The Outside of a Horse is an emotional, eye-opening novel that has pushed me into some new areas of thinking. I’m afraid my review may grow rather controversial before I’m done.
Hannah’s mother died of cancer five years ago, and her father returns from Iraq minus a leg and exhibiting some terrifying effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To escape, Hannah volunteers at a nearby stable that rehabilitates abused horses. There, where their stories merge, where love and trust are allowed to grow, healing is found for girl, for man, and for beast. It is a feel-good story of spirit and triumph, but it contains some disturbing undertones.
I learned a good deal about the dark side of the horse racing industry. For every champion, tens of thousands die, often before they take ten breaths. The worn out, the used up, those who never measure up, all sold for slaughter. And the pharmaceutical industry, particularly producers of women’s hormones, make their money at the dreadful expense of equine lives. An incurable animal-lover, one who wishes those first innocent days of creation might have lasted, I cried during parts of this book.
Yet we live in a world where animals are eaten. If we slaughter cows and chickens for food, I cannot on moral grounds argue against the slaughter of horses, or even cats or dogs. And as the book points out, if we close American slaughterhouses, no fewer animals die. They are simply shipped to Canada or Mexico. Yet I can protest inhumane treatment of these animals, the torturous means of killing them. I can heartily applaud those who work to better the lives of men and beasts. And I can look forward to a time when “all things will be made new.”
The book makes several social statements I’d like to point out. Again and again the war in Iraq is compared to Vietnam, with American government as the bad guy. I have mixed feelings about the war. I remember 9/11 vividly, and I know we need to take a hard line with Muslim terrorist groups and governments. We need to protect America. But sometimes I wonder, is that what we’re doing? Regardless, I have the highest respect and appreciation for our veterans, and the book honors them too.
It also puts in a few subtle arguments for the euthanasia of terminal humans. When Jack, an aging horse, is gently put down, Hannah recalls the suffering her mother endured. “Seeing how easy this was for Jack, I think it shouldn’t have to be so hard for humans.” The problem with this sentiment, the logic of which the book does not think through, is that lowering human life to the status of animals would easily create the same over-slaughter which the author laments for horses. The sick, the defective, the old, the useless–it would become too easy to kill.
And finally, the book makes a plea for saving animals everywhere. I love animals, and I wholeheartedly agree with volunteering at shelters, adopting dogs and cats, treating them with kindness, protecting them with laws, etc., etc., etc. Yet animal activism always draws strong parallels in my mind to other innocents legally slaughtered each year with less protest, the human ones. I cannot pursue protection for the first without equal or greater energy for the second.