PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Many people love horses and traditionally, many French people have loved them even more with a side of salad.
That passion, however, has slowed to a trickle in the last couple of years as crisis-hit French consumers buy less meat and years of campaigning by animal rights groups take effect.
Looking to ram home their advantage, campaigners have launched a pre-Christmas blitz in Paris featuring posters of riding school ponies and graceful yearlings aimed at rending the hardest of hearts.
"Every year in France, riding school horses like Caramel are sent to the abattoir," says one poster by the Fondation Brigitte Bardot, featuring a photo of a perky grey pony reflected in a knife blade.
"It disturbs us that people continue to eat horses at all and we are going to go on campaigning until people stop eating it altogether," said Constance Cluset, a spokeswoman for the animal welfare group created by the former actress.
Last year, 15,820 horses were killed for their meat in France, of which over 7,000 were imported from abroad.
The group, whose campaign was timed to coincide with a horse fair, is pushing for a legislative bill to modify horses' legal status to companion from production-type animals such as sheep.
While horse meat is traditionally cheaper than other animals, the financial crisis has only pushed consumers to buy more chicken, according to French agriculture ministry figures.
Consumption of horse meat has fallen 12 percent in the last two years and currently makes up less than 1 percent of all meat consumed in France, the ministry said in a report.
And while only a few years ago horse meat was relatively easy to find, now it takes more time to track it down.
"Horse is indeed a French dish, but you'd be very hard-pressed to find it in any restaurants now," said the chef at restaurant Le Central in Paris, adding: "There's so much publicity against it."
Accounts vary on how France first took to eating equines.
Some historians say the country's appetite for horse meat dates from the Battle of Eylau in 1807, when the chief surgeon of Napoleon's army advised famished soldiers to feast on fallen horses on the battlefield.
The story adds that the cavalry cooked the trusted steeds using their breastplates as cooking pans.
Editing by Paul Casciato