Around the World in Horses

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When I was a girl I was only interested in things in museums if they involved horses. I’ve developed a slightly broader range of interests now, but to my mind, by focusing on horses, I learn about everything else: As Chomel put it, “L’Histoire du cheval est celle de l’humanité” – the history of horses is the history of man. So here’s a jumbled, greedy selection of some images from the trips I’ve made to research book two. I took these for my own reference, and I’m scrupulous about not using a flash if asked not to, so I’m afraid these are a little gloomy, but you get the jist. Here goes.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

  • Composer Eve Harrison teamed up with Scottish schoolchildren to write a musical about the horse meat scandal, called The Unspeakable. If I weren’t on the move just now I would dig out a 17th century story in which Scottish children chased and stoned a man known to eat horse meat. (BBC)
  • The FAO reports that the number of horses in the world has dropped by a million every year from 2009–2011, doubtless in response to the recession. The number of donkeys has increased – again, I’m pretty sure that’s down to the recession too. Donkeys make the developing world go round, after all. (Horse Talk NZ)
  • In the wake of the horse meat scandal, Ireland tightened its enforcement of slaughter regulations, with the result that the number of horses entering abattoirs has plummetted. The government is now considering a humane disposal programme for horses that have been treated with bute and other drugs that render them unfit for human consumption. (Irish Times) Meanwhile the UK’s DEFRA will close the loop hole that allowed horses travelling between Ireland, the UK and France to escape a full vet inspection. Racehorses and FEI competitors will still be excused (Horse Talk NZ)
  • In May the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association’s executive committee voted in favour of a bill that would end the use of padded shoes and chains. The board of directors nixed it. Now a member of the executive committee is running an unauthorised poll among members to ask them what they think, and feathers are flying (The Tennessean)
  • Archaeologists in Bulgaria have uncovered a 2,500 year-old Thracian chariot and two horses – the twist? The horses were somehow buried standing (Habitat for Horses)
  • Mare’s Milk Champagne And Tipsy Amazons

    By A. Savin, via WikiCommons.

    By A. Savin, via WikiCommons.

    Thank you to Andrew Curry for tipping me off about this great piece on koumiss, or fermented mare’s milk. It takes you from drunken Amazons to proto-Indo-European paleolinguistics, and confirms what this lactose-intolerant already feared: horse milk is very high in lactose. It’s on Wonders and Marvels, and it’s by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University. The ice princess who features in the Hunters and Amazons chapter of If Wishes Were Horses makes an appearance too.

    Koumiss was repackaged as “milk champagne” by an enterprising health nut in 1877, and you can read his manifesto (complete with scan typos) here at Archive.org.

    It has been long since noticed that certain tribes [in] Russia were completely exempt from debilitating diseases; that is to say, diseases which exhaust the strength and induce emaciation, as phthisis pulmonalis, chronic broncitis, chlorosis, anemia, etc. Their fortunate immunity attracted the attention of physicians, already awakened by the popular reports, which attributed to the daily use of Koumiss, the excellent health of these people, notwithstanding the detestable climatic and hygienic condition in which they lived. …
    Koumiss is a white lactescent liquid, with a characteristic odor resembling that of whey, with a lightly assidulous and biting taste, savoring somewhat of buttermilk. It leaves a fresh and agreeable after-taste, is more effervescent than champagne, and when poured out becomes covered with an abundant foam, white as snow, overreaching the glass.

    Taoism and the Nature of Horses

    Terracotta horse and two soldiers from the Terracotta Army buried near the Mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin, at Lintong, Shaanxi Province, 1974. Wikicommons: photographer, Babelstone.

    Terracotta horse and two soldiers from the Terracotta Army buried near the Mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin, at Lintong, Shaanxi Province, 1974. Wikicommons: photographer, Babelstone.

    Discovered while reading John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals: an extract from the writings of Chuang Tzu, a Taoist collection believed to be written around the 4th century BC wholly or in part by Zhuangzi/Chuang Tzu – an official in what is now Anhui, China. This is from book nine, Mâ Thî, or “Horses’s Hoofs”.

