The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey through Human History
by Susanna Forrest
I’ve seen some reviews of this book criticizing it for what it is not, so let me tackle that first. Forrest’s narrative is not a history of horses, or of the relationship between horses and humans. It’s not trying to be. (The first line of the introduction is “this is not a history of the horse.”) If you pick this book up expecting to begin at point A and end at point B, and along the way learn a complete history, you will be frustrated.
With that out of the way: this is an incredible book. Reading it was like eating rich dark chocolate slowly and with savor. Forrest’s language is dense and lyrical but also highly readable. Her descriptions move from sweeping to intimate within the same paragraph, and she has a knack for integrating specific examples from history within the larger picture. She’s also a horsewoman herself, with an incredible empathy for the animals she meets over the course of the book, whether wild or half-trained or highly-trained.
The Age of the Horse is structured in eight parts. The first two, evolution and domestication, are a little bit like a history, but what they really do is set the stage for the rest of the book by trying to capture a sense of the early days of the relationship between humans and horses.
The remaining six parts are themed: wildness, culture, power, meat, wealth, and war. Each chapter explores a complex patchwork of ideas grouped together within the theme by venturing back and forth in history and the current day. The chapter on meat, for example, begins at a modern auction in which a number of horses are destined for slaughter, and then journeys through the religious, philosophical, cultural, and economic aspects of eating horsemeat (“chevaline”) around the world, in different centuries, seemingly at random – but ultimately cohesively.
Forrest doesn’t shy away from difficult things. It’s hard to read about the ways that humans have treated horses over the years, whether using them to prop up Nazi ideology, working them to death in cities and fields, riding them into war to be horrifically injured, or simply using them as props in human life.
I opened the book to find a passage to quote to show you a bit of Forrest’s language, and here’s a moment when she watches riders with a performance troupe at the Equestrian Academy of Versailles schooling:
Dressage is a duet between tension and relaxation, and the curves of the figures traced in the sand were echoed in the curves of the horses themselves as they gathered their bulk and energy into collection: the back arched up slightly to support the rider, the rump and hind legs rounding under the barrel of the body in piaffe. The lower reins of the double bridles hung in loose semi-circles in mirror reflection of the horse’s neck arch.
The Age of the Horse is not a light read, or a quick one, but it is an engrossing one. I loved having the physical copy, to sit down with and fully immerse myself even when concentration was difficult. I slowed down a bit in reading in the “horses as food” chapter largely because I had been reading it at breakfast and lunch while working from home, but when I picked it up again I was quickly caught up again.
If you want to think deeply about the role of horses in human life, if you enjoy when history provides emotional as well as factual context, and if you just want something absorbing to read about horses, I highly recommend this book.