Newspaper article International New York Times

The Horse, 'A Scientific Travelogue'

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Horse, 'A Scientific Travelogue'

Article excerpt

A biography of the horse and its long, complex partnership with people.

The Horse. The Epic History of Our Noble Companion. By Wendy Williams. Illustrated. 304 pages. Scientific American/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

In June 1976, a friend of mine and I went for a hike in the Virginia Smokies, where black bears live. Although my friend would soon become a distinguished science writer, one of the pleasures of our friendship was scaring each other silly. We kept joking about those bears. Halfway up Mount Rogers, we got caught in a thunderstorm and took shelter under a rock face that leaned into canopy. It was a fine hide-out, but it was not ours alone. Under our feet we saw the scat of a large animal, copious and dark -- and fresh. Never mind the lightning; we ran.

The trail rose into meadow where we were greeted by the actual authors of that dung, about 20 wild ponies, shaggy and mud-caked. They made us nervous, bumping up against us like groupies, but what we felt for them, as the sun came out -- animals five or six times our size, who sought our company but could be depended upon not to eat us -- was love.

Love is the driver for Wendy Williams's "The Horse." What she calls "our love affair with horses" is at least as old as a tiny (1 inch by 2 inches) ivory horse from the Vogelherd cave in Germany, one of the oldest works of art by a human. "Across 35 millennia, you can almost hear him snort and see him toss his head." His ice age sculptor, who feared lions and cave bears, must have loved the graceful horse at least in part for its vegetarian bias. Ms. Williams is surely right: "This ivory carver spent a lot of time watching wild horses." Her mission is to persuade us to do the same.

The author promises "a scientific travelogue, a biography of the horse and a worldwide investigation into the bond that unites horses and humans," and she delivers all three in this restless, surprisingly compact book, but she can't quite clinch her hypothesis: that horses and humans are bound to one another in a fashion that "is somehow encoded in our genes."

Although she has ridden horses all her life, Ms. Williams is ready to relinquish the horse's usefulness to humans as the best guarantee of its future. In her world, watching wild horses will be enough.

We have studied horses the better to work them, breed them, race them. The time has come, Ms. Williams argues, to observe the social behavior of free-roaming horses systematically, over the long term. The science of horse ethology is in its infancy, but has already dispelled certain myths. Ms. Williams eschews the old term "harem" because the stallion is less fully the boss of his little band than we used to think. One horse ethologist she visits says "only about half the foals in the bands he studied are sired by the band's closely associated stallion. …

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