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The Forgotten Story of Antarctica’s Meat-Eating Horses
CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS
There is a widespread belief in a warm and comforting story which states the horse is a gentle herbivore which fears predators.
A shocking new book, Deadly Equines, reveals instead that horses terrified our ancestors and are still killing us today. Accounts include stories about the English stallion that eagerly killed and ate the citizens of Lucknow, a French mare that slew Russian soldiers and a Japanese horse who slaughtered samurai.
Unfortunately, the average human being’s daily knowledge of equine nature has diminished to an alarming extent. It has been replaced by a Disney-esque version of events where there is no dark side to nature. This is particularly true in Anglophone countries, where books and films now commonly depict horses in romantic terms.
What has been overlooked is that mankind has known about meat-eating horses for at least four thousand years, during which time horses have consumed nearly two dozen different types of protein, including human flesh, and that these episodes have occurred on every continent, including Antarctica.
Because of this pervasive equestrian amnesia, the vital role played by meat-eating horses in exploration history has been lost to modern man.
That strange tale began in the late 19th century when Sweden’s most famous explorer and Historical Long Rider, Sven Hedin, reported that Tibetan horses were fed meat in the grassless Himalayan Mountains. Shortly afterwards the celebrated French Long Rider, Gabriel Bonvalot, not only confirmed that these horses “feed on raw flesh,” he rode them across Tibet in 1889.
Nor was the practice of training horses to eat meat restricted to Tibet or the past.
The first CIA spy to die in action, Douglas MacKiernan, was murdered in 1950, shortly after he rode across the Gobi Desert on a meat-eating horse. And though the last Long Rider to ride one of these strange animals has just died, the Kazakh tribesmen who train these horses recently offered to sell one to England’s modern explorers.
While new evidence continues to be uncovered, including how the Bhutanese are still feeding their horses tiger’s fat and yak meat, the most astonishing exploration story has been buried by scholastic neglect under the snows of Antarctica.
North Pole Horses
While it is now commonly agreed that dog travel in winter conditions is an excellent methodology, abundant evidence demonstrates that this view was not shared by all polar explorers at the beginning of the last century. What has also been overlooked is the simultaneous use of meat-eating horses in trying to reach both the North and South Poles.
Likewise, it is wrong to think that the lack of any equine fodder in the Antarctic interior automatically ruled out horses, as once the explorer moves away from the seal and penguin populations there is also no meat for the dogs. Advocates of dog travel argue that as the expedition journeys further inland, dogs can be sacrificed and fed to their companions. Horses, it was believed, had to rely on grass or grain, brought at great effort from the coast.
Recent discoveries demonstrate instead that a meat-eating horse would have reached the South Pole years before dogs did so, had he not fallen victim to an accident en route.
The decision to incorporate equine strength into Polar exploration was based upon the fact that the Siberian equestrian culture had a centuries-old tradition of winter-time horse travel. Despite having the coldest climate in the northern hemisphere, the Siberians routinely travelled along the great post road which criss-crossed that portion of the Russian empire.
These Yakut horses are able to survive because they have specialized hair which has a unique core that greatly increases its insulating characteristics. Additional insulation is provided by a sub-dermal layer of fat. Plus, the Siberian horses have the special ability to alter the rate of their respiration, thereby helping them to adapt further to extremes of cold weather. They were even known to function well while being covered in sheets of ice, which actually acted as an insulating agent.
In 1893 a renowned British explorer and Long Rider, Frederick George Jackson, used these remarkable Russian horses to make a 3,000 mile winter crossing of Siberia. Thanks to the success of this expedition, Jackson was asked in 1894 to head an international expedition whose goal was to explore Franz Josef Land, a remote archipelago located north of Russia in the Arctic Ocean.
While Jackson did take dogs, he also brought four Siberian horses with him to explore this inaccessible part of the world, thus setting the stage for a remarkable set of equestrian events which would later conclude in Antarctica.
During Jackson’s journey in Franz Josef Land with his robust horses, it was 30 degrees below zero. Yet he travelled “night and day” for twelve days with a sledge weighing 700 pounds, covering 240 miles along “abominable tracks.”
“And such are the courage and stamina of these hardy little Russian horses that although we had only given them two rests of two hours each during that time they were full of spirit at the end.”
He later writes, “We had travelled 470 miles in seven and a half days; and I think this speaks volumes for the little Russian horses. We had two sledges, and one horse to each sledge; we went at a spanking pace nearly the whole way, yet they trotted into camp as fresh as paint.”
In his book, Jackson recalled how one of these animals, a mare named Brownie, “appears to be doing very well on her miscellaneous diet. In addition to her regular feed of Spratt dog biscuits and hay, she shares the scraps left from our meals with the dogs, and very frequently helps herself to their polar bear meat, and shows a fondness for picking at bird skins lying around the hut.” (A Thousand Days in the Arctic by Frederick George Jackson, 1899.)
