Book Review: The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey through Human History

The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History: Forrest,  Susanna: 9780802126511: Amazon.com: Books

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.


Lesson Notes

A few quick Friday lesson notes.

One thing that I had flirted with in a ride earlier this week paid off in spades in my lesson: rather than a full long rein walk break I incorporated a few minutes at a time of deep stretchy walk and trot. It was easier to keep him marching forward through the hind end, and he really loved taking the bit out as far as he could. The catch is to keep him from just falling on his forehand, but he wasn’t actually too bad. Then when I picked him up again he felt like he’d gotten a respite and was soft and lifting again without nearly as much fuss.

I also had some real lightbulb moments with my canter. In short: I had been thinking too much of my position as one circle of energy that helped Tristan lift from his hind end and cycle through to the bit. That meant that my seat and my hands were working together a bit too much. In other words, when my seat f S. showed me what she was seeing and how that was blocking Tristan from coming through, and I picked up the canter again, I focused clearly on breaking up that loop. The visualization that sprang to mind almost immediately was of two circles. One for my hands/elbows and one for my hips/seat. Both circles followed the canter motion in slightly different ways, with slightly different rhythms and were really more ovals than circles in the way they moved in space.

Thinking about that also prompted some cooling out thinking about how we talk about an independent seat. Perhaps this isn’t the most original revelation ever, but: I think so often we talk about an independent seat in one specific way, as in, “can you sit on a horse without using your connection to the bit to brace or balance yourself?”

What I had been unconsciously blocking was a different level of independent seat: can you use your seat and your arms independently of each other, not just not depending on each other, but actually truly operating with different degrees of volume, different rhythms, different softness, and different ways of communicating at the same time?

Reader, I cannot. But I think that cracking that open inside my brain will help me get there. I had already been working very hard recently on not hardening my elbow for the second or two when I asked for bend (somehow, I cannot keep a soft, following elbow and turn my wrist for an indirect aid; one or the other only!), so this will be something to add to keep track of.


Taking a deep breath

It’s after noon on January 20, 2021. Joe Biden is officially President of the United States, currently delivering an excellent inaugural address. I spent the morning cleaning my house and blitzing through various small tasks – and breathing.

There is a soft, thick snow coming down outside. The storm over the weekend stuck to the trees, and everything looks like a postcard.

Last night, I had a very good ride: just a bareback pad and a quarter sheet, mostly at the walk, but focusing on staying soft and marching in contact. My homework from my lesson was to work on soft flexion, lots of giving. During our walk break we worked on deep long stretching, and then when I picked him up again and asked for trot, sitting soft but deep, he just…flexed and stepped up through his withers, light and happy.

It was a good feeling. All of this is a good feeling.


Quick Lesson Notes

Some really great stuff in today’s lesson, so a few quick bullet point notes from it.

  • I put Tristan’s Back on Track hock boots on him 30 minutes before and for about 8 minutes of the walk warmup, and am pleased with that decision. There was less stiff-legged flailing, I think.
  • I struggled a little bit with consistency in his forward response early on. Later, I got it down, but I need to establish it more firmly and earlier.
  • For maybe honestly the first time ever (?!) there were long stretches of work in the trot that went better when I was sitting the trot. I sat it as a bit of an experiment and while often that makes him suck back and get frustrated, today it meant that I was actually able to gather up that energy in my core and help him cycle it through and really deepen the connection. Tons of lift through the base of his neck and it felt effortless to keep my elbows soft and keep him upright through corners.
  • We’re knocking at the door of some canter breakthroughs, and at the very end of the lesson played a tiny bit with lateral work in the canter cued through my seat. The first time I thought “well, here we go” and shifted my seatbones I let out an involuntary yelp when he said “okay, sure” and just zipped sideways. All that work in keeping our leg yields straight and snappy has started to pay off!
  • Overall, I need to find a way to get more conditioning mileage without souring both of us. I did a nice 30 minute march with some flexion work last night, and that seems to have helped support today’s lesson, but I need to start adding wind to him so he we can actually have that canter breakthrough – so he can hold the canter for long enough to tinker with it more. (Not lost on me that he actually is decently fit for his age, the season, etc., so I also need to get better about using some of that fitness when it matters. Not all the time, obviously, but occasionally it’s okay to get him truly good and tired.)



Blog Hop: Horse Sponsorship

The $900 FB Pony asked: who would your horse be sponsored by?

I don’t know that I have an obvious or clever answer to this one, because Tristan’s favorite thing, the thing I buy more of than anything, is pretty straightforward.

Starlight Peppermint with Cinnamon Mints 5 Lb Bag for sale online | eBay

Yup. Easy call. From day 1, other treats just have not measured up. And from day 1, I mean, the first time I met him he was still so wild and headshy I spent a solid hour sitting in his turnout and talking to him with my hand outstretched holding a mint to start the trust process.

Contrast that with our ride last week when I halted him in the middle of the ring and took out my phone to stop the timer app. My hand brushed a dog poop bag in my pocket, which made a crinkle noise, and Tristan spent the next several minutes shuffling his feet around and whickering and craning his neck back to me because he was convinced there was a mint in my pocket. Sadly for him, there was not. (Probably I should have stopped him and made him stand still but it was hilarious and adorable, so there, I let it go.)


Brief Lesson Notes

One of the unqualified good things about the last few months is that I have committed to a regular lesson time on Fridays, and reached at least some kind of equilibrium with Tristan around that time.

