In 1877, a young woman named Anna Sewell published a book entitled Black Beauty, the Autobiography of a Horse. The book has since sold 50 million copies in 50 languages worldwide and is considered to be one of the most popular books of all time. Anna meant her book to be a call to action for improved treatment of horses. By framing Black Beauty’s story as an autobiography, readers were moved to empathize with the horse’s struggles and mistreatment at the hands of humans. It worked, and the result was legislative and societal change.
One of those 50 million copies was purchased for my mother when she was a child. She read and reread the story many times, staying up too late on summer nights, engrossed in a tale from a time when horses still pulled cabs and carts, and self-propelling automobiles were a figment of the collective imagination. Later, she read it to her own children, and I loved the story too, though it broke my heart. I vowed one day to have a horse of my own who I would protect and honor and who would love me and I would love back.
A few stints at horse camp, and a few trail rides while on vacation were as close as I got until I came to live on the ranch. I was ecstatic at the prospect of getting to know the horses here, certain it was the beginning of a relationship I had been waiting to have for most of my life based solely on the impression that Black Beauty had given me — namely that horses were just like humans only better.
Imagine my surprise the first time I discovered that horses can be real jerks, especially to one another. Bring a new horse into an established pack and the pack will make schoolyard bullying look like kindness. They bite, they kick, they chase, they scream at the newcomer as everyone tries to figure out how best to integrate the interruption to group life.
Horses can be equally obnoxious to humans although thankfully they usually aren’t — we humans aren’t part of their social fabric so it’s less important to show dominance in our presence. However, I’ve seen plenty of horses that will buck or squeal or run away at the first sight of a bridle, or generally make life difficult for their riders. Black Beauty’s endless obedience and willingness to serve, are not, it turns out, a universal trait in horses. Yes, with the training they will let us saddle them and ride around on their backs and they will go where we lead them (which I don’t mean to de-value because that IS pretty cool of them when they outweigh us by a thousand pounds) but it’s by no means a seamless love affair. Or anyway, that’s my takeaway after seven years of ranch horses that I have tried to make love me, but like so many of the men I dated in my twenties, have in turn made it very clear they’d rather hang out with their friends.
This week a new horse came to live on the ranch. He is mostly black with a white blaze on his beautiful, long nose and one white hock — the exact physical attributes Anna Sewell gave her eponymous character. He is a stranger to the rest of the horses, so we haven’t put him out into the pasture yet, instead letting everyone assess the situation with the safety of fences separating them.
I visit him in the warm twilight. The little kid part of my brain is still waiting to meet my equine best friend; the adult part of me knows better. He is bored and hot, swatting flies with his tail and stomping to shake them off his legs. He lets me pet him, but only if I have oats. Relationships with horses, just like all relationships, grow and change over time. I am not his salvation and he is not mine, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be friends, learning to trust the other’s good intentions over a thousand evenings of snacks and quiet dusks.
Eliza Blue lives on a ranch in northwest South Dakota. She’s a musician, mom, author, and shepherd. She writes a column for newspapers in her region and produces audio commentary for South Dakota Public Radio. You can learn more about Eliza on her website.