Paleontology? Paleoanthropology? The Eocene era? If you had asked me if I wanted to read a book about these topics I would have glazed over. Not my sort of thing. But…… in the case of Wendy Williams’ book “The Horse” I would have been wrong and would have missed out on a marvellous read.
Wendy Williams’ curiosity about horses and their evolution started when she was observing her very clever half-Morgan horse Whisper. Whisper could let himself out of his stall , turn on water taps and other ingenious and not always wanted activities. Her most important question about horses was :” Why are they willing to share their lives with us? What biological roots, laid down in deep time, created the foundation for our mutual partnership?” And so her quest began.
She studied wild horses like the ones on Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia. These horses have been there for 250 years and survive on beach grass and sea peas. But even more remarkable is the fact that over the relatively short time, in evolutionary terms, of 250 years they have changed their physical structure. Most horses have long and angled pasterns suitable for running at speed. The Sable Island horses have evolved to have very short pasterns so their legs resemble a goat more than a horse. They do not need to run but they need to go up and down steep sand dunes and with longer pasterns would be injured and lame. They have made a wise evolutionary choice and are surviving with short pasterns. Horses over the millions of years of evolution have been adaptable and made good evolutionary choices. That’s why they are here and others are not.
Williams travelled to many places in the world where the fossils and bones of horses can be found to study their evolution over the 56 million years it has taken for our modern Equus to arrive. She travelled to Polecat Bench in Wyoming where the world’s earliest horse fossils can be found. And it is not only horse fossils that have been found here. Paleontologists have found another fossil here from the same time period, the earliest known fossil of a euprimate (a true primate). That’s our ancestors! Here is what Williams said of the moment she made the connection on Polecat Bench.
“So where I was standing on Polecat Bench was the spot where the deep-time foundation for the partnership between Whisper and me took a major step forward.” When I read this I almost got goosebumps. This is the deep-time foundation that all of us who are horse people have with out horses. Our connection with horses goes back this far.
Our history with horses can be traced through fossils and fossilized tracks,bones and cave art in many places in the world and Williams takes the reader to many of them on her journey of discovery. It is clear that we lived near and lived around horses from the beginning of our own evolution. Then came the momentous step forward. Riding! As Williams puts it: ” It’s no exaggeration to say that the invention of riding was to early civilization what the invention of computers has been to us: a genuine, world-shaking Revolution with a capital R. ” She explains that once we could ride we could travel as never before. No longer restricted to travel by boat on waterways we could head off across land. “Undulations of grass, daunting to a human on foot, became tantalizing temptations when we are mounted: Come hither, the grass whispers. See what’s over this next rise.” Do we not still here that whispering when out on a trail ride? I know I do.
Williams has done her homework for this book and writes with an easy style sprinkled with a sense of humor. She also devotes chapters to how horses see, how they communicate with us and the process of rewilding horses such as the Takhi in Mongolia. I found this to be a very interesting read and I came away with a much greater understanding of our long connection with horses and why we have it. Well worth reading.
* All of the books I review come from my own collection and I have not been paid or compensated in any way by a publisher or agent for my reviews. I review books I think other readers might like. However if you have a book would like me to review I would be happy to do so. *