Further horse journeys were to follow.
In 1901 and 1903 two American expeditions also explored the Arctic Circle, both of which used Siberian horses. The second attempt was led by a talented photographer, Anthony Fiala. The equestrian needs of that expedition were handled by veterans of the United States cavalry. These former Indian fighters “led the expedition in mounted drills and exercise rides on the Arctic ice.”
Once again the horses proved to be of immense help. “The ponies were less troublesome than the dogs and more powerful, dragging loads that astonished us all,” Fiala reported. (Fighting the Polar Ice by Anthony Fiala, 1907.)
With these equestrian expeditions serving as a background, and thanks to positive personal experiences with his own meat-eating horses, Jackson encouraged Sir Ernest Shackleton to use horses in the latter’s bid to reach the South Pole. When the Irish explorer set out to explore Antarctica in 1907, he took ten Manchurian horses, thereby creating an exceptional chain of equestrian events which led from Siberia to the Arctic Circle, and then south to Antarctica. Though it was later learned that horses will eat seal meat, Shackleton had no way of knowing this prior to his departure. In need of dietary advice, the sailor turned horse explorer turned to the military for assistance. What he found may surprise modern explorers.
It has now been largely forgotten that when the British War Office published Animal Management, a manual prepared by the veterinarian department for His Majesty’s Cavalry and Artillery, the index had a listing for “meat as horse food.” (Animal Management, Prepared in the Veterinary Department for General Staff, War Office, London, HMSO, 1913.)
Thus the British military high command was aware that horses could consume meat-based rations under certain circumstances. The grassless ice fields of Antarctica would certainly have qualified.
To overcome the horse’s need for bulk grass based feed, Shackleton arranged to purchase ten tons of compressed fodder consisting of oats, bran and chaff. He also took a large stock of corn. Yet upon the advice of the British military establishment, Shackleton decided to enhance his horses’ normal diet with a special meat-based supplement known as “Maujee Ration.” This was a distinctive type of equine pemmican developed at Aldershot, one of England’s most important military establishments.
Sir Ernest recalled, “It consisted of dried beef, carrots, milk, currents and sugar, and was chosen because it provides a large amount of nourishment with comparatively little weight.” (Heart of the Antarctic by Sir Ernest Shackleton, 1909.)
Shackleton set off for the Pole with three comrades and four of the original ten horses. Each of the Manchurian horses pulled a twelve-foot sledge carrying an average of 650 pounds. Like Jackson before him, Shackleton praised his horses.
He wrote, “compared to the dog, the pony is a far more efficient animal, one pony doing the work of at least ten dogs and travelling a further distance in a day…… It was trying work for the ponies but they all did splendidly in their own particular way.”
The harsh weather and unforgiving terrain caused the men and horses to struggle alike through the cold and snow. Nevertheless, Shackleton made a startling observation. The horses preferred to eat the meat-based ration rather than the traditional fodder. They even threw corn out of their nosebags, scattering it on the ground, in anger at being denied the Maujee ration.
On November 6, 1908, Shackleton first noted, “They all like the Maujee ration and eat that up before touching their maize.”
A few days later, both men and horses had begun taking special notice of the meat-filled horse food. On November 9, Shackleton wrote, “Tonight we boiled some Maujee ration for the ponies, and they took this feed well. It has a delicious smell and we ourselves would have enjoyed it.”
Because of the dangers and hardships of the journey, three of the gallant horses had to be put down on the outward journey. Nevertheless, Shackleton, his men and the remaining horse, Socks, pressed ever onward towards the South Pole.
On December 3, 1908, at 7 p.m., Sir Ernest Shackleton, his three human companions and Socks pitched camp – and made history.
Because the four men and the sole surviving horse were "tired and hungry, we made a good dinner which included a cupful of Maujee ration as an extra.”
By sharing the Maujee ration, Shackleton and Socks became the first known horse and human to consume meat together, demonstrating that both species are omnivores.
Sadly, neither Shackleton nor Socks gained the South Pole. On December 7, Socks fell into a “black bottomless pit.” Had Socks not died, a meat-eating horse may well have helped Shackleton reach the South Pole.
Shackleton and his men marched on for an additional month, coming remarkably close to their elusive geographic goal. Nevertheless, he had opened the door to an amazing series of events – a dual equestrian exploration of Antarctica by Great Britain and Germany, both of which also employed meat-eating horses.
Unlikely Equestrian Allies
Modern folklore delights in focusing on the intense rivalry which existed between the Norwegians, led by Roald Amundsen, and the English, led by Captain Robert Scott, with the former relying on dogs to pull their sleds, while the latter obstinately preferred to “man haul” their equipment across the ice. That story sold reams of newspapers in its day and continues to fuel a lucrative niche publishing industry. Nevertheless, this is an erroneous simplification of events perpetrated by pedestrians, one which overlooks an astonishing series of under-reported equestrian event.
