Where’s your horse’s leg?

When I first became Head of Biology at Oxford High, I had a poke around the department and eventually had to ask:

Where’s your horse’s leg?”

“We don’t have a horse’s leg.”

“What do you mean, you don’t have a horse’s leg? You must have a horse’s leg! You can’t teach biology without a horse’s leg! Where is it?”

“We don’t have a horse’s leg.”

“You don’t have a horse’s leg?!?!?!?!?”

“We don’t have a horse’s leg.”

I was shocked. It seemed that they didn’t have a horse’s leg.

Oh well, I thought, that’s quickly rectified, and I started hunting on line for horse legs. By which I mean the bones of a horse leg. This proved harder than I anticipated. None of the educational supply companies stocked horse legs. I eventually found one company that could supply an entire horse skeleton for about £3000, but nothing remotely resembling a single horse leg. Ebay, Amazon, horsesleg.com, all came up short.

I rang the Natural History Museum in Oxford. They were lovely!

“Have you got a horse’s leg?”

“Yes, we’ve got lots.”

Hallelujah!

“Can I have one?”

“Sure. To borrow.”

“Oh. I want to keep it. Can I have it on permanent loan?”

“No”.

Damn! It was back to the drawing board.

So I had a think, and decided to track down people who made a living preparing specimens for museums. There aren’t that many… But I eventually made contact with a chap who had lots of good advice. I would need a container for the specimen that could be filled with water and heated – a saucepan or similar. I would need a thermostatic heater. I would need water. And I would need Neutrase

http://www.ncbe.reading.ac.uk/MATERIALS/Enzymes/neutrase.html

a powerful protease that works best in neutral (hence name) conditions…

Oh, and I would need a horse’s leg.

This last detail seemed a bit of an obstacle, but it proved far easier to source than I imagined.

New to the Oxfordshire area, we had been invited to a lunch party to mingle with local folk and maybe make some friends. I ended up chatting to a man who described himself as a Trainer and Breaker. Of what? Why, of horses, of courses….

Ta da!!!!!!

Well into the second bottle of lunchtime champagne, I said casually,

“these horses you break and train, do they ever, um, die….?”

“Yes, all the time. They break a leg or get an infection or can’t run anymore and they’re put down.”

“Um, the next time, um, one of your horses dies, um….”

“Yes?”

“Can I have a leg?”

He was brilliant. He didn’t bat an eyelid. Yes, of course I could have a leg. No problem at all. Front or back?

I told him my preference, gave him my contact details and we parted on good terms.

The very next morning the phone went at about 6am.

“Were you serious about wanting a horse leg?”

“Yes, absolutely!”

“Because we’ve just had one die. Shall I drop it off later this morning?”

“Yes please!”

Long pause.

“It was rather a big horse…”

I didn’t want to let the moment slip.

“I don’t mind! I’ll take it!”

And so just a little later that morning, my wife opened the curtains to look down at our yard, to see a scene like something from the Godfather – a large hessian sack, containing a freshly hacked off horse leg, bleeding profusely into the cobblestones…

He hadn’t exaggerated. It was huge! Nearly as tall as me, and I’m only just under 6′. It must have been a monstrous great thing.

But, key question, how do you set about dealing with a freshly severed horse leg?

First step, remove as much of the flesh as possible. I was sent to the bottom of the garden where I was able to suspend the leg from a tree with bailer twine and use the large kitchen knife to carve off the skin and muscle. This was pretty gruesome and I filled a wheelbarrow with horse meat. A nearby sett of badgers enjoyed a free feast that night…

I now had lots of bones, still held together with scraps of connective tissue and all covered with small bits of meat and tendon. I disarticulated the main bones and put them all into a large metal dustbin I had bought for the purpose. In the larger bones, I drilled a couple of holes…. I then built a little bonfire under the dustbin and heated it to just below boiling. This melted all the fat, particularly the marrow fat which drained from the holes, and formed a disgusting scum at the top of the dustbin….

I dug a hole in the ground to pour the waste water into, refilled the dustbin with fresh water, added the Neutrase and inserted the thermostat, set for 40’C…. and left it for a week.

Oh lordy lordy the SMELL! It was AWFUL, gut wrenchingly HORRIBLE, quite the most disgusting olfactory experience I have encountered. The resulting dustbin soup resembled something they might serve in Hades.

But after a week, as per instructions, I was able to pour off this liquid to be left with…

my long awaited horse leg bones!

horse leg bones

Now why, the patient reader might be wondering, had I gone to all this trouble? What is the educational value of a horse leg?

For that, you’ll have to tune into my next post where I’ll describe that lesson … along with the Tale of the Curious Incident of the Missing Scapula….

thanks for reading!

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