From the 3.10 at Leopardstown to a meat market in Milan?

Caitriona Murphy on why more and more Irish racehorses end up on restaurant tables

Irish Thoroughbred Mare and Foal (c) Flint Gallery
Since 2008, the slaughter of Thoroughbred Racehorses for human consumption has trebled in Ireland. Image by Alicia Frese (c) Flint Gallery.

It is the sport of kings which sees billions of euro gambled every year on the performances of the finely tuned, impeccably groomed competitors. For many horse-racing spectators, it is a fond assumption that these wonderful beasts end their days cantering gently around grassy retirement meadows.

But the truth is a little darker and for some, upsetting. They even have a term for the practice of eating horse meat — hippophagy — and it’s growing in popularity.

The appetite for equine flesh has surged to such proportions in recent years that Irish food producers and slaughterers can barely keep up with demand.

Most of the meat, prized for its richness and varied culinary uses, ends up on European dinner plates and barbecues, mainly in Belgium, Italy and France.

The number of horses slaughtered for human consumption has more than trebled in the past three years, according to new figures provided by Horse Sport Ireland.

In 2008, some 2,002 of the animals were slaughtered in licenced abattoirs, while in 2009 this figure rose to 3,220. Last year, the figure doubled to 7,009.

All of the horses were slaughtered under strict veterinary and food hygiene rules, overseen by Department of Agriculture officials and veterinary officers.

A small portion (less than 10pc) of the meat produced in Ireland is destined for the pet food market but the majority is produced for European consumers who eat horse meat steaks, sausages, salami and stews with gusto.

Each country has different tastes: the French are keen on lean, mature equine meat produced from older thoroughbred racehorses.

They prefer their ‘viande chevaline’ low in fat and tend to buy fresh cuts of meat for steaks, barbecues and stews. The Italians, on the other hand, prefer meat from larger, draught-type animals. As the biggest consumers of horse meat in Europe, they like higher-fat marbled meat for processing into salami and sausage products.

At first glance, the dramatic rise in Ireland’s horse slaughter figures could be mistaken for a huge surge in demand for Irish horse meat. However, the most recent kill figures are actually driven by an oversupply of horses and extra slaughtering capacity in this country.

Ireland’s economic downturn has had a devastating impact on the market for horses, with bloodstock sales falling from €179m in 2007 to €67.5m in 2009 and sport horse sales figures also plummeting.

The number of unwanted horses — racehorses, family pets and breeding stock — rose sharply as buyers disappeared.

In response to pressure from charities and industry bodies, the Department of Agriculture increased the number of licenced horse slaughter plants from just one factory in 2008 to five premises this year — B&F Meats Ltd in Kilkenny; Ballon Meats in Co Carlow; Shannonside Foods Ltd in Co Kildare; Ashgrove Wholesale Ltd in Co Limerick; and Ossory Meats in Co Offaly.

While statistics on the breed of horse slaughtered are not recorded by officials, the majority (60-80pc) are believed to be thoroughbreds.

John Joe Fitzpatrick from Shannonside Foods in Straffan says 80pc of the 2,200 horses slaughtered at his purpose-built plant last year were thoroughbred and 60pc would have raced.

The horses are sent for factory disposal for numerous reasons, including poor track performance, career-ending injuries, temperament issues, stable vices and lameness.

“It’s an economic decision for owners and the factory is the cheapest way to dispose of a horse,” explains Mr Fitzpatrick.

While the prospect of an Irish racehorse ending its days on a plate in Italy or France might seem horrifying to the average punter, industry insiders say factory disposal is an appropriate way to deal with unwanted horses.

Michael O’Rourke, communications director of Horse Racing Ireland, says owners remain responsible for the welfare of a racehorse, even after its racing or breeding career.

“The industry would encourage owners to examine all the options, such as resale, alternative use as a sport horse, retirement or donation to someone who can care for it,” he says.

“But if those options are exhausted, then humane destruction, either in a factory or through the knackery system, is an acceptable solution to avoid compromising the horse’s welfare.”

