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  • Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing Culture, 1800–1920
  • Max Foran
Margaret E. Derry . Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing Culture, 1800–1920. University of Toronto Press. vii, 302. $60.00

This book does more than its title suggests. It traces the history of purebred horse breeding and links it with technological change and scientific developments. In so doing, Margaret Derry integrates the role of the horse into the rapidly developing European and North American societies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Derry explores several themes. First she shows the evolution of the purebred horse as embracing two foundational structures. She skilfully weaves the pedigree and progeny-testing traditions to show how they coalesced to produce modern purebred breeding methods. In discussing the evolution of the light horse, the heavy draft horse, and the farmer's horse Derry conveys more than the intricacies of breeding. The American preference for driving over riding produced the long-backed Standardbred as compared to the shorter-backed Thoroughbred, dominant in Britain, where riding was more popular. The American demands for pedigree in Clydesdales changed breeding practices in Britain and led to the demise of what Derry thought was the best draft horse, the Clydesdale/Shire cross. Disagreement over what was the best horse for a farm, or for a farmer to breed, for that matter, meant that there was no preferred breed. Thus, farm horses were chosen for type rather than breed.

In discussing the heavy horse, Derry makes several important observations. Their rise in popularity in the late nineteenth century was not due to increasing agricultural demands as might be imagined, [End Page 263] but to locomotion needs associated with urban and industrial activity. The widespread presence of the steam train enhanced short-haulage needs and further popularized the heavy draft horse. It was the arrival of the truck that shifted the emphasis on the heavy horse, to the farm, where it endured as the main legacy of the working horse world.

The remount or military horse is a major focus for Derry. First she shows that, despite mechanization in warfare, the horse continued to play a major role. She discusses British and European breeding programs and how the Boer War and the First World War created a substantial market for horses in North America and especially the United States. She makes the very interesting point that remounts ultimately came to favour Arabian blood in war horses and that subsequent breeding practices helped lay the groundwork for a much later international pleasure-horse industry based on the Arabian. Derry's discussion on government involvement in horse breeding centres on stallion legislation, which she sees as an elitist tool that did little to reduce unsoundness in horses.

One of the book's main strengths lies in the way Derry is able to relate horse breeding to international trade. Market preference primarily in the United States influenced breeding practices internationally. For example, tremendous pressure was put on French breeders to establish a stud book for Percherons. Similarly difference in opinion on the proper role of pedigrees and herd books in Canada and the United States led to tensions, embargoes, and tariff disputes between the two countries. It was the American demand for pure breeding with valid pedigrees that forced Canadian breeders to change their breeding and recording habits.

Derry's focus is sometimes too narrow. For example, she pays little attention to western Canada, where a distinct horse culture developed in the ranching areas of the foothills. She makes no mention of George Lane, who built up the biggest purebred Percheron operation in the world on the Bar U Ranch at Longview southwest of Calgary. Strangely too she ignores Belgians in her heavy horse discussion. Though not as prominent as the other three breeds, Belgians were in Canada as early as 1902 and were gaining increased prominence by the end of the period under discussion. In 1917, for example, the Belgian stallion Farceur brought $47, 500, the highest price ever paid for a draft horse in North America.

These omissions, however, do not detract from the book's overall merit. Derry has made a...


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