The Age of the Horse; An Equine Journey through Human History by Susanna Forrest. Grove Press, paper 2018.

The horse has been a remarkable companion throughout human history. Susanna Forest has celebrated that relationship, from the capture of wild horses on the dry Siberian landscape to the contemporary relegation of the horse to that of a pet. When the horse ran wild on that early environment, there were several horse species. The wild horses on our western plains are relatively recent, having been introduced by the Spaniards with their conquest of Mexico and Central America.

There is one species that remains a truly wild horse as opposed to domestic horses that have become wild, the Przewalski’s Horse. It was reintroduced into the steppes of Central Asia, but with little success.  The Przewalski’s Horse was last seen in the wild in 1966.

Horses also remain as a part of the sports world. That would include various forms of horse racing, including harness racing. Bull fighting is less than acceptable to many but the fancy of others. Polo is a horseback-mounted team sport and one of the world’s oldest sports. It remains a well-appreciated sport in South Asia. Riding schools and clubs are keeping Chinese horse enthusiasts in the saddle.

Horses remained an important source of military power until the mid-nineteenth century. Forrest tells us that the Germans rounded up 750,000 horses to power their invasion of Russia in June 1941– Operation Barbarossa. Those horses accompanied three million German and Allied soldiers. Barbarossa may prove to be the last horse-powered army. And certainly it involved the last cavalry charge.

For a time there was a considerable demand for horses for urban transport: First two-wheeled hansoms and then four-wheeled omnibuses. True, horse manure mixed with mud befouled our streets, but it might have been a better solution for supplying urban power than the coal- and oil-burning vehicles that replaced it.

City streets witnessed a lot of abuse of the horse. And that led to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Work remains, however.

Horsepower. The rate of power is given in terms of the horse; even steam engines, electrical motors, and automotive engines are rated in terms of a draft horse.

Horses have taken on the character of pet dogs and their numbers continue to grow. Susanna Forrest has us looking around for other instances horse survival. Circus performers, for example.

Circus horses were taught dances! But even that marginal use to entertain us has gone the way of the traveling circus. Buggy rides for tourists: Petting farms. Zoos. Clydesdales are still a part of many parades. Horses remain a prestigious animal to acquire, especially in China. Hence the world’s horse population may grow, along with the Chinese economy.  We – expensive automobiles, they – elaborately bedecked horses.

Mules and donkeys are relatives of the horse, and they held on longer in the world of advertising. Twenty mules pulled borax wagons out of the western dry lands. Borax was said to bring whiteness and color to the home washing machine. The Pony Express opened up cross-continental mail delivery. The TV show, Death Valley Days, among others kept the draft animal alive on television. And Forrest suggests that one third of the world’s beasts-of-burden are still horses.

Few of us eat horse meat and perhaps that is a major reason for the decline in numbers of horses. Probably one billion people eat horse meat. A lot of horse meat goes into the dogfood we feed to our most popular pet. Horsehair upholstery and leather belts continue. The age of the horse hangs on.

The old nag is generally “put out to pasture.” Halleluiah! The horse had not been treated well when working for mankind, so retirement is a likely improvement for our friend, the horse.

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