A Parabola Bestiary: Horses, by Alice van Buren

Meeting a horse to find peace, war, and the sea

Bestiaries were traditionally works of observation and natural history. Ancient and widespread, their way of observing allowed room for elements of theology, symbolism, and moralizing that strike our modern ear as wildly unscientific. The animals in these old works were not seen in isolation, but in relation to the human sphere. They carried messages and lessons, and had a rightful place in a greater order.

Our own day has brought more detailed facts about animals and a less secure context for the new information. As we learn more about them, can the animals still teach us? We asked our contributors to listen to an animal which has always interested them. Their responses testify to the many levels of relationship which still endure. For the rest of the essays, click here

–The Editors

In a weather-soaked barn in the countryside where I live, I once met a horse that swam away with my heart. His owner, a backyard dealer in Arabian horses, had found him on a ruined estate, half-dead of neglect: a sack, she said, of beautiful bones. In proof of his instincts-and hers-she now had a small herd of colts and mares in foal, and a fully restored Arabian stud at the colossal horse age of twenty­-seven that looked as if it had leapt out of the Parthenon frieze and landed in her stable, alive and intact.

The animal lived alone, apart from the mares, at the end of a corridor: a mass of white shadows that composed them­selves in the darkness, becoming first stone, then skin, then a presence more cat-like in its antiquity than anything I’d ever seen on the hoof. Elderly stallions are still loud and obstrep­erous as a rule. This one, however, only swiveled his elegant neck as we rolled back the door, and inhaled us. Gone completely white with the years, the horse stood, nostrils open, on the legs of a deer. His back was straight, his chest was full, and his head was the sort that turns horsemen into fools: broad in the brow, square in the chin, with small cursive ears like two leaves off the vine, and the huge, soft eyes of an odalisque. Suddenly I understood why Koranic tradition puts a woman’s face on the horse that flew Moham­med to heaven. This, said the dealer with a wave of her hand, is the Bedouin war horse, fetched out of the Ottoman. Empire to improve the American cavalry mount. She spoke of the blood type, and its fortunes in America, of the sums paid for such animals, of the Arabian’s mystique and influence in the annals of horse history. It struck me that the thread of this conversation was spun many civilizations ago-that this was how men talked in the marketplace under the Macedonian sun, as they watched the king’s boy tame this Arabian’s ancestor, a horse with a brow so broad they called him Bucephalos, “bull-headed.” Or how Achilles and Hector, both ardent horsemen, whiled away the noon hour outside Troy, comparing pedigrees and chariot design (Achilles ought to have talked less; he might have heard his death prophesied in the mouth of his horse.)

As the dealer talked on, I began to wish she would be quiet. There is an entire menagerie inside a horse, but the beast that is always discussed is the war horse, the show horse, the race horse, the money horse. This is the animal made to stand for power and conquest and the id of horse-hungry girls—for what the horse has chiefly signified in history has been havoc. Until the machine took that prerogative, the horse was the means by which nation plundered nation, bringing pestilence, famine, and death. Consider the horseman of the Apocalypse or the war horse of Job, pawing in the valley, going to meet the armed men, bugling “Ha Ha” among the trumpets, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.

And yet horses are only as bold as their masters, and in their chameleon souls will smell fear and feign panic, tossing riders into ditches and fences, or—like the runaway horses of Helios—out of heaven. For the horse in his wisdom is a mutable thing—a thousand pounds of animal spirits, obedient to odors and tremors and wind. In order to know horses, it is necessary to become mute. When the telephone rang and the dealer left off talking, ran to answer it and did not come back for a quarter of an hour, her ancient white horse stepped out of the shadows, stepped into the silence, and Job’s war horse became another creature entirely. Lowering his long white lashes over amorous eyes, the animal rested his chin on my shoulder and blew his warm, salty breath into my ear. He smelled like the ocean, but sweeter. The sea rocked in his chest. The insides of his nostrils were the color of conch shells. Strange, sapient lights swam in his eyes.

Bringer of war, the horse also brings revelation. The Romans kept oracular white horses in sacred groves, divining the fate of the Empire from their stamping and snorting. At the end of time, both the Messiah and Vishnu are supposed to descend from the clouds on heraldic white horses. It was a dragon-horse from heaven that revealed the forces of the universe, the Yin and the Yang, to the Yellow Emperor of China.

This horse, however, was made more of water than sky. I thought of the sacrificial world horse in the Upanishads; his element was the sea. I thought of Poseidon, ruler of horses. And then I recalled a fishy tale concerning white horses: lustrous, pearly white horses that come ashore on moonless nights and travel hundreds of miles on cleft hooves to court mares. These horses are tame and will do prodigious work, but they must be kept away from rivers and lakes, or they revert to their ancient nature and swim away.

When the dealer returned, she could see that something had happened. You old flirt, she said to her horse. As she slid the door of the stall shut, the old seducer tossed his head and showed us the whites of his eyes, and I thought: yes, indeed, that’s the Old Man of the Sea, and I would give my left arm to grasp that dragon, that mule, that big cat, that old fish, by the ribs and hold him to his horse shape. But there was, understandably, no invitation here to do any such thing. If I were my hostess, if I owned such a horse, I would not let any stranger climb on my antiques.

Besides, there were streams on the property and a lake down the road, and I doubt I could have been trusted, in the end, not to let the horse go.♦

From Parabola Volume 8, No. 2, “Animals,”Summer 1983. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing

By Alice van Buren

Alice van Buren is a is a freelance writer based in Boston. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, The New Republic and Parabola.