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The World the Horses Made: A South African Case Study of Writing Animals into Social History (2010) Sandra Swart. The article aims to develop social history by enriching it with inputs provided by animals. This is motivated by Lucien Fabvres call for “sensory history”. Horses are embedded in processes of “global ecological imperialism” and they have played a pivotal role for different settler societies. The role of horses is mixed, they were used as slaves (agriculture), as weapons and as status symbols. In short “[…] the horse has been the quintessential migrants laborer in southern Africa.” The starts with a strong emphasis on soundscapes.

Human understanding of sound is historical, with the ability to interpret noise (and experience it as melodious or jarring) changing over time. As [Peter A.] Coates points out, noise is to sound as stench is to smell – something dissonant and unwanted. It is tempting to assume that noise is noisier now. However, in much of the urbanized west this simple linear model of noise pollution growing worse over time is flawed, because while the ascendancy of the engine has meant a noisier world, it is worth remembering that the source of opposition to horses in urban centres and support for the horseless vehicles was the perceived need for a reduction of the racket. However, when in South Africa horses were increasingly kept out of towns in the mid-twentieth century, it was for reasons of disease and waste, rather than noise.

Swart argues that verbal communication with the horse (“horse-human patois”) was a language which white English, Sotho men and Afrikaans speakers could share. “They would have been able to understand that squeals and grunts indicated excitement; snorts signified interest or possible danger; a soft whicker was meant to reassure a foal or to express anticipation of food and a whinny meant the horse was all alone.” Horses were imported from 1652 onward and used to impress local communities and to facilitate travel. Their adaptation was hindered by diseases. Horses which came sick during lengths travels were treated with opium (this reminds me of the Soppelsa text on horse handling in Paris). Horses were kept in highlands to control their exposure to diseases.

From the seventeenth century, and gathering demographic impetus from the eighteenth century, the new settlers established themselves in places where their horses could survive. The desire to reach horse-sickness-free zones determined range of settlements.

Swart identifies this as an “unseen hand” affecting the patterns of human settlement. Animals can be useful for reading the history (finding parallels, tendencies) of many sub-altern groups but this should be done in a manner which does not trivialize suffering. She spots similar movements in animals studies and different waves of feminists thought.

Horses and women have much in common historically: both were socially integral but subordinated groups that were not always conveniently tractable. Some characteristics of a horse, especially a display of self-will, were described as particularly female, as in an Afrikaans narrative from the early twentieth century, which noted: “it is always very difficult to foresee what a chestnut horse or a woman will do.”

The history of horses looks at claimed individual (race) horses, in a similar manner as first wave feminism has focused on strong role models and horses have also been read as a silent oppressed group, whose societal importance if proofed by displaying the volume of horse who have been lost in wars etc. “Drawing on the gendered or women’s history paradigm, perhaps historians’ first step could be simply to demonstrate that animals have a history at all”.  Swart call for bringing the stories of individual horses to front. “The cordite-inured police horse, the dead-mouthed schoolmaster, the bolting ex-racehorse all reflect their individual past experiences through their reactions to current experience.” are offered as individual horse history trajectories. Hippos archives and Sukuposti.net would be great sources for this construction effort.

For example, static snapshots of the daily lives of horses in the past could be combined and run chronologically to create a picture of how an average day in the life of a horse changed over time, much as the first works on social history on women and the working class did. This underscores the point that horse’s lives can be discovered and that these lifestyles changed over time.

I think that proving that the lifestyles of horses has changed over time is difficult but very important. Change implies an intelligence, which we can witness in the performance. To proof that there has been change, is to proof there is possibility for change, is to proof that there is a future. Swart wants to bring focus to “agency” so that we may recognize that societies are made by individual actions which have been effect by the society. Typically animals are represented by humans because they’re cannot “speak”. “Marx’s formula regarding French peasants in The Eighteenth Brumaire is uncannily applicable to animals.” She underlines.

One way of addressing animal agency is to reassess the idea of agency itself. Indeed, some have argued that the failure to question agency in the telling of history actually reproduces familiar forms of power. Efforts to reassess the histories of labour, girls’, the subaltern, childhood, and so on attack prevailing hegemonic notions of agency predicated on the idea of an autonomous individual, following the imperatives of rational choice, and aware of how the world works. Instead they searched for more subversive tradition although they still tend to structure narratives around political rebellions in public spaces. Yet “agency” and resistance are not synonymous and a search for agency should not be indexed by the presence of heroic acts of conscious self-determination.

This has an interesting application to horses. As Swart details, horses are controlled with an arsenal of tools (reins etc.). When horses are used publicly we see riders and drivers yield these tools in “displays of public domination”. But we seldom read why these tools are used for horses: Their disobedience can have life threatening results. Horses protest all the time.

Asymmetric access to the technologies of power, of which horses were one, buttressed elites. Horsemen had to have some power to even possess horses and, once they did, they could seize more power and deploy it more effectively by using horses, in a military capacity or in utilizing trade networks more lucratively.

Swart argues that horses are possibly not the best companions for reaching out to the histories of the sub-altern. They were luxurious. Donkeys were more frequently used in agricultural settings. Donkeys have been blamed for erosion and killed en masse. Swart brings fort the “donkey massacre” of 1983 which she calls “a silent massacre, hidden from the official archival record.” I’m betting that accessing horses in the stable, learning how their maintenance and care has been organized might proof revealing.

The article claims that horses are not as “obsessed with territory” as humans but this is contradictory to my experiences in the pastures, in the stables and when witnessing policehorse training events. I believe that being situated is a way to communicate and negotiations on spatial positioning is an elite form of horse-human patois. It’s great for performance as minute actions such as turning ones focus impacts direction (e.g. when riding).

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