Member Reviews

This book explores the profound impact of the horse on human history, beginning with the transformative moment when humans first tamed the animal over 5,500 years ago. From transportation and warfare to agriculture and culture, the horse has shaped every aspect of human civilization, from ancient empires to modern cities. This epic history reveals how the horse has influenced our genes, languages, borders, economies, and even our everyday lives.

I loved this fascinating book. Entertaining, informative, and easy to read, it will appeal to lovers of horses, natural history, and the history of civilization. CW: The sections on the fate of horses after the advent of automobiles was often heartwrenching.

Thanks, NetGalley, for the ARC I received. This is my honest and voluntary review.

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The Horse: A Galloping History of Humanity, by Timothy C. Winegard, is a largely excellent history (biological, social, cultural, military, ecological) of the horse, driving home the huge impact this creature has had on us humans. An impact, Winegard would argue, far greater than what most people would credit.

Early chapters cover the evolutionary history of the horse from its origin in N. America as a fox-sized creature and placing its evolution into the larger context of changing in the Earth’s ecosystems and climate, such as the arrival of grass into the system. Chapter three brings humans into the fold, particularly in our role as hunters of horses in the Paleolithic period, which along with a changing climate and shifting environments left the horse on the brink of extinction. Luckily, as Winegard describes in the fourth chapter, humans realized that horses could be good for something more than as a food source.

As he did with the evolutionary history, Winegard puts the domestication history in a larger context of other elements such as the Agricultural revolution and the domestication of other animals such as dogs (as well as covering why some animals, such as Zebras, never were domesticated). Experts place the most likely point of first domestication on the Eurasian steppe, particularly the archaeological site of Botai in Kazakhstan, where excavators have found corrals, horse manure, thousands of horse bones, evidence of horse milk being drunk, and even a grave with a small family buried with fourteen horses. One expert Winegard quotes calls this moment “an absolute lightning strike in human history, leading to incredible, widespread, and lasting social transformations,” all of which Winegard spends the rest of the book to delve into.
And so we get the impact of horses on the spread of particularly languages (Indo-European), migration (recent DNA findings have helped greatly with tracing large movements of particular populations),trade, governance (the rise of patriarchies, empires, wars of conquest), the military, and more. Within these discussions, Winegrad discusses the ancient Assyrians, Scythians, Egyptians, Alexander the Great, the Persian Empire, and many more. Beyond Alexander, we get a back and forth description of the two great power rising in the East and West—China and Rome, and how events in the former (the Mongols being driven out) greatly affected the end of the latter.

We eventually arrive at the horse’s reintroduction into its land of origin, although sadly through the terrible vector of imperialism and genocide/near-genocide, with horses arriving via Columbus’ second trip to the New World in 1493. The toll on native inhabitants of course was horrific, somewhat via violence as the Europeans used horses and other tools to murder and enslave the natives, but far more effective in killing them off were the several diseases the Europeans brought with them. Winegard cites evidence that “roughly 95 percent of the indigenous residents of the Americas … had been erased from the planet in a mere 250 years.” That’s not including the “between twelve and fifteen million human beings eventually delivered from Africa . . . Into the shackled clutches of slavery in the Americas.” To make the loss not just in human life but also human civilization more clear, Winegard spends some time detailing the varied achievements of the Meso-American empires like the Incas and Aztecs.
In one of life’s ironies, those same horses that the Spanish and others used to subjugate the native populations were turned against them, particular by the two great horse cultures that arose in America: the Comanche and Lakota, “imperial indigenous powers [based] on the profitable marriage between horses and the industrial harvesting of bison.” While the horse allowed these groups to rise to power and, for a brief time, rival the imperialistic armies that sought to wipe them out, Winegard does a nice job of exploring how the introduction of the horse into native culture was a two-edged sword, distorting traditional boundaries and cultures, as well as throwing the ecological balance on the plains out of whack. Eventually, of course, the flowering of native horse culture was brief, “no more than two hundred years” until “the last of the horse nations … joined the Apache, Comanche, Shoshone, and Crow on reservations under the paternalistic watch of the US Bureau Indian Affairs.”
From there we shift into the Age of the Horse, the early 1900s, when the “total US horse population peaked in 1915 at twenty-five million.” By then, horses were
pulling omnibuses, railcars, wagons, and arts … on busy commercial streets … shuttled goods and passengers to and from railway stations and ports … hauled building materials to, and remove debris from, construction sites … as Cities reverberated with the deafening sounds of horse-related occupations and infrastructure, including blacksmiths, farriers, wheelwrights, tanners, drivers, carters, breeders, breakers, knickers, teamsters, hostlers, veterinarians, groomers, saddles, stables, markets, canneries, rendering plants, and carriage, coach, and cab makers.

As the century progressed, however, mechanization at first slowly then ever more quickly made the horse obsolete. A mere 15 years after that peak in 1915, horse populations ”in urban American shrank by more than 90 percent,” while “the farm horse also began its slow trot to redundancy as tractors” began moving into mass adoption. Sadly, one of the last gasps of the horse as a mainstream tool came in the World Wars in heartbreaking fashion as hundreds of thousands died in the conflicts, some through being shot but most (75-80%) “euthanized for shellshock, burns, lameness … trench foot, blindness, blisters, and respiratory distress caused by poison gas.”
While I was well aware of the use of horses in WWI, I had no idea of the key role they played for the German military in WWII, as Winegard details in one of the more fascinating sections of the book. In direct contrast to the propagandist images of the German mechanized divisions (the famed Panzers) rolling across territory, it turned out that “by 1944, more than 90 percent of the German military relied on hooves for transport.” Italy’s military also had a heavy reliance on horses even as the US war economy was churning out tanks, planes, personnel carriers, Jeeps, and more. One good story that came out of the horror of that war was the rescue of the Lipizzaner breed from a lab where they were part of a eugenics breeding program.

Finally, Winegard moves quickly into the 20th and 21st centuries, discussing the explosive growth of feral mustangs and the attempts to deal with the issue, the rise and fall of horse meat as an industry, horse racing, equestrian Olympic sports, and other modern day uses, such as in therapy.

The Horse is a deeply informative work and one that does an excellent job of not focusing so intensely on its subject that one loses sight of what is happening in the word/society outside that focus. Winegard does a great job of zooming out to present us a wider context and then zooming in to showing how the horse fits within that context. My only quibble was that at times some of the military recaps felt a bit overly-detailed; I’m not sure I needed such a full coverage of flanking moves and the like. But this happened only rarely and hardly detracted from the reading experience. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Horse and came away knowing more than I did, which is just what you want in the nonfiction work. Strongly recommended.

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The Horse is a sweeping history on how horses have shaped the foundation of humanity. This was a fascinating and engrossing read that took us from 5500 years ago to more modern days, showing us everything there is to know about horses in the inbetween.

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Engaging and accessible. A recommended purchase for collections where equestrian and animal titles are popular.

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The absolutely amazing story of the horse, from it’s evolution in North America through it’s domestication by man, as a weapon of war and engine of Empire to modern times, this really shows the history of the horse is also the history of humanity.

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The Horse is a unique history told through the lens of the horse and how they affected history. A unique premise that readers will find intriguing and interesting. As a history enthusiast and resident horse girl, I couldn't put this book down. I'm always looking for new ways to learn about how horses changed the world and this book fit that bill. It was interesting, intense, and I couldn't put it down.

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