BOOKS: Horses & The Horse
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2009:
The Horse: A miscellany of equine knowledge
by Ian Whitelaw & Julie Whitaker
MacMillan (175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010), 2007.
244 pages, illustrated. $19.95 hardcover.
Horse by Elaine Walker
Reaktion Books Ltd. (33 Great Sutton St., London EC1M 3JU, U.K.),
2008. 216 pages, illustrated. $19.95 paperback.
The Horse, by Julie Whitaker and Ian Whitelaw, is an A to Z
compendium of information about equine history, anatomy, grooming,
health, behavior, and dressage, among other topics, with even a
touch of Hollywood thrown in. Short paragraphs carry the reader on a
fascinating journey, starting with the origins of the horse.
American paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-1899)
uncovered equine fossils in Nebraska, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
“Marsh determined a clear line of equine descent,” say Whitaker and
Whitelaw. An excellent chart on page 17 outlines this order,
including the contributions of the Ecocene equids Mesohippus,
Hypohippus, Megahippus, and Dinohippus. These were also ancestral
to the donkey, the zebra, and the Asiatic ass.
A fact-filled historical chapter describes the role of horses
in establishing the Persian Empire. Alexander the Great rode a horse
named Bucephalus into numerous battles. Bucephalus eventually died
of war wounds.
Horses later helped to spread Islam across the same region,
and enabled Genghis Khan to sweep through several centuries after
Effective military use of horses was a defining trait of most
dominant cultures from the dawn of recorded history until the
annihilation of the Polish cavalry by Nazi tanks in 1939.
Not surprisingly, horses were elevated into the pantheons of
most polytheistic cultures. Greek mythology, for instance,
features Pegasus, a winged horse who was the son of Medusa and
Poseidon. Poseidon, the sea god, had a chariot drawn by a
hippocamp, described as “a seahorse-like creature with the head and
forelegs of a horse and the body of a fish.”
The Industrial Revolution eventually replaced horses with
machines, whose output is still measured in terms of “horsepower.”
Yet the Industrial Revolution could not have occurred without the
contributions of the horses, donkeys, and mules who worked in
mines, in agriculture, and in transport.
Much of the same history is covered, in more detail, in
Horse, by Elaine Walker, who lectures in English and creative
writing at the University of Wales. Walker also reviews the
evolution of horses from Eohippus to domestication, offering
sketches of what ancient horses might have looked like. Walker cites
the Shetland pony, the English thoroughbred, and the Appaloosa as
examples of very different horses bred to fit divergent human needs.
As well as discussing Pegasus, Walker mentions the horses
featured in Canterbury Tales and 1001 Arabian Nights. The Celtic
goddess Epona is associated with horses, and at the opposite end of
the Eurasian continent, horses are prominent in the mythology of
The earliest known images of domesticated horses, produced
around 2,000 B.C., show them pulling war chariots. Like Whitaker
and Whitelaw, Walker describes the use of horses by Alexander and
Genghis Khan. Walker also reviews the use of horses in the Crusades
and in the U.S. west.
Only humans are known to have died at war in greater numbers
than horses. 18,000 to 43,000 horses died from wounds, hunger, or
bad weather in the War of 1812 alone. The toll in some individual
battles in the U.S. Civil War and World War I may have been even
Working equines are still in the line of fire in Afghanistan,
and are sometimes loaded as walking bombs in the Middle East.
Walker goes on to discuss the roles of horses in books,
television, and films.
As valuable as horses have been to humanity, they are often
severely abused. The earliest humane societies sought to prohibit
flogging horses. Their efforts were supported by authors William
Hogarth and John Hawkesworth, among others. Yet horse protection
gained momentum as a cause only after the 1877 publication of Anna
Sewell’s enduringly popular book Black Beauty.
Walker unfortunately neglects the exploitation of racehorses,
many of whom end up in slaughterhouses. She omits mention of the
surplus wild horses in custody of the Bureau of Land Management:
more live in government corrals, after decades of ill-advised
roundups, than remain on the range. But these are not situations
without parallel. Horses are exploited and neglected all over the
world, especially in regions afflicted by war and famine, like
Darfur, and in nations such as Romania and Albania, which are still
transitioning from reliance on horses to mechanization.
While Walker provides more historical and cultural context
about horses, Whitaker and Whitelaw take a practical turn,
describing horse anatomy and basic terminology.
Body language, Whitaker and Whitlaw say, reveals much about
a horse’s moods and intentions.
“An annoyed horse will screw up his nose in disgust,”
explain Whitaker and Whitelaw. An angry horse will “pin the ears back
flat against the neck.” If you see a horse swishing her tail from
side to side, that too is a sign of annoyance.
Horses are beautiful animals, but if approached the wrong
way they can bite or kick. Even now, when little human contact with
horses occurs unawares, only dogs and fellow humans more often break
Like Walker, Whitaker and Whitelaw discuss the use of horses
in entertainment, including racing and screen work. Their chapter
about horse racing thoroughly explains the origins of racing,
introduces famous jockeys and racehorses, and profiles notable races
such as the Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby. Also like Walker,
unfortunately, Whitaker and Whitlaw do not mention the contentious
side of racing.
Anyone thinking of adopting or buying a horse should first
read the Whitaker and Whitlaw chapter about keeping horses. If you
can’t afford every item they list, horsekeeping is probably not for
you. Besides a clean, ventilated, well-maintained barn, a horse
requires bedding, shoes, grooming, access to fresh water, good
quality hay and fresh grass, and apples and carrots. If horses are
to be taken anywhere, a horse keeper will need a trailer and a
vehicle large enough to tow it.
Whitaker and Whitelaw end with a chapter on horse health
care, including equine first aid. — Debra J. White