I wonder what it must have felt like for early man to first meet the horse. Did they hunt it to start with? How did they figure out that they could make use of it? Who was that first brave soul that said, "Maybe we should try climbing on and riding" or the intelligent one who thought of hooking it to a plough?
When the native peoples of North America first saw the horses that had escaped the Spanish conquistadors to roam free over the plains they were astounded. They had never seen dogs so big before. They soon became an integral part of their lives, replacing the camp dogs that pulled the travois and facilitating the hunting of the buffalo.
When the American government wanted to destroy the nation of Chief Joseph (Thunder In The Mountains was his real name) they ordered the destruction of all Appaloosa horses, as they were integral to the lives of the Nez Pearce. The rationale went that by destroying their horses the Nez Pearce would have to surrender and live on the reservation the government has so kindly provided for them.
Anywhere horses lived, their lives became integrated into the culture of the people who have lived there. From the Russian Steppes where the Cossacks raided, China where they were immortalized in statues of jade, Arabia where they were bred for speed, and in farmer's fields around the world they tilled the earth.
There's something about a horse that makes it hard to visualize them as static; they need to be in motion or at least animated to capture their essence. For me this has always meant the majority of photo essays, or any type of attempt to capture a moment in time with horses, have been inadequate in expressing who they are. Too much attention is usually paid to the look of the animal, to show jumping and walking it around the ring, and not enough to out where it comes alive on the prairie.
Viggo Mortensen's The Horse Is Good is a horse of a different colour in that it attempts to capture moments of movement and non-traditional times of stasis. Through his involvement in movies where horses were utilized in the couple of years prior to the original 2003 publication date of the book, he had some unique opportunities to both observe and photograph horses in circumstances that showed off their unique qualities.
Instead of mere portraiture Mr. Mortensen's photographs show movement through shutter speed adjustments, point of focus, and perspective. By shooting from atop a horse he allows us to experience the sensation of movement as much as possible in a static format.
I'm sure most of you have seen photographs of car's headlights caught in a timed exposure where they become lazar beams that streak across the night sky. Horses caught in the same fashion in daylight leave pieces of themselves and their riders strewn in lines behind them while the background behind dissolves into a blur of unrecognizable shapes.
Of course freezing them in frame and capturing them as sculpted figures of muscle, sinew, and bone displays the power that fuels that speed. Looking at them from below, their rolling eyes, powerful neck muscles, and broad chests one can only imagine the terror people felt when first meeting mounted soldiers charging down on them.
The warhorses of old were bred for speed and strength – a mixture of a draught horse and a thoroughbred which, even encumbered by the weight of a knight and his armour and encased in metal itself, could obtain gallop speeds. Imagine having that bearing down on you with your only defence being a skinny post with a metal tip on the end?
Mr Mortensen also treats us to some of the more intimate moments between man and animal. The connection that can be forged between the rider and steed where each becomes an extension of the other to the extent that communication is thought and felt rather then indicated or spoken.
The hand that rests on the back of the horse against the bright blue sky and nothing else; one hand reaching out to a head and bridle while the other holds a mouthful to bring to the muzzle as reward; and two foreheads touching, human and horse, sharing something we onlookers can't begin to understand.
Of course not all people have affection for horses and wild Mustangs were almost hunted to extinction for the sake of politics, ranchers, and dog food. Others have treated them like machinery and use them until there's nothing left but to send for the knacker to come haul the carcass away.
But still they continue in their relationship with us in spite of that and we are honoured by it. The horse brings a certain dignity and romance to our life that nothing else can. How many motor carriage rides around Central Park or the Old Town in Quebec City do you think people would be interested in? Look at the pictures of the horses drawn up around a grave and on the march in honour of Big Foot who was wiped out at Wounded Knee in The Horse Is Good and if something doesn't stir in your breast than you should be checked for a pulse.
Mr. Mortensen has managed to capture aspects of the horse's character and our relationship with it that is very rarely depicted anywhere. Without words or descriptive titles I learned more about horses from this book than any encyclopaedia or reference book I've glanced through in the past. There have not been many occasions where I've been fortunate enough to be around horses, but this book brought back memories of those times as effectively as watching a movie. All that was missing was the quick hop to avoid stepping in something you'd rather not, but aside from that it was just like being in the company of horses.
(Originally posted June 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.