2010-12-03 00:00

FIRST there was history. Then herstory. Now comes horsetory. Sandra Swart’s Riding High: Horses, Humans and History in South Africa chronicles the inter-species relationship between horses and humans, a relationship that, as the book’s blurb says, “changed the history of leisure, transportation, trade, warfare and agriculture”.

“Horses are pivotal in history,” says Swart, an associate professor in the Department of History at Stellenbosch University, “but they are usually just referred to peripherally, often in the combined phrase ‘guns and horses’.”

The growing field of animal studies should change that. “Recent historiography is beginning to explore the importance of animals in human affairs and has found that they have their own histories both independently of and profoundly revealing of human history.”

Swart admits to an “unabashed fondness” for horses but her approach is “first and foremost as a historian, with my affection following, like a dog, at my heels.”

She admits to blowing her first pay cheque on a horse. “Sadly, [it was] put down last year, after its leg was broken. I now have a new horse, Magic Bean  — I’m not responsible for the name  — he’s a complete mongrel, he’s wonderful.”

Research for the book took Swart all over the country, from dusty archives and, often on horseback, to otherwise inaccessible areas such as the highlands of Lesotho.

Her book is equally broad ranging. Writing from the animal perspective as well as the human, Swart draws on a variety of resources and disciplines, from ecology to literary criticism, to demonstrate how horses have interacted with humans to change their environments both socially and biologically.

“Horses and humans have shared a long history: as predator and prey, as master and slave, as war comrades and as allies,” writes Swart.

“The equestrian age, which lasted for 6 000 years, has only been over for two (human) generations in the West and is not over everywhere else on the planet.”

The history of the horse in southern Africa began with their introduction shortly after the Dutch arrived at the Cape in 1652. Imported from the Dutch East India Company base in Java, they were small, hardy creatures, a mixture of Arabian and Mongolian breeds, known as South East Asia ponies.

Once they arrived on the sub-continent, “horses creolised as humans did” and by the end of the eighteenth century a distinctive breed came into being known as the Cape Horse. A utilitarian horse, as opposed to the English thoroughbreds used for racing, they “were small, compact, short-legged horses ... distinctively hard, with a famously strong constitution, and were disease-resistant, due to natural selection of the most vulnerable to local ailments.”

Southern Africa’s very own horse even had its own distinctive gait: “an ambling jog called a tripple (or trippel) or slow gallop, making it easy to ride while carrying a whip or gun.”

Horses were key to political and economic power and they “helped their fellow (human) invaders survive and take control, playing a central role ... in the early settlement of the Cape and the interior.”

The indigenous peoples were quick to see the advantages offered by these animals and horses would not always remain the preserve of the powerful, despite the efforts of the Dutch who initially banned the Khoikhoi from using horses, but only one African group successfully adopted the horse, the Basotho.

“Moshoeshoe, founder of the Basotho, was a modern state builder,” says Swart, “and he saw how useful the horse could be. What worked to his advantage was the high altitude of his country and the consequent absence of disease. Others had tried using horses but they didn’t have suitable breeding country.”

Local conditions contributed to the creation of the resilient Basotho pony and the Basotho became major horse suppliers to the diamond fields in the 1870s, while during the South African War (1899-1902) they enjoyed a mini economic boom selling horses to both sides eager for mounts acclimatised to local diseases.

The South African War marked the highest utilisation of the horse in this country. Which was bad news for the horses. “Both sides relied heavily on mounted troops,” writes Swart, “and the casualties suffered by horses were on a massive scale.”

The horse was the war’s worst casualty, with almost half a million horses killed. The end of the war wasn’t good news for the horses either. The British had imported over 350 000 horses from all over the world. About 9 500 that were suspected of infection were put down to prevent epidemics, leaving 120 500 horses from all over the world to be sold to local farmers. “So the horses accustomed to the fields of England and Ireland, the steppes of central Europe and Asia, and the pampas and plains of the Americas, found a new home and new herds on the platteland and Highveld. The war thus transformed the gene pool of South Africa.”

Post-war, the horse industry was in chaos. The national herds were destroyed; in the Transvaal alone, 75% of the horses were dead. Attempts were made to revive the industry but the era of the horse was over. In a rapidly mechanising economy the horse became increasingly obsolete and by World War 2 the role of horses “constant for almost three millennia in human history and for three centuries in southern Africa — had been transformed within a single (human) generation.”

In order to survive, the horse industry began to cater to the high-end leisure market. This saw the introduction of new breeds such as the American Saddlebred, a show horse “noted for its showy action in all paces, its swanlike neck with ‘aristocratic arch’ and its uplifted tail”. There was, and still is, much rivalry between this breed and a local one, the Boerperd, a horse popular with Afrikaners.

So is the future of the horse bound up with shows and racing? No, says Swart, pointing out that they still play a central role in Lesotho, as well as other rural and even peri-urban communities. “And they still play a remarkably useful role militarily, globally. They are being used in Afghanistan. Even the SANDF are thinking about reusing horses.”

Swart says that while horses are likely to be used for visible policing, particularly in border areas or security situations, she sees a major future use in therapeutic interactions, as well as riding programmes for the disabled.

Meanwhile, Riding High should stimulate thought and discussion about the role of the horse both past and present. It’s an eye-opening read, and one leavened with a surprisingly wry touch. When Swart was in Lesotho, busy researching the symbolism of the horse and her head full of cross-cultural anthropological literature, she asked an interviewee whether any horse colours were avoided by local riders. Yes, she was told, white. “I became extremely excited. I burst out breathlessly: ‘Is it because white horses symbolise death?’ ‘No,’ he said gently, ‘it is because white hair is hard to get off your pants’.”

• Riding High: Horses, Humans and History in South Africa by Sandra Swart is published by Wits University Press.

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