Joe Collins, former Veterinary Ireland president and author of a UCD report on equine welfare in Ireland, says he would prefer to see unwanted horses humanely disposed of in supervised, licenced premises “than abandoned on a bog”.

He dispels the somewhat romantic notion that all racehorses should be retired to a field to live out their days.

“Those are very good intentions but it is not necessarily the most welfare-friendly option,” he explains. “Even retired thoroughbreds need constant care. They need feeding, rugging, their teeth checked and cost a lot to keep.”

Retraining of racehorses for careers in the other disciplines of showing, show jumping, hacking and eventing is on the increase in Ireland but is starting from a small base.

The Irish Horse Welfare Trust (IHWT) runs a racehorse retraining programme, part-funded by Horse Racing Ireland and the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association.

Its most famous graduate is Moscow Flyer, owned by Brian Kearney, trained by Jessica Harrington and ridden by Barry Geraghty.

The retired champion two-mile chaser, considered one of the greatest steeplechasers of the last 30 years, has been retrained for showing competitions by the IHWT.

The Racehorse to Riding Horse Ireland association is to hold a showcase festival at Boswell equestrian centre on Easter Sunday, while retrained racehorses have also featured at the RDS Dublin horseshow.

Nonetheless, reschooling racehorses takes dedication, time and patience from experienced trainers and not all ex-racers are suitable for retraining or re-homing.


Picture Credit: Alicia Frese (c) Flint Gallery

6 thoughts on “From the 3.10 at Leopardstown to a meat market in Milan?”

  1. If horses are going to be slaughtered,it should be done humanely. Horses are inoccent and have worked for us.Most of us humans have done nothing but neglect them.
    Humans are the cause of most extintions. We know it.

    End horse slaughter.Together we can make a noise!


  2. Vivian, this brings to mind the archival post of a few days ago…Ferdinand…multi million dollar horse, Horse of the Year, Derby winner…petfood. This issue is long term…in the making and in the stopping. But we must keep fighting on all fronts to stop the slaughter of horses. Animal welfare has always been a tough fight…it does not appear to be getting any easier. But I continue to have hope. Thank god there are advocates everywhere continuing the struggle…and one of the most important things is information…getting the reality out in front of the general public who are often not aware of what is going on…even in their own communities.


  3. I so agree with Jan & Vivian…..Such horror re: the slaughter of innocent ones in Ireland & G.Britain…and also in Canada and Mexico……We must continue to fight for all horses…..The innocent Thoroughbreds, (huge issues re: the race tracks), my heart breaks for them…..Mustangs and Burros, and every other breed of horses….They all matter to us, no doubt!!!! The Horse Slaughter debate needs to be recognized by all humans, and it is up to us to spread the word….we should be the voices who protect all animals from abuse & slaughter!…..Shame on the U.S. for not protecting our own horses from the unbelievable cruel & inhumane methods of transportation & slaughter to Mexico & Canada…..(much less, after the horrific issues that the horses deal with re: auctions & the meat man)….The innocent ones are transported with no food or water…all crammed together….mares, foals, geldings and stallions……. This makes me feel so angry……Let us support all animals from cruelty….Thanks for listening!!!


  4. It seems there is much ado about the “purpose” of slaughter. The words ring hollow – and crushingly so to this Irish descendent. How could they – the horse is so precious to the Irish and I have held my head high knowing the horse of Ireland would always be cherished. But alas, the woes of mortality (aka greed and property) have sunk their talons into this magical isle. This must be stopped!


    1. I was horrified and ashamed, being a Brit when learning that horses — mostly Thoroughbreds — are slaughtered in England. I found it very, very difficult to take. One of our Board is in Ireland, and he is reaching out to various animal welfare organizations and horse industry people to put a campaign together to put this to an end. Of course he came up against the usual arguments, such as it is better for horses to be slaughtered than stand around and slowly starve to death. Of course, no meat man wants a starving horse for slaughter (they are called “skinners”), and the majority of horses are Thoroughbreds, dumped there because they can no longer race and considered too expensive to rehabilitate for re-homing or second careers by their owners. So, nothing new under the sun when it comes to horse slaughter, no matter what country it occurs in.


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