Why the age of the horse will never be over – book review

Paintings of horses in the Chauvet Cave in France
Paintings of horses in the Chauvet Cave in France Credit: PA

 Patrick Berners is captivated by a chronicle of man's long and inconsistent relationship with a noble animal

One of the first talking horses in literature, in fragments of Babylonian cuneiform, says proudly: “My flesh is not eaten.” Instead, he is a warhorse, “glorious in battle”. In contrast, the economy of the Copper Age Botai villages, on the banks of the Urals, was based almost entirely on horsemeat, horse milk and horse bones. “Over 90 per cent of the bones found at their scattered sites were equine,” writes Susanna Forrest. Their roofs were thatched with horse dung, and horse grease is to be found in their cooking pots. One man’s warhorse is another man’s general store.

Forrest describes this book as a “wander down six bridle roads” – thematic chapters – rather than a straightforward history, which, given that her subject is the 1.8 million-year-old relationship between two species across six continents, seems a sensible option. Inevitably, it is a nebulous and divergent story, but extremely pleasant to read, mixing anecdotal and historical evidence with the odd interview.

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, circa 1762 Credit: Peter Barritt/Alamy

For instance, when she considers the different aims that horse-trainers throughout the ages have had, she discusses the ancient Greek general Xenophon as well as Pluvinel (1552-1620), who taught Louis XIII to ride. But she also interviews the team of the modern-day French trainer and choreographer Bartabas, who has appeared as a centaur (helped by a live horse) at Sadler’s Wells.

Horses can be less expensive and more environmentally friendly than tractors, and just as productive

Pluvinel believed that perfecting one’s control of a horse’s movements required “patience, resolution, gentleness and force”. From it, a young aristocrat would learn how to deal with his people. The contemporary poet Ronsard obviously agreed, suggesting that noble riders should be able to render their people “as easy as their horses are docile under the bit”.

The purpose of the ancient Greek general Xenophon’s equestrian training, on the other hand, was purely military glory. Bartabas, though, believes that the “performances he coaxes from his horses fulfil no other function than to celebrate the horse itself”. From the tool of Xenophon, to the quasi-subject of Pluvinel, to the colleague of Bartabas, horses have been perceived in different ways, and Forrest deftly uses this to explore the character of the societies involved.

One society’s workhorse can also be another’s pedigree. “These animals, in beauty, stature and disposition, surpass the horses of every city and country in the world … Unable to bestow upon them in writing the praises that they merit, I am compelled to throw the reins on the neck of the steed of description and relinquish the pursuit,” wrote Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Punjab in 1831 to the Governor of India, thanking him for the present of four English horses. These weren’t thoroughbred hunters, or cavalry horses, but four enormous drays. The stallion “even on the short rations and vicissitudes of travel, weighed nearly 2,000lb”.

They were intended only to impress the Maharaja with their size, which obviously succeeded, but what the Maharaja didn’t recognise was the economic power that the drays represented. From the 18th century until the middle of the 20th, horsepower was an essential part of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. In the 1900s, one inventor sought a patent for a steam tram that was designed to look like a horse-drawn tram, so as “not to frighten the horses, which he clearly could not imagine disappearing from the streets”.

Although one might think that the horse’s economic importance dwindled with the advent of steam engines, in fact it was at the end of the 19th century that the horse’s impact on Britain was most pronounced, when the food they required was the equivalent of all the wheat harvested in Britain at the time.

Even now that we’ve almost forgotten why we measure car engines in horsepower, do they still have an economic part to play? One of the most interesting groups that Forrest meets are the organisers of Horse Progress Days, who believe that “it’s disrespectful to throw away thousands of years of expertise for 75 years of fossil fuel”. They point out that, on smaller farms, horses can be less expensive and more environmentally friendly than tractors, and just as productive.

In the Eighties, farms run by the Plain Folk of Iowa harvested as much corn per acre as their industrial equivalents, for a third of the running costs. That this argument can be put so forcefully is surprising but less so when you consider that at the time, local authorities in Britain were still using horses as a cheaper alternative to lorries, mowing football pitches (Dartford), collecting rubbish (Manchester), and harrowing public parks (Glasgow).

The horse has been used as a tool, but it is also a potent symbol of wealth. Throughout China’s history, it has been impossible to breed and maintain a population of horses large enough to defend the hinterland from the barbarian invaders from the Mongolian plain, for whom horse-breeding was easy. For a long time after the Mongol invasion, Chinese aristocrats condemned horse culture as being “perfumed by a stench of mutton”, but were forced to accept it as a military necessity, exporting millions of bolts of silk for thousands of horses. In modern China, snobbery has been replaced by what Forrest calls the “knight dream”, a passion for horse riding which represents hard earned wealth and hard learnt skill to the burgeoning class of rich Chinese, who don’t want to be known just as tuhao, or nouveau riche.

As she attends Chinese polo matches sponsored by Swiss watch manufacturers, or scans the Wyoming wilderness for “dawn horses”, one can’t help agreeing wholeheartedly with Forrest, that “every time the age of the horse is said to be over, a new use is found for Equus caballus”.

"The Age of the Horse" (Atlantic) by Susanna Forrest is available from Telegraph Bookshop