Book review - Horses we think we know

Posted on: 21 October 2011 by Alexander Hay

Two very different books explore the complex nature of horses, and sheds unforgiving light on the humans who idolise and betray them.

Warrior - the horse the Germans could not kill

Humanity's relationship with horses is complex and contradictory. We have ridden them to war and crossed continents on their backs. We treat them like people, and celebrity athletes, recognising a personality and consciousness that is not like our own, but still there.

For all this closeness and near-admission to Club Sapience, horses are still put down, abused, starved or killed and eaten for the sake of convenience, their personage only recognised so far.

But the relationship is intense for all its contradictions. They are, after all, said to be the only animals other than humans with a sense of humour. Having been domesticated for 6000 years, they probably need one.

This complicated, blurred relationship is epitomised by two new books, both of which embody our uneasy relationship with the nags.

Neigh, neigh and thrice neigh!The first of these, 'Deadly Equines - The Shocking True Story of Meat-Eating and Murderous Horses', sounds absurd - a joke at the reader's expense - until you realise that what is being challenged is our own limited understanding of these creatures. In part this is due to the evidence the book provides. The historical record is full of shockingly vicious horses that killed and maimed in a way that would probably bar them from most pony clubs. There are incidences of horses quite happily eating everything from rabbit to whale to tiger, with human and hamster thrown in for good measure.

Elsewhere, meat eating horses were used to explore the Arctic Circle, while feral 'mustang' horses from the American west were renowned for their vicious natures. A Tibet-Indian pony express was quite literally fuelled by sheep’s blood, and natural selection gifted horses with the ability to digest food no cattle could manage during times of famine - not coincidentally, the enzyme in question can also digest meat.

The book also makes some serious points about our relationship with animals. The author, CuChullaine O'Reilly, argues our risk-averse, nature alienated society falls back on sentimental, naive understandings of the natural world because we are cut off from its brutal reality, and the book is scathing of the veterinary profession, media and 'horse whisperers' who encourage us to remain in Bambi-esque ignorant bliss.

Naturally, this is a rather eccentric book by definition, written as journalism rather than academic study. (Even though the book deserves a wide audience and the matter certainly deserves a lot of serious research.) A bibliography would have been helpful too, and there is no broader exploration into how humans have changed horses to suit their often violent purposes or the nature of human-equine abuse, such as the phenomenon of 'horse ripping'. But it is an important introduction into a much ignored area, and also reminds us that these contrary, social, temperamental, omnivorous animals are actually more like us than we'd like to admit.

Horses for coursesA completely different perspective on horses is provided by 'Warrior: The Amazing Story of a Real War Horse', a war memoir about a horse of the same name who somehow survived World War One and lived to see old age.

Written by politician Jack Seely, who rode the horse into the Western Front, and illustrated by horse artist Alfred Munnings, it reads and feels much like an official biography of a human war hero, the only difference being Warrior's equine nature and his role as cavalry horse rather than cavalryman. Seely wrote of his steed like he was a soldier, getting psyched up for battles and deploring the long unending tedium in-between; a complex, thinking protagonist rather than a passive domestic animal.

This adulation had its limits however - unlike human war heroes, Warrior was put to sleep in 1941, getting both too old and too high maintenance for a rationed, warring nation to see him as anything other than a problem in need of solving, and a source of raw materials once he was dead, his owner too heartbroken to watch the slaughter-man finish his friend off. The animal had been put back in its place.

After all the personification, it was a low, mean-spirited thing to do. But then human nature had already shown its true colours - of the 1 million horses Britain sent to the front between 1914 and 1918, under 100,000 returned. Warrior's shabby end was par of the course for being at the mercy of humans whose cynicism outstripped their empathy with unerring regularity.

The book itself reads well for something first published in the 1930s, however, and makes you root for both man and horse, though its sometimes breezy and matter-of-fact tone might clash with many readers' sombre preconceptions of the Great War. While not great literature, it is entertaining and worthy of any horse lovers' interest.

What both books do, then, is surprisingly similar, making us reappraise our preconceptions of these animals but also providing them with a voice. They are also both unnerving, though for different reasons, perhaps because they remind us of our own base bestial natures as well as the strange human-like qualities of animals that we'd prefer not to notice.

Warrior: The Amazing Story of a Real War Horse and Deadly Equines: The Shocking True Story of Meat-Eating and Murderous Horses are both available in bookshops and on Amazon.

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Alexander Hay

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