April 25, 2019
(++++) BEAUTY, GRACE, AND POWER
Horses: The Definitive Catalog of Horse and Pony Breeds. Scholastic. $19.99.
A photographic extravaganza that will delight anyone who has ever ridden a horse or just dreamed of riding one, Horses is a testament to the longstanding closeness of the special bond between humans and horses and a remarkable exploration of the wide variety of horse types and characteristics. Even people knowledgeable about horses will likely learn new things about the equine world here – this is one of those books intended for young readers but absolutely fascinating for anyone of any age. From extreme close-ups that show the characteristics of various horses to gorgeous photos of forms of racing – harness and thoroughbred – to historical perspective on the human/horse relationship, Horses is packed with information as well as being just beautiful to look at.
The book explains that there were two kinds of ancestral horses some 4.5 million years ago, one of which led to the lines of today’s mules and asses, while the other resulted in modern horses. Further developments have been much more recent: “For example, when stronger horses were needed for farm work, to carry knights in armor, or to pull large weights, heavier breeds were created.” And this continues today through targeted breeding of specific types of horses for specific purposes.
The sheer number of horse breeds may come as a surprise to readers. Many may have heard of “Arabian” horses, but in fact there are quite a few different types. The rare Gidran Arab, for example, “was created at Hungary’s oldest national stud, Mezöhegyes, which was established in 1784 to breed military horses.” And the Shagya Arab “was originally bred in the 19th century in Báblona as a riding horse for the Hungarian cavalry.” And those are just the Arabian horses from Hungary – there are others from many other countries.
In addition to specifics of horse types, Horses gives good information – and wonderful pictures – about horses in general. “Light horses are split into two groups – hotblood and warmblood – depending on their characteristics and ancestry,” with hotbloods being “spirited, nervous, and full of energy,” while warmbloods are “gentler, calmer, and eager to please.” Within the groups, each breed has specific characteristics that are clearly shown in Horses, often with striking photos, such as the ones showing the coat colors of the Akhal-Teke, a rare Central Asian hotblood whose coat may be bay, dun, chestnut, black, grey or golden palomino. The pages about this breed not only show the horses racing but also display an emblem from Turkmenistan, where it comes from, explaining that the Akhal-Teke appears on that nation’s banknotes and coat of arms, and also on postage stamps from Turkmenistan, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. Like many other elements of Horses, this shows the continued importance of these animals to humans.
Light horses are the most-familiar kind, and they get more than half the space in Horses. But other equines are in some ways even more interesting, simply because readers are less likely to have seen or interacted with them. There is a section on ponies, “hardy animals that have learned to survive in the harshest of conditions, many on remote northerly islands,” and that are “intelligent, energetic, and sometimes stubborn.” Photos of the winter coat of the Icelandic, which dates to Viking times and has five different gaits, are very striking, as are views of wild or semi-wild island ponies: the Eriskay of Scotland, Skyros of Greece, Batak of Indonesia, and others – plus pictures of the tiny and graceful Falabella of Argentina (actually classified as a horse, despite its size). Horses also has an extended section on heavy horses, “also known as coldbloods or draft horses,” which are large, patient and very strong working animals. Bred for strength rather than speed, they have solid, broad legs, wide hooves, a short and very muscular back, and other characteristics that clearly show how they differ from light horses – a full-page explanatory photo highlights the distinctions. Some heavy horses may be familiar to readers – Clydesdales, for example, which are exceptionally tall and heavy, with weight that “is about the same as a Volkswagen Beetle” – but many will not be: the Belgian Heavy Draft, the Auxois of France, the ancient Ardennais warhorse that Julius Caesar considered “tireless,” and others. There are some real surprises here, such as the leopard-spotted coat of the Noriker and the striking appearance of the Black Forest Horse of Germany. Horses is a book to dwell on and return to again and again to look at and learn about the richness of the equine world and its continued importance to human commerce and, in many places, daily life.
In case all the photos and information lead readers to want a horse of their own, Horses offers a concluding section called “Care of Horses” that provides basic information, but only after warning that owning a horse “requires real commitment,” including “early starts day in and day out in all weathers” and a long-term commitment to proper housing, equipment and veterinary care. Daily rides or walks are necessary, for example, to prevent muscular and digestive problems, and “it is essential that the stable be mucked out regularly and clean, absorbent bedding put in place” to prevent respiratory problems. Horses are big animals and a big responsibility – likely far more than most readers of Horses will be able to assume. But just seeing how magnificent these animals are, in all their variety, turns horse ownership into a dream for many people. Horses is a book that can encourage the dream, but it also offers non-owners a much easier way to observe, appreciate and enjoy the wonders of the equine world.