by Birgitta Hjalmarson

Emir. The Swedish Ardennes.

Apr, 2019

A shorter version of this post was first published by Women Writers, Women Books at

They named him Emir, after those powerful Arab rulers. He was an Ardennes draft horse, a roan gelding in a village in southwest Sweden. Why that name? His world was one of fog and snow, and summers so brief you hardly knew them, not one of palaces and sand dunes shimmering with heat.

Barely a teenager, I watched my great uncle lead him back from the pasture. Lightning flared across the sky, the forest rose dense, and dark was coming on, even though it was still early. Emir stepped high at my great uncle’s side, eyes flashing white, hooves tossing up clods of grass and earth, as if something in the thunder called him.

In the fifth century B.C. Herodotus praised the Belgian horses for their stamina and strength. Julius Caesar encountered them during the Gallic wars and called them “rustic, hard and tireless.” Stout and thick-coated, they stood barely 14 hands. In medieval times, they became war and jousting horses, taller and more massive, strong enough to carry knights in armor, yet agile and fast, able to spin around and charge. Arabian and Berber stallions mated with Belgian mares for endurance and style. In the mountainous region of the Ardennes, away from the battles and the crowds, Belgian monks carried on a breeding program of their own. The result was the Ardennes horse, tough and compact, still not very large but with a giant’s strength. During Napoleon’s Russian campaign, when thousands and thousands of horses died, the Ardennes resisted the cold and survived on thatch from farmhouse roofs.

In Sweden, my great grandfather kept shelves of stud books in his office. “The improvement of the Ardennes lies in the very few,” he noted in the margin. As the Great War raged on the continent, Sweden exported 73 stallions to Germany, all deemed unfit to advance the breed, either because of poor lineage or a flawed conformation. In return, the Swedes were allowed to import 40 brood mares, suitable for the Swedish taste, which tended toward greater power and size. As for the stallions that were sent to Germany, one of them died on the ship. I can only imagine the fate of the rest. The war used up horses as fast as it used up men. I see them pulling transport wagons, shells detonating all around. I see them sunk to their chests and necks in mud, the soldiers unable to save them. If lucky, they were killed with a bullet through the forehead (the most humane way, or so the field manual said). If unlucky, they were simply left behind.

The Ardennes stallions in my great grandfather’s stud books measured close to 17 hands and weighed nearly a ton. He used one of them, Ballancourt, for his mares. When talking about him, he would emphasize the slope of his shoulders, just right to keep the collar in place, or the shape of his buttocks, strong enough to pull the new agricultural machines, but what he really coveted, although loath to admit it, was the curve of his neck, the breadth of his forehead, and those dark, luminous eyes. Even when pairing him with a coarser mare, he hoped to possess at least a small part of his beauty. Perhaps he saw redemption in that, although all in all my great grandfather appeared to be a practical man.

Emir would stand motionless as I climbed on to his back. I used the milk tables as ladders. Every farm had them, wooden structures along the road, where the farmers left heavy milk cans for the dairy to collect. He stood motionless down by the inn, as the blacksmith fitted his shoes, the iron glowing red, the old men on the bench swapping stories as they rested their chins on their canes. But out in the stubble field we practiced dressage — figure eights, an extended trot on the diagonal, perfect walks and halts. Those who saw us from the country road must have shaken their heads. Dressage, of course, has its roots in war. Horses were trained to protect their riders, even to bite and kick. I suspect Emir viewed our exercises as just another task to perform, like tilling or ploughing, straight lines up and down the field, his patience as endless as the day. Yet, there were moments when his ambition stirred, and the push of his haunches made me grab his mane. When we failed at the half-passes, those tricky bends where we tried to travel sideways and forward both, he swished his tail.

I don’t know how long he lived. When I stopped coming to the farm, he was still young. In the end the Ferguson, the new tractor I saw outside the barn, surely won out. Even so, they would have kept him to haul logs out of the forest, where horses were more efficient, and machines tore down too much. With good treatment and care he could have kept working until he was well into his twenties. I can see him as he lowers his head, leans into the harness and pulls, his fetlocks clumped with ice, his winter coat curly with sweat.

But as for that day, when his life finally came to an end, my vision blurs. I hope they gave him a long, gentle brush. Perhaps it was in the autumn, the air high and thin. By then his coat would have been gray rather than roan, and his back would have sunk, his withers more prominent now. I hope they combed his tail and ran a damp sponge across his forehead, the hollows above his eyes deep with age. When they picked his hoofs, they had to work fast, for he would have lacked the strength to hold them up for long. As they led him out to the truck, his shoes would have clipped the cobblestones and the stable cats would have crouched and fled. And as the sun strikes his eyes, still blinding but lacking in warmth, I see him raising his head and pointing his ears, his nostrils quivering at the scent of the desert wind.


Photo JensEnemark





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