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Farewell to the Horse


Compiled by Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

This month’s book recommendation comes from Mid-South Horse Review reader Nancy Fay. She is also an avid reader of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which regularly features a book section called “Bookshelf.” WSJ writer Gregory Curtis reviewed Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse: A Cultural History in February of this year.  When Fay read the WSJ review, she found it fascinating! Curtis’ article is titled “A Wild Ride Through History in a ‘Farewell to the Horse’.”

Nancy sent us a copy of the book review with a note: “This is a swell book published in German in 2015 and recently translated to English.”

In a phone interview, she further told us the book is “part history, part philosophy. It’s a very unique book. It’s not ‘beach reading,’ and it’s almost like a reference book.”

Curtis writes: “Reading ‘Farewell to the Horse’ gives the same feeling of elation and abandon that comes when you are lucky enough to ride a horse at a gallop across open land…” Curtis tells us that Ulrich Raulff is a former editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (translated: Frankfurt General Newspaper) and is now the head of a literary archive in southern Germany. He “has clearly done massive research. His zeal for horses and his admiration for their gifts propel him and the reader through a long, complicated, somewhat disjointed history.”

Raulff writes that, today, horses are merely “the ghosts of modernity.” He takes the reader through the cultural and technological shifts from agrarian life to urbanized life and industrialization, including the roles of the horse in war, science, and art, to the current role of the horse as anachronistic.

The downside of this account is that, under the hands of humans, horses have suffered tremendously. Raulff writes about the plight of horses in wartime. In the Civil War, some 1.5 million horses and mules died. In World War I, “by the final climax of the fighting on the Western Front in August 1918 the life expectancy of an artillery horse on the front was ten days,” Raulff writes. Even in peacetime working horses and mules around the world still suffer at the hands of humans.

Several other major publications have called attention to Raulff’s book. Melissa Holbrook Pierson reviewed the book for The Washington Post in February. She says that Raulff “places the horse in a central role in the creation of the modern world. …Raulff notes that the horse was a significant force in shaping history in large measure because a much smaller creature – man – harnessed and exploited its powerful capabilities.”

In March, C.E. Morgan reviewed it for The New York Times. Morgan describes the book as “Ulrich Raulff’s brilliant examination of our complicated and violently unilateral relationship with Equus caballus…”

In May, Kate Kellaway profiled Raulff’s book in The Guardian. She agrees with Fay about the uniqueness of the book and writes, “It becomes evident within three paragraphs that you have never read a book like it. [Raulff] has an extraordinarily connective mind…” She terms the book an “idiosyncratic and wide-ranging study of the horse’s role in human history.”

Raulff divides “his superabundance of material” (Morgan) into four broad categories.

(1)   Lived histories: examining the use of horses in cities and rural areas, “their ubiquity in human progress, and their decline as a weapon of war,” writes Raulff.

(2)   Intellectual history: the horse in libraries, studbooks, equine science and research. Raulff explains: “the leading lights in the history of the equine knowledge developed by centuries of horse fanciers, breeders, painters, and scholars.”

(3)   Metaphor: the horse in literature, such as Herodotus (the Nisean horse) and the legend of the Amazon horsewomen, as well as speculating on the frequent bond between teen and pre-teen girls and horses.

(4)   Narratives: “the narratives of horses and people [he has] heard, read, and experienced.”

At the end, Raulff confesses he has “no conclusions” derived from his lengthy research. His book is “rather a loose anthology of possibilities and ways of narrating the history of horses and people.”

About the WSJ reviewer: Mr. Curtis is a former editor of the Texas Monthly, and was an avid horseman for many years.

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