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No More Horsing Around

By: Michael Taube
December 31, 2018

he important relationship between humans and horses has helped shape a significant portion of world history. Horses have served our civilization in many unique ways; they have provided labor and transportation; carried troops and supplies for the military, while also providing strategic advantages; and been raced and ridden for our sports and entertainment. The family horse was often treated as a member of the family, lovingly fed carrots and apples by young children, and ridden merrily along the lush, grassy plains in our rural communities.

(There have also been a few unusual examples of friendship, including TV’s Mister Ed and Wilbur Post. Yet, it’s still not wrong to say, “a horse is a horse, of course, of course.”)

Our world, however, has dramatically changed. Scientific and technological advances since the end of the nineteenth century have gradually rendered the noble steed, who faithfully served pauper and king alike for centuries, closer to the green pastures of retirement.

Ulrich Raulff was determined not to let this relationship disappear into the sands of time without one last, mighty neigh. The historian’s impressive book, Farewell to the Horse: A Cultural History, which covers several centuries of human and horses in concert, was published in Germany to wide acclaim in 2015 and released in the U.S. earlier this year.

To call this massive book a triumph would be an understatement. Many books have already been written about the relationship between horses and humans and on the horse’s role in cities, towns, villages, and farms. And, as Raulff pointed out, the psychologist Alexander Mitscherlich wrote a “farewell ode to the old equine world” in his 1935 book Das Reiterbuch (or Rider Book).

But no one has put it all together quite like this. Largely, Raulff’s ambition is due to his interest in using art, architecture, and literature as primary sources and bringing to light real stories involving farmers, country doctors, and soldiers. He occasionally mentions this is likely the “last century of the horse,” but he also points out the horse “is not la part maudite of history, a page ripped out and crumpled up; it is simply a forgotten element.”

And, like any good historian, he wants us to always remember every step, morsel, nugget—and, in this case, hoof print.

In one chapter, Raulff notes that “[a]s early as the mid-eighteenth century, Paris was the horse capital.” There were reportedly 80,000 horses in the great French city in 1880, and nearly 3 million well into the First World War. To many Parisians, the horse “represented the economic means and the energy required for everything that Paris had on show, everything that made the world marvel, from the new forms of symbolic politics and real warfare, the exercise of cultural hegemony, the rapid circulation of money, goods and news, the spread of the arts and fashion, to the ostentatious display of wealth and a certain savour vivre.”

Many nineteenth century North American and European cities also used horses for everything from the arts to the military. In fact, those based in the city “essentially served two main purposes: the conveyance of goods and of passengers.” Long before the advent of the car, bus, and streetcar, a horse-drawn omnibus (or horse-bus) was used as a means of private and public transportation. Some of its earliest practitioners included British coachbuilder George Shillibeer, businessman Thomas Tilling, and the now-defunct London General Omnibus Company.  

Nevertheless, western society gradually began to realize that “horse-powered energy was more expensive than that generated by electricity or internal combustion engines.” The rise and fall of what Raulff called the “oat-powered engine,” or what the equine consumed on a daily basis, is fully understandable. The early machines could be unreliable, but they were sturdier, faster, performed better, and ultimately kept costs down by transporting more people and goods on a smaller number of trips. The horse, which was able to exist in the countryside and “dine and lodge at less expense” for farmers, was a more expensive commodity in the cities for individuals and businesses.

Technological marvels like automobiles, buses, streetcars, and trains therefore replaced the horse in the cityscape. The machine was mightier than the four-legged beast, indeed. 

In the country, the same scenario began to play out. The advent of the tractor reduced the need for the horse to tend the rural lands of the farming community. (The mechanical powerhouse handled the mud and weather conditions far better, too.) Even the country doctor, the “unsung hero” immortalized by Honoré de Balzac and Franz Kafka, fell into this equation. The rural medical practitioners, who were understood to have “a throughly equestrian, as it were centaurian existence” riding a one-horse carriage, eventually became “one of the first intensive users of the fledgling automobile.”

There was simply no way to avoid progress and our world’s need for faster and more efficient transportation and labor. But in spite of all this, Farewell to the Horse includes some intriguing and obscure stories and historical accounts. Horses played a significant role in various wars and military skirmishes, for instance, but the rarely-discussed allusion of their scattered carcasses on the battlefield left a profound effect on everyone from soldiers to young children. In particular, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński wrote this haunting sentence in his memoirs: “I don’t see dead people anywhere, because they are buried straight away; just everywhere I look I see the carcasses of horses—blacks, bays, piebalds, pintos, chestnuts—as if this weren’t a war of the people, but of horses, as though it were these animals who were fighting a battle of life and death, as though they were the only victims of the war.” Indeed, Raulff mentions that half of the estimated 16 million horses “deployed by all parties in the First World War…met their death before the end of the war,” including 68 percent on the German side. The graphic photos that accompany this chapter must be seen to be believed.

Several sections also deal with Jews and horses.

There’s a memorable Seinfeld skit in which Jerry makes an offhand remark that he hated anyone who had a pony while growing up, not knowing his second cousin, Manya, had one as a child in Poland. She left the dinner table in anger, and Jerry tried to defend himself by saying, “Who figures an immigrant’s going to have a pony? Do you know what the odds are on that?” Higher than most of us would have assumed, actually. Many Jews grew up raising and riding horses on ranches. According to Raulff, “[w]hat is less known is that Jews also played a decisive role in the translation of Spanish equine knowledge into the technological culture of indigenous North America; not just the first ranchers of the New World, they were also the first cowboys in America.”

Meanwhile, the book has some scintillating in-depth analysis of horses in paintings, literature, cinematic productions, and glorious statues. There are references and/or discussions of Dutch Master Rembrandt van Rijn’s brilliant The Polish Rider (1653), the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin’s Battle of the Centaurs (1873) and The Centaur at the Village Blacksmith’s Shop (1888), Edgar Degas’s The Injured Jockey (1896-1898), and even a brief appearance of a Frederic Remington painting in a Lucky Luke comic strip panel. Horses appear in ads, on race tracks, for research purposes, in images and paintings with Napoleon Bonaparte, and in a photo during President John F. Kennedy’s moving funeral procession. 

For more than six thousand years, the equine has trotted, galloped, fought, and stood alongside mankind. Much of this is likely related to the formula that “the animal’s symbolic value corresponds with its practical use.” In other words, “the horse has tended to be both a functional creature and a living metaphor in the same breath…There has never been a need for the symbol of hegemony to switch saddles; the horse is by nature, as it were, the absolute political metaphor.” So, while we may have to say farewell to the horse before long, Ulrich Raulff’s seminal work has ensured we won’t ever have to permanently say goodbye.