Four legs good Dark Horses and Black Beauties: Animals, Women, a Passion Melissa Holbrook Pierson (Granta) Melissa Holbrook Pierson would appear to embody the pioneer spirit. About four or five years ago she published The Perfect Vehicle, an account of her love for, and experiences of, Moto Guzzi motorcycles. Having one myself, I assumed it had more or less been written specifically for me, and so duly made it paperback of the week. It was also very well written: like many poets, Pierson writes first-rate prose. This book, however, is about horses. I can be more dispassionate now, for horses, as far as I am concerned, are either scary, uncomfortable, or not fast enough to the winning post. My ideal relationship with a horse, I decided some years ago, involved butter, pepper, a bit of lemon juice and a frying pan. Which is not an attitude I can sustain after reading Dark Horses. The idea of hippophagy is now barbaric, revolting. (One of the facts we learn from this book is that all five equine slaughterhouses in the US are owned by Belgians. What’s that all about, then?) I suspect that a certain male coolness towards horses has to be connected, however tenuously, to a sense of jealousy regarding the privileged relationship women have with them. Central to this book is the attraction women, and girls, have for horses. There are plenty of people who know about this kind of thing who will confirm that women get on better with them than men do. One can imagine that Pierson gets on very well with them indeed, from the way she writes about them: “They are a stirringly impossible mixture of power and delicacy…They inspire fear even as they are filled with it themselves. They are wild and they are utterly tamable…Even the males are pretty, as the females are powerful, and so horses seem to bear the same secret a little girl does about her own protean qualities even if the whole world would deny them.” That’s pretty much the tone of the whole book, by the way. If it is all a little too much for you, this soaring intelligence and lyricism, like Molesworth’s fotherington-thomas on smart drugs, that is a shame. Personally, I can’t get enough of it. It would seem to be the natural stylistic mode for what is becoming a genre: female poet writes about physical stuff. The first example I encountered was On Extended Wings, Diane Ackermann’s book about flying, but there are doubtless others. You can’t blame Pierson for getting carried away, though (and when she does, she carries you away with her). Dark Horses is as much a matter of feminist reclamation and assertion as of history and examination. “Riding is merely like flying or motorcycling or target shooting, in that female proficiency must be a matter of established record for several hundred years or the equivalent before it can be officially permitted, grudgingly and under duress. And precedents be damned, even if they are of ancient vintage.” Pierson, being a wishy-washy poet and not a hard-nosed zoologist, finds plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the notion that horses have minds. And not just minds – there is a story related here of the mare who saved a three-year-old girl from being trampled to death by a gelding – but telepathic minds. Pierson, when she is beginning riding lessons all over again with an instructor who promises to teach people to ride “in harmony with the horse”, is told not to pull on the reins to stop the animal, but to “think about [it] stopping”. It works. As does this book.