A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I would never have chosen this book to read without prompting. I’ve never ridden a horse (the nearest I’ve been to that is a donkey ride at the seaside when I was a child). Horses for me are the great self-fulfilling prophecy: it’s said they can sense when you’re frightened of them. I’m frightened of them, and so when they snort and stamp I think – QED. But they are beautiful creatures to view from a safe distance, and I hugely admire those who can forge a working relationship with them.
The desire to read this book stole over me when I heard excerpts, read beautifully by Iain Glen, on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. In five 15 minute slots it was possible only to get the flavour of a book that answered so many questions that I never knew I’d asked about the relationship between human and horse. Ulrich Raulff’s wide ranging cultural history has been a huge success in Germany, and is now translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. Its thesis is that the relationship between man (mostly, and he discusses this) and horse which has lasted for at least 5000 years, reached its point of culmination in the last century and is now essentially over.
His starting point is his memory of growing up in the fifties, and seeing the last days of horses working on the land. They had already been replaced on the roads by mechanised transport. I too grew up in fifties in the English countryside, and my recollection is that here that process was complete – in North West Germany it must have taken a little longer. By then numbers of horses in Germany had collapsed after the Second World War from millions to less than a quarter of a million, and it had started its new life with humans as a companion and recreational animal.
The book is a wide ranging cultural history of the horse, mostly but not exclusively set in Western society, covering its place in art and iconography, literature, mythology, sexuality, the subconscious, and its place as the engine of everyday life, until steam and internal combustion suddenly overthrew it. My attention was first caught by what I did not know about the last days of the horse in the 20th century. If my assumptions were tested, I’d say from the tragic images of the First World War that it was the last time horses had figured in war – yet I now know that twice as many horses took part in, and died, in the Second World War – mostly on the Eastern Front, where terrain made mechanised warfare ineffective. Not ‘our’ war, so I needed to be told this.
Raulff introduces us to the concept of ‘centaurism’ – the compound figure of man and horse, going to war as cavalry, working the land, travelling from home to explore and trade. The primary figure on the human side is a man – women could ride, be driven or even drive – but they did not regularly breed, buy, care for or doctor horses, nor did they ride them to war – the stables were a man’s world. So their primary relationship with horses, he contends, has developed since the new life we have with them as companions and partners in recreation. Though in one of my favourite chapters he explores the role of the horse and the carriage in the tragic literary lives of Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Effi Briest.
As well as immensely moving writing on the horse in wartime, and the persistence of belief in cavalry as the vector for true heroism even after its cruel futility was clear, Raulff writes on the symbolism of the Leader, King or General, on horseback, showing his power thereby, even his simple height above others. He explores at length the iconography of equestrian statues, and paintings, especially David’s seminal portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps. He also explores other phenomena of essential ‘centaurism’, such as the place of the horse in the ‘Wild West’, in reality and on screen.
Other fascinating and wholly unexpected areas of interest are the growth of expertise around horses, the riding school and the riding master, the anatomists and horse doctors, the literature of horse knowledge, and even the philology of horses and the significance of their names. There is an essay on connoisseurship of horseflesh, and its inevitable flip-side, dodgy horse-dealing. It is salutary that the starting point for the author is located in Germany, and therefore a new cultural reference point, from which he explores the English contribution to the horse world – racing and bloodstock, and the concept of bloodlines (he points out that in England horses led people in the passion for lineage, with the Stud Book preceding Burke’s Peerage by some years).
But overwhelmingly my feeling in reading this book is of the pathos and tragic potential of our history with the horse. The relationship is as close as can be, but the dominant partner is man. Horses regularly outlived their usefulness, and became subject to cruelty, or neglect. Only a few retired with honour. In both of the 20th century world wars their death tolls exceeded those of serving soldiers. The end of our close relationship of co-dependency with the horse brought about a growing sense of the need for compassion in our relationship with the horse (Nietzsche proverbially was known to have cradled a fallen horse in the street, calling him ‘my brother’) and a movement against cruelty to animals.
If I listed all the insights and lightbulb moments this book contained for me, I, and you, would be here all day. It is long and intense, and its breadth and depth are breathtaking. I will probably still never ride a horse, and my fear will still put a distance between me and them, but my admiration and respect are reinforced.
I’ve been reading this on a holiday when I’ve had to travel light, so have brought the Kindle version with me. I shall have to buy the book though, as the frustration of navigating to access the illustrations only to find them tiny and indistinct (though not so as to disguise the fact that some of them are upsetting and gruesome), as well as flipping to the notes and contents pages, has been a nuisance. But I love the book, and have learnt from it so much, that the double purchase is worth it.
Ulrich Raulff: Farewell to the Horse. The Final Century of Our Relationship. London: Allen Lane, 2017. 464pp
VULPES LIBRIS has moved to Facebook.