by Christine Stansell
Even my husband, who could care less about animals, absorbed the news about
Barbaro's death this week. For anyone who hasn't, the 2006 Kentucky Derby
champion, predicted to be a Triple Crown winner, had been fighting for his life since
he broke his leg in the Preakness in May. Trying to keep him alive was the longest of
shots--my riding teacher predicted months ago that there was no way he would
make it. It could just be the p.r., but the owners seem to have been moved to spend
millions not just because of the bottom-line consideration of breeding him to make
up their losses, but because there was something about the horse that you just
couldn't let go of. He was, by everyone's testimony, a great worker and a fine spirit,
who did his job willingly and superbly.
But then, almost every horse does. Once, they were everywhere; you couldn't help but
notice them. A hundred years ago, they did everything, everything, including a
huge portion of agricultural work and most of the business of moving people and
things around, in cities as well as around farms. Up to the First World War, they still
went into battle in most wars. They did all this obligingly, with impeccable grace,
style and efficiency, even though they are by nature timid animals who abhor loud
noises and commotion. Now, in America , they mostly run races and shlepp little kids
around rings for hours at a time. They do this beautifully, too, valiantly doing their
best to translate the crudest of pokes and prods into comprehensible directions.
There must be a horse lover on The New York Times editorial page, because
we've had pieces on two successive days about Barbero--a beautiful editorial and then a delectable comparison
of Barbero's virtues compared to every other superstar athlete ("Why We Mourn
Barbaro"--no trash talk, no holding out for millions, no appearances
in cell phone commercials, and (alas) no illegitimate children). "It is no exaggeration
to say that nearly every horse--Barbaro included--is pure of heart," the
Times elegized. "You would have to look a long, long time to find a
dishonest or cruel
horse." When you do, you can be sure some human being was involved.
I'm an animal lover, but in most cases I'd never inflict my devotions on others. I hold
back from extolling the virtues of dogs and cats in common conversation. I refrain
from regaling people with the story of the hour I spent watching mountain gorillas in
Rwanda this summer.
But horses--that's different. With them it's a solemn duty to publicize their
qualities. Their beauty, yes: horses are poems, a poet told me when I asked him
about poems about horses. Their kindness: when a friend described his
daughter's riding lessons as "learning to master a beast," I was as appalled by his
ignorance as if he'd flipped off a racial slur. Their integrity: unlike dogs, horses
don't need you to be their friend. They can reciprocate affection and friendship, but
they don't require it. They could really care less about us. Yet they enter into a
relationship with human needs and work for us--often against their better
instincts--as if their lives depended on it. Left to themselves, they canter around a
bit, roll in the dirt, graze. They don't do dressage or run races or line up to walk
around in circles with little ones on their backs.
And for all this, they get mostly abuse. Melissa Pierson, in her peerless book on
horses, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, points out that if they weren't so
to human needs, the species would have been wiped out by hunters thousands of
years ago, "which would have meant mainly many thousands of years of misery they
would not have had to endure."
So when people pay homage to Barbaro, it's about that particular horse, but it's also
about every other horse whose tributes you've marveled at; every other horse who
should have died a decent death, surrounded by people who cared; every other horse
who put out to the maximum for no discernible reason except that it's in the nature
of a horse to do what we ask of it supremely well.