Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful

In a recent posting, a reader asked if I had read Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful. The book is a slim volume of poetry written by the amazing writer and activist Alice Walker. Indeed, I have read the book. It is a powerful collection of poems that are raw, honest, and celebrate the capacity to celebrate life and stand up against injustice and abuse.

The title of the book comes from the following quote from Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. Lakota holy man Lame Deer, noted in the preface:

“We had no word for the strange animal we got from the white man—the horse. So we called it šunka waken, “holy dog.” For bringing us the horse we could almost forgive you for bringing us whiskey. Horses make a landscape look more beautiful.”  

Horses do indeed make the landscape more beautiful. This quote is poignant because of course alcoholism has wreaked so much long-lasting devastation on the Native American people. White settlers, including my ancestors, also brought other diseases, violence, and the forced removal of  indigenous peoples from their tribal lands. Yet, amidst this devastation, Lame Deer honors the return of the horse to the Americas.

 Holy Dog Comes Home 

Curiously, we know that Eohippus, or Dawn Horse, the ancestor of the modern horse, lived some 58 million years ago, and originated in the forests and swamplands of North America. Especially prevalent in the Great Plains, Eohippus was only about 14 inches tall. More dog-like than horse-like, he is described as “a small graceful animal, scarcely more than a foot high with a slender face, an arched back, short neck, slender legs and a long tail, adapted for living in swamps.[1]

 Amazing Adaptation 

As swamplands dried up 18 million years ago, Eohippus adapted by developing a longer neck for grasslands, a single toe or hoof, longer legs, and eyes with almost 360˚ vision to detect predators. The ability to change food as tall grasses replaced the swamp habitat further enabled the horse to survive. Other large animals surviving the Ice Age and drastic climate changes died out because they were only able to eat certain foods that became extinct or otherwise unavailable.

Evidence suggests that descendants of Eohippus crossed the land bridge from the Great Plains to Europe and Asia. By 10,000 years ago, horses had disappeared from the United States. Ironically, the descendant of the horse that died out in the Americas, was returned to the home of its ancestors by the conquistadors and European invasions.

 Sacred Companion 

The Lakota use of “Holy Dog” to refer to horses is an interesting one, especially since its ancestor Eohippus was similar in size to a dog. Holy captures the other-worldly or spiritual nature of the horse, while dog confers the special relationship of companion. The words “Holy” and “Dog,” when put together become a sacred companion.

 Is Beauty Enough? 

Lame Deer speaks of the beauty of horses and how they enhance the landscape. Approximately fifty years ago, horses lost their jobs in transportation, agriculture, and the military in the western world. Today it is expensive and time-consuming to care for horses that are no longer of “practical” use on the farm, for transportation, or in making warfare. Yet, more and more women are becoming owners and riders of horses. Is the beauty of the horses enough to ensure their care and survival, in a culture that values youth, productivity, and usefulness? Hundreds of thousands of women are voting “yes” with their dollars, their time and their love of horses. Perhaps they are seeking a Holy Dog, a sacred companion to accompany then on life’s journeys.

[1] Ensminger, E.M. (1990) Horses and horsemanship (6th ed.) USA: Interstate, p. 3.


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