I started getting requests to write a book on horse color shortly after I started writing articles on the subject, but I didn’t take the idea really seriously until after I began doing seminars at BreyerFest in 2001. My husband co-authored a physics textbook a few years later, and I began teasing him that surely my obscure interest (horse color) was more marketable than his (optical physics). I am still not sure about that, but his publishing experience did convince me that I was too used to controlling my images and text to work with a publishing company. The growth in self-publishing options, particularly print-on-demand, and the belief that I probably knew the market for this kind of book better than most publishers, decided it for me.
The book I truly wanted to write didn’t seem feasible at this point. I needed high-quality color printing, and while the prices have come down a great deal in recent years, they aren’t yet down low enough. I thought that producing an in-depth book on color identification at a reasonable price was still a few years off, so I thought perhaps a smaller scale project might be a good way to “learn the ropes” of self-publishing. What I had in mind was a book that expanded on the information provided in my breed color charts. Those charts have always been abbreviated, both in the scope of the breeds and the colors themselves (new colors have not be added over time). They also don’t give any background or clarification on the information. That information has always been in my notes – in my rather infamous “color notebooks”.
These are just a few of the sheets from a few of the notebooks. After almost twenty years, there are thousands of pages – and still they represent only a fraction of the accumulated information.
I thought I could produce a book with a brief outline of the colors and patterns currently known, and then present each breed with a narrative of what colors were present in the gene pool. I envisioned a handy reference book that could fill in what the charts did not tell. Since it was not designed to explain horse color, but merely to tell the story of horse color in the different breeds, it could be printed in black and white.
So that was the plan – a handy reference book that could be written in time for a June deadline (making the first copies available at BreyerFest 2010). Along the way, a lot of unexpected things came up.
The horses’ stories got longer. I’m sure my friends would point out that this is common with the stories I tell! But I am laying some of the blame with technology.
When I started work on the book, it was important to me that it be as grounded in fact as possible. I knew that many breed ‘purists’ weren’t going to like some of the information I had, so I wanted to be on solid ground with what I wrote. But more importantly I didn’t want to simply repeat what previous volumes said about a given breed. Having read countless horse books, it is rather striking how most simply reword what some other author said on the topic – and sometimes even the rewording is pretty minimal! I thought the least I could do was confirm information with first sources.
This probably wouldn’t have changed the scope of the book, except that technology meant that I had access to a lot more information. I already have an impressive amount of information right here in my own library, but in the last few years many registries have gone online with their databases. Most of the American and British databases are restricted to members of the various breed societies, or are only available on a subscription basis. Smaller countries, however, have proven to be a lot more open. This, paired with Google Translate, has allowed me to tell the stories of many obscure breeds more fully.
The other important bit of technology were sites like Google Books and the Internet Archive. Projects like these are scanning older texts and offering them as PDF files for downloading. In the case of Google Books, there is a powerful search engine that sifts through not only titles, but the text of books and periodicals. Fortunately for me, the formative years of selective breeding in horses is the time leading up and the time just following the turn of the last century. It coincides almost perfectly with the books aging out of their copyright protections. Having access to so many contemporary texts from that time (and being able to quickly search them for specific subjects) has allowed me to better understand the earliest times for many of these breeds.
The downside has been that the book has become unexpectedly large, and is taking an unexpectedly long time (not to mention eating up an enormous amount of my attention). This stopped being a “quick reference” long ago, but I am even more enthusiastic about telling the tale. I think that here, nearly a century in to selective breeding of animals, is a good time to record these stories and give some idea of the sweep of history involved. It is my hope that by showing how things really were, perhaps those of us who love horses can see more clearly how to proceed in the future. It just won’t be done in time for this year’s BreyerFest.
Oh, and the two horses pictured are some of the unexpected things I have discovered while writing. The black pony is – believe it or not – a Haflinger. He wasn’t just any Haflinger, either. He belonged to the Emperor of Austria, and was pictured as a “typical example” in a nineteenth century treatise on horse breeds. The grey horse is a Hackney. While I knew the color had once been present in Hackneys, I wasn’t aware there were breeders focusing on the color so late into the twentieth century. (It is, as best I can tell, truly lost now.)