South Pole Ponies
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 It has been replaced by a Disney-esque version of events where there is no dark side to nature.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 horses are able to survive because they have specialized hair which has a special 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 further adapt 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, in 1894 Jackson was asked 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, published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 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, published by Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1907.)
Shackleton and Socks
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 also 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, published by William Heinemann, London, 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 a remarkable series of events – a dual equestrian exploration of Antarctica by Great Britain and Germany, both of which also employed meat-eating horses.
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CuChullaine O’Reilly is an equestrian explorer, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers’ Club, one of the Founders of The Long Riders’ Guild, Director of the LRG-AF, publisher of the LRG Press and author of Khyber Knights.