This book is a very difficult one to review, not because it has no value, but because it has too much. I have many pages of notes about interesting elements or things to mention, all of which would make this review far too long. I’ll mention the one weakness first so I can move on to all of the strengths: The author had a couple of places in the book where, rather than telling the narrative uncovered in person or through research, the actual research earned a place on the page. Rapid paragraphs offering names and dates along with a simple statement of the contribution failed to give me the context to engage with the information. This happened at least three times, one so much so I stopped reading for about a week before starting up again, but don’t let it discourage you as I believe the worst was also the last time. However, when paired with the reflective, philosophical narrative voice in the majority of areas, which brought the history, pre-history, and modern day to life, it seems a minor flaw.
The book follows what the author calls bridle paths through the history of horses and their interactions with humans. It involves a mix of history, mythology, quotes from primary and secondary sources, and personal narrative. I learned a lot through the reading, and had my own instincts about horses confirmed, but don’t expect a pretty, non-challenging account. This is more a philosophy and recognition book than a history. It meanders through time, jumping into the past and back when it suits what the author wishes to explore. Accounts of the author’s journeys to different cultures and situations cover horse reserves in Mongolia to auction houses that are only one-step removed from slaughterhouses to U.S. military therapy programs and more.
I learned about efforts to keep horse management techniques alive in an agricultural context lead by the Amish. While some might consider this clinging to the past, a strong argument is given for horses as a way to stave off disaster when we eventually run out of fossil fuels. Horses improve field productivity by not compacting the soil and with strong fertilizer as their waste product compared to tractors, which actually reduce soil fertility and produce toxic gases.
The change from seeing horses as intelligent helpers to beasts that must be dominated and back reveals more about humanity than horses while the different philosophies and myths both raising horses up and dashing them down did as well. One section, where the author visits a horse behaviorist, reveals more about why horses work with humans than pages of training manuals.
The economic, political, and even diplomatic contributions from horses and how those changed over time gets a lot of word count, with a large section devoted to historical England and another to World War II Germany. One of my favorites is the reception giving the gift of simple work horses from England brought to India. While the gifters considered them a lowbrow animal, the recipients saw them as amazing in both their size and their abilities.
The costs and compromises made with progression, and the influence of classism, defines the number and types of horses flourishing at any one point as well as their treatment. The cultural influence shows fascinating differences between cultures and classes, with the odd exception of raising up wild horses as a symbol of unfettered nature in comparison to the restrictions of society whether in the Middle Ages, early China, or the Wild West.
What appears as chaotic organization with the information leaping forward and backward through time as well as from one side of the globe to the other proved less annoying than the wealth of content conveyed in an interesting manner. An exploration of humanity in all its good and bad sides as well as all the ways horses were involved with, and even determined, history across human cultures, this book offers valuable insights that will most likely lead you to question some decisions being made even today. I’ve offered a glimpse at the wealth to be found within these pages, and I would be surprised if there isn’t something to be learned for practically every reader interested in the subject of horses and humanity. I will caution that not all of what you’ll learn is pleasant or uplifting, but it is well worth the discomfort.
P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.