WATCHING WILD HORSES
There is no doubt that horses will exist as long as the human race, and that is well, for we still have so much to learn about them.
— C. WILLIAM BEEBE, naturalist
Sometime around thirty-five thousand years ago, when much of Europe was locked up in sheets of ice that pulsated sluggishly over the land like frozen heartbeats, an unknown artist acquired a bit of mammoth ivory. Perhaps he found the ivory lying on the ground. Or maybe a group of hunters brought it to him as an offering.
This mysterious craftsman possessed phenomenal skill. Wielding with great precision a set of exquisitely honed stone tools, he began carving a masterpiece. A magnificently arched stallion's neck appeared, breathtaking in its extraordinary combination of muscular potency and simple natural grace.
The earliest example of an archetype that has since then appeared in art worldwide, this horse embodies the essence of majesty. He is the supreme example of Platonic form, "an abstraction of the graceful essence of the horse," in the words of the anthropologist Ian Tattersall, or, more simply, the rasa of horse, to use a Sanskrit term. The curvaceous line of his head and neck flows smoothly into his withers and backline, creating an elegant S curve that finishes just below the hindquarters. The head, slightly cocked, gives the animal an air of fortitude and deep contemplation.
When we see him, we love him. And we recognize him: This sculpture could have been carved only yesterday. Across thirty-five millennia, you can almost hear him snort and see him toss his head, warning encroaching stallions to take care. Called "esthetically perfect" by his current curator, Harald Floss of Germany's University of Tübingen, this two-inch-long marvel, standing only about an inch high, is known as the Vogelherd horse, in honor of the cave in southern Germany in which it was discovered.
The carving provides evidence that the emotional bond between horses and humans began long, long ago — tens of thousands of years before human civilization began, well before horses became domesticated, well before we kept horses in our barns and in our fields to be used as tools. We have no idea who created this tour de force, but we do know one thing: this ivory carver spent a lot of time watching wild horses, studying their social interactions and learning their body language. He carved his subject confidently, with a sure hand.
We also know that the artist was a member of the first group of thoroughly modern humans to create a substantial presence in Europe. These people, Aurignacians, revered not just horses but many animals. Their art is exquisite — but it's so much more than that. It's a scientifically valuable body of evidence that provides us with precious data, including a record of the wildlife with which early humans shared Ice Age Europe's river valleys, marshlands, and open plains. This record consists of an endless array of painted caves, countless bas-relief sculptures, sketches and etchings, and many, many more carvings — all of which depict, sometimes in great detail, the strange animals like woolly rhinoceroses living in Pleistocene Europe.
Some of these creations are of impressively high quality — and yet, the art is far from rare. In fact, it's curiously omnipresent. Archaeological sites containing art from this time have been found in western Spain, in Italy, and in France, and all the way east into Russia. A modern admirer could easily set aside a whole summer to study them and still have seen only a small portion. Nevertheless, common as this art is, its mere existence is almost miraculous: Aurignacian art appears in the European archaeological record seemingly quite suddenly, as though a genie waved a hand and humans became creative. There are no obvious precursors, no clear antecedents that show any kind of learning curve. Of course, archaeologists say, this could not be literally true. There must have been some learning period, complete with an upward-moving arc of acquired skills, but, as of now, almost no evidence of this arc has been discovered.
The phenomenon is so remarkable that some researchers once suggested that the Homo sapiens brain, already around for well over a hundred thousand years, may have undergone a sudden neurological advance — some shift in the human psyche that brought about the creative impulse. That theory is no longer in vogue, but it is clear that something monumental had occurred. Otherwise, scientists are at a loss to explain the ivory carver's tiny talisman.
The Vogelherd horse, caught in the act of behaving with such supreme hauteur, is so much more than a simple symbol — he's a living animal, frozen in a specific instant in time. He is about to strike out with a forefoot, or perhaps about to sidle up to a mare. He is the modern Friesian stallion pacing anxiously in our pastures, just about to shake his head, or the American mustang running free on the open plains, about to pose against some red-rock cliffs, or the accomplished dressage horse about to execute a perfect piaffe, that beloved classical movement that shows off a horse's contained energy and flowing grace.
All of this begs the question: Why? Why did the artist care so much about a horse? Was this a religious icon? Was it tradable currency? Did it confer a stallion's energy on its human possessor? Or was it perhaps not important at all, but just a toy made one winter afternoon to entertain the kids?
