Horse: How the Horse has Changed Civilisations

J. Edward Chamberlin

Signal 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2013
Horse is an exultant paean to the emotional and spiritual relationship between humans and horses, dressed up as a history. It combines historical narrative with personal stories and dramatised reconstructions.

The opening chapter starts in America, with the origin of horses and an introduction to the Amerindian (Blackfoot) experience of horses; it also touches on horse breeds. Chamberlin then turns to horses as symbols of freedom and speed and to their domestication. He looks at the use of horses for transport and the mechanics and technology of riding: gaits, and saddles and stirrups and bits and bridles. A long chapter covers the use of horses in war, and also circus training and related activities. A quick survey touches on some of the great "horse cultures": Chinese, Mongolian, Islamic and Arabic, Greek, and so forth. And we end with the spirit of HORSE, as Chamberlin writes it, a combination of the civilized horse with the archetype of the gone-wild mustang or brumby.

Chamberlin is a professor of English and comparative literature rather than a historian. He writes at one point "the stories that scientists tell about horses are just as full of contradictions, and like the Blackfoot ones, they don't always agree with each other", but he doesn't make any attempt to convey the stories of palaeontologists or geneticists, instead dramatising a few events. And some of the history is a bit scatty. So we have

"The Aryan peoples packed up and spread from the steppes of southern Russia to India, to the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, and on to Europe."

which misleadingly suggests the Indo-Europeans reached Europe via India and Mesopotamia, especially with the archaic use of "Aryan" . More often, there's just an overemphasis on the importance of horses, sometimes so extreme it's funny.

"In some ways the roots of modernity in Europe lie not in the remarkable contributions of the ancient Greeks to democracy and rhetoric in politics, individuality and responsibility in social life, public and private enterprise in economics, and apparently endless arguments between religion and science, but in the transformation of the horse from a beast of burden and a weapon of war into a figure of restless or rebellious beauty and an icon of spiritual grace."

Alexander the Great's conquests are attributed entirely to his mastery of horses, with the long spear or sarissa of the phalanx mysteriously metamorphosed into a cavalry lance. And so forth. (On the other hand, Chamberlin gives the misleading impression that horses played no important role in the Second World War.)

I found many isolated but interesting bits of information in Horse, in particular about the handling and training of horses, subjects about which I knew nothing but which Chamberlin manages to make accessible to a non-rider. And his own enthusiasm is clear. When it comes to illustrating the depth and intensity of human involvement with horses, Horse is as much an example as an explanation.

February 2013

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%T Horse
%S How the Horse has Changed Civilisations
%A Chamberlin, J. Edward
%I Signal
%D 2006
%O paperback, b&w halftones, index
%G ISBN-13 9781904955368
%P 208pp