Since the dawn of civilization, people have been fascinated with wild horses. Our prehistoric cave paintings and stone carvings show this, as do modern films, songs and novels.
“Long before horses became our tools, long before the bit and the bridle were invented,” humans have “adored watching” horses, writes science journalist and equestrian Wendy Williams.
Horses have been around for about 56 million years, yet we still have a minimal understanding of them.
“For decades, equine scientists have studied the best way to train show horses, the best way to feed race horses, the best way to heal the delicate bones in a lame horse’s foot. . . . But the natural behavior of horses was rarely considered to be of scientific interest,” Williams explains. “That’s beginning to change.”
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Her new book, The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion, looks at these new developments, adeptly blending scientific research and anecdotal evidence into a comprehensive account of the animal’s evolutionary history and natural behavior — or what we know of it so far.
Since horses can’t talk (except Mister Ed), Williams uses archaeological records and research from scientists around the world to explore the rich history, social development and behavioral characteristics of wild horses. She also sets out on her own investigation — observing mustangs in the Pryor Mountains of Montana, graceful Lipizzan stallions in Austria, mustachioed Garrano horses in Spain and free-roaming Takhi horses in Mongolia to better comprehend equine evolution and the human-horse relationship.
Understanding the complexities of horse psychology and behavior will not only improve our abilities to work and communicate with the animals, Williams argues, but also will help us make sense of our emotional and evolutionary connection to them. “A relationship that has been traditionally seen as unidirectional — we command and they obey — can now become much more nuanced and sensitive,” she writes.
Our understanding of the animal’s complex cognitive and perceptual capabilities is slowly broadening and deepening, thanks to increased scientific attention and research. Studies have shown, for example, “that horses can understand two dimensions and apply that understanding to the world around them.” They also are much more sensitive to movement, sounds, tastes and smells than humans are, but, unlike us, possess a limited perception of color and detail. Horses and riders take cues from one another to have a more comprehensive vision.
Williams explains that horses, like humans, are social creatures that crave companionship, form strong attachments and display their emotions through body language and facial expressions. They have also proved resilient, adapting to an ever-changing planet, evolving from small, doglike creatures to the modern long-legged, majestic equines of today.
The book ends with a stark reminder of the distressing challenges horses face: An ever-growing human population and changing global landscape have severely diminished their range and resources. But Williams remains optimistic, pointing to the successful reintroduction, or “rewilding,” of Takhi horses in Mongolia as proof that there is still promise for wild horses to exist in harmony “in a world filled with people.”
Williams’s book is an informative and engaging account of an animal that’s familiar and mysterious. “Darwin saw only the tip of the iceberg,” Williams writes, “and now we see a few feet below.” There is, as Williams notes, “so much more to understand.” But for now, her book provides an illuminating glimpse at what we know — and what we may someday learn.
Megan McDonough reviewed this book for The Washington Post.