Whatever its purpose, this stallion was not put on a pedestal and simply admired. He was handled. A lot. The artist carved tiny lines into the horse's back, and the lines are now well-worn by having been touched many times by human hands.
The answers to our questions may be forever elusive, but we do know one thing. We share with the ancient artist a powerful emotional response: we today are just as mesmerized by horses as were people thirty-five thousand years ago. Even today, separated as we are from the natural world, we yearn for contact with horses. Just ask any mounted policeman.
Although the ancient carving is shrouded in mystery, he had plenty of company. For the next twenty thousand years, until the ice finally melted and Europe entered our present warm period, artists created horses in whatever medium they favored — ivory, antler, wood, stone, paint.
Horses are the stars of Ice Age art. Indeed, horses are the most frequently represented animal in the twenty-thousand-year period that preceded the advent of farming and what we call civilization. At Abri de Cap Blanc in France, a fifteen-thousand-year-old rock overhang under which people lived, a nearly life-size bas-relief of horses was carved into the rock wall that served as a backdrop for day-to-day family life. When I visited this site, the stone carving reminded me of kitchen art — something to ponder while you stir the soup — yet the Cap Blanc horses are as vivid as any created by Leonardo da Vinci. They seem to come alive and jump out of the rock when light flickers over them.
Hundreds of miles west of Cap Blanc, in the caves of the Spanish north coast, sensitively drawn ponies frolic on the walls with joy and abandon. Thousands of miles east, in Russia's Ural Mountains, horses sketched in red ocher grace the walls of Kapova Cave. On the walls of Chauvet Cave in southern France, painted horses stand in small groups, watching the wildlife around them, including lions prowling nearby. Some Chauvet horses graze while others keep watch. Elsewhere in the cave, a timid horse peeks out from behind a rock. What is he afraid of? The hunting lions? A powerful stallion?
Ice Age artists seemed to know everything about horses. Until Leonardo came along and actually studied the horse's anatomy, no other artists equaled these Pleistocene virtuosos in their portrayal of what it was like to be a horse. To me, these first-known, highly accomplished artists are also the world's first animal behaviorists. They must have spent hours and days and months and years just watching. They understood horses' facial expressions, how their nostrils flared when they were frightened, how their ears betrayed their inner emotions, how they sometimes stood together in small bands, and how, sometimes, they would wander alone and seem rather forlorn. From this art, we know that long before horses became our tools, long before the bit and the bridle were invented, we Homo sapiens adored watching wild horses.
Sadly, though, in the modern world, this has become something of a lost art. While we enjoy seeing free-roaming horses, few of us sit quietly and study them in depth. Consequently, we suffer from lack of context. We see what the horse is doing, but we don't always know why he's doing it. We know little about how horses really behave when they're out of our sight. We see horses standing in our barns and pastures and mistakenly assume that what we see is the essence of "horse." I've always thought this rather strange.
On the other hand, ethologists study the behavior of lions in the wild, of birds, of monkeys, of whales, and of elephants. Their research has enriched our view of what it means to be part of the living universe, so that we now understand that we all fit into a finely woven web, and that this web, in a reasonably healthy state, is central to our own well-being. We may be top dog when it comes to creating an electronic society, but other animals have talents in other areas that far exceed ours.
This revolution in our understanding of the natural behavior of animals was brought into the public spotlight in the 1960s by authors such as the Nobel Prize–winner Konrad Lorenz, whose bestselling books included King Solomon's Ring and On Aggression. Lorenz was particularly well-known for establishing scientifically the importance of attachment in the lives of animals. He emphasized that studies of animals in laboratory settings did not reveal the true nature of various species. To understand that, he wrote, animals must be observed in the context in which they naturally live.
His books caused a worldwide transformation in our thinking about wildlife. Young scientists from many different nations set up research sites in remote parts of the world and methodically recorded the behavior of the animals they watched. For example, for more than forty years, Jane Goodall and her team have studied chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. When Goodall began her work, she shocked — "shocked" is not too strong a word — the world by reporting that primates commonly fashioned and used tools. So much for the formerly unshakable status of humans as the only toolmakers on Planet Earth. At about the same time, in the 1960s, Roger Payne and Scott McVay studied the behavior of humpback whales and found that they communicate with each other by singing what Payne called "rivers" of sound. So much for the status of humans as the only beings with sophisticated communication systems. Crows are adept at creative problem solving. Octopuses use their arms to open jars, to build complicated rock shelters, even to carry seashells in case they need emergency housing. Elephants use teamwork to protect family members. Bats echolocate. Bees have swarm intelligence.
