Horse and rider

If you have the feeling, when you put your ear to the ground, that you're hearing more thundering hooves lately, you're absolutely right. There are 8 million to 12 million horses in the United States today, compared to only 2 million or so about 20 years ago.

And has the standard of living of the American horse ever soared! According to the Wall Street Journal, some 200 manufacturers do a $2 billion annual trade in the "horse-care business." This includes such exotic products as hoof-polish, beauty lotions, monogrammed blinkers, and even contact lenses. The journal estimates that the cheapest "backyard" horse costs $1,200, and that average annual expenses run to about $3,000, which makes even an eight-cylinder gas-guzzler seem like a bargain.

The top-of-the-line horses are, of course, Arabians. In reporting on the annual auctions of Arabians at Scottsdale, Ariz., W -- the weekly journal of Beautiful People and Handsome Horses -- discovered steeds going for $230,000.

President Reagan owns a gray Arabian named Gualionko -- the spelling seems to vary -- and there is reason to believe that he may give horseback riding cachet as the White House sport of the early '80s, just as during other administrations President Eisenhower put the seal on golf, President Kennedy on tag football, and President Carter on jogging.

The love between the American and his horse could prove even more abiding than the love between the American and his car. After all, if mobility has been the favorite condition of the American, who, we may ask, carried the New World settlers -- practically right off the boat -- on their restless journeys to the frontier? The horse, of course -- pulling wagons and stage-coaches, and transporting everybody from the cavalry to the pony-express rider.

It is a tribute of sorts t hat the worst thing one 19th-century man could call another was horse thief.

No figure seems more of an American legend than the cowboy, mounted on his good old horse, "Paint." Indeed he has become a galloping cliche. Even today few fantasies of the simple life are complete without the nostalgic dude's vision of himself sleeping under the stars with only his faithful nag as companion.

From infancy on, generations of American children have been filled with the pop-mythology of heroic horses: Tom Mix's Tony, the Lone Ranger's Silver, Roy Rogers' Trigger -- all capable of astounding feats of intelligence, all boundlessly loyal.

Few adults can ride horseback without a certain sense of romantic costume drama. The horse is still heroic, even if we aren't, and he carries us part way back into the epic style with him.

We may diminish horses into pampered pets or snob-status acquisitions or investments -- another hedge against inflation. But horses reshape people too. A breeder of Arabian horses told W: "In the beginning horses interested me; now they're my passion."

The horse is the one domestic animal that refuses to come down to our scale -- to fit in. You cannot remain an urban or suburban personality while riding a horse.

The rider of horses is in the presence of "hot courage" and "high desire," as that horse-admirer, Shakespeare, observed.

As we advance into the Age of Space or the Age of the Computer or the Age of Nuclear Fission -- or whatever we wish to call our present complexity -- we appear to drift further from the Age of the Horse. Yet here they come, cantering in an ever-increasing herd into our life and into our imagination, reminding us of something we desperately want to remember -- that behind our world of inventions there is the other world: the world of creation.

No matter how many air-conditioned corrals we build, no matter how many sequined halters we impose, it is the horse, finally, that challenge us. The horse-lover Hans Heinrich Isenbart has written: "A strange stillness dwells in the eye of the horse, a composure that appears to regard the world from a measured distance." It is, he concludes, "a gaze from the depths," and as we gaze back we are likely to recognize somethi ng timeless and a little extraordinary not only in horses but in ourselves.

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