Their Ignorance and Majesty

Most Americans are at least a century removed from their dependence on horses. It is tempting to try to assign a precise date to the seismic shift to horseless carriages. Willa Cather sets her novella “Coming, Aphrodite!” in 1906, “almost the very last summer of the old horse stages on Fifth Avenue,” when the intruding automobile, “mis-shapen and sullen,” seemed “an ugly threat in a stream of things that were bright and beautiful and alive.” John Jeremiah Sullivan, who has much to say on the subject in his book Blood Horses, puts the date at 1913, “when Ford began using interchangeable parts.”

Our lost intimacy with horses has given rise to predictable nostalgia, as well as anxiety about a more encompassing alienation from the natural world, of which it is seen as a symptom. “Man has lost the horse,” D.H. Lawrence wrote portentously, “now man is lost.” In Edwin Muir’s wonderful poem “The Horses,” the banished beasts, “dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,” return to save lost humanity after an atomic apocalypse:

We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield
Or illustrations in a book of knights.

Some of the pathos of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit derives from the same reversal, as the businessman Charles Howard, after his young son’s death in a traffic accident, relinquishes his car dealership to try his luck with racehorses, his luxurious garages reverting to stables. Hillenbrand told an interviewer that the germ of the book was precisely this ironic turn of events: “I thought it was fascinating that a man who had made his fortune replacing the horse with the automobile would find his true greatness by teaming up with a frontier horseman [the trainer Tom Smith] who had been rendered obsolete by the automobile.”

And yet, the slow estrangement of horses and human beings—“that long-lost archaic companionship,” as Muir calls it—began long before, and played out across the rapidly industrializing nineteenth century. You might think that Edgar Degas, a great painter of horses, grew up on horseback. “No records, however, not even apocryphal legends, mention a horse—even as a toy—in the artist’s childhood,” writes the scholar Jean Boggs. Degas’s first attempts at painting horses were drawn from classical friezes—Muir’s “fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.” It was only when he schooled himself in Géricault’s depictions of horses, carefully copying, for example, the Louvre’s Five Horses Viewed from the Rear (1820–1822), that Degas began to acquire a sense of actual horses—second nature to an experienced rider like Géricault, who died, nonetheless, from injuries sustained in two serious falls.

Of course, the horseless carriages acquired their own glamour and, in time, their own speed. The premier American horse race and the premier American car race are now held annually at the beginning and toward …

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