I’ve written something for The Atlantic‘s Object Lessons blog on the long (if potted!) history of horsemeat in America. A much fuller account is on offer in The Age of the Horse!
During World War II food shortages, horse meat once again found its way to American tables, but the post-war backlash was rapid. “Horse meat” became a political insult. “You don’t want your administration to be known as a horse meat administration, do you?” the former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia demanded of his successor William O’Dwyer. President Truman was nicknamed “Horse meat Harry” by Republicans during food shortages in the run up to the 1948 “Beefsteak Election.” In 1951, reporters asked if there would be a “Horse meat Congress,” one “that put the old gray mare on the family dinner table.” When Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1952, he was also taunted as “Horse meat Adlai” thanks to a Mafia scam uncovered in Illinois when he was governor.
SIX THOUSAND years ago wild horses roamed the plains and steppes of the world. They were like many prey: fleet of foot, alert to threats and largely unaggressive. Then, in the Copper Age, the Botai people east of the Urals found a way to hunt them—for their meat and skins—and, later, to domesticate them. In horses, the Botai and succeeding civilisations found the best of partners. Horses are seen to be quick-witted and forgiving. Unusually, unlike almost all mammals other than humans, they sweat to cool themselves, which means they can work harder and run faster, for a long time.
This last attribute was central to the horse’s usefulness. Over the millennia, people have made full use of this equine companion, as two superb new books relate. “The Age of the Horse” by Susanna Forrest and “Farewell to the Horse” by Ulrich Raulff pay homage to the role of the horse in forging history—and more. Neither book purports to be a comprehensive equi-story; instead, by arranging their narratives thematically rather than chronologically, both authors have granted themselves the freedom to range as widely as the ancient wild horses, the Takhi and the Tarpan, once did, grazing on a pasture rich in anecdote, allegory and pathos as well as in historical importance.
What are the following: the leap of the cuckoo, the leap of the crane, the leap of the frog?
(a) movements to be performed by warhorses in Ancient India
(b) fences on the showjumping course at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
(c) haute-école dressage steps of Renaissance Italy
What had Louis XVI previously done in the court room where he stood trial after the French Revolution?
(a) purchased horses
(b) attended trials
(c) had riding lessons
What did paediatricians in 1840s Berlin recommend for children?
(a) a horsemeat diet
(b) bathing in horse broth
(c) pony rides
What was last seen in Khonin Usnii Gobi, Mongolia in 1968?
(a) the last wild horse
(b) a horned “dragon horse”
(c) a member of Genghis Khan’s cavalry
How did the Kayamagha royal family in Ghana avoid mucking out their horses?
(a) they got their servants to hold pots to catch the horse pee
(b) they kept their horses in nappies
(c) they made them stand in ponds
The Botai are the earliest known tamers of horses. What did they use their cannon bones for?
(a) they carved them into flutes
(b) they made them into spear heads
(c) they used them as offerings to their gods
Which of the following species has never been ridden?
(a) takhi or Przewalski horse
What special qualities were the wild horses of sixteenth-century northern Gaul rumoured to have?
(a) their coats gave off sparks if rubbed
(b) vestigial wings
(c) tails like donkeys
All images via Wiki Commons. Answers to follow, or find them in The Age of the Horse:
Wilhelm von Osten was born into the German squirearchy in 1838 and went on to work as a maths teacher. He moved to the eastern Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg in 1866 and purchased a house at 10 Griebenowstraße. A befitted his background, he was a keen rider and huntsman with an appreciation of horses. When one of his carriage horses, Hans, seemed unusually observant of the logisitics of drawing a carriage around the city, he taught the horse to count to five by striking his hoof on the ground. This promising equine savant sadly died at the age of twelve, but his replacement, a black Russian trotter also called Hans, was to become famous worldwide.
