By JENNY SHARP
Many fashionistas will tell you that the whole ponyskin thing is just a myth. “It’s cowhide, dyed to look like a pony. It’s just cow. . . ” In fact, they are usually right. Most cheap pony skin fashion items are indeed cowhide, dyed to make the product look more like it’s made from a speckled horsehide. But not all.
Scratch beneath the surface of virtually any industry with animals as the economic unit and you will find all kinds of ugliness, and the skin trade is no different in this respect.
Most of those in the fashion industry are willfully ignorant of the origins and method of dispatch used to secure their exotic skins. From snake to crocodile, to horses and even dogs and cats, it is a grisly and stomach churning business. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ seems to be the order of the day with animal skins.
The methods used to kill these animals are simply too disturbing to be repeated here. But this doesn’t apply to horses, right? Wrong. Horribly wrong. Horse hide, pony skin and horse hair products come from slaughtered horses.
Horsehides are used extensively in Europe, with Italy probably producing the most exports of horse skin products. Spotted and coloured horsehides are most in demand.
Horses are transported across the English Channel and on the Continent often to be driven across several countries before slaughter. It seems anyone with private hire insurance can participate in the process, with no requirement for horsemanship skills.
World Horse Welfare and other animal welfare organisations are actively campaigning to end the extended travelling hours endured by horses destined for slaughter. According to their findings, over 80,000 horses are transported across Europe each year. Conditions in the horse trucks can be terrible, with animals standing in tightly packed conditions for hour after hour, without water or rest, falling ill and injuring themselves as they succumb to exhaustion and dehydration.
Despite many attempts to force the industry to have regular welfare stops for the horses to rest, World Horse Welfare are still having to keep pressure on the EU to act on behalf of horses due for slaughter. Some will travel thousands of miles before reaching their destination – death at a slaughterhouse, often in countries with lower welfare standards than the country they were exported from. In North America, transport and feedlot pens where horses are held prior to slaughter, standards are equally cruel with Canada reportedly having the worst record of all.
Frequently, there are tanneries that operate within or nearby horse slaughtering operations. Horses who arrive at these facilities who have been injured so their meat is damaged or too thin to be slaughtered — called ‘skinners’ — are simply killed for their hides and any other body parts that are of use.
All in all, it’s a miserable end.
Many farm animals suffer the same fate, of course, and we are perhaps not so squeamish about buying leather goods made from cowhide or pigskin. After all, these are byproducts of the meat industry, and it is good that every bit of the animal is used, if it must be killed. Horse leather is no different in this respect.
Real pony skin is used by the fashion and clothing industry at the higher end of the market. One example of this is the Shell Cordovan leather used by shoe and handbag makers. Shell Cordovan leather is made from the rump area of the horse where the flesh is thickest. The ‘shells’ or ovals are cut from the rump and used in the highest quality products. This is because the process of tanning and preparation is incredibly complex and drawn out, taking months to complete. The resultant leather goods are of the highest quality, and are said to last a lifetime if properly treated.
Here is a description of the process from a luxury horsehide product supplier:
The irregular oval shaped shells are tanned, stuffed, shaved, and then polished – a process taking six months. Each shell is slowly steeped in gentle vegetable liquors. The shells are genuine hot stuffed then slicked onto glass frames to dry. Each shell is hand curried and shaved by highly skilled artisans to expose the shell. Dyes are hand rubbed on for a deep aniline finish. Finally, the shells are hand glazed to achieve the rich, glossy look and feel prized by fine craftsmen.
It is easy to see how this leather becomes so prized, and how the products are marketed as being the finest money can buy. At the end of the day they are shoes made out of horses skin, sold for exorbitant sums of money. ‘Tradition’, ‘Fine Art’ and ‘History’ are the marketing key words here. They do rather better at bringing in money than, ‘Pain’, ‘Suffering’ and ‘Death’.
It looks like the horsehide industry is alive and well, and there seems to be little objection to it within the monied who can afford luxury goods. Perhaps Shell Cordovan luxury goods manufacturers should also be questioned about the source of their hides, and the animal welfare directives their suppliers adhere to. One suspects however, like the rest of the fashion industry, it is a case of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’.