The Belgian horse milk industry
The Mongolians drink it. Empress Sissi used to bathe in it every day. And until WWI it was sold door-to-door in Europe. Now horse milk is becoming popular in Belgium once again. We find out more.
Horse milk's in fashion again
In contrast to horse meat, horse milk tastes very mild and light. In these health conscious times, it seems made for success.
Horse milk is extremely rich in vitamins and minerals, but has a very low fat percentage (1.25 percent) compared with cow milk (3.7 percent). No wonder that many athletes drink it for refreshment and energy.
Nadine and Frans De Brabander started their horse dairy farm in 1997 after a family member was prescribed mares milk for a metabolic illness.
At first the Brabanderhof farm had just four mares and Nadine took care of them herself. But very soon the milk got popular and the number of horses increased.
Nadine's husband Frans joined the workforce and several other family members followed suit.
Horse dairy farms often use ponies, but De Brabanders opted for Belgian draught horses.
"This breed is very calm and good natured, which is essential when you’re working in close kicking distance. They are also very large horses, 800-900 kg, and thus you get a lot more milk than from a 300 kg pony. But they do eat more too!" Nadine laughs.
At the moment there are 57 mares at the farm, three stallions, and 30-40 foals.
"Horses are different from cows in that mares need to have their foals with them to lactate. We milk the horses five times a day and the production is 1-1.5 litres at a time. During the night, foals do the job," Nadine explains.
Horses are milked with the same kind of milking machines as cows.
No foal, no milk
Horse milk is very easily digestible, because it has a high albumin (a protein manufactured by the liver to maintain 'osmotic pressure' that causes fluid to remain within the blood stream instead of leaking out into the tissues) content. Even new born babies can drink it.
"We get customers here with doctor’s referrals nowadays," Nadine says.
The De Brabanders pay a lot of attention to their horses' diet. All feed is natural: grass, hay, cereals, beets, herbs, carrots and apples. The feed not only affects the taste of the milk, but is important for the contents too.
As a large amount of their production is used as a treatment for illnesses, the milk must be of premium quality. Weekly examinations in a laboratory guarantee its cleanliness.
"We sell about 80 percent of our production directly from the farm. It’s the best way, as we can advise customers. In supermarkets or even health food stores the staff are often ignorant about horse milk. We’ve had people complaining to us after they’ve been given incorrect information," Nadine explains.
Horse milk is surprisingly popular in Belgium.
There are about 30 horse dairy farms, most of them in Flanders. However, just a couple of them are as large as the Brabanderhof, where horse milk is the main livelihood.
"We are expanding. At the moment we’re building a new stable and facilities for groups. We have lots of groups visiting us, from schoolchildren to pensioners. It’s a very important way to inform people. They see a video on how the farm works and get to taste the milk," Nadine says.
"Our best advertisements are our happy customers. We could promise wonders to customers, but if the milk didn’t work in practise, they wouldn’t return. Now they’re coming back and bringing their friends too," Nadine says.
Horse milk is sold fresh, frozen or as milk powder. The De Brabanders also make yoghurt and have horse milk liquor made in Ghent.
The milk is not only good for internal use, it can enhance the exterior as well. Cosmetics like shampoo, body and foot lotions, and special creams certainly give that Sissi-feeling to any aspiring empress.
You can buy the milk directly at the farm shop, which is open every day, or order it by phone, fax or e-mail, and have it delivered at your home.
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