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.
The Trump budget cut isn’t well thought through. Firstly, there are no slaughter houses in the US processing horses for meat, and recent attempts to open new abattoirs have resulted in passionate local protests. Secondly, the horses could go to Mexico or Canada, but both countries are obliged to keep horses for six months before slaughter to ensure there’s no drug residue in their meat if they want to sell to Europe (and horsemeat exports from Mexico have long been suspended in Europe). This makes horsemeat a lot more expensive to produce. A Canadian plant has already closed as a result of this requirement. So who would slaughter these mustangs?
There are many, many historical antecedents for this latest move, some of which I mention in The Age of the Horse. It’s a familiar cycle full of themes that come up over and over. Here’s just one example, from the Bismarck Tribune on August 15, 1919:
Montana must exterminate its wild horse herds.
Washington dispatches carry discouraging news for those who hope to see the Montana wild horse converted into meat for hungry Europe. American commercial attaches have forwarded from France and Belgium to the American capital data indicating that the expected market does not exist. In the first place, the people will not eat frozen horsemeat. In the second place, horses consigned to the butcher must be slaughtere, within the cities or districts in which they are to be consumed. The Montana plan contemplated slaughter at some point in the state, with sale of the bi-products [sic] in America. It had always been supposed that a ready market for the meat would be found abroad. There is still another plan – to render the wild horse for his products and sell the meat for fertiliser. This, it is said, it may prove feasible. The wild horse has been a problem in the state for some years. The animals number hundreds of thousands and consume a vast amount of range. There is not profit in rounding up the beasts, since they cannot be sold, except a rare few. Hunting them, as well, is no child’s play. They are fleet and wary and the hunter on a horse has little chance to overtake them. Yet the beasts must go. Stockmen are determined on that. The matter was recently discussed in the state convention of the stockmens association and it was stated that tremendous herds of cattle and sheep could be maintained on the grass the world horses eat. The beasts probably are descendants of Indian horses. They are of the poorest stock and are difficult to domesticate and almost worthless when tamed. They travel in bands and are formidable fighters with tooth and hoof, when aroused or cornered.
11.30am New York
8.30am San Francisco
I’ll be taking part in an AMA on the History subreddit. Click here to find it!
Humans have turned horses into everything from buttons to symbols of political power. We’ve molded them into racing machines and solar-powered engines of industry and agriculture; we’ve made eating horsemeat taboo and thrown elaborate horse-flesh banquets; we’ve used them to test machine guns, deliver bombs, and carry our most important leaders; sold them for millions and ground them up into fertilizer; we’ve even made them dance to prove a kingdom was stable and bred wild horses to legitimize dodgy eugenic theories. No other animal has had such an effect on human history, or been used in so many ways.
Horses, meanwhile, are just trying to get on with being horses. The core mystery of why they ever let us do all these things with them is what intrigues me most. Why does a horse trot into a bull ring? Why on earth did they ever consent to go into battle if they’re “prey animals” with a strong flight instinct? What does a horse get out of pulling a plow? Was domestication a good deal or a bad one, as far as horses are concerned?
I’ll be there to try to answer your questions on all topics from Nazi wild horses to bidets, elephant combat and equine anarchy.
Folks, I know you thought that the Montenegrin entry for Eurovision, a man with a six-foot ponytail – think top Friesian stud Frederick the Great or Khal Drogo with extensions – was the horsiest entry for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, but you were wrong. Wrong! Here’s Slavko Kalezic in action:
But here, my friends is Azerbaijan:
And there’s something a little familiar about Mr Horse. Can you spot it?
On the left, French equestrian choreographer Bartabas and a quarterhorse called Soutine performing in Le centaure et l’animal in 2012. On the right? AZERBAIIIIIIJAAAAAN!
If Eurovision isn’t your scene, here’s the Bartabas performance with Japanese Butoh dancer Ko Murobushi (I was lucky enough to see this at Sadler’s Wells and it features in The Age of the Horse).
The horse on the cover of Ulrich Raulff’s impressive new book is soaring, bridleless, riderless and all but headless. It has the fuzziness of distance but also the heft and hairiness of life; it is both figurative and real. In tracing our extended exit from the long 19th century, when horses powered nations and shaped the way we thought, Farewell to the Horse attempts to ride both these steeds. Equus caballus is, Raulff explains, a ‘living metaphor’ that can ‘carry not only humans and other loads, but also abstract signs and symbols’ and has ‘more meanings than bones’. When we unharnessed the horse from our omnibuses and ploughs and replaced it with trains and tractors, we lost not just horse power but one of the life forces of Western thought as well.
My thoughts on Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse for the Literary Review.
From Tom Crewe’s review of A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion and the Bensons in Victorian Britain in the London Review of Books:
“At 11am on 22 November 1827 Francis Place, the reformer and radical, stuck his head out of his bedroom window in Charing Cross and put down on paper the activity he could see outside:
8 – 2 stage coaches with 4 horses each
8 – 2 ditto standing at The Ship
4 – 1 ditto [standing] at the Silver Cross
2 – 1 dray delivering ale
6 – 1 wagon coming along loaded with Swedish turnips, drawn by six horses
14 – 7 hackney coaches and cabriolets…
It goes on, until he has counted 102 horses and 37 carriages in a single street. We have a semi-miraculous view of a vanished world about its business, watched without realising it, made visible just for a moment.”