to the topic, and received a veritable flood of emails and reader stories about bloodthirsty equines.
There are a lot of possible theories as to what is happening. And certainly not every story fits into the same tiny pigeonhole. Plus, as we all know, the plural of anecdote is not "data." Nevertheless, it does seem clear that horses are not as strictly herbivorous as we might think!
Theory 1: Aggression
Many stories involve stallions out at pasture, chasing and killing other animals. Stallions can be notoriously aggressive, and while pastured alone without a proper channel for that aggression, it can act out in odd ways.
Theory 2: Salt and Minerals
One commenter at The Horse pointed out that in Iceland, pastured horses are "provided salted fish as a protein and mineral/salt supplement." Blood is very salty, of course, and a horse who samples a bit of blood out of curiosity may develop a taste for it.
Theory 3: Junk Food
Face it, some horses will eat anything! And in the case of horses who (e.g.) steal a Subway sandwich, they may be more interested in the bread and lettuce than the meat.
Theory 4: Deprivation
A lot of the "meat eating horses" of the world are horses who are in a starvation situation. Horses who eat meat in a situation where we are asking them to cross Antarctica, or the Kazakh desert, can plausibly be said to be doing whatever they have to in order to survive. Think of all the things people have eaten, in similar situations. Exactly.
Theory 5: Insanity
Insanity is not strictly a human disease. Animals can go insane, as well. Such seems to be the case of "The Man Eater of Lucknow," who terrorized an Indian city as you can read about in this lurid account.


Photo credit: Flickr/Tim Zim

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CuChullaine O'Reilly's picture

CuChullaine O'Reilly

Dear Erika,

CuChullaine O’Reilly of the Long Riders’ Guild here.

Thank you for having taken the time to raise such interesting points about the on-going Deadly Equines project. I have responded to some of your insightful thoughts below.

“Blood Thirsty, Carnivorous Horses”

Allow me to begin by explaining that I have never written nor implied that horses are carnivorous. The book explains that evidence indicates that a horse is an  omnivore, which the dictionary defines as "an animal or person that eats food of both plant and animal origin."

When the book was published the known list of meat which horses had known to have consumed included: Antelope, Beef, Birds, Chicken, Fish, Goat, Hamster, Horse, Human, Moose, Offal, Onager, Polar Bear, Rabbits, Seal, Sheep, Whale, Yak. Since then the list has grown.

In the first 72 hours after the book was released, the Guild received news about horses in Arabia who consume raw camel meat, American horses who devour live crayfish, the BBC filmed horses eating fish on the beach of an English island, and Mariwari horses in India enjoy consuming goat's head soup.

In the last few days the Long Riders' Guild has also received messages from horse owners who wrote to state that their animals consumed barbecue goat (bones and all), scavenged crabs off the beach, bit baby lambs and then consumed the blood, not to mention eagerly devouring enough different types of human cuisine to fill a cookbook.

And we have just been informed of a horseman who a few hours after completing his reading of the book, offered his horse a pound of raw ground beef mixed with his grain. The horse eagerly ate it.

Thus, despite the commonly held belief that horses are strict herbivores, new evidence suggests that the equine digestion system is more robust than suspected and that horses are capable of enacting omnivorous behaviour with no ill effects.

“Surely this was just another case of one eccentric person with a lot of time to ruminate and a fixation on proving conventional wisdom wrong.”

In fact, as I explain in the beginning of the book, it was only because of evidence linked to children’s deaths that I reluctantly decided to go public with the research. An unhappy paradox is that in the few weeks since the book was released similar human deaths or life-threatening injuries, caused by equines tearing out the throats of their victims, have been documented in New Zealand, America, Holland, Egypt and India.

“…The Horse opened up the floor to the topic and received a flood of emails….”

In fact, as my book explains, The Horse originally reported on the topic of meat-eating and killer horses in 2002. While they initially did accept reader’s questions, the magazine and its veterinary expert arrived at no conclusions regarding dietary deviance or equine aggression.

Perhaps you will appreciate the irony then that when the Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation concluded its nearly ten-year research project into these twin topics, we offered all of the research, documents, files, maps and images connected to the Deadly  Equines project to the editor of The Horse. Our application to donate the information was never even acknowledged.

Plus, one week after the book’s release, the author of the original article contacted the Guild about the project. Not only had she never been informed of the Guild’s offer to share the research, since the publication of the book, The Horse, has continued its “business as usual” approach.

Sadly, this editorial reaction is all the more important when one considers that other corporate owned publications have refused to alert their readers to a book which provides dramatic evidence that horses are omnivores, which are capable of incredible savagery.

Because this evidence contradicts their philosophy, editors at Horse & Hound magazine in London, as well as Western Horseman magazine and the Chronicle of the Horse internet magazine in America, have all refused to acknowledge the “Deadly Equines” project.

