Yet this simple fact of horses' existence makes slaughtering them imperative. When they're too old to go on trail rides or too slow to win races, they may still live for another 10 or 15 years. Keeping horses requires land and money. The odd wealthy hobby farmer may be willing to support a horse through its golden years. But most owners just don't have the money.
For proof, look south of the border, where the slaughter has been banned. The last plant closed in 2007 and in the intervening years, Americans have discovered an unintended consequence: unwanted horses.
All over the United States, owners find themselves with horses they can no longer care for. Horses that can still fetch a decent price - about $200 (U.S.) - must endure a long journey to a Canadian or, more likely, a Mexican abattoir (where animal treatment standards can leave much to be desired).
Those are the lucky ones. Throughout the United States, skinny, neglected horses are being turned loose on public land or abandoned in the dead of night at auction barns. In Nebraska alone last year, more than 300 neglected or abandoned horses were seized, some of which had to be euthanized.
"It got worse as soon as they closed the slaughter plants," says Bob Hester, a deputy sheriff in Fillmore County, Neb. "It used to be people could take a horse to a sale barn and get $50 or $100 for it. Now it's costing them. So what do they do? They take it some place and dump it."
"All these regulations have done nothing to help the horse," says Devin Mullet, a livestock seller and self-described horse lover from Kalona, Iowa, who had to install cameras at his sale barn to stop people from dumping horses in the middle of the night. "They've just ended up making it worse," he says.
Canada has three choices. We can shut down the horse slaughter, in which case we will quickly find ourselves with more horses than we can feed. We can continue to slaughter horses and send most of the meat to other parts of the world. Or people across the country can try the meat Québécois know as chevaline.
One anglophone who cooks chevaline is Matthew DeMille, a chef at a Toronto restaurant called Parts and Labour that specializes in unusual animal parts such as bone marrow, ox tongue and pig's ear.
At a private event in June, Mr. DeMille prepared a six-course horse tasting menu that included a Vietnamese-style horse pho broth with toasted hay, and horse tenderloin stuffed with granny smith apples, sage, black currants and bread crumbs. For dessert, he had an idea to make crème brûlée from horse milk - you can get it in Europe, he says - but he couldn't find any, so he made a pastry using horse lard instead.
Parts and Labour stopped serving horse tenderloin because of public backlash. Online restaurant reviews were met by derisive comments from angry horse activists (a fate certain to befall this article's online version). One afternoon, at the Don Valley Brick Works farmers' market, a woman came up to Mr. DeMille and said, "You serve horse," in an accusatory tone. "That's why I will never come to your restaurant."
Horse hasn't been on the menu since July, but when I requested some, Mr. DeMille phoned in a tenderloin from Quebec and invited me for lunch. Raw, the meat was a deep, dark red, with light veins of pinky fat barely visible. He coated it in salt and pepper, seared it in a cast-iron pan, and finished it in the oven.
Compared with beef or lamb, horsemeat is surprisingly delicate, but with a whisper of gaminess that tells you the animal you're eating didn't spend its life digging its snout into a trough full of corn. There was an undeniably distinctive flavour and I tried - and failed - to put a word to it. Mr. DeMille stepped in. He swallowed a piece and said, "Just sweet, tender horse."
The activists have their own solution for the problem of unwanted horses: "humane euthanasia," which costs about $500. When a horse can no longer be cared for responsibly, they advocate calling in the veterinarian, who will kill it by lethal injection or by shooting it in the head (which is how horses are killed at slaughter plants). That still leaves the body. It can be incinerated, put out for scavenging, taken to a rendering plant, or buried with a backhoe. To a billion people - myself included - that's a waste of good meat.
Mark Schatzker is the author of Steak: One Man's Search for the Tastiest Piece of Beef .
Special to The Globe and Mail
Follow us on Twitter: