Farewell to the Horse: A Cultural History
by Ulrich Raulff
translated from the German by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
Ulrich Raulff's book Das letzte Jahrhundert der Pferde: Geschichte einer Trennung was published in Germany in 2015 to wide acclaim and appears now in an English translation by Ruth Azmedzai Kemp (and in a beautiful edition from Liveright) as Farewell to the Horse: A Cultural History, and although its scope is broad and sometimes thrilling – the long six-thousand-year history of the domesticated horse's presence in human history – its story is melancholy. “For most of recorded history horses had helped man defeat his most dangerous enemy: other men,” Raulff writes. “Now they were relegated to the edge of the road and to seeing their conqueror trundle off into the distance.” Six hundred years of gunpowder hadn't managed to dislodge the horse from the position of what Raulff calls “man's most important weapon of war,” but a mere century of mechanization has rendered the horse an anachronism in almost every theater of human endeavor. The hardy donkey and the specially adapted camel can still be found all over the world performing something like their traditional roles of servitude, but the horse – once ubiquitous in city and countryside, once indispensable in farming and war – has now been supplanted virtually everywhere by combustion engines and electric motors. For the first time in history, one of the staple animals of humankind is dropping out of the roster that has for millennia included pigs, chickens, cattle, cats, and camels.
Raulff doesn't spend much time dwelling on the future facing such a change; he doesn't need to, since that future is depressingly clear (humans don't free their slaves – they either use them or eat them). Instead, he concentrates on the stunning variety of that history. Even in translation (Kemp does a very smooth job with a very tangled and steeply intelligent original), Raulff does a masterful, sweeping job of dramatizing the many roles horses have played in the past as beasts of burden, machines of war, objects of poetic inspiration, and engines of transportation, commerce, and brute force. And since the book is liberally illustrated, one unavoidable aspect of all those roles (Raulff faces it squarely) is clear throughout: the horse's long enslavement has been one protracted and very nearly uninterrupted hell. Even in the 19th century, when societies for the preservation of animals were raising cultural awareness in the West about the suffering of domesticated animals, horses were routinely whipped to death on the streets of Boston, New York, London, and everywhere else – whipped to death by drivers incensed over their spouses or their children but having a rod in hand and a helpless slave in harness, whipped to death in front of dozens of onlookers, most of whom scarcely registered the sight, let alone objected.
There are familiar stories in these pages of warfare, from ancient times to the Napoleonic era, and there are many interesting tales of odd or unexpected roles horses have filled through the centuries. Raulff has read prodigiously on the subject and has clearly set himself the task of crafting an authoritative single-volume history along the lines of Wendy Williams' The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion or Susanna Forrest's The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History.
He closes his story by going back to the beginning, and it's a curiously comforting gesture:
Perhaps, after all, it is time to read Herodotus again. Hardly any other author of ancient literature has become as topical as the incomparable chronicler from Halicarnassus. No matter how far and wide the narrator of 'countless legends; travelled or how much he saw with his own eyes, whether he truly fact-checked his stories or simply made most of it up, he did at least – like very few who followed in his footsteps – raise his head above the parapet of all-too-human history.
Farewell to the Horse is necessarily a brutally sad story, despite the multifaceted affections humans have had for horses over the centuries. Mankind has made ruthless and relentless use of horses for thousands of years, whipping them, beating them, working them to exhaustion, and working them to death. The novelty of this servitude's end is that it's brought about by no liberator but rather by an accident that's fittingly pitiless: the spread of mechanized technology has made it possible for humans to discard the animal they for so long exploited. 21st century readers who don't exploit but rather love these magnificent creatures will find Raulff's book tough reading – and they're living in its unwritten epilogue.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.