VIGONE, Italy - Considered taboo in many parts of the world, eating horsemeat remains sufficiently widespread in Italy for the country to have to import live animals destined for the slaughterhouse.
And contrary to popular perception, not all are tired old specimens on their last legs, according to a horse-loving couple based in the country village of Vigone near Turin in northern Italy who are seeking to raise awareness of the trade with neighbouring France.
In the last four years, Tony Gerardi and his wife Miky Daidone have saved around 40 healthy young horses from the butcher's knife by training them for roles ranging from ploughing up fields to helping hyperactive kids to learn how to concentrate and relax.
"People think that slaughtered horses are all mature adults, even old and worn out," Daidone told AFP.
"But in the vast majority of cases it is young horses that are eaten because their meat is more tender.
"That's why every year there are thousands of colts and fillies imported from France to be slaughtered in Italy." Gerardi and Daidone know they are not going to stop the trade. Instead their goal is to demonstrate a practical alternative through their "Save the Working Horse" project.
Once they have identified someone willing to take a horse, they make a date with local importers to choose the animal which will get a last-minute reprieve.
Daidone admits the selection process can be difficult. "Obviously we can only take one at a time and the others will go to the slaughterhouse. But that is how it is and not all of the horses have the psychological or physical characteristics required for a working life." They are not, she says, out to change the world. "As far as I am concerned, people can eat what they like and it is not realistic to try to ban something that has been done for so long.
"Rather the concept is to try to make people revalue these animals and say, "Look: see what they can do'."
Heart of a Lion
Most of the horses they take are of the Trait Comtois breed, a medium-sized French working horse that was used in the cavalries of Louis XIV and Napoleon and is famed for its docile temperament.
After arriving at Gerardi and Daidone's ranch L'Estancia, the horses are allowed to recover from what have often been traumatic journeys before the initial phase of breaking them in begins.
"Tony takes care of that because most of these horses are wild, they can be skittish and it can be dangerous," explains Daidone. "Then I help him and in the final phase the new owners come to learn how to continue the training. Usually that all takes about three weeks." The horses that pass through L'Estancia are bound for a variety of roles.
Some will simply become riding horses, either as family pets or at country trekking centres and farms offering holiday accommodation. Others are trained to pull sight-seeing carriages or provide children's pony rides in tourist spots.
There is also growing interest in Italy in the use of horses in therapy for people suffering suffering anxiety, post-trauma stress and other mental problems, including children with attention deficit disorder.
One supporter of Gerardi and Daidone's initiative is Henry Finzi-Constantine, who uses heavy horses rather than tractors to pull ploughs at the nearby Castello di Tassarolo, a wine estate.
"Tony has a keen eye," he said. "When I got my horse Cyrus from him he said 'Henry, this is your horse.' "That was a Monday and he was due to be slaughtered on the Wednesday. So I had to empty my pockets on the Tuesday." "But Tony was right: Cyrus has the head of an angel, the heart of a lion and the backside of a farmer's daughter. He is by far the best horse in the stable!"