Farewell to the Horse by Ulrich Raulff – Review
By Richard Barnett
The latter part of this book’s title – ‘The Final Century of Our Relationship’ – might appear to be casting the shadow of the grim reaper across its pages, but this book is anything other than the last rites.
The premise, that the horse was once a big player in our everyday lives but now isn’t, is a fascinating one – and on that basis there is a strong story to be told. Add in the small road diversions that deviate off the main story that reveal how the horse was sidelined in so many ways – especially by mechanisation – and here is a tale that anyone with even the slightest interest in animals really ought to read.
The work, translated from German by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, starts off slowly and with perhaps too much of an intellectual tone. This could perhaps be down to the translator not getting fully into her word-smithing, but by the second chapter the prose is thundering along like those out in front in The Oaks.
“Sympathy and love for his subject”
With so much to cover, Raulff sets himself a truly Herculean task with this work. But it is ultimately a success in a truly distinctive and appealing way.
From the horses that worked the fields across Europe well into the 1950s, to the earliest days of horse racing (and the international influence of the English on the ‘Sport of Kings’), to the disgusting, inhumane battlefields of Crimea, through to the Barbarossa campaign, the author informs and explains equine history in a clear, understanding way. This is the mark of an author who has sympathy and love for his subject.
Some of what Raulff covers is harrowing, but there are also lighter, almost comical notes, including how early 19th Century horse racing clearly sets the tone for the sometimes shady image the spit and sawdust silver rings still sometimes cultivate with punters today.
“There is some humour, and there is hope too”
Vets, soldiers, racing jockeys, farriers, Europe’s landed gentry – it’s all covered here, along with those highly experienced horsemen on the Steppes. There is some humour, and there is hope too.
In many parts of the world horses may no longer be the main source of transport (although in other parts they clearly still are). Today, they are more kept as sources of pleasure, from pony clubs to top flight international racing. Perhaps now we can enjoy a more healthy, civilised relationship with these wonderful animals. Whether we will or not remains to be seen.
‘Farewell to the Horse – The Final Century of Our Relationship’ is Published by Allen Lane, £25