The latest in my series of stories about animals has galloped free, ready for public consumption. Following hot on the tails of my dog, rabbit, fox, and cat stories, I've added horse to the growing menagerie and its found a snug home in the latest issue of the gorgeous Shooter magazine. A few months ago I spied their call-out for 'Surreal' stories and hurriedly flung my equine oddity in their general direction, knowing full well that I wasn't likely to get another opportunity quite like that.
A Time Before Horses is a strange tale, even by my standards. It was one of those that came from an impulse rather than a central, fixed concept so I had to let its bits and pieces meander towards the vague visions in the hope they coalesced into something close to the original intention of the impulse. It's a story about three horses from different times who 'connect' with each other through a spiritual-mythological time-tripping horse-only phone line. It is an emergency conference of sorts because there's a creature outside their stable that has no earthly reason to be there and they, as God-like paragons of reason, must decide what, if anything, they should do. The point is they can't do much because they're tied to the stables, in servitude to us lot.
The first seed of the tale was planted while on holiday in Cornwall two years ago, where my beloved and I stayed in a converted shepherd's hut in the corner of a field. The rest of the field was home to three very friendly and inquisitive horses who were used at various times by the riding school who owned the shepherd's hut. I was, of course, quite entranced by Charlie Brown, Jeremy and Hank. They came straight over as soon as we arrived, sniffing for our apples and straining for the tasty grass which they could never quite reach. We stroked their noses, cooed at their manes, snuck them a few apple cores and handfuls of the forbidden grass. We watched them interact with each other: they played, they groomed each other, they ran around, chased, ignored, fought. We glimpsed, in a microcosm, the strange wildness of horses; their ungainly clatter of power and proud, muscular beauty, and how important it is for them to be together, to flock together in herds. And undercutting the whole experience was a sadness. Because there were other horses at the riding school, stabled and alone. Or in a bigger field, alone. Or being ridden for hours by bouncy, bouncy, kicky, kicky children.
The more I look at the relationship between human and horse, the more it unsettles me. There is, arguably, no animal we've had greater dependancy or interaction with throughout history. Ever since the Mongols mastered the art of shooting while riding, horses have carried us across vast vistas to escape, to explore, to conquer, and in our paintings of victory they rear up in triumph, hooves aloft as if attempting to high five an angel. There's no doubt that horses have contributed massively to human progression, but they did not do so willingly. And what is the cost?
Not long after the Cornwall holiday I saw the brilliant National Theatre production of War Horse and witnessed the theatrical miracle of Joey. In the merest switch of brain-focus, you can see Joey as a real, snorting, flinching horse, or you can see three puppeteers controlling a mesh frame - or, in the final miracle, both at the same time. Here, in theatre's unerring magic, was a sudden reversal: here was a horse riding humans, here were people subserviant to a horse, here was a human history with an equine centre-stage. But, alas, the production was clearly not asking us to spare a thought and a poppy for all the horses lost during WWI but was using an admittedly powerful and haunting image to throw a new light upon the human loss. Such is the unsustainability of the ideology of war.
And following hot on the horseshoed heels of Joey and co. came, first, a deadly Grand National and then; the horse meat scandal, where cheap ready meal lasagnes and the like were discovered to not contain 100% beef as the packaging declared. The scandal of the situation was the mis-labelling, but the horror was the strange knowledge people suddenly encountered of realising that they had consumed horse - not an animal which (currently) falls into the selective pantheon of acceptably edible faunas. The smug vegetarian in me witnessed the episode with narrative curiosity: it's fine to eat cows and lambs and pigs, but not horses, never horses. What was it about horses that elevated them so illogically above their brethren?
For Western audiences, the horse is a figure suffused with heavy gallons of myth and legend. They are, in one sense, close to being sacred animals, imbued with cinematic mystery; a wild extension of the conquering human soul. More powerful than dogs, more trustworthy than cats, horses are loyal yet chaotic, obedient but dangerous. An almost perfect symbol of valour, glory and godliness. And yet we stable them, we whip them over fences which are too high, and we make them 'dance' for gold medals. We fling them down for movie stunts, we use their flesh to bulk out cheap lasagnes, we buy them as pets for rich children. As with many of our 'favourite' animals, their treatment is a vast mixed-bag of contradictions.
I knew in my story my horses had to have this God-complex and this blood-deep connection to the cosmos, the distant past, and the very mechanics of time itself. Each of the three stomp and flick and chatter with angelic potential - and yet none can do anything about the peril in front of them because their agency is entirely in the hands of idiot, drunken humans. They are Gods powered by false worship & misdirected praise. Because, you know what: horses are not mythic. They are not Gods. They are animals. They are horses. And all they can be said to 'want' is an open space to live in, and others of their kind to live with. And that is mythology enough in itself.
A Time Before Horses is out now inside the pages of issue three of Shooter Magazine.