The Horses Return
They must have known they were coming home for nothing else can explain their survival, and perhaps only that knowledge deep in their cells sustained them. Horses are animals of prey and they like the wide open and to be constrained on the decks in the hot sun or between decks without light or means of escape for two or three months would have overloaded their circuits. Threats hung in the air and everything was new and strange. Where once they had smelled land and grass and legumes, they now smelled salt air mixed with the galleon stench; where once they had heard the sounds of their own hooves on the fields of Europe, they now heard the uneasy creak of wood as the giant brigantines hove through walls of water; where once they had been calmed by the nuzzling and grooming of their band and family members in one another’s manes and necks, they now were held in place with slings and hoists, touched and reassured not by their own kind but by the men who were in charge of making sure they had safe passage.
These were the horses that carried Spain to victory in the New World. During the years of the conquest, thousands of them were shipped across the Atlantic. More than half died on the way. Sometimes when rations ran low, they were killed for food. Sometimes the ships sank in hurricanes, taking the horses to a howling and watery grave, along with slaves who had been kidnapped from Africa and chained to one another in the ships’ galleys. Often the ships were becalmed midway; between 30 to 35 degrees north and south of the equator, the barometric pressure often increased, and the hot dry breezes called the westerlies stopped blowing. The procession of proud, defiant galleons would come to a halt, mired in the tropics for endless days, their massive sails limp in the blistering sun, and the cargo — man and animal alike — slowly going mad.
At that point, it was time to lighten the load. The horses were removed from their slings and taken above deck. At long last they saw light and could move freely, although they were still hobbled by their weak legs, and they probably faltered as the conquistadors urged them to the gangplank. Perhaps as they faltered they took in the sweep of the peripheries with their big satellite eyes and then gazed across the seas where an albatross was passing, following it all the way to the equator and beyond, and as their eyes swept the horizon, they may have experienced a vestigial sense memory of the wide-open space in the New World where they had once roamed before it had a name. Perhaps they felt that strange tingling of hot, dry no-wind that raises the hack on all living creatures and makes the neurons crackle and the ganglia dance, while sea monsters and dolphin pods and vast armies of seaweed growing from canyons whose rims were the ocean floor encircled the brigantines and waited. Perhaps, as they drank in the air — for the last time — they never felt more alive. And then they were spooked down the plank by thirsty, desperate men who cursed loudly and waved things to scare them, and they skidded down the gangway shrieking in fear, thrown to the seas so the armada could catch the wind.
And as the sea was swallowing them, the ships rose in the water, lighter now, and the sails again furled with the crackling air, and the procession left the region that sailors came to call the horse latitudes. Of course, not all the horses were jettisoned on those terrible crossings. Perhaps the ones that were passed over when the men went below decks to make their grisly selection sensed — in the way that all animals have a homing instinct, and generation after generation make their way back to their ancestral turf — that they would soon be home, back on the continent that had spawned them, thirteen thousand years after they had dispersed and mysteriously disappeared from their birthplace. In fact, it must have been more than a sensation or a feeling; it must have been a kind of certainty that ran through their bones, down through their legs and into the ground they would soon churn up as they headed for the range. Yes, they had to know, for how else to explain the ease and speed with which they adapted to the American desert? The thing is, they just needed a little help . . .
Horses have a way of entering dreams and visions, even those of people who do not know exactly what they are dreaming about. Long before the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés and his crew began crossing the sea, Montezuma, the ruler of the Aztec empire in the lush inland valley of Mexico, had dreamed of Quetzalcoatl. This was the fair-haired god who was said to have deserted his people; someday he would return, the dream said, riding a fierce animal and breathing fire. And that day would mark the beginning of the end.
As the desire of the Old World was acted out on the stage of the New, Aztec artists drew pictures of the invasion, and two Spaniards wrote the whole thing down. One was the official scribe of the Cortés expedition, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who penned a detailed and evocative account of the landing and ensuing battles in his book The Conquest of New Spain. The other scribe was Cortés himself, who wrote a series of detailed letters to the man who had dispatched the conquerors, Charles V, the holy Roman emperor who was also known as the Prince of Light Cavalrymen. The letters of Cortés described the terrain, the Indians, their religion, the fighting, the gold. He was not as good a writer as Díaz del Castillo, but no matter; together, the two books are an astonishing chronicle of la conquista. But the bigger surprise is that they paint a portrait of the sixteen horses that began the chain of events that brought the Aztec empire to its knees.
It is rare in historical chronicles — especially those that recount battles and wars — that we learn of the horses who served. Considering the millions of equine warriors who have figured in human history, there are precious few whose stories we know. Of course, there is Pegasus, the mythological winged horse who helped Bellerophon fight the Chimera and who gave Zeus thunderbolts, then returned to the sky as a constellation to live forever in the Western psyche as the ultimate symbol of freedom. There is Bucephalus, the mighty wild horse who carried Alexander the Great into ferocious battles from Macedonia to the Indian subcontinent. He was buried in a splendid tomb of gold leaf and alabaster tiles on the banks of the Hydaspes River, and in his honor Alexander built the city called Bucephala around it. And there is Incitatus, the famous white steed belonging to Caligula, the psychotic Roman emperor who raised appreciation of the horse to its most exquisite level. If there is anything good to be said for Caligula, it’s that he loved horses — except when they belonged to his enemies, in which case he poisoned them. At home, Incitatus was his partner. Often the horse issued invitations for banquets — at least, that’s whose name was at the bottom of requests. If guests declined, they were tortured. The many who came were greeted by Incitatus and a troop of slaves in a marble stall. Draped in a purple blanket of silk and a collar of gems, the equine host would dip into his ivory manger for a dinner of finely milled grain mixed with flakes of gold and drink wine from a golden goblet. Incitatus was also a priest, accompanying Caligula to public assemblies, then later promoted to senator. Just before he was assassinated, Caligula appointed Incitatus as his second in command. It would be a very long time before another figure of power acknowledged the role of Equus. Long after the fall of Rome and the fall of Constantinople and the rise and fall of old and new capitals and towns and kingdoms across all the lands, it was Hernando Cortés, one of the most audacious and bloodthirsty knights in human history, who finally spoke the truth: "We owe it all to God, and the horse."
While 1492 is the year from which the New World is tracked, we must look to 1519 as the date that horses put hoof to soil on the mainland of their origin, pulling the chariot of Western empire behind them. After some months on Cuba, where he survived infighting and intrigue among other conquistadors who vied for prestigious expeditions, Hernando Cortés defied his nemesis the Cuban governor Diego Velázquez and headed across the Atlantic to take Mexico, departing quickly before he could be stopped. Like many of the sixteenth- century adventurers, he had come from Extremadura, Spain, a rural region about 120 miles north of Seville that became known as the cradle of the conquistadors. For the ambitious young men in the expanding empire, the call to travel was irresistible. The strange land across the sea was said to hold vast repositories of gold and human treasure. Sometimes, all the men in a particular extended family shipped out, and a few returned with tales of astonishing discoveries that would alter the faces of maps. In fact, Cortés’s second cousin was Francisco Pizarro, who was with Balboa at the first sight of the Pacific Ocean; later, after Cortés had laid waste to the Aztecs in Mexico, Pizarro wiped out the Incan empire in Peru.