Picture Books and Primary Sources: Horse Power: How Horses Changed the World by Jennifer Thermes

Horse PowerOne of my favorite units with my first-grade students is the Long Ago and Today unit. Students compare and contrast several aspects of culture and civilization in the U.S. from today and different moments in history. Technology, communication, and transportation are explored quite a bit and with much enthusiasm from the students. I know that this coming year Jennifer Thermes’s book Horse Power: How Horses Changed the World is going to make an appearance along with related primary sources.

Thermes’s book gives a broad look at the role that horses have played in human history. She begins with the first appearance of horses about fifty-six million years ago. Horses’ roles in humans’ lives span the globe and millennia. 

Encouraging Young Learners to Begin Thinking about the Past

While I will share the entire story with my young learners, we will focus our attention on the role of horses in the last 150 years. The beginning of the story helps to focus the learning. It also gives students some contextual knowledge. Many of my students may not know how people traveled before current modes of transportation.

Reading through Thermes’s mention of the Pony Express gives us a natural stopping point. At this point, I can ask students, “How was mail delivered in the past according to this book?” Students will, of course, say that it was delivered by horse.

This gives me an opportunity to shift to today. “If you or an adult at home is getting mail or a package delivered, how does it get to your home?” There are a variety of answers that will likely be shared. A mail truck, Amazon Prime van, or delivery truck would all be expected answers. Others may share that their mail carrier walks to their mailbox. If this happens, I’ll likely ask students whether they think the mail carrier walks from the post office to every home or travels in some other way.

Broadening Our Thinking about Transportation Now and in the Past

I’ll continue by asking students to predict other ways horses were used to get people and items from one place to another. “We know mail was delivered by horses. What other items do you think were moved from one place to another by horse?” Students will have a variety of answers. We often view history through the lens of our own lives. 

Delivering Milk to City Homes

Delivering Milk to City Homes

Students may think about food being delivered to their home as an example. Consider pushing students’ thinking. Reference the illustration from the Pony Express. I may ask, “If someone is having food delivered by horse, do you think someone has a small satchel of food across their shoulder like in this picture?” Luckily, there are other visual references of carriages on the same two-page spread. Students can not only begin thinking about what was delivered by horse but how it was transported.

I will continue to build the list of the role that horses played in transportation by asking students how people were transported. “We’ve talked about things being delivered by horse but people move around too. You move around now by car, truck, or bus. What kind of special horse-driven transportation may have moved people to where they needed to be?”

After I’ve collected the list of student ideas, I’ll return to the book. Two back-to-back, two-page spreads are great stopping points to compare students’ thinking to the information in the book. One spread is a busy city street filled with horses and carriages of all shapes, sizes, and purposes. Many of those and more are labeled on the next spread.

These spreads provide a perfect time to compare student thinking to Thermes’s sharings. What types of horse-powered transportation did students think about? Which are surprises to them? Are any confusing? (Ice-delivery horses and night soil horses are two that come to mind.)

Bringing Primary Sources into Our Thinking

Ice horse-drawn wagon

Ice horse-drawn wagon

Before finishing the story, share with students that they can look at photos from one hundred or more years ago to see some ways horses helped people. I’ve curated a set of primary source images to accompany the picture book. Encourage students to look closely at the images by giving them a set of questions to consider. 

Ask students:

  • Does this photo have a connection to an image in the picture book?
  • What do you see that helps you understand what is happening in the picture?
  • What did you see in this photo that surprised you?
  • If you could ask the person in this picture a question about horses powering the world, what would you ask?
  • What would a photo of this activity look like if it were taken today?

Students can share observations and questions with each other to continue their conversation about horses and transportation.

And of course, the lesson ends by finishing the last pages of Horse Power: How Horses Changed the World.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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1 reply

  1. I appreciate you, Tom, for reminding us of the richness of primary sources at our digital fingertips in the form of historical photographs.

    Your collection for this unit is varied in both content and sources and will prompt many student questions. It’s especially powerful to share images of physical locations that students (or their families) might recognize.

    (For example: In the 1950s, my grandmother used to take me shopping in the American Railway Exchange building when it housed the Famous-Barr department store! As a first or second-grader in St. Louis, it would have been thought-provoking to view this photograph and imagine horses on the downtown streets rather than buses and cars like my grandma’s Olds! https://dl.mospace.umsystem.edu/umsl/islandora/object/umsl:251744!)

    P.S. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

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