There is a bookshelf in our house where my wife has assembled (in order, mind you), the textbooks from every course she took in university. She sees them as trophies for passing the course. I, on the other hand, have very little concrete evidence that I ever attended university at all. I have a couple scars, several pairs of cowboy boots, and a handful of ticket stubs from Aggie pubs, but most of my experiences were as fleeting as the hand stamps that accompanied them. I certainly don’t have any textbooks to add to Krista’s trophy shelf. However, I do have books. I like to collect books – the older and odder the better. Last summer, we rented a cottage, and on a shelf in that cottage was a first edition of Dune. I wanted to steal it, just to have it. It turns out that a first edition of Dune sells at auction for around $10,000, so I’m glad I didn’t take it – we’d have had to rent the cottage again and put it back, because pecuniary gain isn’t the point.
Since people know that I like old and odd books, periodically one will be handed to me. And due to our long-time relationship with the horse world, many of them are from that genre. My favorites are books about the care and feeding of horses from generations past. One of the best is a pamphlet called How I Make Big Money from Ornery Horses that was published in the 1950s. Just the fact that it has the word ‘ornery’ in it makes me love it. It was essentially a 10-page advertisement for a mail order course, where a “Professor of Equine Studies” would teach you to take the wildest and most dangerous horse, and make it “suitable for use by a small child.” There were many pages of testimonials from people who had paid less than $10 for a “devilish horse” and then turned around and sold it for “upwards of $150 in just five days.” I’ve seen a similar thing done with tranquilizers.
Many of the books are reference manuals for the care of your horse. I had to explain to my kids that in the dark, distant past of the last millennium there was no such thing as the internet, and when you wanted to get advice on something, there were only two options – ask an actual human being, or look it up in a book. They seemed shocked by the antiquity of both of those options.
It’s interesting how a manual from the 1980s, will always decry the advice given in a 1970s manual as brutal, unfeeling and utterly useless. Similarly, the 1970s manuals say the same about the arcane and cruel 1960s. The ’60s thought that the ’50s were not nearly groovy enough, WWII veterinarians laugh at WWI veterinarians, and so on, and so on, until the beginning of time. I’m sure that if I could find a Roman book about the care and feeding of chariot horses they’d discuss at great length what a bunch of Cretans the Greeks were. And in turn, the Cretans would decry the Egyptians’ horse care as barbaric.
One of my favorites, is Gleason’s Veterinary Handbook and System of Horse Training, which was a gift to my father in the late 1940s. It lists every ‘known disease of the North American horse,’ in alphabetical order, from abscesses to worms. Then it instructs the reader on the best way to treat each disease with everything from tartarized antimony, to the leaves of the whortleberry. If I had a dollar for every time Krista has sent me to town for a tincture of quicksilver, or tramping through the woods in search of a belladonna root! It, like all other texts, criticizes the foolish recklessness of the previous generation, while it instructs you on the proper preparation of a lead arsenate poultice.
My point is that throughout the history of veterinary horse care and training, any era’s newest and best, will inevitably become the next era’s laughingstock. But what I’ve also noticed is that there are themes which all horse people have agreed on, that permeate these texts from the first domestication until now. Good feed, clean water, gentle treatment, a warm dry place to shelter and as little intervention as possible on our part seem to be the best elixir for our equine partners, whatever the year, and whatever the ailment.