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  • Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations
  • Richard Nash
J. Edward Chamberlin . Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations. Knopf Canada. vi, 282. $32.95

For a horseman, there are few pleasures greater than listening to another horseman tell stories about horses. This book conveys that pleasure.

Some historians paint grand vistas with large brushstrokes and bold colours on a broad canvas, while others of us burrow ever deeper into mysteries and intricacies, untangling what previous cultures have left us, like a patient fisherman trying to undo the damage of a fouled cast. I count myself among the latter group of anglers, and Chamberlin among the former group of artists.

And so I bring to his book some of the skepticism that those of us who sort minutiae often have for those who offer the whole sweep of the histories of not one, but two species, in under three hundred pages. But in this instance, my skepticism was refuted. Chamberlin does a masterful job of an impossible task, gracefully summarizing large sweeping movements in human history, while touching lightly and with precision on the details of observation that are so vitally important to communication across species boundaries. This book is history as storytelling, and Chamberlin tells his stories well.

I am wary of stories that begin, as Chamberlin's does, with a familiar double fantasy in narratives about humans and animals – that the narrative voice has access to non-human thought, and that somehow that non-human mind has access to an eternal species memory that historians can only dream about. But that opening story ushers in not romantic fantasies of idealized human-equine claims to knowledge, but a historian's version of the kind of imaginative acts necessary to see with clear eyes the deep historical partnership of horse and human that is woven into the tapestry of civilization across the centuries in a variety of cultural registers. Human knowledge of horses depends greatly on such attentive observation, as Chamberlin notes with typical lyricism in describing horsemen: '[T]hey will listen to you and talk to you, but all along they watch the horse.'

In a nutshell, that is what Chamberlin does in this eminently readable book, talking to us easily about the recurrent defining issues of human culture: labour, transportation, warfare, empire, spirituality. And always, as he does so, he has an eye on the horse and the role its partnership with humans has played in these stories. It is his horseman's eye (and ear) that contributes to the vitally important feature of getting the details right (a feature that is less often sacrificed in the interests of grand narrative here than it is in most such attempts); but attention to detail [End Page 163] does not distract him from the ambition of his larger canvas, or from the kinds of profound questions such a history has a right to ask:

Which is the natural state of humans: wandering, or settling down? It's like asking whether climate or culture is the primary condition of constancy and change. Or whether it is nurture or nature that shapes our lives. Horses helped humans negotiate between climate and culture, nurture and nature.

Chamberlin is interested, here, in asking such questions, in prompting us to reflect on the importance of such concerns, not in sorting them out for us. Horses help us, he points out, by embodying the in-between – between wandering and settling, fenced and free. In this crucial cultural sense, horses are translators, facilitating movement between states.

And it is in his own role as translator that Chamberlin succeeds most surely as a horseman, with the right eye and the right ear. The narrative that I greeted with suspicion at the outset returns at the end as a framing tale, no longer relying on the romantic fantasy of horse consciousness, but now appropriating the crafty idiom of the horse trader. In a marvellous tour de force passage, Chamberlin shows how well he knows what a horseman sees when he looks (and also reveals his acute ear for the poetry of that idiom) for 'the signs of splints and side bones, bog spavins, capped hocks and curbs...


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pp. 163-164
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