Horse sense


I’m a freelance illustrator. I recently started working on a project involving the depiction of a scene including  horses and a wagon. My illustration would be based on a one- hundred-year-old photograph. Since the photo wasn’t of the greatest quality or clarity, I needed to do extensive research in order to obtain the necessary visual information for horses, harnesses and wagons.

(It was an interesting experience to investigate old technology. What was once so common and familiar to the masses for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, is now the realm of a few relatively small groups of specialists. And as such, the information I sought was not readily accessible. It took quite a bit more time and effort than I expected.)

I started with general searches which came up with mostly historical photographs. Many of them showed small teams pulling large loads. It appeared that horses are stronger than I would have guessed.

I wanted to make my picture accurate, so I needed to know exactly how horses pull equipment. So my search evolved to include diagrams of “tack:” hundreds of pieces of gear (strips of leather, metal rings, buckles, pads, etc.) used for harnessing horses so they may be restrained, ridden or connected to a wagon, plow or coach.

I learned, among many other things, that, when using four or more horses to pull a wagon, they don’t all wear the same tack. They have different jobs to do which require different harness configurations. It was quite a science.

Then I had to figure out how these different harnesses are attached to the wagon. Different photos show different equipment. Were some configurations correct and others not? Were there several ways to properly attach horses to wagons?

I spent a lot of time looking. (And looking usually frees my mind up for thinking.)

I found myself thinking about the tack. About, how much you would really need to know about a lot of equipment. All those strips of leather and buckles. Some you must need. Some are probably optional. Some work this way, others work this other way. There’s probably a right way and several wrong ways to put that on. Or at least, there are better ways and worse ways. Comfortable ways and uncomfortable ways. Ways that, at best, leave the animal sore  at the end of a day of pulling twice it’s weight for miles. Ways that, at worst, leave it in agony with chafed skin, broken blisters or more serious open wounds.

I thought about how some people are sensitive and some are unfeeling. How some are careful and some couldn’t care less. How some people take such good care of their cars and some drive them into the ground. And I thought about the way people drive!

Then it hit me. All at once: the horse, humankind’s vehicle and tractor for centuries, must certainly be the longest suffering, most intensely abused, most commonly neglected, most consistently misused, most acceptably exploited creature that ever was!

It was a state of wonder and dread. I felt a profound sadness.

I put my project aside and searched horse abuse. I discovered that the ASPCA was founded in response to horse abuse. Their first action was to create an ambulance for injured horses!

I’ve been preoccupied with this for a couple of weeks now.

So I’m hoping to try to make sense of this tidal wave of compassion for millions of helpless creatures, living and dead. It’s not that I haven’t felt compassion all along for all animals, from pets to factory farms to poaching targets to even perfectly free wild ones. It’s just that this seems like an oversight of such enormity that I can’t simply add it to the list.

I don’t know. Strong feelings can lead to a false sense of purpose. One can be mislead, by a temporary sense of urgency, down a dead end path that requires more sustained effort than is practical.

Specifically, it has occurred to me to do something visually, to promote awareness of the history of horses as well as their current plight. A sort of horse’s history of the world or the western from the horses mouth.

But what to do and where to do it? Graphic novel? Blog? Series of prints? Website?

And for whom? General public? Animal lovers? Animal rights activists?

Ideally, the answer is: all of the above. But I know I don’t have the resources for that.

And then there’s what to anticipate regarding the possible responses of riders, racers, breeders and farmers.

I don’t know anything about this. I’m not an activist. I don’t know what I would be getting into. And I don’t know how committed I am or would be. So, I’m exploring the idea and the possibilities. I will do more research. But I have no idea where this will go, if anywhere.

So, I welcome your questions, comments, anecdotes, statistics, resources and whatever else you’d care to contribute.