Those of you who have been with me for a while have probably noticed that I read significantly more fiction than nonfiction. But I do also have a nonfiction TBR and have been trying to read more from that as well. In June I started The Perfect Horse because I had read another book by Letts a couple of years ago, The Eighty-Dollar Champion, and really enjoyed it. In The Perfect Horse I was so pleased to see that Letts’s attention to detail and ability to tell an engrossing story had definitely carried over.
During the 1930s, while Hitler was amassing territory and power, he also was working on a project to create the ideal war horse. In World War I, horses were hugely instrumental to the war effort, so the concept of making a perfect “race” of horses fit in well with Hitler’s overall scheme of a perfect “race” of humans. As various countries fell under German control, many assets of those countries were centralized, including famous stables and horses. Letts follows the journey of several different horses, including two famous Arabian stallions from Poland, and several Lipizzaner stallions from the Spanish Riding School in Austria. She also introduces us to the people connected to these horses. There are a lot of people and places in play, but Letts’s writing is compulsively readable, and I honestly had trouble putting this one down.
The first two sections of the book focus on introducing the horses, people, and places involved. Letts gives the readers the background of why Hitler found horses to be such an important part of his military program, and also discusses what the US Calvary was doing at the time (they were still on horseback!), yet we also begin to see the writing on the wall – horses are not actually going to be critical military assets for much longer. It was really interesting to see the way that the horses were shifted around and centralized, and how the focus of Hitler’s horse breeding program was on creating virtually identical stallions for war, a horse factory if you will, with horses being trained and used as young as possible, and mares producing foals as rapidly as they could. This was especially in contrast with the incredibly slow-moving and precise breeding/training program of the Lipizzaner horses, who aren’t ridden until they are several years old.
In the third part of the book, the war is moving along and Germany is falling. It’s at this point that an American officer finds out, through a captured German, that a small herd of incredibly valuable horses are just across enemy lines. With the Russians closing in from the east, and willing to literally eat anything and everything in their path, a decision is made to cross lines and basically steal the horses. An interesting part here was the discussion about whether or not it was worth it to risk human lives to rescue equine ones, and I appreciated the way that Letts explained this –
This mission mattered to him – he wanted to save the horses. All over Europe, there were men whose express job was to protect cultural artifacts and recover stolen art. At the highest level, the American military was aware that even in the darkest times, care must be taken to protect irreplaceable cultural treasures. But the horses, equally beloved, equally treasured, infinitely precious because they were living things, did not have the same official protection afforded to museum pieces.
For me, the book fell off a bit in the final section, which looks at the aftermath of the rescue. Because the focus is more on this group of specific horses than it is on the Lipizzaner breed as a whole, it’s honestly a little bit of a downer. The American Calvary stopped using horses after World War II, which meant that the horses were sold rather than used. The American Jockey Club refused to acknowledge the meticulously-kept records of the heritage of rescued horses, which meant that they were almost valueless in America. Consequently, the end-destination of many of the horses is unknown, although the fates of the four stallions that Letts focused on the most were happy.
All in all, I definitely recommend this one. It was completely engrossing and an intriguing look at yet another aspect of both the war and Hitler’s regime. Letts kept me completely engaged in the fates of these beautiful horses and the men who cared about them. I felt like this quote really summarizes the story well –
World War II is still the most destructive event ever to have occurred in human history, with estimates of the total death toll as high as sixty million, or 2.5 percent of the world’s total population. The irreparable loss to civilization that resulted from people being slaughtered and entire cultures being obliterated is impossible to measure.
Against the backdrop of all this wreckage, the saving of the horses was a small thing; and yet as Hank Reed’s men instinctively knew, it was only through individual acts of compassion that the world was able to climb out of the trough it had dug for itself and attempt to find its way into a more peaceful future.
Later, when people asked why he had decided to save the horses, Colonel Reed’s answer was simple: “We were so tired of death and destruction. We wanted to do something beautiful.”