Synopses & Reviews
Chapter OneHeavenly Horses
"And, behold, a pale horse, and he that sat upon him,
his name was Death.
Book of the Apocalypse
"We had no word for the strange animal we got
from the white man -- the horse. So we called it
sunka wakan, "holy dog."
Lame Deer, Sioux medecine man, in
"Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions"What's bred in the bone will not out of the flesh," a thirteenth-century proverb has it. In at least some of us, the love of horses is indeed bred in the bone -- an ancestral seed seemingly passed on from generation to generation, as genuine as blood marrow, as clear to the eye as an insect locked in amber.In a family, even one living in the tangle of a city, far from stables and pastures, a particular daughter or son may simply, inexplicably, be born with a longing for horses. Poll any classroom, urban or rural, and ask children to name their favorite animal: bet on the horse coming out on top.A horsewoman I know "rode" brooms as a toddler; Ian Millar, later a world champion equestrian, "rode" his piano bench as a boy. Growing up in Ottawa, Ontario, young Millar watched desperately for rent-a-ponies in the neighborhood and followed westerns like a hound on a trail. Maxine Kumin, the poet, seems also to have been born horse-mad, and as a child would give camp blankets and lumps of sugar to passing cart horses in her suburban Philadelphia neighborhood. She prayed for, "lobbied mightily for," a pony.I stand in awe of that intrinsic drive and I wonder: Where does horse fever come from? How far back can we trace its roots? The literature on myths and legends suggests that our memory of horses is of a collective, almost universal, sort.Customs among horse cultures wererich and varied, but the similarities were sometimes striking. Plains Indian tribes were true masters of the horse, and among the Crow, for example, horse and rider were so much considered as one entity that a warrior would strike a man's horse in the face to insult the owner. Is it pure coincidence that among the Siberian Kirghiz, a continent and centuries away, to strike another man's horse or even to speak harshly to the horse, was akin to insulting the owner?Few societies have failed to be touched in some way by the horse. Early humans formed horse cults, created complex cosmologies with winged horses, explained the rising and setting of the sun as the work of heavenly horses pulling the orb across the sky. All over the ancient world, the horse figured almost as much in human consciousness as the sun itself.It was believed that in the afterlife horses, too, would be resurrected, some wearing the gold-plated girths, richly embroidered saddle cloths and bronze tall rings they had been buried with, standing in their graves as if ready for one last, glorious ride.In Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses, a veteran of cavalry wars opines on the nature of horses -- how "the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose," how horses love war and have no need of heaven. And when the old Mexican is asked what would happen to horses' souls were horses to disappear from the face of the earth, he assures that "God would not permit such a thing."Such confidence in the future of horses can only come from exceedingly deep roots -- the oral traditions and ancient mythologies that were the precursors to our literature. There, the horse loomed large.Always were, McCarthy'ssage seems to say of horses, always will be.It was long thought that the first rider mounted a horse some four thousand years ago, but recent discoveries keep pushing that moment further and further back into the recesses of time.During the 1960s, a horse-head carving -- with engraved lines that could be a halter -- was found in southwest France in a cave known as La Marche. The carving is up to fifteen thousand years old. "Upper Palaeolithic people," says paleontologist Paul Bahn, "were of exactly the same intelligence as we are. You'd expect that it would dawn on them that they might be able to do more with horses than simply throw a spear at them when they were feeling hungry." The image of Ice Age people "galloping across the chilly grasslands of Europe" might conflict with our preconceptions, says his colleague Richard Leakey, but may well be accurate.And what to make of thirty-thousand-year-old horse teeth that show evidence of crib biting -- the habit of biting on hard objects that only corralled or tethered horses engage in? Did confined horses serve as pets, as decoys, or as a ready source of fresh meat? And when did that first courageous human ride the first horse? Teeth, it turns out, may offer the best evidence for dating the elusive moment when "Homo erectus became "Homo equestris.In December, 1991, "Scientific American featured an article by an American-Russian team of two anthropologists and one archeologist who argued from their own field research on the steppes of Russia that humans rode horses at least six thousand years ago. Like forensic scientists probing dental records to identify a murder victim, the scientists scrutinized, even X-rayed, horse teeth found in aburial site.Over time, horses accustomed to wearing a bit sustain subtle damage to their teeth, quite apart from natural occlusion. The two kinds of dental erosion are clearly distinguishable under a scanning electron microscope. The scientists were thus able to buttress their claim that riding predates even the invention of the wheel by at least five hundred years.As described in the "Scientific American article, excavation at the burial site uncovered a seven-year-old stallion who bore telltale marks on his teeth: the beveling, the scarring of the enamel, the cracks and their location...
The human love affair with horses is an ancient and far-reaching one. Moving effortlessly from history to literature, from science to sport, from anecdote to personal experience, Lawrence Scanlan sets out to discover the essence of our powerful, almost mystical attraction to this noble creature. Scanlan covers a wide territory: from the mythic horses of cultures long past to the real-life whisperers of today, to the timeless wild mustangs still roaming the Great Plains.
As he touches on each aspect of the equine-human bond, Scanlan makes perfect sense of "horse fever" -- that curious affliction that has been known to strike both the seasoned professional and the rider who has galloped only in his or her dreams. Written in lyrical prose with wit, humor, and an eye for drama, meticulously researched and complemented by fifty compelling black-and-white photographs, Wild About Horses addresses our need to know everything we can about the horse.
About the Author
Lawrence Scanlan is the author of two bestselling books about horses: Riding High and Big Ben, both published in Canada. He also collaborated with Monty Roberts in writing The Man Who Listens to Horses. The recipient of numerous writing prizes, including three National Magazine Awards, he lives in Kingston, Ontario, with his wife, son, and dog.