    Horses can with their hoofs tread on the hoarfrost and snow, and with their hair withstand the wind and cold; they feed on the grass and drink water; they prance with their legs and leap: this is the true nature of horses. Though there were made for them grand towers and large dormitories, they would prefer not to use them. But when Po-lâo (arose and) said, ‘I know well how to manage horses,’ (men proceeded) to singe and mark them, to clip their hair, to pare their hoofs, to halter their heads, to bridle them and hobble them, and to confine them in stables and corrals. (When subjected to this treatment), two or three in every ten of them died. (Men proceeded further) to subject them to hunger and thirst, to gallop them and race them, and to make them go together in regular order. In front were the evils of the bit and ornamented breastbands, and behind were the terrors of the whip and switch. (When so treated), more than half of them died.

    Extract shared by Nothingistic.org, which has made available on line James Legge’s 1891 translation.

    Happy Eponalia!

    2nd–3rd century AD statue of Epona riding astride, found in Luxembourg, photographed by Owen Cook and sourced via Wiki Commons.

    2nd–3rd century AD statue of Epona riding astride, found in Luxembourg, photographed by Owen Cook and sourced via Wiki Commons.

    Today is the day that modern pagans have assigned to the Celtic-Roman goddess of ponies, Epona. If you want to celebrate, Devon, Maid of Epona has some suggestions involving beer and hippomanes here, and there’s a fantastic, comprehensive site about the history and archaeology of the goddess here. Alternatively, mosey over to Epona TV and start viewing their Gerd Heuschmann series on what’s gone seriously wrong with modern dressage.

    Horses in the Museum

    Yay! The British Museum are going to have live horses in the forecourt this Saturday to celebrate their The Horse from Ancient Arabia to Royal Ascot exhibit. I felt pretty iffy about the exhibit for various reasons (detailed here – it’s a wee bit incoherent, inaccurate and slanted), but the Horse Power day sounds like great fun. According to the British Museum’s blog,

    A source of inspiration for the day was the wonderful painting, The Derby Day (1856-58), by William Powell Frith, on display in the exhibition. This painting captures the crowds at a nineteenth-century race day. It demonstrates the vibrant culture that sprang out of race days (not that many of the crowd in the painting are watching the race) and that’s something we’ve considered with the activities on Horse power day. Visitors will be able to make fascinators, a tribute to the popular focus on fashions on display at Ladies’ days at the races, and listen to popular music from the eighteenth and nineteenth century recreating the atmosphere of the first great Thoroughbred races at courses like Ascot and Epsom – including a song specially recreated for the event, not heard in its original version for 250 years, but which survives as a folk song even now!

    There will be morris dancers, police horses, Arabians, heavy horses, donkeys, storytelling, talks from jockey Caroline Baldock and experts on horse mythology and archaeology, plus chances to make everything from rosettes to fascinators and sculptures.

    They’re also asking people to tweet along:

    Tweet using #horsepower and @britishmuseum
    Tag your photos on Instagram and Flickr with #horsepower
    ‘Blinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Tweet us your best #horsefilm

    And I’m chuffed to see there’s been an If Wishes Were Horses-themed contender for #horsefilm:


    Tav would be honoured.

    The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot via the British Museum

    How could you fit the history of horses and humans into a space? Not even the British Museum could hold it: it would be crammed like Tutankhamun’s tomb. Selene’s chariot horses on the eastern Parthenon pediment would be eyeball to eyeball with Da Vinci’s triple-life-size Spanish steed. The central atrium would be the tackroom to end all tackrooms, with thousands of saddles perched on wall mounts like crows in a rookery: an Icelandic sidesaddle with a tool-worked seat and dinky safety rail, a Western saddle with beaten silver on the stirrups, a wooden nomad’s saddle from Central Asia, spineless, stuffed with deer fur and decorated with snow leopards. Then you’d have to clear out the Egyptian hall for donkey war chariots from Ur, a brougham with some courtesan’s coat of arms on the door, and a racing sulky so light you could pick it up in one hand.

    I’d throw in pony rides in the forecourt, floodlit classical dressage and buzkashi matches, some lectures on the subtleties of Stubbs, Peche Merle and Rosa Bonheur… It would represent the life’s work of a batallion of curators and the air freighting of all the artefacts would raise the temperature of the globe by a couple of notches. That would do the trick, I think.

