Book Review: Farewell to the Horse

By Ulrich Raulff

Penguin Books; Non-fiction; ISBN 9780141983172; 449 pages; Paperback, Hardcover, Kindle

Reviewed by Margaret Evans

If you are a horse history buff, this is it. In Farewell to the Horse, author Ulrich Raulff takes an in-depth, thoroughly researched, and fascinating look at the contribution of the horse in the past few centuries.

This isn’t just the horse of exploration and farm fields but the horse of human affairs, cultures, romance, art, politics, and jolted memories of scorched earth times that still echo across the human psyche. The era of the cavalry is no exception.

“Two doctrines had developed within the cavalry: one that placed more emphasis on the will of the rider, and another that preferred to emphasize the nature of the horse; the two schools of thought had long been at loggerheads,” writes Raulff. “Wars depended not only on rifles and grenades; they would also be won by muscles and tendons. Or lost.”

But before then, horses and their prestige launched horse racing – the sport of kings. On the flying heels of beautiful, hot-blooded horses came the elite social hub of the nobility.

“Procuring Arabian horses, or rather oriental breeds, which also included Turks and Berbers, was no easy matter in the seventeenth and well into the eighteenth century; on the contrary it was a costly and time consuming, not to mention dangerous, enterprise,” he writes.

Besides the civil service, diplomatic service, the military and the law, a new, modern type of professional expert now emerged on the stud farm and the race track. Buyers, trainers, jockeys, handlers, and grooms all vied for attention as the social glitz, fame, and recognition tagged them to the celebrity racehorse whose name as winner, sire, or broodmare became meshed in the racing calendar and stud books.

Myth, legend, and the backstories to many historical paintings are told in fascinating ways and the book is well illustrated with pictures and photos. 

“If we consider the works of the painters who accompanied Napoleon’s rise, we cannot avoid the impression that the man was constantly riding on stallions from one battle to the next: the horseman of world history, a gentleman who prefers blondes,” he writes. “A world ruler such as Napoleon simply had to sit on a white steed; he owed this tribute to the apocalyptic tradition.”

Farewell to the Horse was originally written in German and published in 2015. It was translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp in 2017. 

The book is a fascinating and provocative read as it moves through much of the tumultuous times of war, change, and social upheaval to the point where, today, our dependence on the horse is no longer our own survival. But theirs. For anyone who loves the blend of story and academia, this is a bookshelf must-have.

Book Review: Farewell to the Horse