Book Review: The Horse--The Epic History of Our Noble Companion

Wendy Williams takes on a daunting task--to explore 56 million years of horse history and show how the human-equine bond has evolved.
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Wendy Williams takes on a daunting task--to explore 56 million years of horse history and show how the human-equine bond has evolved.
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The author gives us a perfect preview of the story to come in her prologue: “The Horse is a scientific travelogue, a biography of the horse and a worldwide investigation into the bond that unites horses and humans.” The star of that prologue is Whisper, a half-Morgan backyard horse that taught Williams a thing or two about equine cleverness and human misconceptions. The little horse no doubt planted the seed of curiosity that eventually led the author to write this book.

It was an ambitious undertaking, charting the history of a creature that first appeared about 56 million years ago and gradually evolved into a treasured partner in sports, work and life. But Williams does it well.

In pursuit of the “big picture” of horse evolution and the development of horses’ relationship with humans, Williams scoured locations near and far, meeting with scientists and horse people in Royal, Nebraska, and Swaziland, Africa--and 26 destinations in between. That’s where the “travelogue” aspect of the book comes in.

Along the way the author gathered fascinating details that she has woven into the tale of an unforgettable (and yes, “epic”) journey of discovery.

For instance, there are free-roaming horses--the Garranos of northwestern Spain—that have grown mustaches to protect their upper lips from the spikey gorse they eat. And there are wild horses on Canada’s remote Sable Island that weather North Atlantic storms and thrive on sea grass and beach peas. Did you know there are Siberian horses near the Arctic Circle that semi-hibernate? They fill up on steppe grasses during the summer in preparation for winter, when they slow down their breathing and avoid exertion so they can survive on their store of fat.

At every destination Williams meets with scientists and paleontology experts and visits places key to the equine realm, gathering insights that she shares in language meant for her fellow horsemen. This excerpt is a good example of the author’s easy style and the wealth of information in the book.

Horses are the stars of Ice Age art. Indeed, horses are the most frequently represented animal in the twenty-thousand-year period that preceded the advent of farming and what we call civilization. At Abri de Cap Blanc in France, a fifteen-thousand-year-old rock overhang under which people lived, a nearly life-size bas-relief of horses was carved into the rock wall that served as a backdrop for day-to-day family life. When I visited this site, the stone carving reminded me of kitchen art—something to ponder while you stir the soup—yet the Cap Blanc horses are as vivid as any created by Leonardo da Vinci. They seem to come alive and jump out of the rock when light flickers over them.

Hundreds of miles west of Cap Blanc, in the caves of the Spanish north coast, sensitively drawn ponies frolic on the walls with joy and abandon. Thousands of miles east, in Russia’s Ural Mountains, horses sketched in red ocher grace the walls of Kapova Cave. On the walls of Chauvet Cave in southern France, painted horses stand in small groups, watching the wildlife around them, including lions prowling nearby. Some Chauvet horses graze while others keep watch. Elsewhere in the cave, a timid horse peeks out from behind a rock. What is he afraid of? The hunting lions? A powerful stallion? Ice Age artists seemed to know everything about horses. Until Leonardo came along and actually studied the horse’s anatomy, no other artists equaled these Pleistocene virtuosos in their portrayal of what it was like to be a horse. To me, these first-known, highly accomplished artists are also the world’s first animal behaviorists. They must have spent hours and days and months and years just watching. They understood horses’ facial expressions, how their nostrils flared when they were frightened, how their ears betrayed their inner emotions, how they sometimes stood together in small bands, and how, sometimes, they would wander alone and seem rather forlorn. From this art, we know that long before horses became our tools, long before the bit and the bridle were invented, we Homo sapiens adored watching wild horses.

Sadly, though, in the modern world, this has become something of a lost art. While we enjoy seeing free-roaming horses, few of us sit quietly and study them in depth. Consequently, we suffer from lack of context. We see what the horse is doing, but we don’t always know why he’s doing it. We know little about how horses really behave when they’re out of our sight. We see horses standing in our barns and pastures and mistakenly assume that what we see is the essence of ‘horse.’ I’ve always thought this rather strange.”

Reading The Horse:The Epic History of Our Noble Companion, by Wendy Williams, will no doubt cause you to look at horses (including your own) in a whole new way. Order the 320-page hardback for $26 plus shipping and handling from the Equine Network Store.