Standing Horses: Review of “Horse Show” by Jess Bowers

A black and white depiction of horses running amidst dust, as imagined in Jess Bowers's "Horse Show" (2024). [Featured image via SorcerySoap HocusPocus for Pixabay.]

We have forgotten the horse, and in doing so, are erasing our own history: the collaboration between horse and human extends into prehistory, and the effect of horses upon human civilization now extends into the width of our roads, our vehicles, and everything we have built that is predicated on that measurement—in truth, the width of a hitched team, the width of two horses yoked together. It is at our peril that we forget the horse, that we forget what we owe them for our civilization; any document of human history involves movement across land and the most formidable masses of moving humans were collaborating with horses. It’s not just us, although humancentric views are internalized as such.

The equestrian world, of humans and horses together, exists almost as a parallel reality to that which we know prosaically as modern society. Horses are large and require room to move about, they require land which is being erased by endless human rapaciousness, they are fragile and the hard corners of human habitation often are their undoing. Caring for a horse involves the muscles of your body and getting them their dinner before you get yours; it involves insect bites, dirt, feces, and a rudimentary skill as a medic. Horse habitat also involves complex natural ecosystems, and in many places has become the last retreat for too many species of wildlife.

However, many humans can go for entire lives—nowadays multiple generations—without ever having met a live horse: never having felt the size of your human body within a proximity of their equine one, never having felt their presence. For many people, horses are mythic creatures, existing in the impossible realms of commerce and imagination. Horses are also symbols, archetypes, a point made under a bold heading in Jess Bowers’ Horse Show (SFWP, April 2024). Bowers is referencing a particular movie, but the symbolism, of “the horse’s sensual or physical nature” (118) is a trope in many art forms, especially considering gender and the connotations that still exist regarding stallions.

Bowers’ text itself details thirteen historical interactions between humans and horses, with a number of horrifying results. Invariably, the horror results from the pure stupidity and hubris of humans at the expense of the horse. The opening chapter, involving PT Barnum as a supporting character, has the plot of the display of an exceptional draft horse, “Nearly twenty-two hands at the shoulder, I’d say. No lifts on his feet—I checked” (10). For those unsure of terminology, this posits a horse who stands over seven feet at the shoulder. The chapter is posed in time at the dawn of the industrialization that too many humans accept without challenge. Bowers has us consider that moment as audience members:

 There was time to gape as the mammoth horse braced his broad chin against elephantine chest, his black haunches straining…Our bodies vibrated marvelously in tune with the creaking floorboards. And for a moment, in the heaving presence of that equine dynamo, we were willing to believe we were wrong. Surely the locomotive would never take the place of a good, sturdy carthorse. We were too rash in our deciding to sell the children’s cream pony, too quick to consign dear Old Jack’s meat to the hounds… (12)

Bowers’ begins with this decision, the divorce or abandonment of humans of the eons-old relationship with horses, and details, with chapters of creative nonfiction, episodes of what has happened in that subsequent estrangement.

Horses have not fared well in America, and the intimate impact of this is told in a second-person chapter set in the 1970s. The narrative involves the decline of family farms: “Our Granddad was the eldest son of a once-thriving poultry dynasty”, with Bowers symbolically summing up thousands of rural lives with the observation:

Granddad had been born in that big old farmhouse, but he wouldn’t die there. The way     things were going, he couldn’t afford to, and he knew it. That’s why the TV bothered    him. He’s worked all his life, and all he ended up with was less than he’s started with (40-41).

The narrative continues into the effects of a drought and how “none of us knew the neighbor man had horses until his gray mare wound up dead in our swimming pool…Miss Sugar couldn’t see in the dark—moonblind, he called it” (44-45). It is at this point that Bowers again has us consider the contrast of our modern lives now to that of this ancient relationship: “We older kids were suddenly conscious of our Hawaiian-print swimsuits…all ridiculous next to the bloated floating Miss Sugar” (46).

Lest the reader still feel untouched, Bowers details multiple examples of horses in media, with some photographs as historical evidence, including Muybridge’s famous motion studies.

Bowers is careful to provide us with details of equine identities, and we learn that Muybridge too kept notes of the horses, but not the people. Bowers gives a chapter to a depression-era western movie, a Jesse and Frank James tale, that involves an impossible stunt; we learn that the stunt horse is Babe, an experienced movie-horse. The crux comes in the form of the director, ignorant of horses and determined to enact his fantasy, who is “honestly shocked to learn how in one matinee after another, at the glorious zenith of his epic Technicolor Western, grown adults and children alike cover their faces or choke on their sodas, wide-eyes” (35-36) at the on-camera death of Babe.

Many of the researched chapters here are gruesome examples of horses suffering at the hands of humans; however, Bowers does also include speculative critical thought about a John Travolta movie, a psychic mare, and about the television series, Mr. Ed. In each chapter, the relationship between humans and horses is considered as a case to further Bower’s point, that humans have abandoned their relationship with horses to the further suffering of horses overall.

If we concur with Bowers, and many anthropologists, with the archetypical nature of horses, then we can see Bowers’ book as evidence of a rather egregious brutality towards them and symbolic of human brutality. Human brutality towards horses extends to this day, with cabdrivers killing difficult-to-train-tourist-carriage horses, and horses collapsing on the track mere strides from the wire on national television. We cannot stand next to a horse and be blithe to their extermination; however, so many of us have not, and might not ever stand next to a horse, we might not ever feel their subtle vibration next to our own physical selves, we might not get a sense of some ancient memory. Thus, in our obliviousness to the extinction of horses, to their barbaric treatment, we are missing both their ancestral place in our collaborative relationship, and the symbolic nature of our brutality now. If we can be so cruel towards horses, then there’s no surprise at our cruelty towards each other.

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