"No, they weren't. For a stretch, Grandfather had a partner who had been a mounted policeman. But the family hasn't been involved in that sort of ranching since Granddad's time."
"Your book talks about the relationship between horses and humans as being very long-standing. What is this love affair about? How sensitive a creature is a horse?"
"That's probably the oldest and toughest question there is. A horse is extraordinarily sensitive -- literally speaking, because it's a prairie animal who has survived over millennia. It's got a kind of intelligence and certainly a sensitivity, partly through its feet and, some folks say, through its teeth. The horse is alert for enemies. How sensitive to humans? People who spend a lot of time with horses would say very. I mean, they're animals and will do what they're instructed or forced to do. But they will do way beyond that if there is a bond between the rider, or driver, and the horse. Horses have come to me in ways that seem to respond directly to my moods, more than humans even."
I pause to let an ambulance blast by, siren blaring. Then I continue: "About their jealousy. I was taken aback one summer, when we took a place across from a farm that had some show horses. I was curious to see that the farmer would not give them treats of carrots or apples or anything. And one day I saw why. Someone accidentally or unknowingly, unwittingly, gave one of the horses a single apple. The other horses took out after it out of jealousy and pounded the bejesus out of it for having one-upped them. For having received more favorable treatment. I was amazed by this behavior."
Ted brushes back his white mane of hair. "Horses can be fiercely territorial too," he says. "There's an old mare that I had -- a wonderful mother. She had some lovely foals. On her own, though, she was a piece of work. In the summertime and into the fall, I'd let her loose with the younger horses and with other horses in big fields. And you could see her spend enormous amounts of time -- just all afternoon -- carefully cornering one of the younger horses, moving in ways that made the younger horse graze over toward a corner of the fenced-in field. Just hours of this."
"Like a boxer cutting off a ring."
"Yes. With a real patience, the kind that defies any sort of understanding or expectation. It was her entertainment for the day. Otherwise she'd get bored just grazing. She'd box in the younger horse and kick the heck out of it."
"How...human. For sport."
"When she had a foal on, she wouldn't. Then she was such a good mother, looking after the foal with diligence and attention, as if there were nothing else. Perhaps that mean streak showed one of the reasons why she was such a good mother. So focused and single-minded."
"You write such wonderful descriptions of horses 'drinking the wind.' How do you explain the nearly universal response to the beauty of the horse? It seems to cut across all cultures. People are so taken with them."
Ted Chamberlain stirs his drink. "Yes, even early cave painters had a sense of their wonderful beauty, of the astonishing grace of horses, especially when they're moving. And horses are sort of their most horsy when they're in motion. That is what they do best. All of us who observe them have a sense of this unearthly elegance. Are they off the ground, flying almost, though they are clearly earthbound? In many of our myths, horses fly. They are in a special category no other animal occupies. In early times, the skin of a horse was hung over an extended pole, forming a kind of sacred scarecrow. The head bones, tail, and feet were left in the carcass to give it the shape of a horse suspended between the sky and earth."
"Yet humans hunted horses at one time, for food."
He nods. "They did and, indeed, they still do. Or at least, people still eat them. There isn't much hunting these days because there are no more wild herds. Feral, yes, but no true wild herds. Horses were prey once and we were the predators. Probably we weren't that good stalking horses until we figured out to herd them and cull them in the same way we do with cattle and sheep and other animals. But, yes, we hunted them. There is evidence of Ice Age hunters taking horses. Just north of the U.S./Canadian border, along the Milk River, they've found bones of such hunters going back 10,000 years. They were also hunted in France and certainly in Central Asia. Horse meat was a staple all through Asia and Europe for thousands of years."
"Contrary to popular belief, you say that mares led the herds, and not the stallions."
"Yeah, mares definitely led the herds. The stallions followed, kind of keeping watch, bringing up the rear."
"How did the mares keep the stallions in line?" I ask.
"Well," he smiles, "I guess in the same way mares always keep us stallions in line. But there was only one stallion in a herd of mares and foals. The others would be out in bachelor groups."
"These bachelors followed?"
"At a distance. And they would do the things bachelors do. You know, getting into fights every now and then, trying to break in on the old stallion leader, challenging him, probably getting bashed by him. And at some stage, the old guy would get tired and another one would move in to displace him."
"In many cultures, you write, great leaders were sent to the next world with their horse."
"Yes. Chinese did so. The Central Asian cultures. Kazakhs. The Scythians. Native American tribes on the plains. The sacrifice of horses accompanied the death of Blackfoot chiefs, for instance. Before the horse was put down, they would paint him with pictographs. The tail was braided and tied in a ball, the mane ornamented with feathers. The Nez Perce actually skinned and stuffed horses and placed these as grave monuments. Some tribes hung their skins at the gravesite."