Matt Rader,
"from The Lives of North American Horses"

There are no more wild horses, the visiting author said, only feral ones. He’d written two books on thoroughbreds, which are all descended, he told you, from the same English mares and Arabian stallions that King Henry VIII bred. Henry, the visiting author said, had dreamt of a horse as stable as the mares who bore knights in plated armour over the soggy fields of northern Europe and as swift as the stallions that kicked sand across the orient, that Allah, himself, had conjured from the south wind.

*

I want to make a creature of you, Allah said, Condense!

*

You were sitting across from each other, the author and you, in a dark bar on opposite sides of a long wooden table. You’d known him for over ten years, but not well. You were friends in the loosest sense of the term though you shared some affection. There were other people who were also not quite friends sitting to either side of you both. You were sharing things about horses.

*

For the past several years, when your kids and you have been driving together and you’ve seen a horse standing alone or wandering slowly in a pasture, one of you has called out “feral equus!” as if you’ve spotted something rare or magical, something deserving of your collective attention, something that exists beyond your ordinary, something not to be missed.

*

Nowadays, the author continued and you paraphrase, some seventy percent of racehorses can claim descent, if claiming descent were something a horse would do, from Northern Dancer, that most Canadian of racehorses, the racehorse who came so close to winning the Triple Crown but was out legged at the Belmont Stakes by a stallion called Quadrangle and a gelding called Roman Brother.

*

At first this game drew its fun from the obvious mislabelling of domesticated horses as feral and the absurdity of the elevated diction, which felt both too scientific and too regal for these large hairy animals chewing grass in the Pacific rain. Who is the monarch but the arbiter of truth? What is science but the ruler, the measure, of reality?

*

Then from the material condensed from the wind—and you quote—he made a kamayt-coloured animal (a bay or burnt chestnut) and said, I call you Horse; I make you Arabian and I give you the chestnut color of the ant; I have hung happiness from the forelock which hangs between your eyes; you shall be the Lord of the other animals. Men shall follow you wherever you go; you shall be as good for flight as for pursuit; you shall fly without wings; riches shall be on your back and fortune shall come through your meditation.

*

In the early days the Latin drove your older daughter, who was six then, crazy because the words did not fit what she understood to be the conditions of the world: the horses were horses, not subjects of investigation or rule, and the pasture was a pasture, not a grassland, not a prairie, not something that had escaped or been abandoned by domesticity, by the order of human beings.

*

How long must something go feral before it becomes wild again?

*

In those months, you saw horses daily as you drove the country roads to your older daughter’s school. Now, living in a different part of the world, attending different schools, seeing horses only irregularly when you drive out into the hills surrounding your small city, your children still children, but older, you play the game, say the words, out of habit.

*

Thus speaks Kikkuli, master horse trainer of the land of Mitanni. And thus begins the oldest surviving manual on horse training in the known world. Written in the Hittite language, it is important for both what it says about horses and about the development of Indo-European languages. Kikkuli, it seems, had difficulty finding the words so that others could understand what he understood about horses.

*

You were born in the Chinese Year of the Horse (1978), long after the coming of the Sea Peoples to the Levant but before the Seven Days War.

*

On Sunday, driving past a black mare hanging her head over the wooden beams of a fence, the game felt almost bitter—almost because it was not as galvanizing as bitterness. The absurdity had been displaced from language onto something even more conditional—as in a function of conditions—which are not ironic or reflected but experienced, lived, in the first degree.

*

I am a Hittite in love with a horse, says Frank O’Hara in memory of his feelings.

*

Walking the dirt road between the small pastures and the flooded salt flat, the late February sun shaving the membrane of ice on the shallow lake, your friend and you see a tawny horse with shaggy tassels on its leg above the fetlocks. The horse is tipped on its side so its white belly faces the road. A ditch filled with water and reeds separates the animal from you, you from the animal. And then there is the wooden fence. Both seem like they would serve no real barrier to a moderately determined human or a moderately wild horse. Your first thought, yours and your friend’s, is that the horse is dead. 

*

The horse as we know it evolved in North America. More than two million years ago, wild horses from this continent crossed the Bering land bridge and populated Asia. In those days, all animals were wild.

 

Excerpt from The Malahat Review, 193, Winter 2015, 42-50

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