Nevertheless, a vibrant international equestrian dialogue is underway thanks to people like you.

“Many stories involve stallions out at pasture…”

As the book clearly explains, equine aggression is not restricted to sex, geography, climate or historical time period.

The frightening French mare, Lisette, killed and consumed a Russian officer during the Napoleonic campaign. And only yesterday we received news of an American gelding who in 1958 routinely hunted, killed and consumed small birds. Because “Freight Train” repeatedly attacked humans, his owners forced him to wear a wire muzzle. This is significant because this gelding is the first horse, of any sex, to exhibit the behaviour of both a meat eater and a man killer.

Therefore, extreme equine aggression is not restricted to stallions. It is an anomaly which appears throughout history, often resulting in the death or disfigurement of humans.

“One commenter at The Horse pointed out that in Iceland, pastured horses are "provided salted fish as a protein and mineral/salt supplement."

This is an interesting point. There are now three similar incidents, wherein horses consumed blood. They occurred in New Zealand, the United States and Tibet. In all three episodes, the horse was under no compulsion to consume mammal blood, but nevertheless did so willingly.

“Face it, some horses will eat anything!”

Though you urge your readers to “face it,” I suspect many will not wish to do so.

As I have repeatedly stated, I’m an equestrian investigative reporter, not a missionary. Consequently, I don’t care what horses eat. Yet many people in England, Canada and America are exhibiting signs of distress when asked to believe that horses can consume something other than grass and grain.


I believe this opposition is based upon a cultural opposition to the re-emergence of this information.

There is a cultural disagreement regarding the horses diet, with North Americans and western Europeans on the one hand, versus Oriental equestrian cultures on the other. In fact, as the book explains, there are equestrian cultures which predate the founding of the United States that have long known about the horse's diverse dietary capabilities.

This problem is compounded in the west by the fact that millions of people have become out of touch with the natural world of horses. The result is that first-hand knowledge regarding dangerous equine behaviour and dietary deviance has been replaced with a fairytale view of horses which portrays them as helpless, grass-eating victims.

Thus, the problem with clamping a modern definition on horses is that it all too often reflects only our nation of birth, our limited knowledge of horses as they apply to our personal experience and that of our friends, and a lack of appreciation for the tremendous amount of historic evidence which may not be known to us.

As Professor Richard Bulliet, of Cornell University points out in the book, modern humans tend to harbour an idealistic mental image of the horse as being a spiritually pure and innocent creature, akin to the unicorn. The notion of horses devouring meat or killing other animals shatters this idealized image.

“A lot of the "meat eating horses" of the world are horses who are in a starvation situation.”

I would suggest instead that a minority of the horses who consumed various types of protein were forced to do so by outside circumstances such as starvation.

For example, we must remember that Tibetan horses were described as “eager” meat eaters. Nor should we fail to appreciate the fact that when crossing Antarctica, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Manchurian horses preferred to eat their meat-based ration instead of traditional corn. And though it is upsetting, an African story revealed how at the conclusion of a battle, warriors would reward their mounts by feeding them the organs of slain children. Thus, throughout history, horses have repeatedly demonstrated a shocking ability to consume things which leave the modern mind reeling.

“Animals can go insane…Such seems to be the case of the “Man Eater of Lucknow”…..”

This is an excellent point. Can horses become psychotic and what happens when they engage in deadly attacks against humans?

Based upon historical evidence, it appears that when equines slay humans, and wish to consume them, they rip open the abdomen and consume the intestines. The book contains a horrifying 16th century woodcut which clearly depicts a horse consuming a deceased man in this manner.

Plus, within hours of the book’s release, the British Long Rider, Penny Turner, forwarded film footage of a Indian horse turning on its attacker and trying to grab him by the throat. The modern horse's actions match those of the infamous Man Eater of Lucknow, whose actions terrorized the 19th century Indian city of Lucknow.

What is now generally accepted is that humans learn from observation, while animals learn from first-hand experience. It is also generally believed that animals experience fear, happiness and boredom.

But do they understand revenge? Do they seek freedom? Do they have a sense of right and wrong?

Horses and humans share an emotional similarity. They both have the capability of hating their oppressors. But the majority of the time a horse’s sense of personal fear overcomes this hatred. Like humans, in most cases a horse’s sense of self-preservation overrides his self respect. He knows he is being tormented but he lacks the courage to resist. It is the actions of this timid majority which have enforced the mythology of the passive horse.

Yet if the Man Eater of Lucknow was being tormented by his human captors, was he insane for seeking his revenge? The answer may not be as simple as it first appears.

I would like to conclude by quoting Galileo, who said, "I believe there is no greater hatred in the world than the hatred of ignorance for knowledge."

While none of us have resolved the mystery of the horse, it is thanks to stimulating conversations such as these that a vital new international dialogue about these incredible animals is underway. Thank you.