My Kingdom for a Horse
The Statistical Abstract of the United States, a bottomless compendium of useless facts, indicates that there are over 5 million households owning a horse or horses in America today, and that the total horse population is, give or take a few horses, about 13.5 million.
That seems like a lot of horses in a country where most people had already made the switch to the automobile by the end of World War I, and in which horses -- with a few exceptions like police horses, or carriage horses in places like New York's Central Park, or among the Amish -- are no longer working animals, strictly speaking.
When I was a boy in England, the milkman had a horse that not only pulled his milk wagon but knew enough to stop at every house to which he delivered milk on his route, and fresh fruits and vegetables were hawked from horse-drawn carts, but all of that is long since gone. Even on cattle ranches, the horses are more ornamental and traditional than useful these days.
At the same time, horses aren't exactly pets, like dogs and cats. For one thing, they don't live in the house, or even visit it. However domesticated the horse is, he's not part of domestic life; his place remains firmly outside, in the field, the corral, the paddock, or the stable, depending on the part of the country you live in. You go to visit the horse, the horse doesn't visit you. In other cultures -- among the Mongols, for example -- horsemen sleep with their horses, for warmth, one presumes, but that has never been the Anglo-Saxon way, even among old-time cowboys. However fond the rider may be of his mount, it's our custom to bed down at some distance from it. Little girls may fantasize about sleeping with their ponies, but not many actually do it, which is just as well, since horses of all sizes are restless sleepers, and very likely to kick out when disturbed. In any case, horses do most of their sleeping standing up.
So the horse occupies a peculiar and privileged position, not quite a pet, no longer a working animal, rooted, for many people, in the past, but flourishing in the present, admired even by people who don't ride, and apt not only to survive but to thrive almost anywhere.
A few words about my own involvement with horses. I came to horses early in life -- somewhere there is a picture of me on a small, shaggy pony at the age of about six -- but although I learned to ride, living as we did in Hampstead, on the outskirts of London, we never owned a horse.
My father Vincent and his two brothers, Zoltan, a few years older, and Alexander, the eldest, had grown up in rural Hungary before the invention of the motor car, so horses were neither a mystery to them nor an enthusiasm. Their father, Henry, a man with a fierce military bearing and mustache but with curiously melancholy eyes, had been a cavalry sergeant during his military service before he became the over-seer of the immense estate of the Salgo family on the Hungarian puszta, or plains, and certainly he rode a horse to go about his job. Of his children, neither Alex nor my father rode as adults, though both had been on horses as children, if only to take them back and forth from the fields to the stable. When World War I began, however, my uncle Zoltan was called up for military service and actually became a lieutenant in a cavalry regiment in the Austro-Hungarian Army, unusual for a Jew in those days, particularly in the army whose most famous veteran was the title character in Jaroslav Hasek's classic novel The Good Soldier Svejk. Zoli saw combat on the Galician front and was wounded, gassed, and taken prisoner by the Russians. He rode in at least one cavalry charge, and perhaps as a result, in later years he showed no desire to mount a horse again. Uncle Alex's eyes were bad enough to exempt him from military service. My father was conscripted and sent to an infantry regiment, where the colonel soon discovered both his ineptitude as a soldier and his talent as a painter and promoted him to sergeant, giving my father a small, cozy cottage as a studio, where he busied himself painting portraits of the colonel, the colonel's wife, the colonel's daughters, and the colonel's dog (a dachshund), as well as nudes of the colonel's mistress, until the war was over and he could return to art school. When he was not painting, he looked after the colonel's horse, and in later life, whenever he saw a horse in the street, he would stop, pet it, and feed it one of the lumps of sugar that he took from restaurants and kept in his pocket for just that purpose. He remained distantly fond of horses, if only because they reminded him of his youth -- the colonel's horse, he liked to say, had given him a good deal less trouble than the colonel's wife or mistress -- but not so fond as to explain my own involvement with horses over the years.
On my mother's side of the family, which was staunchly English, it's harder to say for sure what part horses played. My great-grandfather was always described rather grandly by his daughters -- Annie, my grandmother, and her more formidable older sister Maud-Mary -- as "having owned horses all his life," which was true enough, since he had a horse-drawn cart pulled by a succession of bony old nags, with which he made his way daily around the Liverpool streets, crying out, "Coal, coal!" to housewives.
My maternal grandfather, Octavius Musgrove, must have been interested in riding at one time ...