The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the horse helped shape our world — at great expense to itself

A farmer in Iowa still used draft horses to work his property last year, but such scenes are increasingly rare in the United States. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of “Dark Horses and Black Beauties,” among other books.

One animal was so decisive in shaping human history that the eminent historian Reinhart Koselleck proposed it as the sole organizing principle in a schema outlining the world’s three great epochs. These three ages, he believed, should be called pre-horse, horse and post-horse. The middle era lasted some 6,000 years. Transition to the post-horse period dates to the mid-20th century. In “Farewell to the Horse,” Ulrich Raulff has composed nothing less than a requiem Mass for this long-suffering, noble creature — a complex and lyrical argument that places the horse in a central role in the creation of the modern world. In his excavations of the 150-year period that makes up this long farewell, the author discovered something marvelous: “Horses had more meanings than bones.”

Radical change took shape when humans began to borrow — or rather, take by force — the horse’s speed and power. Raulff notes that the horse was a significant force in shaping history in large measure because a much smaller creature — man — harnessed and exploited its powerful capabilities. By asserting dominion over the horse — and thereby distant lands and peoples — humans galloped into the politics of conquest.

Today horses are merely “the ghosts of modernity,” Raulff writes. But in the 19th century they “enjoyed a colossal literary and iconographic career.” Raulff takes us through the stupendous cultural shift from agraian life to urbanized industrialization to the actual and symbolic roles of the horse in war and science and art. He shows that beyond pulling carriages, carts and artillery caissons, horses propelled science into a new age as a crucial subject in the study of anatomy, geneology and locomotion. With its contributions to increased production, improved transport and communication, and border crossings, the horse was “an outstanding agent of modernization.” In his searching examination of the horse’s symbolic significance, Raulff illustrates how the animal represented notions of victory, sovereignty, wealth, death and nobility.

Why horses used to wear bonnets, caps and peaked straw hats

But under the yoke of humans, horses have suffered. The poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller summed up the plight of Parisian horses in a line of an unfinished play he left behind after his death in 1805: “Paris is paradise for women, purgatory for men, hell for horses.” Horses fared no better in war. While 600,000 men lost their lives in the Civil War, some 1.5 million horses and mules also perished. Fighting the cavalry meant aiming a death shot at its largest target. In World War I, as Raulff writes, “by the final climax of the fighting on the Western Front in August 1918, the life expectancy of an artillery horse on the front was ten days.”

Peacetime was not very kind to horses, either. At the turn of the 20th century some 130,000 horses were at work on any given day in New York City, and 20 of them died daily. Raulff appropriately draws on a man whose name is synonymous with cruelty in an early anecdote. In January 1766, the police investigated an incident in Paris at the edge of the Place des Victoires involving a cab driver, his horse and an elegant aristocrat. The aristocrat had become enraged when the cab blocked his carriage, and in response, he had beaten the horse with his sword and stabbed it in the abdomen. “The signature on the ensuing legal document was that of an irascible character,” Raulff writes, “the Marquis de Sade.”

Today the horse is a creature from a lost pastoral myth. We commune with its spirit through literature and art, in the works of Flaubert, Tolstoy, Hardy, Kafka, Rosa Bonheur, George Stubbs and Edgar Degas. Raulff has given us an eloquent epitaph for the horse’s long relevance to our world.

By Ulrich Raulff

Translated from the German by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Liveright. 449 pp. $35