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Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations by J. Edward Chamberlain. BlueBridge, 2006; $24.95; 288 pages, including 25 black and white illustrations.


Ever since the dawn of human history, horses have held a mystical sway over our imagination: we respect and revere them like no other animal. We have conceived them as both domesticated and free, both belonging to our civilization and to the wild. At first, it was an encounter of death, as prehistoric humans hunted horses, all across the steppes of Asia and throughout Europe. But they also painted horses full of grace and beauty on the walls of their caves, and gave them a central place in their songs and sacred rituals. Long before the invention of writing and the wheel, horses began to shape the way humans lived.Drawing on archaeology, biology, art, literature, and ethnography, Horse illuminates the relationship between humans and horses throughout history -- from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, from the Moors in Spain and the knights in France to the great horse cultures of native America. From the Ice Age to the Industrial Age, horses provided sustenance, transportation, status, companionship, and the ability to establish and expand empires.

Horse is the utterly fascinating and marvelously enlightening story of horses and humans.


From Blogcritics.org: Few creatures have had an impact upon the human psyche like the horse. In today's urban and technological cocoon it is often difficult to truly grasp the value of something as seemingly archaic as a horse. Even as the "wild west" was gasping for breath beneath the advancing hordes of settlers, there were those who chose to label the horses of the Native Americans as little more than "worthless" beasts. And today there are many who fail to see any real point in the often lavish attention and expense associated with horses, from the cult of the cowboy to the pomp and circumstance of dressage and other forms of horsemanship. But as J. Edward Chamberlain eloquently articulates in his new book, for many centuries the horse shaped and often defined human culture. Horses constituted critical components of both the nomadic culture and the "settlement" society. They became an integral component of human warfare. And they often featured prominently in myths, legends, dreams, and nightmares.

Chamberlain, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto, draws extensively upon an eclectic array of archaeology, biology, art, and literature to illustrate the enduring relationship between man and horse throughout recorded history. Horses may have first been a source of food, but they quickly became something more. Over time, the relationship evolved, and horses offered man everything from transportation, status, companionship, and the mechanism for dominance in combat.

More of a playful exploration than a painstaking historical work, Horse has several fanciful departures in which Chamberlain muses about such things as what horses might have been able to tell man and what the first encounters between horses and Native Americans might have been. He explores the role of the horse as more than a material possession and as a spiritual or metaphysical image. He recounts tales of horses in a variety of contexts, be it work or play and in a variety of artistic manifestations. He notes the ways in which horses have been harnessed, as well as the perceptions associated with them, including the idea that in many ancient cultures it was deemed the hallmark of a barbarian to ride upon a horse. Civilized men, it seems, rode behind their horses, in chariots, carts, or the like.

Horse is a clever book fueled largely by Chamberlain's clear passion for his subject. As the grandson of an Alberta rancher, he has bred horses and been fascinated by them for much of his life. Here he translates that love and knowledge into an interesting book that is less a recounting of history than it is an introspective reflection upon it. From the nuances of training techniques, both ancient and modern, to the cultural variances associated with color and breeding of animals, there is much to learn from Chamberlain's book. Not the least of which is the enduring value and power of the horse as one of the defining aspects of human history.


J. Edward Chamberlain is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto and visiting professor at the University of Michigan. He was the Senior Research Associate with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in Canada and has worked extensively on native land claims around the world. His books include If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?, The Harrowing of Eden, White Attitudes Toward Native Americans., and Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies. The grandson of an Alberta rancher, Chamberlain has bred horses and collected stories about them for much of his life. He divides his time between Toronto, Half Moon Bay, and Ann Arbor.


We meet at the Old Town bar on 17th Street in Manhattan. It's an ancient saloon, with varnished wooden booths displaying buttons that once summoned waiters, urinals the size of telephone booths, and food you can drive nails with. And booze. Not the kind of place you comfortably order wine. Also not a joint with an inch of spare space on a balmy Friday evening. We back out and retire to a sidewalk table at a restaurant at the corner of Park Avenue, overlooking the rush hour traffic.Ted Chamberlain is in town talking up his new book, Horse.

"I take it your grandfather's ranch is long gone."

Ted looks resigned. "Grandfather's ranch is long gone. Yeah, it is. There are so many changes in that area down in southern Alberta. He'd gone there in the 1880s. But then settlement of the area forced the ranches to move to bigger feed lots. He ran a very large ranch: about 15,000 head."

"Were subsequent generations involved as well?" I want to know.

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