Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations

Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations

by J. Edward Chamberlin

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Drawing on archaeology, biology, art, literature, and ethnography, Horse illuminates the relationship between humans and horses throughout history. It shares stories of horses at work, at war, and at play, in paintings, books, and movies, and ponders the intelligence of horses, their skill and strength as well as their grace and beauty.


Drawing on archaeology, biology, art, literature, and ethnography, Horse illuminates the relationship between humans and horses throughout history. It shares stories of horses at work, at war, and at play, in paintings, books, and movies, and ponders the intelligence of horses, their skill and strength as well as their grace and beauty.

Editorial Reviews

Jane Smiley
While Horse is not as detailed and informative as I might wish for, it is well worth reading for the way Chamberlin builds his argument and his energy, and for the way that, yes, even rational humans who might never buy a horse or watch a horse race might be brought to appreciate what horses have done for us and meant to us for thousands of years.
— The Washington Post
From the Publisher
“A grand and lofty survey of the relationship between man and Equus. . . . Horse is evocative, well-written and researched with an obvious depth of feeling.”
Edmonton Journal

“Two categories of people will thoroughly dig author J. Edward Chamberlin’s lovingly rendered and insanely detailed Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations–those who know nothing about (but admire) horses, and those who can’t get enough of them. Both will voraciously consume this swiftly moving story and walk away sated.”
Toronto Star

Horse offers a fresh portrait of human history before the mechanized age, when animals, one in particular, really mattered. . . . Prehistory and history, myth and war and trivia, real characters and imagined ones: the whole assemblage trots along smoothly and seamlessly over time and across continents.”
The Globe and Mail

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6.20(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.07(d)

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How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations

By J. Edward Chamberlin BlueBridge

Copyright © 2006 J. Edward Chamberlin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780974240596

Chapter 1

Out of the Mist
Horses and Humans in the Americas

It snowed every day from early December to late February, which was rare in the northern range of the Rockies; and the temperature went down to fifty below, which wasn’t. The winter of 1932-33 had been the worst that anyone could remember. Anyone except Big Bird.

Big Bird was a horse, her name drawn from an Indian legend. A big gray mare, almost pure white by now, she knew the stories of the old, old days. She remembered one about a winter thousands of years before which went on so
long that they forgot about everything but getting by. Back then, in a place where the ice hadn’t covered the land, wondering whether winter would ever end, humans and horses first made friends.

The place looked different then. The forests hadn’t yet covered the land, and the valleys hadn’t been carved out as deeply. There were animals everywhere, wooly mammoths and grumpy rhinoceroses and large bears and small camels, swift antelope and toothy tigers, mean wolves and shaggy buffalo and sleek beaver and sly fox. You could see farther then, and the horses could run when the big cats and dogs – the tigers and the wolves – came after them. Everyone was watching everyone else to see what they weredoing and whether they were having trouble and how long it would be before they would eat or be eaten. They were all holding on by the skin of their teeth.

Then some of the horses left, traveling over the tundra across the Bering Land Bridge, the doorway to Asia. At its most extensive, Beringia covered over five hundred miles from north to south, and stretched from central Siberia to the western Yukon. Even in the coldest times, it was free of ice except high in the hills, and it nourished a large number of animals. The horses who left spread across Asia; some carried on beyond the steppes to Europe, while others went south to India and Africa. But wherever they went, they traveled between the mountains and the rivers on the savannah lands.

Those horses that stayed behind in the Americas died out. Nobody quite knows why. They didn’t die of the cold, because they survived worse in the places they went to. Maybe when the world became warmer they just wandered around as woodlands took over–like humans, horses are mostly at home on the range – and became easy prey. Maybe the shrubs and the grasses and the berries they ate became scarce. Maybe the humans, who must have been hard pressed to find enough food and were well outfitted with throwing sticks and fluted spear points, hunted them down. It doesn’t take long, as we know from the prairie buffalo and the Atlantic cod. Perhaps other things happened.

Whatever the case, for at least ten thousand years, so it is said, there were no horses in the Americas. But eventually they came back home, suspended in slings in the Spanish caravels. And some say that they came earlier, cross­tied in the Viking longboats that ventured across the ocean.


And they had all come back to this. Perhaps it was a big mistake. In the fall of 1932, Big Bird had heard the owls screaming, and had seen the crows shifting their wings sideways in flight. The fox and beaver pelts that the Indians trapped were heavier than usual. She had known it was going to be a bad winter. But this was the baddest of all. The snow had been very deep, forage had been terribly hard to find, and most of the horses had floundered and froze in the drifts.

The spring of ’33 eventually came, blessing those who made it through. And out of the morning mist, suspended between the meadow and the mountain, came Big Bird, gaunt and gimpy. It was a big come­down for her. She prided herself on looking good and moving well–showing her bottoms, as farmers say when a horse picks up her feet nicely – and here she was, a bell around her neck and hobbles on her feet. She felt like a milk cow.

But once again, memory took over, and she remembered another time, around 50 million years ago, which she had heard the old ones tell about, when their earliest ancestor had appeared out of the morning mist way back at the beginning of time. Right around here, too. Dawn horse, she was called. Eohippus. Small and short­legged, with toes (four on the front feet, and three on the back); teeth that were good for browsing leaves, but not tough enough for the sandpaper grasses; and a tippy­toe walk like a fox. They came on the scene when the dinosaurs died out, moving into a niche. It was the right move, for they did well, keeping company with the other hippos.

Eohippus looked a lot like Eeyore, the donkey in Winnie the Pooh; but instead of losing her tail, she lost her toes. At first, she and her kin were at home in the rain forests and swamps, but as these changed to savannah land all the places to hide disappeared, replaced by places to run. So the toes went, slowly but surely, until all that was left were some bones up above the ankle and a little bit of the pad on the foot. The legs became longer, as eohippus changed into mesohippus and merychippus and then pliohippus, running faster each time, rearing up higher, kicking harder, eventually emerging from the evolutionary labyrinth as equus.

When shrubs and bushes gave way to grasses and grains, their teeth changed, too, becoming high-crowned and cement-covered so that they could cut and grind rather than chomp and chew. Being easily surprised was their great strength back then, and Big Bird knew that it still was, watching and listening for predators, and smelling them. Their heads became bigger, the size of their eyes larger than those of even the largest mammals, the elephants and the whales, and more soulful, too; their ears rotated in all directions, and they developed a big nose to sniff out trouble, or another horse in heat. These horses were the legend of the Americas before anybody had legends. Before there was anybody.


Excerpted from Horse by J. Edward Chamberlin Copyright © 2006 by J. Edward Chamberlin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

J. Edward Chamberlin is University 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, and has worked extensively on native land claims around the world. His books include If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground and The Harrowing of Eden: White Attitudes Towards Native Americans. The grandson of an Alberta rancher, Chamberlin 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.

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