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Perhaps the most evocative and oft-invoked metaphor for human consciousness is that of the rider and the horse — the rational mind trying to bridle the irrational surge of animal instinct, the two always conspiring in driving our experience of reality and, in turn, our behavior. It may be that human and horse are so entwined because the hoofed species has been our constant companion since the infancy of our own. From inspiring our earliest art to feeding philosophy’s greatest metaphor for free will to catalyzing the invention of motion pictures, horses have not only borne witness to our civilizational evolution but propelled its gallop into modernity.
The invisible dimensions of horses’ civilizing function are what Diane Ackerman explores in a portion of Deep Play (public library) — her altogether enchanting inquiry into the evolutionary and existential purpose of transcendent play.
Illustration of the Trojan horse from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer for young readers
Although horses have accompanied and aided us as we’ve fought wars, built roads, and mastered agriculture, their most seismic function in humanizing humanity came in shrinking the scale of the world and, in doing so, broadening our scope of existential possibility. Even after horses were superseded by mechanical means of “annihilating space and time,” equine metaphors and metrics remained engrained in our consciousness. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the invention of railroads forever changed our relationship to speed, and yet a vivid account of riding on the first passenger train referred to the novelty of steam engines as “curious little fire-horses.”
Ackerman considers what the centrality of that metaphor in our language reveals about the indelible imprint horses left on the human psyche:
James Watt, an eighteenth-century engineer, decided that if he wished people to understand the power of his new invention — the steam engine — he would need to compare it to a team of horses. He measured how much weight a single brewery horse could pull, and concluded that, in one minute, one horse could move 33,000 pounds one foot. We still calibrate machinery in horsepower and if that seems archaic it also feels viscerally right, because horses have amplified the destiny of everyone on earth. Horses have made civilization possible.
Long after dogs, sheep, and cattle became familiars, around the third millennium B.C., humans first began to domesticate horses, to rope and bridle them for work, and then to think of them as possible extensions of the human body. It must have taken blood-and-thunder courage for the first person to leap onto the back of a wild, biting, bucking, limb-flailing horse, but that act of daring led to a world filled with such ordinary miracles as airplane flight.
But the most profound impact horses had on how we live our lives had to do with how we love our loves — something so elemental that it shapes nearly every other aspect of being. Ackerman chronicles the magnitude of this shift:
People no longer conducted romances as they did before horses — suddenly they could court someone from across the river, or in a different valley. “Courting distance” was twelve miles — how far a rider could comfortably ride, spend a little time visiting, and return home, all in one day. The relationship of married children and parents changed; they could visit often; good-bye was not forever; there was no need to abandon them if they married someone from a far-flung town. People no longer fought wars only with neighbors. Mounted attacks were to be feared, and it made sense to condense dwellings into a small area for mutual defense. Riders could carry silk, spices, and other trade goods to far lands. Families could arrange marriages over greater distances, even with people in other countries, and so the gene pool began to change. Riders sowed the seeds of language and culture throughout the world. In time, the horse carried such trends as “romantic love” from the Middle East through Spain and into southern France. The horse altered the way people earned their livings, how they educated their young, where they vacationed, how they thought of news, what sports they played, how they raised crops, where they worshiped, how they conducted government, and whether or not they could rescue one another in the event of catastrophes. The horse revamped the limits of our personal freedom, and enriched what we mean by a pilgrimage. Most of all, it enhanced how we picture the human body, that personal space in which we live, making it elastic and swift. If one wished, one could ride to town for a quick chore or a social gathering. Until very recently, horses completely dominated one’s business and leisure hours. It was inconceivable to imagine a world without horses being used for transport, portage, sports, and war.
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