For better or for worse, I have scaled back my non-lesson riding quite a lot. For better, that means he’s spunky and full of energy and actually much more willing to cooperate with the harder work we’re doing in the lessons. I am having to think and work to ride a slightly spooky, slightly naughty horse that needs a light hand. That’s never been my strong suit, and especially not with Tristan!

For worse, it means his fitness has slipped a little bit, which means that for example, last week, when I rode on Thursday night, he came out of the gate on Friday sluggish. It also means that some of that excess energy has bubbled over in not-helpful ways, such as his bucking fit that launched me a few weeks ago.

It’s a tough balance for any horse, but an older horse with a history of uncooperative behavior especially. What level of work does he need to keep him healthy, and what level of work keeps him happy? Those are often two things in tension with each other. It’s sort of the inversion of the problem that can happen with higher-octane older horses, who may need more work mentally than their bodies are able to keep up with physically.

This week, I’m going to try stepping up his riding schedule a tiny bit, and he’s probably going to get a training ride on Wednesday. We’ll see what that results in this Friday!

Anyone else struggle with the brain/body divide with their horse?


The only way out is through

I think I am finally starting to crumble. As introverted as I am, it was bound to happen later for me than for others, but my brain is finally starting to sour on this whole thing. Isolation is one thing, the constant every-tiny-mistake-is-doom state of a pandemic world is taking a boulder-sized mallet to my anxiety.

Yesterday, the news of Jane Savoie’s passing hit me pretty hard. I did not know her, only in passing, at a few parties, in and out of our barn. I never rode with her. But many years ago, I saw a PBS Nature episode called “Horse and Rider” and she was featured in it. I was enthralled. Not long after that I read a marvelous book called Conversations with a Prince, in which she plays a small role. Eight years ago both of those things came full circle when I came to my current barn. So even my infitesimally small connection to her has played a big role in my life.

I had a long and not great day yesterday. Some of the reasons were my fault. Some of them were out of my control. All of them piled up. I made myself ride anyway, just a half hour or so, my first time in the saddle in the new year. Usually I do a New Year’s Day ride, on the theory that starting the year that way is a good omen, but this year I was in travel-related quarantine.

He was wonderful. My brain was quiet the entire time I was at the barn; it is the only time my brain is ever quiet. I need to remember that.


House Post: Miscellaneous Projects

We have not been working on the house too much this year, apart from the emergency bathroom renovation, but I have been tidying up a few small things here and there lately.

The small table in the foreground is one I grew up with that my mother was relocating as she gets ready to move, so now it lives in the sunroom. There are a few things I need to continue tweaking about the sunroom; the footstool you can see in the back left needs a better home. To the right of this image is a corner that has accumulated random things that need to be sorted out.

Not strictly speaking house work, but I’ve pulled out a few UFO crochet projects to work on while WFH. This blanket was (is?) a wedding gift for my brother, whose oldest child just turned five. So, long overdue. I’m about halfway through it now. I have to sit in on a fair number of large statewide committee meetings for work and I just turn my video off and listen and crochet away.

Over the summer I impulse-bought a pressure washer and my husband did about half of the deck. You can see the difference pretty clearly. The plan is to do the second half this summer and then re-seal the whole thing.

One short but helpful project was to dig all the weeds & crap out from this section of the yard, which was where we stored the wood for the fire pit, level it off, and put these pavers in so the wood would not rot into the ground the way it had been. We then filled up the length of it with wood we pulled from the brush pile in the back lot and had an easy access for the fire pit. We did a bunch of fires this summer with friends over takeout food, for a safe activity during that brief quieter window.

I also did a little bit more work on the bathroom, which was an intensely frustrating project, but more about that next week.


Some 2021 Goals

Thank you to everyone who offered thoughts and guidance on shaping goals for the new year. I had this week off from work, and worked through some ideas on what I wanted and how to put that out there.

I did end up writing goals in several categories, though I won’t share them here as I have in past years. Rather, I’ll do a monthly recap post on how things are going generally.

I will set out a few aspects of the goals here, though.

One of them is to write more. I have some word counts that will work across my various outlets, and hope to write at least a little bit every day – blog, personal, academic, whatever works, as long as I build the habit. I’ve fallen into some shortcuts and poor writing tics over the years as email rather than longform took over my output, and I hope to reverse that. Expect more words in this space in the new year.

Another goal is to read more, and with more intention. In years past I’ve easily read 75-100 books; this year being what it was, my focus was very poor, and I ended shy of 50. I also fell off with tracking my books. I’ll bring myself back into accountability through ways that have worked in the past such as GoodReads. Toward the end of this year, I began reading more and more physical books rather than ebooks, and that helped a great deal with my focus.

I’ll blog a little bit about my reading, probably on Saturdays, especially as some of it will be horse reading, obviously.

Here are some of my reading goals for the year:

  • one book in French
  • five books about horses
  • five books about Vermont
  • five books from the “to be read” pile
  • one book of poetry
  • one play
  • five books by authors of color
  • three books about museums
  • five award nominees (Hugo, Nebula, Dragon, Pulitzer, etc.)
  • two books about science
  • three classics
  • three books about organizing/politics
  • three memoirs or biographies

If you add all that up, it ends up with 39 books, so room still for purely personal and fun reading.

Here’s to the new year.