Where have all the horses gone?
- The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey through Human History by Susanna Forrest
Atlantic, 418 pp, £9.99, October 2017, ISBN 978 0 85789 900 2
- Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship by Ulrich Raulff, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
Penguin, 448 pp, £9.99, February 2018, ISBN 978 0 14 198317 2
Eight million horses perished in the First World War, along with untold numbers of donkeys and mules, just as the ascendency of the car made clear that the pervasiveness of the horse as a working animal was coming to an end. The disappearance of the horse from urban –and later rural – life didn’t happen overnight. Horses and donkeys were still found in great numbers in British towns and cities until just after the Second World War, when the shift to motorised transportation of goods caused the collapse of the equine market and 200,000 city animals were euthanised in a two-year period. The farm population dropped steeply, from nearly 1.1 million in 1944 to 147,000 a decade later. What Isaac Babel called obyezloshadenie, or dehorsification, unfolded over a longer period, and more recently, than we might think.
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Vol. 40 No. 15 · 2 August 2018
Eric Banks writes about ‘dehorsification’ (LRB, 5 July). As his piece suggests, the transition from horse-powered agriculture to mechanisation was not without disruption. My grandfather Lewis Doxtad in eastern Nebraska allocated about one quarter of his farm to grazing and the production of oats to feed the horses that drew the plough and the harvester. In the late 1920s tractors became available that could plough twice as deep as a horse-drawn plough, bringing up the rich fertility in his loess soils, so fertility-building crop rotation wasn’t necessary. But the droughts of the 1930s dried out the soil exposed by the deep ploughing, leading to the Dust Bowl and mass migration from the Midwest to industrial towns or California. With oil at ten cents a barrel, the farmers who remained borrowed heavily to mechanise. Land that had been used to feed horses was turned over to food production, which increased by a third. The resulting glut of food drove down prices and caused extremes of poverty. Banks foreclosed on farmers when they couldn’t repay their debts. When, during the Second World War, Europe’s wheat fields became battlefields, US farmers’ incomes rebounded. After the war, across the world fully mechanised farming became dependent on chemical fertility inputs and, as the vitality of the soil diminished, fungicides and pesticides. It has been estimated that the world has lost a third of its arable land in the last forty years.
Hastings, East Sussex
Around the turn of the last century, my great-grandfather Herbert Layzell co-owned with his business partner, Jack Mallet, a livery yard in Chelsea of fifty Hackney horses for Hansom carriages. Mallet was well thought of by Earl Cadogan, who gave him a mad but very fine grey stallion, with which he struggled along the Embankment, throwing the halter round each lime tree in turn to the laughter of his fellow cab drivers, who didn’t believe he would ever calm it down, still less nurse it to health. He proved them wrong, until one day in 1914 a requisitioning officer insisted, against Mrs Mallet’s protests, on taking the horse to war, as his own steed. She shot it rather than letting it suffer the Great War.
Lewes, East Sussex
Vol. 40 No. 17 · 13 September 2018
Hans Fallada’s recently rediscovered classic Iron Gustav, written in 1938, supplies a German illustration of the ‘dehorsification’ described by Eric Banks (LRB, 5 July). At the novel’s outset in 1914, the patriarch Gustav Hackendahl runs a successful Berlin horse cab business, but he sells off his best horses cheaply for the war effort, which together with the economic effects of total war, undermines the financial viability of his business. After the war, the breakdown of Hackendahl’s family mirrors the wider social crisis. Automobiles take over the city, his horse and cab becomes increasingly anachronistic, and he isn’t respected by his children or by society. Finally he gains a fleeting fame when the press celebrates the oldest cabbie in Berlin after he makes a solo trip to Paris.
The ambivalence of this dénouement, with the French-inflicted humiliations of Versailles and the occupation of the Ruhr redeemed by a journey of atavistic, essentially friendly nationalism, did not impress Joseph Goebbels, who as minister of propaganda required substantial rewrites, correctly suspecting Fallada of anti-Nazi sympathies. The Nazis were keen to make their own use of equine symbolism, as evinced by the pair of bronze horses outside the Reich Chancellery. Cavalry also played a visual role in the invasion of Paris in 1940, in stark contrast to Hackendahl’s benign journey. In a grim irony, fuel shortages during the occupation of France resulted in the reappearance of the horse-drawn fiacre.