Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stephen Budiansky "The Nature of Horses"

"The Nature of Horses: their evolution, intelligence & behaviour"

Just like his books on cats and dogs, Budiansky’s “The Nature of Horses” follows the same path: it explores their evolution, intelligence and behaviour (hey, just like it says in the sub-title!).

As with his previous books I was more interested in the natural history and the history of domestication, and somewhat bored by the chapters on intelligence testing. The physiology part didn’t much stir me either. Now, the thing is, I don’t know how much of it is related to my personal history with horses which is exactly…non-existent.

I think I’ve ridden a horse the grand total of…once. It seemed incredibly tall (and I’m not crazy about heights) and impossible to control.

But like everyone else I was not immune to the cultural image of the horse, having grown up reading a lot of cowboy themed comics and watching them portrayed in television and film as ultimate symbols of freedom, beauty and grace.

I have toyed with the idea of horse-riding lessons a couple of times and at the same time it always seemed like such an exploitative past-time (and watching a bunch of kids taking classes didn’t much help either – poor ponies). The bit, in particular, has always seemed like an incredibly cruel gadget.

In this sense, Budiansky didn’t exactly put my fears at ease. The “domestication” of horses was brutal business and most ancient riding gear worked by enforcing physical pain. Not for nothing each horse, even today, must be “broken” before it can be ridden. Horses are not born with a wish to carry us on their backs, but they are born social animals that respond to hierarchy and are good at learning. Of these natural inclinations, humans have been able to extract great advantages.

Another thing I’ve always disliked about equestrianism is that it is the domain of the wealthy. Of course it is, Budiansky explains, and has always been. Horses have, from the first connections with man, been tied both with war and wealth – symbols of power, dominance and status, a connection deepened with the establishment of the first equestrian games.

It all made me feel somewhat sorry for horses, forced to go to war for millennia, then to carry unbearable loads and finally unbearable brats. And made to play polo and race…uhg it’s too sad. I hereby foreswear horse riding forever.


Jeane said...

I've always loved horses, but gone riding I think twice in my whole life- the slow plodding trail ride kind of events. It seems like a pastime I could never really be involved in because, like you say, horses are pretty much something the wealthy enjoy. There is a new movement of teaching horses to accept riders without using force methods or breaking their spirits. Have you heard of Monty Roberts or read his book The Man Who Listens to Horses? It's amazing.

bookworm (inês) said...

I actually spent time at a farm last summer where they use his methods (there were even a couple of his books there but, alas, in German). But whenever I came across a horse in the field I went the long way around. They are beautiful but definitely imposing...