Thanks to von Osten’s tuition – which involved a lot of carrots and bread – “Clever” Hans developed an extraordinary array of abilities. He would count by pounding his right hoof on the ground and concluding when he reached the correct number with a strike of his left fore. He nodded, shook his head, and moved his head to indicate up, down, right or left. His talents included
- the ability to count up to 100 (sometimes higher) and work on calculations involving six decimal places;
- the ability to spell (where “A” = one hoof tap, and so on);
- the ability to change common fractures to decimals and vice versa;
- the ability to read German, printed or handwritten (but only lower case);
- an understanding of the value of all German coins;
- an understanding of the calendar;
- the ability to tell the time on a watch;
- the ability to recognise people he knew from old photos;
- the ability to identify musical notes and chords and whether or not they were “pleasant”;
- the ability to pick out groups of people among the spectators – say, women wearing spectacles or men in hats, or even children climbing on nearby rooftops.
One observer described von Osten as “extremely patient and at the same time highly irascible” and “fanatic in his conviction” that Hans was “capable of inner speech”. Von Osten tried to draw attention to his horse’s talents by posting advertisements in the military press. He gave exhibitions of Hans’ skills in the yard of 10 Griebenowstraße, and many came to watch and try to work out if the horse was really all his owner claimed. Word spread and the man and his horse became a global phenomenon.
Hans was turned into toys, featured on product labels and postcards and written into the lyrics of vaudeville songs. Not unlike his owner, he was also prone to stubborness – he had little respect for those who did not handle him with the same confidence as von Osten. He also bit, which perhaps isn’t that astonishing given the number of treats he’d grown used to expect from humans.
One local journalist, Fedor Freund, pointed out a curious aspect of the horse’s spelling: it was not merely phonetic. When von Osten read out the name “Treskow” to him he spelled it correctly, although it was pronounced “Tresko”. But though many sceptics visited and examined Hans, plenty of prominent and educated men admitted defeat. Head Berlin zoo keeper Ludwig Heck, whom you may have come across in The Age of the Horse, was one of those unable to determine Hans’ secret, even after a year and a half of concentrated study. Von Osten’s horse, it was believed, was intellectually “at about the stage of development of a child of 13 or 14 years.”
It was a team led by psychologist Oskar Pfungst that finally broke the spell in 1907. Hans was not “capable of inner speech” (well, not in any provable way). He was simply watching for changes in the posture and expression of whoever set him each task, whether it was von Osten or an independent investigator. Hans was “clever” because he had noticed that when von Osten relaxed, he only had to strike the ground with his left hoof to finish “counting” and then he would be rewarded. And of course, von Osten relaxed whenever Hans reached the right answer or sum. Presumably, over time the horse didn’t even need a carrot as a reward for this. He was adept in one language – that of the body.
A few years after his debunking, von Osten died, and Hans – rather like Black Beauty – had a series of new owners. This was a time of transition for horses – the beginning of the end of the use of horses for public and private transport – and the odds of ending up as sausage were high. Hans was conscripted into the army at the outbreak of World War One. He vanishes off the records in 1916 – killed in action, perhaps, or victim of disease or the desperation of soldiers.
When I was researching images for the Power section of The Age of the Horse I kept coming across black and white pictures like this one of families in inner courtyards in Western cities, proudly showing off their working horses. Our great-great grandparents often lived alongside their equine workmates or metres away from the mews and multi-storey stables that kept nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cities functioning. Berlin was no exception, and it’s still possible to see some traces of long-since demolished stables, like the parallel metal tracks for cart wheels that are laid in the entryways to some buildings from the period. The old brewery near me hasn’t produced beer in decades, but you can take special tours around the underground stables, which have been preserved. I’m told that one of the multi-storey stables – repurposed as housing – is still standing, but have been unable to locate it. When I realised that von Osten’s house was just ten minutes’ walk from my own, I set out to see if there were any traces of Hans left over.
I live in what’s known as an “alt bau” or “old building” very like 10 Griebenowstraße. Berlin expanded hugely from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and the same basic building unit was thrown up around the city. It consisted of five storeys (any higher and the fire brigade could not reach the upper floors) around a square courtyard, with cellars, high ceilings and large windows. In areas like Kreuzberg, Schoneberg and Charlottenburg, these buildings are hefty and grand, as Christopher Isherwood described them in the Weimar years, “shabby monumental safes” with “top-heavy balconied façades”.