Disregarded is the fact that this was not a two-horse race between two bitter nationalistic foes determined to champion different methods of travel. Prior to Scott’s departure for Antarctica, Germany and England were still on such friendly terms that it was agreed their explorers would simultaneously use horses, some of whom it was later discovered were meat-eaters, to try and meet each other in Antarctica.
This decision was brought about in 1912, when Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II authorized explorer Wilhelm Filchner to travel to the South Pole. The young German had already made successful explorations across Central Asia, most notably when he rode from Baku to the Pamir Mountains in the late nineteenth century.
Having received his nation’s commission to explore the southernmost continent, Filchner journeyed to London in search of first-hand knowledge regarding polar travel. Here he was befriended by Captain Robert Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton, both of whom encouraged and helped the amateur Polar explorer.
After a series of meetings it was agreed that somewhere in the vast white expanse of Antarctica, the Germans, led by Filchner, would locate the British team, led by Captain Scott, whereupon the two nations would exchange personnel before retiring to their respective camps on either side of the continent. Both expeditions were to use horses, in addition to sled dogs. The British also relied upon motor-driven tractors, and in extremis, man hauling.
Neither team leader realized at the time that both their expeditions would rely on meat-eating equines in this effort. Nor was it known that the Norwegians were even planning on being anywhere near Antarctica, as Amundsen had announced he was trying instead for the North Pole. Therefore, if events had gone as planned, German and English equestrian travellers would have met as friends somewhere in the vast frozen continent.
Sadly, this did not occur. Filchner’s role was air-brushed out of popular history. Germany’s involvement was ignored, as it distracted from the unexpected rivalry brought about by Norway’s explorer showing up to thwart Scott’s role. Nor were the equestrian events, either before or after Scott’s death, fully understood or documented.
To begin with, a profitable modern industry has arisen which delights in highlighting the personal and professional dispute which had arisen between Scott and his former lieutenant, Shackleton. All too often it is forgotten that on their first expedition to Antarctica, Scott had saved Shackleton’s life.
Consequently, while they were indeed rivals for the Pole, what the opponents of either camp neglect to appreciate is that both men maintained an abiding respect for each other’s talents.
Moreover, thanks to Filchner’s unexpected appearance in London, a significant moment in equestrian travel history soon occurred, when Scott was preparing to leave England’s capital. His slow ship and her crew had already departed for Antarctica. Having concluded last-minute fund-raising, Scott was now taking a train to the coast. There he would board a fast sailing passenger liner bound for New Zealand, where he would rendezvous with his expedition.
When Scott boarded the train, Shackleton and Filchner were waiting to bid their fellow explorer farewell.
Thus, Shackleton and Scott, the two former expedition comrades, shared a poignant final meeting. Any residual antagonism which existed between the Irish and English explorers was temporarily laid to rest, as the two experienced polar travellers expressed what were unknowingly going to be their last farewells.
Ironically, as the train pulled out of the station, Scott’s final words were aimed not at Shackleton, with whom he had shared many desperate adventures, but at his fellow equestrian explorer, Wilhelm Filchner.
“See you at the South Pole,” Scott yelled to Filchner, as the train pulled away from the London station.
As Scott departed, none of the three explorers could have realized that this was their last meeting. The lure of the South Pole would soon kill Scott. It would then seriously imperil the lives of Filchner, Shackleton and all the men involved in both their own expeditions.
South Pole Ponies
What is seldom remembered today is that, like Shackleton and Jackson before them, Filchner and Scott were also using Siberian and Manchurian horses to assist them in their push to the frozen end of the Earth.
Upon departing from London, Filchner returned to Germany, convinced that he and Scott were in agreement on an extraordinary plan which incorporated the themes of international cooperation, scientific advancement and horses. There had been no hint of commercial, national or personal competition.
Filchner never met Scott. Paradoxically, he encountered his nemesis instead.
After setting sail for Antarctica with his ship and crew, the German stopped at the harbour of Buenos Aires. There Filchner chanced upon the Fram. This was the Norwegian ship captained by that country’s famous polar explorer, Roald Amundsen. Unknown to Scott, this Norwegian rival had unexpectedly launched what was to become a nationalistic race to the South Pole. Thus, before Scott had any clue as to what was afoot, the Germans realized that a three way national effort was now under way.
The Fram, with Amundsen’s large contingent of sled dogs,
sailed first. Afterwards, Filchner and his German expeditionary force also
departed for Antarctica, bound for the opposite side of the continent than that
which the Norwegian and British expeditions had chosen. Filchner landed on
Antarctica, where he unloaded the horses and dogs he had brought for his team's
push to the Pole. Unfortunately, the ice on which he set up camp was unstable
and the expedition was unable to proceed.
