My latest reading venture is Gustav Steinbrecht’s The Gymnasium of the Horse. It is often cited by those who follow classical training methods, but this is my first dive into it. Written before the turn of the twentieth century, it is both dated (the section on spur use is frightening) and “current”. This particular passage exhibits the latter, as well as being a rather poetic tribute to the animals we have shared a history with.
The noble horse is not only the animal most suited for riding, it is also the creature with the most versatile talents in the entire animal kingdom. From time immemorial, the horse has been, and still is, the animal for which the young boy feels the greatest love and which the man holds in the highest esteem. Poets and songsters have always sung the praises of the horse, and not without reason: it has faithfully share humanity’s fate, has participate in all great events recounted in history with active and courageous spirit, has followed man to the remotest corners of the earth, and has shared with him all hardships and privations. In peacetime and prosperity, it is the most precious luxury item; on the hunt, it is a cheerful companion to man, carrying its rider over hill and dale, across hedges and ditches, dependably catching up with any prey, even the fleetest, with the speed of the wind; in combat, it is the faithful friend and servant of the warrior with whom it willingly shares danger and toil.
Is there any way that man can show sufficient gratitude for such excellent service? Is it not in his own interest to take the greatest care and conduct the most serious research about the breeding, raising, and training of this creature? And yet, in these three areas which should provide us with a reliable and plentiful supply of good and useful horses, we see the worst errors made as a result of the wrong attitude, petty adherence to narrow-minded aims, and prejudices of all kinds. All arts and sciences of our time have made such rapid advances from the study of nature that the successes attained often approach the miraculous. It is time to follow this example, to eliminate all old-fashioned prejudices, and to listen only to nature in order to learn the basic principles of producing a good horse. Nature works according to strict, immutable laws, which can be discovered only by observing nature’s unadulterated creations.
Sadly, in more than 130 years since the writer of these words died, science is not much further along in their understanding of the horse. Horsemen, such as Steinbrecht, who spend their lives in study of the horse have much more knowledge than science. In recent years, science has finally taken an interest in the horse, and is finding ways to uncover the truths that are specific to it (you cannot measure a dog and horse on the same tests, as they have little in common with regard to motivation, perception of the world, and general life experience). At the same time, “the wrong attitude, petty adherence to narrow-minded aims, and prejudices of all kinds” still clearly exists everywhere in the horse world.
Yet, realization that all animals have more emotions and cognition than once thought is gaining in acceptance. We can only hope this leads to a better life for the noble horse who has been so instrumental in our journey from prehistory to modernity.
Be good to your horses!