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2 june 2011

Horse strikes me as one of the more difficult topics proposed by the Reaktion Books Animal series. Otters or snails are intriguing creatures with more prominence in world cultures than one might suppose. But horses are world cultures. We are them and they are us; neither species would be where it is today without the other. That's the central theme of Elaine Walker's Horse.

Horse is necessarily selective; to survey everything that horses and humans have meant to one another would take an entire series of books in itself. Few other animals are so interdependent with people: rats, yes, if somewhat grudgingly on both sides, and dogs certainly (the topic of the only disappointing Reaktion book I've come across so far, Dog by Susan McHugh). But even by contrast to rats and dogs, horses have meant an astonishingly electic number of different things to human societies.

Walker considers some of these roles. The horse in myth, the horse as status symbol. The horse in sport, as racing and hunting animal. The horse as performer (in dressage, in the circus). The horse as lifestyle for nomads, for gauchos and cowboys; the horse as indispensable ancillary to settled agricultural peoples. The horse in public transit or as coal-miner. The horse in warfare. And finally, the "redundant horse," redundant in the English sense of "laid off" from its longtime jobs. Most horses in the developed and even the less-developed worlds are in a state of species-wide retirement, pensioned off to fanciers, hobbyists, sportspeople, and, well, people who just can't live without the companionship of horses.

Horse fans often compare their favorites to dogs. Horses have something of a canine intelligence and devotion, though with a natural reserve that comes from being prey, not predator. Unfortunately, few people own a house big enough to accommodate a horse as pet; and horses are notoriously unhousebroken. So they live just outside our dwellings and our communities.

It wouldn't be the same world without them. Here in Texas, one of the horsier of the 50 states, we see horses sparingly in the big cities. (Though as to that, two guys rode past my suburban home, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, the other afternoon.) Here and there, however, even in the most built-up sections of metropolitan North Texas, you'll see a barn and a lone horse. An entire enclave in Tarrant County, called Dalworthington Gardens, is dedicated to the principle that it ain't life unless you own five acres, four of them for your horse. I recently met two of the equine citizens of Dalworthington, the 30-something retired couple Rocky and Phoebe. They are two of the more laid-back Texans of any species, and it's a privilege to encounter them.

Walker, Elaine. Horse. London: Reaktion, 2008.