In the center of Enterprise, Alabama, stands a most unusual statue. It is of a gigantic boll weevil.
How odd, you think. What a specious and foolish thing, a statue dedicated to a beetle?
Erected in 1919, the statue is to thank Anthonomus grandis for destroying an entire industry.
The boll weevil crossed the border from Mexico to Texas in 1890 and within 15 years, had effectively destroyed the cotton industry in the American South. The vast majority of cotton pickers were black folk-technically emancipated 40 years earlier by President Lincoln and the Civil War, but still trapped in the dreary, share croppers’ grip that wasn’t much improved from slavery.
Looking for work, black folks moved north, where the weather was colder but manufacturers and factories were crying out for hard working people. Indirectly, the boll weevil-an insect-had improved the lives of black people.
Such is the same for horses.
I think one of the reasons we love horses is because we can do things with them, things we can’t do with a dog, or a cat. You can’t ride a dog. You can’t train a cat to do anything it doesn’t want to do (which makes cats smarter than any of us).
Most of us probably romanticize the days when a horse was the sole means of transportation (other than shank’s mare). Day after day in the saddle, doing work, like herding cattle, riding fence, or delivering mail, or moving from end of the country to the other, made it almost inevitable that one developed a bond with one’s horse. Who didn’t want to be a cowboy? It wasn’t the cow work we wanted, it was the excuse to ride. It was doing work-real work-on the back of a horse. It meant being a team with a horse, rather than just a rider.
But in reality, the life of a horse before the automobile was, to quote Thomas Hobbes, “Poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.
Horses were the first war machine. Can you imagine a more horrid situation for a horse? (Please don’t think it is any better for humans. I’ve been there. Believe me; no one wants peace more than the soldier.) War is filthy, noisy, and dangerous. Horses died by the thousands, in every war they were forced into. They died in a hundred different ways, to include being blown up, mortared, shot, speared, arrowed, of broken legs, necks, backs; were gassed, died from disease, exposure, dehydration, or starvation. Last but not least, they died of exhaustion. (below is a picture from Life Magazine of an artillery horse cut loose to die during a Civil War battle.)
Not only were they cavalry mounts, but horses were also used as draft animals, pulling chariots, supply wagons and artillery pieces. The enemy, in any war that involved horses, learned that the best way to incapacitate one’s foe was to kill his horses first. Horses used as pack or draft animals were worked until they could do no more, and then were cut loose of the traces and left to die-or were eaten.
But their use wasn’t confined solely to war.
Explorers like Robert F. Scott, an egotistical man with more ambition and money than common sense, decided to race the Norwegian Amundsen to the South Pole. (Amundsen was there first, by the way, in 1912). Scott was of the mind that polar explorers who used dogs were merely wimps. One wasn’t truly an explorer if he didn’t suffer privation and want. It made for melodramatic press and lent an air of nobility to what was, really, merely an exercise in ego stroking.
He decided to kill two birds with one stone: the ponies would carry his teams’ gear and food half way to the South Pole while also serving as a walking larder. His plan was for his party to eat each pony as it died. Unfortunately, the ponies died too quickly. They died not just of exhaustion and exposure, but of starvation. Scott didn’t bring food for the ponies. To intentionally inflict the rigors of Antarctica on ponies without feeding them is such utter cruelty that I cannot comprehend it. But Scotts philosophy of animals was typical of the age. Animals, as Descartes had rationalized, were merely animated machines. Descartes said that animals functioned wholly by instinct, without emotions, without thought, and were incapable of feeling pain. Ponies were merely things to be used (or abused) as you wished without fear of ethical or moral condemnation.
None of Scott’s team made it back alive. Somehow I take schadenfreude in that.
Horses were used for thousands of years to pull things but weren’t very good at it. The first people to use horses as draft animals were the Egyptians. They tied straps around the horse’s neck in order to pull a chariot. The horse, then, was pulling against its own windpipe.
It wasn’t until the Chinese invented the horse collar almost 3000 years ago that people suddenly realized how truly powerful and useful a draft animal a horse could be. A horse PUSHES against a horse collar and hence, is far more effective. The horse collar improved the individual horse’s ability to work, but also extended his capacity, meaning he had to work hard for far longer.
A draft horse was merely an animated tractor.
To this day, there are people who use horses as draft animals without regard to the horse’s ability or comfort: (yes, I know it’s a donkey.)
It hasn’t occurred to the owner of this unfortunate donkey that the load is too much. Somehow, it’s the donkey’s fault. Don’t think that the load will be reduced to something it can handle. He’ll take a box or four off the wagon until the donkey is earthbound again…and then merely redistribute the load.
Most people used horses for every day transportation, with as little thought to the horse as one gives a bicycle, or a car. Certainly people took care of them, but in the manner that one takes care of a car-keep fuel in it and rotate the tires, that’s the ticket.
It wasn’t until “Black Beauty” was published that things began to change. I’m sure any child (like the one I was) who read “Black Beauty” was traumatized by it. Anna Sewell wrote it that way on purpose. No one would listen to her protests of how London’s horses were being treated cruelly. She was Just a Woman, you know, in Victorian England, where women were only one or two levels above livestock themselves. To get her point heard, Sewell wrote “Black Beauty”-and created something new: empathy for the animals. I believe her book was the impetus for the establishment of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The manner in which her characters; Black Beauty, the coal black gelding; the fiery chestnut mare Ginger, and the other horses in the book were treated was in no way exaggerated. People DID treat horses like they were merely animated machines. The person who treated his horses like we treat them now was the exception, rather than the rule.
Today, you and I (for only horse folk read this sort of blog) live in an entirely different sort of horse world.
We ride because we love to, not because we have to. We love our horses for being horses.
Our horses live lives of pampered luxury. Sometimes that is not a good thing. Now instead of harness sores, sweeny, shrapnel wounds, and war shattered nerves, our horses suffer from founder, obesity, diabetes, and stress from being kept in a box stall for most of his life.
But the domesticated horse of today has a life so much better than thousands of generations that precede it.
And, like the boll weevil, it’s all due to a Beetle.
While not all automobiles are VW Beetles, all VW Beetles are automobiles. I could have picked other brands of cars-I’m a Toyota woman. However, it does make for a nice alliterative theme for this post.
We cannot deny that the advent of the automobile was the death knell for the horse as a machine, like the black people picking cotton. The internal combustion engine proved to be such a powerful, versatile, and uncomplaining servant that it has completely overtaken the tasks formerly done by horses. Indeed, by World War II, the population of horses in America had plummeted to a point where some folks wondered if horses would still exist at the end of the century.
The car/truck/tractor/semi/tank released the horse from its servitude. No longer is he a war machine, a draft animal, a walking larder.
He has become, instead, the only animal classified as ‘livestock’ to vault into the ranks occupied by only two other animals: cats and dogs. Our horses are pets.
And so, we can thank a beetle and a Beetle for the betterment of man-and horse.