But what about horses? What are their special powers? How much has modern ethology learned about the natural behavior of horses? Not much, it turns out. Why? If our fascination with the details of horse behavior stretches back at least thirty-five thousand years, as the evidence shows us, why have horses been left out of this scientific reformation? Equine scientists have studied the best way to train show horses, the best way to feed racehorses, the best way to heal the delicate bones in a lame horse's feet. But the natural behavior of horses was rarely considered to be of scientific interest. Only a handful of ethologists had watched wild horses in a methodical manner. And of the studies that were done, very few were long-term projects akin to those of Jane Goodall.
That's beginning to change.
* * *
Jason Ransom and I were talking about this one July evening in Cody, Wyoming, a gateway town near Yellowstone National Park, founded by Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West showmen more than a century ago. Ransom, an equine ethologist, and I had met a year earlier at an international conference held in Vienna that was attended by scientists who study free-roaming equids — horses, zebras, onagers, wild asses, and donkeys — at sites located around the world. Ransom invited me to come and meet some of his study subjects — several populations of wild horses who roam regions of Wyoming and Montana. He had followed their behavior over a period of five years and discovered some behaviors that upended many long-held myths about how horses bond with and interact with each other.
Meeting up in Wyoming, we spent several days watching Ransom's study subjects and watching the people who came from around the world just to watch the horses. Like our Ice Age ancestors, these people sat for hours, enjoying the scene. Small groups talked among themselves, discussing the horses and interpreting their actions. Some people even camped out, so they could observe the horses for a complete twenty-four-hour period. It made for an entertaining time, and I could easily imagine a similar scene tens of thousands of years earlier: people relaxing in the summer sunshine and discussing what the horses were up to.
That particular July evening, after a great day of wild horse watching, Ransom and I were leafing through one of several books of Ice Age art that I had brought. As we looked at the reproductions of Ice Age prancing ponies painted on the walls of many different caves in France and Spain, we talked about how many of the complex behaviors shown on those prehistoric cave walls were behaviors we had seen in real life just hours earlier.
We discussed the power of horses over the ancient human mind and compared it to the power of horses over the modern human mind. Horses and humans, we realized, have so much in common: we are both the result of tens of millions of years of planetary upheavals, of the ebb and flow of plant life, of rising mountains and shifting ocean currents. Because of this common evolutionary heritage, we are drawn to horses in a way that's rudimentary, elemental, even atavistic. Consider the tantalizing story of Nadia, an autistic savant who, at the age of three, broke out of her shell by suddenly — spontaneously, without any training at all — drawing spectacular galloping horses, horses with flowing manes and tails, horses created from memory but perfectly, sublimely depicted in correct proportion. Nadia could have chosen to draw any number of animals, but what drew her attention was horses. Perhaps, Ransom and I thought, a fascination for horses is somehow encoded in our genes. When we see horses running on an open plain, we imagine ourselves doing the same thing. Even when people are separated from the natural world, even when they spend most of their lives in twenty-first-century cities, horses still speak to something essential in us, just as they spoke to something essential for the carver of the Vogelherd horse.
"Most people today are not at all familiar with what it is to be a horse," Ransom said, "but they can still see a picture of a horse and love it. What is that? What is the factor that connects us?"
That our love affair with horses has been going on for tens of thousands of years, Ransom and I decided, speaks volumes. And yet, we modern people misunderstand horses in some important ways. Since the days when I looked after Whisper and Gray, I have had many horses and happily spent more than my fair share of time in the saddle. I thought I knew a lot about how they behaved. But under Ransom's tutelage, I realized that I knew almost nothing about them, save for how they behave in a barn or paddock.
By watching wild horses — horses born away from human contact, as opposed to domesticated horses, raised around humans — I learned that horses are exquisitely sophisticated animals, capable of all kinds of unexpected interactions. And I learned that the act of watching is so much more interesting if you know the backstories of the individual animals you're looking at. You'll learn that various horses often set their own agendas, and you'll slowly come to understand those agendas. That's when things get intriguing, because each horse has his or her own personality. As I learned with Whisper and Gray, one horse may take bold action to solve a problem while another may choose a more passive course. But that doesn't mean that the passive course is any less goal-directed.