Soldier and horse during the Civil War. From ancient times, the horse was placed into battle.
If you've been reading this far, you'll know that I was knee deep in horse training over the holidays and, since one illustrious film about horses happened to be opening at that very same time, it would be inevitable that I would have to and see it.
This is a story about War Horses. I should probably preface this by saying that I am not a horse person. I was not raised around horses since I was knee high. I didn't show them, or win ribbons with them, nor did I understand those girls my age who dreamed about doing such things. In fact, I knew no such little girls, and was so far away from that life that I didn't know to be envious of the privileged lives they lead. Indeed, horses have become a thing of luxury.
You, most likely, are not a horse person. In fact, many people have never been on, or around horses in their lifetimes. The ever progressing world has made true horse power a thing of rarity, replaced by its wheeled successors. We are not horse people. But we should be.
I've written on this before, this idea of the Ode to the Horse. Because of my freakish curiosity about history and animals, I'd long known that, if you went back far enough, the horse--like farming--was part of everyone's family. So, no matter how "far" you think you've gotten, at one time, everyone and I mean, EVERYONE, owed something to the horse (and farmers, too).Without cars, horses pulled, carried, delivered, and saved countless things, and people.
I come from a long line of people who respected the horse from afar; those animals were first on the list of noble creatures, with a grand lot of lore and superstition surrounding them. My grandfather, perhaps best prepped for a horse lifestyle in the countryside of Europe, and whose main job was threshing on OTHER people's farms, did not work the beasts, and I remember a story in which he said the horses "were too good for the drudgery work of machines."
For a long time, because of my curiosity for all things old, I knew something of the history of the horses of WWI, and while I won't give away the story in the film, it shouldn't be too hard to figure out: folks, this is about war, and Mr. Spielberg, the director, has done a fine job of showing the brutality of the event on both men and beasts.
However, because of that dogged history fever of mine, I had to research it more myself. What I found was that war, itself was far more horrific than even the film portrayed.
People, that war eventually used 10 MILLION horses and mules from all sides involved in the war, with some estimates being that less than half returned. The example that floored me was Australia's record: that country sent roughly 120,000 horses towards the war effort. Only ONE returned home. In most cases, the pitiful beasts died of gunfire, disease and sheer exhaustion from pulling and carrying artillery and tanks for untold hours, on little food and rest.
If you're hot under the collar reading that, then this should raise your temperature as well: the number of dead animals are not ONLY due to war losses--those that survived the war were often then taken to SLAUGHTER in France and Italy; most horses were long missed from being identified by their rightful owners, and usually auctioned or sent off to the butcher. This, a fine way to treat animal heroes.
I could go on and on about so many parts of this story that are heartbreaking, and angering (and if you're shaking your head about my reaction to this, perhaps you should "call my father."), not the least of which is how this sort of history is so easily forgotten (but then, what am I talking about? The actual WWI monument was the last approved monument at Washington's Great Lawn, finally created long after most of it's veterans died).
Mostly, I just want to close my eyes and ears to the whole thing. I have NO IDEA why people treat animals this way (and for the record, millions of homing pigeons and dogs were also used during that conflict), and continue to do so. I have heard every story in the book as to why people can, and even should, discard animals....with horses it seems particularly so, as they have become nothing but pasture ornaments; indeed, the end of the Great War would signal the end of the Golden Age for horses--cars and automechanation would soon make them obsolete. You would never find as many horses as in the Edwardian Age, which preceded WWI.
I occurs to me, too, that most horses you will ever see are descendants, in some way, of those original battle equestrians of the First World War. Every horse is a war horse. They are made to do, and are in fact valued, when they do what we ask them to do, even if we force them into something so odious as war, a human thing no animal knows or should know.
And even now, when these animal lose their value, things like horse slaughter (yes, it exists and has now been reintroduced into the country), are perceived as necessary, or good. I have heard people tell me that they'd rather take their precious pet horse to slaughter, than have to pay the very expensive price to humanely euthanize it.
Oh horse people, how I envy you! How I envy your giant steeds, and how I even envy the day to day concerns you have for keeping your animals. Your same horse that came from a long line of horses who have probably suffered in some great way. Do we have other answers for them? Is it about more responsible breeding, more work for horses? Could these sort of answers be part of a dialogue we have for all domestic animals? If we are indeed the smartest creatures on the whole planet, can we find some better solutions for our animals then to simply send them away in trucks, lock stock and barrel?
Yes, these are complicated and frustrating issues, or maybe my mind is turning this over far too much. But I firmly hope the answer to much of the plight of equines isn't answered with the age-old, infamous question: "They shoot horses, don't they?"
Please note the below are pictures and videos of WWI horses. They are graphic in nature, so please use your own discretion in viewing