An encyclopedic account of horses and those who love them, put them to work, and eat them.
“Any beginning in nature is arbitrary,” declares Berlin-based writer and editor Forrest by way of opening. She sets hers at 56 million years ago, when the first identifiable horselike creature hit the ground, one that might just as easily have been an early tapir or giraffe or even moose. “Dawn horses” had digits that morphed into hooves at about the time hominins entered the paleontological record, when horses became truly distinct from zebras and donkeys. From then on, the human-horse connection has been strong. Forrest is fascinated by these early appearances and especially by the discovery of atavistic horse strains that ran around in the remoter steppes of Russia and Central Asia. As she notes, one hybrid population, bred as warhorses, was devastated by, yes, war when the Russian civil war broke out in 1918. The author’s sprawling narrative takes in all manner of things, from Lord Byron’s championing of a certain “Tartar steed” to the Linnean taxonomy of horses, from wild horse legislation to Nazi breeding experiments. Sometimes the narrative can seem a little, well, arbitrary as Forrest works these diffuse matters to greater or lesser length. Some parts are a little underdone, while others flow nicely—her account of the development of Lipizzaner-like dancing horses is particularly strong—and still others go on a little too long, though not without some interest, such as her account of the horsemeat controversy that swept across the news a few years back, exposing Americans to the idea that some people actually ate horses, “the odd one out in the butcher’s canon of beef, pork, lamb, and poultry; the cheap, corrupt meat.” In the hands of a nimbler interpreter like Susan Orlean or Diane Ackerman, this material would have sprung to richer life.
The prose sometimes plods like a Clydesdale, but overall, the narrative is quite good, making a worthy addition to the equestrian library.