(Originally published in the October 2, 2010 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
Chilled by the Cold War, American poet Edwin Muir imagined the end of the world. In his apocalyptic vision, described in a poem titled “The Horses,” the modern world has been destroyed, survivors left in devastation and desperation. Without communications, electricity, gasoline, governments—all the comforts that provide ease and order in human lives—man is lost. Until the evening when the strange horses come. Strange, because modern society has forgotten its long history and necessary relationship with the horse. But the horses wait until society remembers.
The message of Muir’s poem, surprisingly, is not about war. War is simply the messenger that reminds us of an elemental fact: Human beings need horses. Didn’t Shakespeare himself remark on this more than 400 years ago when Richard III cries, “A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
For thousands of years, the lives of human beings and horses have been allied in cooperation and servitude. The earliest recognized domestication began 5,000 years ago, as the free-running equine herds on the Eurasian steppes ignited the imagination of human beings. Wild horses, like other animals, had been supplying many of life’s necessities—milk, meat, hides, dung. But 5,000 years ago a human being looked upon the horse in a new way. The horse’s sociability and intelligence, his strong back and powerful hind-quarters, and his speed were gifts as well. With this recognition, the domestication of the horse began, an alliance that altered the course of human life.
The earliest domesticated horses carried possessions and pulled sleds of untotable objects, a development that allowed human society a new mobility. Greeks and Romans harnessed the horse for use as a draft animal. Ancient Persians trained the horse for the hunt and organized races. And in the creation of the cavalry—armed soldiers on horseback—early societies found advantage against foot soldiers in battle. Through World War II, societies in conflict continued to employ horses to pull artillery, deliver missives, and transport the dead and wounded.
The industrial age knew the horse’s gifts as well. Human endeavors in agriculture, industry, and commerce are beholden to the cooperative spirit, adaptability, and physical strength of the horse. He plowed fields and pulled farming machines. He moved goods and materials; provided convenient, efficient, and inexpensive power; pulled passengers, freight, and lumber. In cities the horse transported food, medicine, and mail; drew trade carts, coaches, and fire equipment. And in sport, the horse enriched our leisure time with racing; eventing, jumping, and dressage; polo; rodeo; and pleasure riding.
As Americans we’ve founded our own particular history with the horse. While the Spanish conquistadores get credit for reintroducing the horse to the Americas, the native American peoples adopted the horse as their own. Horses were vital to their sacred buffalo hunts and greatly eased the hardships of a nomadic lifestyle. Anglo-Americans relied on the horse for transportation, exploration, and migration. The drive across the U.S., from east to west, was led by horses. Those iconic images of the American West, the cowboy and his trusted horse at home on the lonesome range, have been immortalized on canvases by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell and become our mythology.
This versatile mix of use, ease, companionship, and sport has not been duplicated with any other animal.
In the microcosm of Muir’s poem, as the survivors struggle, the horses “waited,/Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent/By an old command to find our whereabouts/And that long-lost archaic companionship.” The desperate survivors re-discover their relationship with the horse, and life begins anew as horses once again “pull our plows and bear our loads./Our life is changed; their coming is our beginning.”
Today, at rescue operations around the United States, healthy, willing horses wait still. They are beautiful to look at and strong. Their clipped bay and chestnut coats glisten in the sunlight. Their muscles ripple under taut flesh. Their manes and tails, untangled and soft, are stirred by breezes. Their heads are high; their ears, alert. If you listen, you can hear them ask: What happens next? I’m awaiting my assignment.
Their care is a debt we owe. Right now, it is our turn to save them.