In Prenzlauer Berg, these “rent barracks” were a little slapdash as the area’s population tended towards the working class. The front would have perhaps some stucco for the better off, like von Osten, and the wings and rear of the courtyard would be plainer.The courtyards sometimes contained small industrial plants, stables or other outbuildings. Often there was more than one courtyard; the record is seven, for a building around the corner from Clever Hans’ home on Kastanienallee, a model of which can be seen in the Deutsches Historisches Museum. These yards got progressively smaller and darker; many were demolished in slum clearances just a few years after they were constructed.
Number 10 Griebenowstraße is on a corner of sorts near the Zionskirche. When I peeked into the yard I found a large shared garden, bike park and recycling area that was shared between an entire block of alt baus; only one outbuilding was still standing and, when I checked a map from 1895, it was impossible to see what else might have stood there, or if there were further inner courtyards. The outbuilding did not resemble anything that appears in the backdrop of the images of von Osten and Clever Hans. The building has been renovated with plain plaster and there’s not even a plaque to mark the story.
In his report on Hans, Oskar Pfungst concluded that “the horse’s ability to perceive movements greatly exceeds that of the average man.” What interests me most is what he went on to say, because it’s one of those extracts that, like the ancient Taoist book, “Horses’ Hoofs”, can sound strikingly modern: What results, he asked, might a more horse-centric form of training and upkeep yield? And how could this benefit the horses themselves?
Our horses are, as a rule, sentenced to an especially dull mode of life. Chained in stalls (and usually dark stalls at that,) during three-fourths of their lives, and more than any other domestic animal, enslaved for thousands of years by reins and whip, they have become estranged from their natural impulses, and owing to continued confinement they may perhaps have suffered even in their sensory life. A gregarious animal, yet kept constantly in isolation, intended by nature to range over vast areas, yet confined to his narrow courtyard, and deprived of opportunity for sexual activity,—he has been forced by a process of education to develop along lines quite opposite to his native characteristics. Nevertheless, I believe that it is very doubtful if it would have been possible by other methods, even, to call forth in the horse the ability to think. Presumably, however, it might be possible, under conditions and with methods of instruction more in accord with the life-needs of the horse, to awaken in a fuller measure those mental activities which would be called into play to meet those needs.
Susanna Forrest is the outstanding writer at the erudite end of horse madness. Her 2012 memoir of her own obsession, If Wishes Were Horses, was terrific; this next homage, expanding and reinterpreting our cultural relationship with equines, is equally fresh and clever. … Her writing is sublime … for the horse-addicted, a book can get no better than this … Forrest, a social anthropologist by training, heart truly pierced, has written a profound historical love story. … Her book is original, cerebral and from the heart.
Melanie Reid, The Times.
Forrest covers wide sweeps of history and geography with dexterity and panache . . . On the telepathic alertness of herds of Takhi wild horses on the Mongolian steppes … she is lyrical. In her dissection of the illogicalities of American laws on horse slaughter … she becomes a potent campaigner. You don’t need to be a hippophile to enjoy The Age of the Horse.
Robin Oakley, The Literary Review.
Whether describing the splendours of the haute école, the miseries of the American horsemeat trade, or the horse-thronged streets of 19th-century London, Forrest writes with a fine descriptive vigour. Her essayistic approach allows for an exhilarating blend of the historical and the personal, with lively digressions.
Jane Shilling, The Evening Standard.
I don’t blog much about the work I’m doing on book two (The Age of the Horse), but here’s a sneak peak of something I’ll be writing about. In November I was lucky enough to have three days at the Equestrian Academy at Versailles, where they were rehearsing for this performance in the old riding school in Salzburg. The riding school was carved from the rock in 1693, and this was the first time it had had horses on its stage in over a hundred years. The music is Mozart. Choreography by Bartabas, who appears on Le Caravage (whom I last saw conked out in his stable in Versailles, legs tucked up in the straw and head resting on his chin).
I have a particular soft spot for the first cream on stage, Uccello. More about why in The Age of the Horse.