The Perfect Horse
Summary: The simultaneous story of the Nazi fascination with pureblood horses, the US Cavalry’s transition away from horses, and the exile and then rescue of the Spanish Riding School’s Lipizzaner herd.
I picked this up for a few reasons. I have long had a fascination with the Spanish Riding School (thanks, Marguerite Henry!) and in particular with its precarious position in World War II (see also, The Miracle of the White Stallions). Alois Podhajsky is one of my favorite equestrians of all time – if you haven’t read his Complete Horse and Rider or My Horses, My Teachers, they are both superb.
I am also reading a lot of equine nonfiction right now as I think about my own research & writing on the Morgan horse. I’m reading particularly popular nonfiction, as that’s where I’m aiming. It’s a very particular thing, to write about animals in general and horses in particular; how do you tell the story of a creature without its own voice?
Like Letts’s previous book (The Eighty Dollar Champion, about Harry de Leyer and Snowman), this is much less about the horse itself than about the people swirling around it. So it suffers from some of the same things that often frustrate me about nonfiction horse books: they are about everything but the horse, in some ways. (Not the case for all of them, and I should do a post someday about the ones that I think really get it.)
It’s a problem particular to nonfiction (really, third-person nonfiction, not memoir) and maybe especially to historical nonfiction, because you are relying on second or third-hand accounts to describe an animal. If you never met the animal yourself, or had direct conversations with people who met the animal – how can you really characterize its personality? It takes a gifted writer to convey that in the first person, and it’s doubly hard when you’re translating it again into another context.
With that caveat, there were a lot of things to like about this book. It did a nice job covering the cavalry’s transition away from horses and toward mechanized transport. It did a nice job presenting Alois Podhajsky (though he is most definitely not an unknown character, and I would have appreciated more about him given how prolific a writer he was and how many other sources talk about him). It really shone in delving into the Nazi ideology around animals, something I’ve been particularly fascinated with for a little while now. (In short: Nazis extended their fucked up ideas about purity to animals as well, and that meant both preserving certain bloodlines and also “breeding back” animals that were perceived to be more natural and/or authentic such as direwolves, aurochs, and primitive horses. Read the Wikipedia article on Heck Cattle and proceed from there.)
The book bogged down, actually, when talking about the purported thing that it was actually about: the American rescue of a large collection of Lipizzaner and Arabian horses from a stud farm in Czechoslovakia ahead of the oncoming Russian Army. It seemed to me to be a two-part problem. First, in pacing; everything was moving briskly and nicely until then, and it slooooooooowed dooooooooown so we could appreciate everything hour by hour. It’s a tough thing to change your pace so abruptly but it was still awkward. Second, the author had worked intensively with the families of several men involved and sometimes when that happens, too much of it comes through. It gives an unbalanced narrative, when you can see the cracks like that. Again: a tough balance! But when it’s wrong, it really shows.
One small nitpicky thing that also made me a little nuts was the absolute obsession and over-fixation on the Arabian stallion Witez, who, okay, sure, was super nice! But nice enough to justify the endless, endless, ENDLESS gushing about him every time he appeared on page? Reader, I think not.
Overall, I would recommend it if you’re looking to learn more about equine history in general or this topic in particular.
3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts”
I could BARELY slog through The Eighty Dollar Champion so I didn’t have high hopes for this one, but I actually liked it quite a bit!
I liked the $80 champion, but not this one. Part of the problem for me was that I listened to it on Audiobook and OMG will audio reveal a writer’s weaknesses. I can still hear “the horses, the beautiful horses” in the narrator’s voice in my head as it was repeated ad nauseam throughout the book. I feel like the actual history was interesting, but the book was not so much.
Just thinking about the aspect of nonfiction books that nearly leave the horse out of the story…I loved Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit,” but always found it somewhat disturbing that Seabiscuit’s head was lopped off on the cover of the hardcover edition. (I guess the weird cover of “Who Was Seabiscuit?”, a children’s book, with a Jupiter-sized head on the horse makes up for it…)