By Gentleness Confined
The problem with horses is that, though to an animal-loving public they can appear cute and cuddly – even those hulking great monsters the Police use for crowd control – their soft, furry exterior masks a core of granite.
You see, the horse evolved as a prey animal. From the time it emerged as a small, fox-sized Hydracotherium (Eohippus) from the forests to graze the expanding grasslands, its evolution raced that of the predators which chased it. It grew taller, heavier, faster.
Then man intervened.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the average cavalry remount stood around 15 hands high (5 feet at the shoulder) and weighed between one third of and half a ton. Not a massive horse by today’s standards, but plenty big and heavy enough to kill you if the animal decides to trap you between itself and a wall.
You can always try to run away, but it can accelerate from zero to forty miles an hour in twelve yards!
And a horse can kick faster than Roger Federer serves an ace. In fact the sharp ‘crack’ sometimes heard when a horse kicks out is nothing to do with its joints, but its foot breaking the sound barrier! And if it merely steps on your foot, almost fifty pounds-per-square-inch pressure forcing a steel horseshoe onto your toes is no laughing matter.
Then, of course, there are the teeth. Designed for biting through tough vegetation, a horse’s incisors can tear through your shirtsleeve and rip the skin off your arm. Lovely.
So bearing all this in mind, why on earth were horses ever domesticated? And despite everything we put them through, why do they remain so tractable, so…forgiving?
I don’t know the answer. I suspect no-one does. So in mitigation I offer the opening lines of Ronald Duncan’s famous poem, read each year at the finale of Britain’s Horse of the Year Show:
Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
Friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity?
Here, where grace is laced with muscle
And strength by gentleness confined.
Maybe that’s it.