Barely a ripple was raised earlier this [20th] century when some two million wild horses on the American plains were wiped out – mostly for pet food.
– from Lawrence Scanlon’s introduction to The Man Who Listens To Horses
How can we save the wild horse? Should we? Scientists are already saying that we can’t save everything. Just two years ago, National Geographic magazine reported that 20,000 species were nearing extinction.
“M. Sanjayan [the lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy] remembers debating grad school biology classmates about the fate of the California condor back in the 1990s, when the bird was on the brink of extinction. Should the condor, which had almost been wiped out by habitat loss, hunting, and eating carcasses that were poisoned by lead bullets, be left to die in the wild?
“Or should scientists take the remaining 22 condors into captivity and breed them, which would cost millions of dollars? Sanjayan’s view was that humans had a moral responsibility to save North America’s largest flying bird.
“That’s exactly what happened: Captive-born condors were reintroduced into the western United States in the early 1990s. There are now more than 200 in California, Arizona, and northern Mexico.”
But the magazine also reported that dozens of species are going extinct every single day. Sometimes computer models are used to calculate return on investment: If you spend X, how many can be saved? “In practice, though, scientists and conservationists prioritize based on a mix of public perception and a species’ economic value—for instance, whether it’s a popular seafood or brings tourism dollars to a state.”
Often, the fate of a species is based simply on how we feel about it. Said Sanjayan: “What we decide to save really is very arbitrary—it’s much more often done for emotional or psychological or national reasons than would ever be made with a model.”
Cute wins every time.
From that perspective, it’s amazing that the condor, an ugly carrion eater, got any attention at all. But the horse! Now there is an animal beloved by humans.
The three authors of the book How To Save A Species have documented the efforts made to stop a handful of living things from disappearing off the face of this Earth. A type of newt, a yam, a monkey. A couple of bugs. A kestrel. There are 250 Black Robins left, in New Zealand.
And then there’s the wild horse. “The only truly wild horse in the world is the Przewalski’s horse. Other ‘wild’ horses are descended from domestic breeds.” A few of these horses still lived, although in captivity, in the early 2000s. They were flown to Mongolia, bred, and trained to be free. Taught to find their own food, to figure out what a predator is and how to fight it off, to find shelter…
The project cost a small fortune, and you can read about it (and other truly fascinating efforts) in How To Save A Species, by Marilyn Baillie, Jonathan Baillie and Ellen Butcher. Each project gets two bright pages filled with pictures and information. (It’s filed in children’s non-fiction at 520, in box (or the French casier) C-510, by alphabetical order by author; adults will enjoy this book too.)
And of course when it comes to horses, humans are prepared to spend a lot. We use them for transportation, for labour, and for fame (in competition, for example).
North American wild horses are not wild, but feral – like the hissing housecats you can find in fields, living without humans. They were first brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1500s.
The children’s book Phantom Stallion: The Wild One (volume one in a series, by Terri Farley, 2002, filed in C-226), is the story of 13-year-old Samantha, who finally returns to the range after two years spent in the city recovering from an accident. She was thrown by a horse. Sam wonders if she will ever find that runaway again; she loved that horse.
Phantom Stallion is about Sam’s attempt to heal psychically, as well as the discovery of a “wild” horse who looks… familiar. The tale includes the legal specifics of how to register ownership of a wild horse in the U.S. And someone else also wants that horse… and he’s unscrupulous.
Everyone knows how to break a horse. It’s a nasty business. But Monty Roberts is a world-renowned horseman who doesn’t believe in brutality: “Beating a horse into submission is less fashionable now than it was even a few decades ago, but there have always been infinitely more men and women inclined to the whip than to the kind word,” notes the introduction to The Man Who Listens To Horses (by Monty Roberts, 1998, filed in Biography at 921). “‘Horsebreakers’ and ‘broncobusters’ are friendly, even romantic terms, to describe methodical savagery. Breaking horses sometimes meant breaking bones – the buster’s, the bronco’s.”
Roberts presents a mix of memoir and love letter to the horse, along with his experiences in communicating to horses that humans can be companions who are worthy not of fear, but of loyalty. This is not a book for people who use horses; it’s a book for people who like, and perhaps even care for, horses. (The children’s book Black Beauty, as narrated by a horse, makes the distinction in humans quite clear [adapted by J.M. Carr, 1994, filed in C-132, or the original written by Anna Sewell, 1877/1986, filed in C-160]. Or try Mon Amie Flicka, in which a young boy makes friends with a horse, available via interlibrary loan).
Want more horsey reads? For those interested in the Afghanistan war, Doug Stanton has written the true tale of a group of US Special Forces soldiers, beginning with how they were assembled for a mission. It’s a slowly building tale that, eventually, ends with horses. Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story Of A Band Of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode To Victory In Afghanistan (2009, filed in Audio and read by Dennis Boutsikaris) is on six CDs. Hundreds were interviewed for this book, which ranges across multiple countries and cultures, but is grounded in the infamous September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in the United States.
For those who prefer their horses to be fictional, there’s always the prolific crime writer Dick Francis. His novels are set in the British world of horseracing.
In 1992’s Driving Force (filed in Adult Fiction), our hero is a former jockey who now owns a small horse transport business.
One day, his employees pick up a hitchhiker who ends up… dead. Then more bodies start to pile up…. This is a solid mystery, and horsey people will enjoy the equine minutiae.
The late Dick Francis was once a jockey for The Queen Mother, so he knew his way about the business. His books can be found in Adult Fiction, Large Print, and Audio (and the 2014 book Damage: A Dick Francis Novel, by his son Felix Francis, is in New Arrivals; pater died five years ago).
And we’re off to the races.
— Eleanor Brown, September 11, 2015