Farewell to the Horse, by Ulrich Raulff

If my assumptions were tested, I’d say from the tragic images of the First World War that it was the last time horses had figured in war – yet I now know that twice as many horses took part in, and died in the Second World War – mostly on the Eastern Front, where terrain made mechanised warfare ineffective. If I listed all the insights and lightbulb moments this book contained for me, I, and you, would be here all day. Raulff introduces us to the concept of ‘centaurism’ – the compound figure of man and horse, going to war as cavalry, working the land, travelling from home to explore and trade. The end of our close relationship of co-dependency with the horse brought about a growing sense of the need for compassion in our relationship with the horse (Nietzsche proverbially was known to have cradled a fallen horse in the street, calling him ‘my brother’) and a movement against cruelty to animals. The Last Century of Our Relationship. Not ‘our’ war, so I needed to be told this. Related Farewell to the Horse, by Ulrich Raulff
I would never have chosen this book to read without prompting. The relationship is as close as can be, but the dominant partner is man. 464pp
ISBN 9780241257609
Share this:TwitterFacebookPinterestEmailPrintGoogleLike this:Like Loading… He also explores other phenomena of essential ‘centaurism’, such as the place of the horse in the ‘Wild West’, in reality and on screen. In both of the 20th century world wars their death tolls exceeded those of serving soldiers. It is salutary that the starting point for the author is located in Germany, and therefore a new cultural reference point, from which he explores the English contribution to the horse world – racing and bloodstock, and the concept of bloodlines (he points out that in England horses led people in the passion for genealogy, with the Stud Book preceding Burke’s Peerage by some years). It’s thesis is that the relationship between man (mostly, and he discusses this) and horse which has lasted for at least 5000 years, reached its point of culmination in the last century and is now essentially over. They had already been replaced on the roads by mechanised transport. I shall have to buy the book though, as the frustration of navigating to access the illustrations only to find them tiny and indistinct, as well as flipping to the notes and contents pages, has been a nuisance. I will probably still never ride a horse, and my fear will still put a distance between me and them, but my admiration and respect are reinforced. Though in one of my favourite chapters he explores the role of the horse and the carriage in the tragic literary lives of Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Effi Briest. The book is a wide ranging cultural history of the horse, covering its place in art and icnography, literature, mythology, sexuality, the subconscious, and its place as the engine of everyday life, until steam and internal combustion suddenly overthrew it. As well as immensely moving writing on the horse in wartime, and the persistence of belief in cavalry as the vector for true heroism even after its cruel futility was clear, Raulff writes on the symbolism of the Leader, King or General, on horseback, showing his power thereby, even his simple height above others. The desire to read this book stole over me when I heard excerpts, read beautifully by Iain Glen, on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. But I love the book, and have learnt from it so much, that the double purchase is worth it. My attention was first caught by what I did not know about the last days of the horse in the 20th century. I’ve never ridden a horse (the nearest I’ve been to that is a donkey ride at the seaside when I was a child). But overwhelmingly, my feeling in reading this book is of the pathos and tragic potential of our history with the horse. So their primary relationship with horses, he contends, has developed since the new life we have with them as companions and partners in recreation. Ulrich Raulff’s wide ranging cultural history has been a huge success in Germany, and is now translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. London: Allen Lane, 2017. He explores at length the iconography of equestrian statues, and paintings, especially David’s seminal portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps. I’m frightened of them, and so when they snort and stamp I think – QED. His starting point is his memory of growing up in the fifties, and seeing the last days of horses working on the land. By then numbers of horses in Germany had collapsed after the Second World War from millions to less than a quarter of a million, and it had started its new life with humans as a companion and recreational animal. I’ve been reading this on a holiday when I’ve had to travel light, so have brought the Kindle version with me. In five 15 minute slots it was possible only to get the flavour of a book that answered so many questions that I never knew I’d asked about the relationship between human and horse. Only a few retired with honour. The primary figure on the human side is a man – women could ride, be driven or even drive – but they did not regularly breed, buy, care for or doctor horses, nor did they ride them to war – the stables were a man’s world. Horses regularly outlived their usefulness, and become subject to cruelty, or neglect. Ulrich Raulff: Farewell to the Horse. It is long and intense, and its breadth and depth are breathtaking. Horses for me are the great self-fulfilling prophecy: it’s said they can sense when you’re frightened of them. I too grew up in fifties in the English countryside, and my recollection is that here that process was complete – in North West Germany it must have taken a little longer. Other fascinating and wholly unexpected areas of interest are the growth of expertise around horses, the anatomists and horse doctors, the literature of horse knowledge, and even the philology of horses and the significance of their names. But they are beautiful creatures to view from a safe distance, and I hugely admire those who can forge a working relationship with them.