Book Review: Horse Power: How Horses Changed the World

Written and illustrated by Jennifer Thermes (Abrams, 2021)

My 5 year old daughter has discovered ‘Spirit Riding Free’ on Netflix. With 8 seasons available and a theme song she likes to fall asleep to, it has quickly become a not-insignificant part of her life. This book is a much-requested bedtime story, keeping the horse theme but helping her wind-down with wonderful pictures and wide-ranging information, nicely laid out.

What is perhaps curious is that my daughter, like many children, has next to no experience of horses in real life. She’s seen miniature ponies at a farm, and was then amazed and delighted by the sheer scale of the horses pulling carriages in Central Park when we took her to New York. As this book vividly illustrates, the absence of horses from our day to day life is new, very new.

From their origins in North America, their migration across the Bering Land Bridge to Asia, and their subsequent domestication and spread across the world, this book traces the history of horses and their relationship with humans from prehistoric times to the modern day. The book shows the importance of the horse in the development of human cultures through communication and the transportation of people and goods, the reliance of people on horse power for many centuries of human history. And then the abrupt cessation of that reliance with the invention of the automobile.

For my daughter, the pictures are a big part of the appeal – the book is gorgeously illustrated, with plenty for children keen on horses to feast on, including illustrated maps showing horse breeds and wild horses around the world. However, there’s plenty here for the less horse-enthused as well as it’s not a book that focuses on the horse in isolation. On the contrary, it brings in the influence of the horse on people, and also the impact of horses and then automobiles on the environment. One of my daughter’s favourite facts is the name given to horse poo in the New York city streets circa 1900 – ‘road apples’. It always makes her giggle. But the book then points out the exchange of poo in the road for pollution in the air, as we switched to relying on cars.

When I’m looking for children’s non-fiction, I’m looking for books that can be read with enjoyment, books that delight with their text and pictures, books that inform, building knowledge, books that inspire curiosity and the imagination – but also books that connect outwards, that introduce a broader sweep of understanding. This book is a way into big themes, offering to children what a book like Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship (trsl. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, Penguin 2018) offers to adults. So while my daughter is busy spotting horses that look like Spirit – in colouring if nothing else – this book gives us the starting point for many other conversations. And the answer to a question much debated in our house: which goes faster, horses or cars?

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