Book Review: ‘The Horse – The Epic History of Our Noble Companion’

The quintessential must-read story of Equus.


Acclaimed journalist Wendy Williams set out to write one of the most ambitious and comprehensive books imaginable: the history of the horse. Her ambition was not in vain, and the result is a stirring journey with a tremendous amount of heart, wonder and scientific detail.

Williams takes the reader around the world to the most critical sites both past and present to understand the story of horses, from early human renderings of the horse that date back more than 30,000 years to observing wild horses on the Pryor Mountain Range in Nevada (“Watching them is an invitation to fall in love with their backstories”); from the Polecat Bench in Wyoming where the horse’s 56 million-year-old ancestors came to rest as a precious scientific relic to horse tracks in the fossilized ashes of a volcano in Zimbabwe set there 3.6 million years ago. Each of these narratives and many more are expertly woven together to teach the reader why their beloved horse walks the way he walks, chews the way she chews, and sees the way he sees.

The narratives are a perfect vehicle for teaching the reader about each piece of the scientific equine puzzle, but also how horses came to be the poetic, powerful, and evocative companions of humans in the past several thousand years. From chiseled sculpture to cave art, man has been obsessed with the equine form in a way distinctly different from wild game, and Williams’ exploration of these clues about ancient man and horse are as engrossing as her science while every bit as careful not to project or postulate.

By far the most engrossing elements were those which dealt with the horse’s ability to adapt. Its early ancestors had an easy life, and only through unbelievable adaptability and reactive changes in physical evolution was the horse that we know today able to be wrought from history. As Williams says, “Horses were born into a silver-spoon existence, into a world where food was easily available and temperatures were comfortable. Then the world changed, and the horses were tested and hardened.” Williams walks us through the many layers of the climatic and evolutionary process with page-turning charisma and killer accuracy, a rarity in this type of non-fiction.

In the discussion of the Epihippus, an equine ancestor that lived 46-38 million years ago, Williams discusses how close this little critter in the American West came to dying out completely; a slightly different course of events, and the horse as we know it would never have come close to existing at all:

I picked up a tooth, only a few millimeters in size. Had Epihippus become extinct, there would have been. . . no horses to carry people over the North American sea of grass, no horses to bring Genghis Khan and his men from the far end of Asia to the gates of Vienna, no war horses, no plow horses, no cow ponies or wild horses. We humans would be living a much lonelier life. Not to mention what would have happened to civilization itself.

Equally riveting is her chapter-long delve into the equine eye. The thoughtful dialogue on color, depth perception and light are invaluable to the horseman not only as a point of passionate curiosity, but also to understanding equine behavior. This segues well into a discussion on equine neuroscience and what we’ve managed to learn about the brain of the horse — and what is still left to learn.

The conclusion of the book perfectly ties up all the previous narratives, as seen through the lens of the “rewilding” of the Takhi horses (also known as Przewalski horses) in Mongolia. The research, the stories, the fossils, the evidence, the centuries-long questions about the story of the horse seem poetically answered in the story of Inge and Jan Bouman’s attempts to liberate the wild horse from zoos and back onto the Steppe, and the conclusion will leave your skin tingling.

Wendy Williams’ ode to the horse could not have been written by any other; her devotion to the sites, the players, the facts, and the science are matched only by her devotion to the horse itself. The result is a book that horse people will read and reference among their friends for years to come, continuing the 30,000 years of tradition humanity has established of longingly seeking ever more closeness and understanding with the horse.

Go Riding.

The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion is available here in paperback or e-book. Readers may also be interested to hear Wendy’s recent interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition, which you can listen to on the player below. 

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