Close encounter of the equine kind raises issues about our place in the food chain

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

A hungry horse is enough to make you reassess humans’ relationship with the animal kingdom

There has been a lot in the media this week about farming and the food chain. Recently, while strolling in the countryside on holiday in rural England with my wife, I came upon a field filled with diverse animals that taught me a lot about the subject.

There was a horse that strutted around the place whinnying menacingly. Under his feet were several ducks with low self-esteem quacking to one another about (I assume) their medication. In the middle of the field a donkey was standing still, staring wide-eyed into the middle distance like a Vietnam veteran.

An eerily silent goat with behavioural problems alternated between trying to head-butt and embrace the larger of two sheep.

“Raaagh!” said the sheep, who had a bit of a speech impediment. “Baaa!” said the prissier sheep, correcting him (you could see they hated each other). A cloud shed forbidding droplets of rain. On a nearby tree a solitary crow appeared to weep. The donkey coughed. No farmer was to be seen.

Political allegory

“Is this normal?” asked my wife, observing this crazed ménage before looking at me nervously. “What’s going on here? Is this some sort of political allegory?”

“No,” I said (although it did remind me a little of the Technical Group). “Animals are usually apolitical.”

Now, my wife is from Dublin, which has always allowed me to exercise culchie privilege when it comes to this sort of thing. I have tried to convince her that I’m a down-home, salt-of-the-earth nature boy filled with rural lore and folksy proverbs. I’ve licked my finger, held it aloft and made pronouncements about wind direction (“It’s coming from the sky”), delivered confident statements about how the weather is affecting various crops (maize, tobacco, pasta, oysters) or given plausible-sounding reasons for the behaviour of wildlife (“Ah, I see the rabbits are ripening” or “See how that flock of geese is drawn by the moon’s gravitational pull”).

The truth, however, is that all I know about farming/ nature/“outside” comes from YouTube videos of funny animals and childhood visits to my grandparents’ farm, an orderly place akin to Downton Abbey when compared to this farm’s recreation of HBO prison drama Oz.

The horse came up to the fence, his eyes burning red (I may have imagined this), his limbs flailing as though he was itching to hoof someone.

“Dieeeee!” he whinnied (or something to that effect).

“Sh-should I feed him?” asked my wife nervously.

“Sure,” I said, backing away. “The common horse likes to be fed in the wild by ladies.” At this point the horse took a substantial bite out of the wooden gate. He chewed nonchalantly, then spat it out, before taking another bite and chewing again, all the while staring at us like Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction.

“How long before he chews the fence away?” asked my wife, but I was already a hundred yards down the road.

“I just felt like having a run,” I said later when she caught up with me back at the car. “Sometimes country folk need to run off the smoke and smog of the big city.”


In truth, however, this crazy farm had caused me to reassess what little I knew about farming and animals in general. My conclusions?

A: small dogs, if they spoke, would speak in New York gangster accents like Jimmy Cagney.

B: I need to learn more about the food chain. Horses eat goats, which eat sheep, which eat ducks . . . but what do ducks eat?

C: the farmer who owned that farm (if it’s not an autonomous collective run for and by animals) would happily have put all his animals, and possibly stray tourists, into the same burger. I’m certain of it.

D: I’m going on city breaks from now on.

E: I would totally eat horse.