Like Scott, prior to his departure Filchner had purchased Manchurian horses to explore Antarctica. Upon arriving, he was surprised to learn that because the dogs viewed the ship as a home, they had to be separated by force from the ship, unlike the horses who eagerly went ashore and “when they felt terra firma under their hooves; they bit, kicked and pranced from high spirits and joie-de-vivre.”
Filchner also remarked on the ease which his horses pulled sledges weighing 1,200 pounds.
“As draft animals the ponies achieved miracles.”
Though the Germans were unable to either reach the South Pole, or to locate Scott, nevertheless they enthusiastically rode their horses in Antarctica. One German, the Historical Long Rider, Alfred Kling, regularly explored on a Manchurian horse named Moritz. Another of these horses, Stasi, eagerly ate dried fish and raw seal-meat.
Captain Scott – Equestrian Explorer
While Filchner had problems, Scott was facing a disaster on the other side of the continent.
Unlike Jackson and Shackleton, Scott took a different view on equine nutrition. He brought none of the high-energy Maujee ration for his horses, deciding instead to feed them compressed fodder made of wheat. He also gave the horses hot bran mash with either oats or oilcake on alternate days.
Despite their traditional diet of hay, oats, bran and oil cake, the equestrian report compiled after the English expedition concluded, “The nutritive value was insufficient under the conditions of sledging and the ponies became very weak and lost flesh markedly.”
Regardless of his well-meaning efforts, Scott’s horses “lost weight until they were just skin and bone.”
Nevertheless, even though they lacked the tasty Maujee ration, eyewitnesses recorded that at least one of Scott’s horses was an avid meat-eater.
“One of our ponies, Snippets, would eat blubber and so far as I know it agreed with him,” fellow explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote in his acclaimed classic book, The Worst Journey in the World, 1922.
Cherry-Garrard was later part of the rescue party that found the frozen bodies of Scott and two of the men who had accompanied him on the final push to the Pole. Once again, the equestrian portion of that tale has been almost entirely deleted from popular cultural records.
Prior to his fatal departure to the South Pole, Scott had written to the British army authorities in India asking them to authorize the use of mules which had been specially trained in the Himalayan Mountains. In accordance with that request, seven of these carefully-trained mules travelled from India, down to New Zealand, and on to Antarctica. Accompanying them was special equipment based on ideas formulated in the Tibetan Himalayas. This included equine snow shoes and tinted snow goggles.
These valuable animals accompanied the rescue party, led by the surgeon Dr. Edward Atkinson, which set out to locate Scott and his missing men. The snow shoes sent from India worked so well that the mules were able to cross crevasses with them.
In a special equestrian report later authored by Atkinson, he stated that “the mules covered nearly 400 miles and were in such good fettle they could have done it again…..They were obviously stronger and better trained than the ponies and would have done even better than the ponies and pulled longer distances.” (Notes on the Ponies and Mules used during the Terra Nova expedition of 1910-12 by E. L. Atkinson)
Nevertheless, Atkinson noted that when it came time for the English expedition to leave Antarctica, the perfectly healthy mules were killed rather than returning them to either New Zealand or India.
There is still an entrenched dog-friendly view of polar history which has been written by those lacking any appreciation or understanding of equestrian history.
Though three Antarctic expeditions used meat-eating horses, recent books have continued to denigrate and erase this portion of equestrian history. One volume states, “No horse that set foot on Antarctic ground ever returned.” (Antarctic Destinies by Stephanie Barczewski, 2007.)
This statement is misleading, if not inaccurate, because even though the German expedition was unable to proceed off the ice and onto terra firma, upon the completion of his journey to Antarctica German Long Rider Wilhelm Filchner did indeed save all of his horses. He released the still-healthy Manchurian horses on South Georgia Island, allowing them to run wild on the Hestesletten (Horse Plain). The descendants of these horses remained on the island for decades.
Another striking example of this antagonistic philosophy is provided by The Antarctic Dictionary, A complete guide to Antarctic English. Authored by Bernadette Hince, and published in 2000, this so-called “complete guide” has no mention of horses, ponies or mules. There are a total of 394 pages, most of which consist of quotations from various books on the subject, yet the author has eliminated equestrian events, and any reference to meat-eating horses, out of her dictionary.
With the death of Captain Scott, and the failure by the Germans to reach the South Pole, the curtain came down on the role of meat-eating horses in Polar exploration history; nevertheless these astonishing episodes raise intriguing questions.
What would have happened had Scott and Filchner managed to join up their expeditions?
Could Polar expeditions which used horses equipped with equine snowshoes, and trained to eat meat, have travelled to the South Pole before dog sleds reached that elusive goal?
Read also "The Tragedy of Scott, Oates and the Equine Snow Shoes - could the use of equine snow-shoes have averted the famous Antarctic tragedy?"
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