The Age of the Horse

  • By Susanna Forrest
  • Atlantic Monthly Press
  • 432 pp.
  • Reviewed by Gretchen Lida
  • July 15, 2018

This marvel of a book reveals an ancient man-animal relationship in all its complexities.

The Age of the Horse

There are few horse books truly worth reading. Most are formulaic and lazy in both plot and form because authors and publishers know that the cult-like obsession with hooved subjects will sell books regardless. Usually, readers must trip over equine-language go-to’s like “majestic,” “wild,” and “spirited,” and, of course, the biggest eye-roller of all, “two hearts beating as one.”

As an equestrian, I still scarf down such writing despite the clichés. I will share books with my fellow inmates of the Asylum Equus as long as the books fill the long hours of commuting, day jobs, miserable weather, and life circumstances that prevent us from spending time among our four-legged obsessions.

But it’s rare that I can recommend horse books that are more than just interesting morsels of history, fantasy, or commentary. Finding a literary horse book, one that is both substantial and presents a staggering use of language, is an impossible task akin to finding a 6-year-old, well-trained, sensible gelding for a reasonable price.

Susanna Forrest’s The Age of the Horse is just such a miracle, and it is by far one of the best books I’ve read in 2017.

The Age of the Horse is a collection of equestrian topics compiled in neat sections. Each includes detailed contemporary examples, delves into the history of the subject at hand, and provides careful analysis of the topic’s connections and implications.

Sometimes Forrest sheds interesting and complex light on common subjects such as horse training or the uses of horses as therapy animals. Other times, she takes out a shovel and opens up the graves of things we horse people are too squeamish to address.

Forrest is the brave one who helps us look at horses as a reflection of our relationship with money, or power, or food, or even each other. No matter the equestrian topic, her work makes webs of complexity that will keep readers turning pages.  

One darling topic of the horse world is the reintroduction of the Takhi, a Mongolian species and the only wild horse left in existence. Most of the recent writing on the horse's reintroduction covers either the struggles of maintaining the herds in Mongolia or the history of how the horses were able to return.

Forrest, however, takes a different approach. She doesn’t just tell us what Mongolia does for the Takhi, but what the Takhi has done for Mongolia. The Takhi has become an emblem for a country that is changing as rapidly as a summer storm across the steppe.

Forrest had the same care for even the thorniest of topics in equestrian circles: horse meat. Trying to summarize this section would take up this entire review, but it would also be an injustice to the beauty of the section itself. Instead, I can confidently say that I know the topic of horse meat causes fistfights even between friends in jodhpurs or Stetsons, but Forrest’s delicate clarity will help her readers understand the subject and decide for themselves.

In the horse-meat section, she describes coming to the slaughter facility and seeing the horses in front of her:

“A is a racer, a show horse, a mustang, a mistake, a dobbin, a wild hope, a cherished drop of DNA, a farm labourer, and then he changes, becomes a trail horse, a therapy horse, a disappointment, a buggy horse, a saved horse, a lawn ornament, a pet, a parcel of renderings. As they travel through the economic sorting machine, some horses lose what little ID they have — their breed certificates, their names, their histories. They often arrive at their destination blank.”

Prose this beautiful peppers the entire book. As a writer and narrator, Forrest’s passion rings true on each page, yet her bias seldom appears, and the reader is never quite sure what her exact feelings are on her equine subjects and the humans they impact.

This would be a failing in most books, but in this one, it is a marvel. Curiosity is the organizing principle of The Age of the Horse, and what a virtuous principle it is. I expect this book to be found dog-eared in schooling barns and pristinely kept on the shelves of writing professors. It is a triumph, and one to be enjoyed by anyone looking for a good read.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2017.]

Gretchen Lida is an essayist and equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Earth Island Journal, Horse Network, and many other publications. She is currently seeking a publisher for her book, Beware the Horse Girl: Essays for the Awkward Equestrian. Follow her on Twitter at @GC_LidaGretchen.

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