It’s interesting to reflect on the animals that humans have chosen as frequent companions–or that have chosen humans. While we’ve kept just about every possible creature as a pet, status symbol/zoo animal, or beast of burden, a select few have appeared over and over through the course of history.
The dog makes a fair degree of sense. Pack animal, fellow omnivore and predator, useful for hunting and war as well as companionship. The cat, some believe, has attached itself to humans not only as a useful hunter of vermin but also as a companion through a form of mind control. Not that it takes much to attach a human to a soft, warm, gently vibrating pillow creature with big round eyes and a little squeaky voice. We’re wired for that, it seems.
But horses? They’re big, they need significant amounts of either land or exercise, they generate mountains of manure (admittedly useful as fertilizer), and they’re extremely expensive to keep. Why are they still on the shortlist of domestic animals?
Historical of course the domestication of the horse (and its cousin the donkey) makes a great deal of sense. A large, relatively docile, strong and fast animal that can pull a vehicle or carry cargo or people is key to the movement of human populations and also the pursuit of that favorite human activity, war. It’s useful for farming and logging as well, along with the ox and the elephant, but it’s the speed and agility of the horse that does it, while also the size and physical structure that allows humans to ride comfortaby and for long distances.
But once machines had taken over most of the jobs that horses previously excelled at, why did they stay on as companion animals? Donkeys receded from the First World though they continue elsewhere as cheap, sturdy transport and work animals. Oxen are a rarity now, though cattle in general continue to produce milk and meat in massive quantities.
Horses never caught on as milk or meat animals, and not only because cattle are regarded as better options for both. There’s more to their relationship with humans than strict utility.
Some of it is mythos. The horse was the premier companion in war for many human cultures. He was worshipped as a god in some, but more than that, he was the reason why and the means by which warrior cultures perpetuated and expanded themselves. Like the human warrior, the horse was accorded a level of respect and adulation that went well beyond its usefulness as a tool.
When both war and transport shifted to machines, a non-trivial part of the mythos went with it, but a large proportion of it stayed. The beauty and power of the horse continued to feed the symbolic importance of the species in various cultures.
And then, as machines freed the affluent from the need to treat horses as tools, a way opened for them to become sports equipment and companions. No longer a necessity for the movement and carriage of people and goods, the horse became, like the dog and the cat, an essential part of many humans’ sports and recreation.
The gender balance shifted, too. Males gravitated toward machines and mechanical tools, opening the way for girls and women to become the dominant equestrian population in Western culture. There are even psychological explantions for this, having to do with strength, power, and subversion of patriarchy. A woman competes equally with a man in only one range of Olympic sports: Equestrian. The horse is the great equalizer.
So far we haven’t found any indication of mind control, but the passion of the horse enthusiast is a notable thing. Owning a horse is an expensive proposition, and maintaining one is labor- and time-intensive. It takes dedication to pursue the sport, and a level of emotional connection that matches that of dog and cat enthusiasts. Maybe even exceeds it, considering how much more work and expense is involved.
So–why? Is it the freedom? The rush of speed and power? The emotional connection? The minutiae of care, training, feeding, management? The mythos? The physical attractiveness of the animal? What does it for us?