Humans and horses have lived side by side for thousands of years, each changing the destiny of the other. Horses have pulled plows, hauled freight, taken people near and far. Horses brought Attila to the gates of Paris and Apache warriors to within sight of Mexico City; on the backs of horses, conquerors have swept across every corner of the earth. And where humans have fought, horses have surely suffered: As many horses as humans died in the four bloody years of World War I, mercilessly killed in battle and behind the lines.
Horses now live in a different world, having been supplanted a dozen decades ago by automobiles. Here and there they work as draft animals, but more often, in the developed countries of the world, they are pets, at least for a privileged few. As for the rest, historian and journalist Ulrich Raulff worries that in time people will scarcely recognize a horse or know the contributions Equus equus made to human civilization. “What remains,” he asks in his new book Farewell to the Horse: A Cultural History, “when the creeping amnesia of the virtual era deletes the traces of our former shared memory?”
Born five years after the end of World War II in what was then West Germany, Raulff grew up on a farm, always around animals. “If I look at pictures from my youth,” he tells Kirkus from his office in the small town of Marbach am Neckar, where he directs the German Literature Archive, “there are always horses in them. Horses’ tails, heads, hooves, horses in front or behind me—sometimes you don’t see me, just the horse, with my leg or hand sticking out. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t around horses, when horses weren’t important to me.”
Raulff can document a time, however, when horses became less important to humans than in ages preceding, and in Farewell to the Horse he charts a time corresponding to the end of what historians have called the “long nineteenth century.” Before that closing frame, in art and literature, humans and horses were closely connected: Think of all the equestrian statues and paintings in which horses figure, all the novels in which windswept heroines and world-weary warriors left the scene on horseback—and in which the image of an untamed horse was all that was needed to suggest tempestuous goings-on between human actors: Madame Bovary, Tess, Heathcliff.
“Years ago I was on a fellowship at the Getty in Los Angeles,” Raulff says, “and everywhere I looked there were horses in the art on display. Of course, then you go outside, and there are horses everywhere in America, even in Los Angeles. America is preeminently the land of the horse even today, though the age of the horse ended there, too, more than a century ago.” It was then that the idea for the book came to him, he recalls. He worked on it for years, researching and writing, labor that shows in its carefully constructed narrative of all the ways in which horses have figured in history.
“Horses have always been our closest partners,” says Raulff. “We had more than 6,000 years of that partnership, and it took us less than a century to lose it all. Because of my age, I got away from horses when I was 15, and I was mad about cars and motorcycles instead. I am still crazy about them, but now that I’m nearing retirement age, I am looking ahead into a quieter future in the countryside where animals can again take their place in my life.” That recapitulates the larger history of the horse, but Raulff sees a day when the automobile might fade away and the horse resume its place at our sides—and in the center of our consciousness. That, in his view, would be a very fine thing indeed.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.