Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Calling up the cows - K.M.Grant

After GB’s Olympic triumph, I was going to write about dressage this month, a sport which commentators insist is mysterious and faintly peculiar. Horses doing ballet! Riders doing not much! Well, there you go!

Dressage is neither mysterious nor peculiar. It evolved through pretty straightforward considerations of life and death: your warhorse needed to be smart, obedient and pretty damned nifty to get you out of harm’s way. You needed to teach it to move sideways, backwards, upwards, the full spin, the half spin, and all this instantly and without hesitation. You get the picture. Since you can't teach tanks dressage, after horses fell by the wayside as far as war was concerned, these elegant lifesaving manoeuvres became a competitive equine discipline.

It’s harder than it looks. I was once given a lesson on a horse being trained for the Spanish Riding School. My legs said ‘trot’; it understood ‘half pass’; my legs said ‘medium canter’, it understood ‘wild gallop with motorbike corners’. I dismounted hot and humbled. ‘Serves you right,’ said my own horse primly. ‘Dressage is for real riders.’

Anyhow, my mind teaming with dressage moves and smart things to say, I then discovered something truly horrible. In the huge clearout last year, when we moved the kitchen in a domestic earthquake worthy of Thomas and Jane Carlyle, I seem to have mislaid (please please not discarded) all my dressage books. Indeed, I can find none of my horse books at all; no blue Pony Club Manual 1966, no Keeping Your Pony at Grass (whose cover was disconcertingly yellow – why not green?), no What the Farrier Does given to me, I think, by Father Christmas.

Nothing for it, I'm reduced to cows - the animal kind, not human. In a fit of mental abstraction (I wasn’t even pregnant) I once bought a book about cows – The Complete Cow, by Sara Rath. It’s a great book, a mine of historical and not so historical cow information. Did you know, for example, that ‘soldier’ in Sanskrit, means ‘one who fights about cows’? To my surprise, I’ve consulted this book quite often. Once you realise how important cows have been in the whole of man’s history, it begins to feel rude to gloss over them in a historical novel. Rude and historically negligent.


The cow is not just an animal. As William Dempster Hoard reminds us, ‘the cow is the foster mother of the human race. Form the day of the ancient Hindoo (sic) to this time have the thoughts of men turned to this kindly and beneficent creature as one of the chief forces of human life’ (Rath: 17). We have mythical cows like the Minotaur (I’m counting bulls as well); we have holy cows in India; we have beribboned cows in Liechtenstein (the ribbon goes to the winner of the summer cow beauty pageant) and we have human cows courtesy of the ancient Roman wedding where the woman says ‘You are the Bull, I am the Cow’.

Every family in every historical novel depends on the cow: cows are always a feature. But is a cow ever The Feature, even in a modern novel? I don’t think so. Cows are comic, as in Doreen Cronin’s Click Clack Moo (2000) or David Milgrim’s Cows Can’t Fly, or even subversive as in Munro Leaf’s 1936 story of Ferdinand the pacifist bull. But they’re never heroic. I think there’s a historica gap to be filled. My family had a cow, disconcertingly called Butterfly. Here’s a link to her picture. She was a prize cow, but no beauty, at least she doesn't seem a great beauty to me even bearing in mind that in 19th century portraits, cows always look like oxo cubes. Nevertheless, I think of her sometimes, and of all those family cows that, for centuries and centuries, stood between a child’s life and death: a bit like dressage after all, so it turns out.

Rath, S. (1998) The Complete Cow, MN, USA, Voyageur Press, Town Square Books.
Picture of cow from Fotosearch Stock Photograph RF (Royalty Free) 

1 comment:

Terry Morris said...

I enjoyed this post. It reminded me of various fictional cows I've read about, and a film about Ferdinand. You're right. While cows can be the main character of a story, they're often treated humorously. Unless you count something like "Appointment With Venus", a film about the humans who have to get the cow out of Nazi Germany, and isn't told from the cow's point of view at all.