Two new horse books

20 08 2006

Aren’t there an awful lot of general horse books out there? You know the sort: quick evolutionary overview, breeds of the world (the pictures never look right), this is a currycomb, how to buy your own horse (which you probably shouldn’t be doing if you need a book like this), depictions of horses in sport, war and art from around the world, etc. I sometimes wonder if there’s only one of these books and they just keep putting different illustrations in them; chain bookstores often seem to keep a perpetual stock of them on the sales tables. If you’re like me, you probably have at least half a dozen of these tomes, and it’s a joy to find something with interesting, original research and a fresh interpretation. Lawrence Scanlan, author of Little Horse of Iron and several other fine horsey books, has come to the rescue in the August 19 Globe and Mail, in which he reviews a couple of fascinating new releases.

Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations, by J. Edward Chamberlin, takes the reader through the evolution of the horse,as well as its adaptation to our culture (and vice versa). Most of the other reviews I’ve found suggest that this is a great general read, full of enough esoteric equine info to keep even the most jaded horse person enthralled; it’s already into its second printing, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

University of Guelph historian Margaret E. Derry takes a more academic approach in Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing Culture, 1800-1920. She examines the intersection of horse breeding and economic and social philosophy, including Darwinism, capitalism, and Mendelism.

An excerpt from Scanlan’s review:

Horses in Society chronicles a time when the bicycle and the car were considered passing fancies. Smart people argued that the horse — in transportation, war, agriculture, industry — would always have a future. Just 100 years ago, cars in Canada could legally go no faster than 15 miles an hour in the country and 10 miles an hour in the city. The law was meant to safeguard horses, riders and carriage drivers from “nuisance” cars.

Such a horse-centric world had a huge need for horses, but what kind? How big? The answers kept changing as soldiers, breeders, farmers, politicians and scientists all had their say. How do you protect a breed? If pink horses suddenly become fashionable, should breeders churn them out? Is a purebred better than a cross-bred, and can a studbook be trusted? As Derry writes, the circle kept turning. “What was quality, or purity, and how did pedigrees guarantee either?”

We are still asking these questions today, although I would argue that they are even more crucial considering the genetic bottleneck which plagues many modern breeds today (see my earlier screeds on this topic). Humans have been meddling with genes since we first began domesticating animals and plants, but it’s only recently that we’ve had the tools and the perspective to stop and think about what we’re doing and why, thanks to such giants of nineteenth-century science as Darwin and Mendel. “Breeding out the usefulness” (ahem) seems to be a fairly modern innovation; when horses are critical to your economy, military and trade, there’s more incentive to select for long-term soundness, stable temperament and all-round functionality. Now that horses are primarily a “leisure” activity (even racing exists primarily as entertainment, and as a magnet for gambling dollars) it’s far too tempting to think in the short term and focus on that which has only short-term value in meeting the fickle demands of competition. Considering their long and hallowed contribution to our civilization, horses deserve much, much better.

P.S.: I promise to shut up about breeding and genetics for a while…

Cartoon by T. McCracken

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