    Limits, I suppose, are necessary in these austere times. That’s why The British Museum’s new exhibit, “The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot”, would more accurately be called simply “The Arabian Horse: from Arabia to the Royal Ascot”, although it does contain artefacts from non-Arab cultures, some of which even lie outside the Middle East. The museum and its sponsors – the Saudi Royal Family and their various agents – have chosen their own path through the mass of artefacts, cultures and facts. Charged by King Abdullah to “take good care of the Kingdom’s national antiquities and to project them to the world so it can witness the deep-rooted historical civilization of Saudi Arabia and its people”, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities are heavily involved, and the extended programme for the exhibit featured a talk by Prince Sultan entitled “Measures to Promote the Civilization Dimension of Saudi Arabia.”

    I’m not going to make some facile point about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record vs. the 21st century notion of civilization because that has nothing to do with horse history. I don’t think it’s wrong, either, for the Saudis to put themselves at the centre of this exhibit. After all, this is how the relation of history works: we learn by creating threads of narrative out of the chaos of facts. We tell ourselves stories. You need a narrative or else it’s just display case after display case: thing with a horse on it, slightly later thing with a horse on it – my fantasy jumble sale of saddles and chariots.

    My problem with “The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot” is twofold: firstly facts have been overlooked or even excluded to follow an old, well-trodden path. Secondly, a fresh, well-researched narrative could have given Eastern culture an even more central role.

    What we actually get is a familiar account of a Fertile Crescent “Birth of Civilization”: Ur, Mitannis, cuneiform, chariots, grain cultivation et cetera. A wealth of booty from the British Museum’s store rooms are laid out to support this in a small maze of dark, air-conditioned rooms in the drum at the centre of Norman Foster’s atrium. It costs nothing to see this treasure, and treasure it is.

    It begins with a film of a grey Arabian moving silkily round a floodlit arena in slow motion. Then there are priceless, unique pieces: the Standard of Ur (2600BC) is a small relief carving in shell, lapis lazuli, red limestone and bitumen showing a parade of figures with war-donkey chariots trampling the defenceless underfoot. The donkeys have rings through their noses (“bits hadn’t been invented,” says the caption, which rather overlooks the evidence of bitwear found in Botai horse teeth from 3500 BC). There’s a charming silver rein ring from a driving harness, featuring a trotting donkey with one ear fore and the other aft. Correspondence from Middle Eastern rulers to the pharaohs is carefully chipped in Babylonian cuneiform: memos concerning chariots and horses send by a Mitanni king, and a letter from the King of Cyprus to the King of Egypt, with the formal wish that the king’s “house, horses, chariots and land are well.” Panels provide information on the development of harness, chariots and battle techniques, as well as the spread of horses in the area.

    What’s absent is the new story that is emerging from contemporary archaeology, in which horse-centric nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples – like the Saudis’ ancestors, the Bedouins – played a driving role in the spread of civilization. The peoples of the Eurasian Steppes did not leave cuneiform and stone temples, but they shuttled goods, grains, technology and Indo-European languages across vast distances over a long period of time, ultimately leaving traces of their culture everywhere from Ireland to Korea and from Siberia to the Fertile Crescent.  The domestication of the horse in Kazakhstan is mentioned briefly at the British Museum but passed easily over. Nor is there a sense of what role the nomadic Bedouins played in the Middle Eastern world. Horsemanship in “The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot” is tied to settled cultures. There is only one “civilization dimension”.

    The exhibit begins to make gigantic leaps in time and space after the first room, bucketing along erratically. A dummy horse and rider kitted out in 15th century Ottoman horse armour stands next to another plastic horse in 19th century quilted Sudanese armour stuffed with kapok wool. An exquisitely cut shadow puppet faces an Uzbek blanket. A painting of a late 18th century Mughal horse with its tail dipped in henna segueways into European oils of the same period:  Sartorious’ Eclipse, Stubbs’ Gimcrack and Letitia, Lady Lade.  There’s an accelerated account of the development of the thoroughbred and modern flat racing and, randomly, images of horsedrawn traffic in eighteenth-century London. In the finishing straight we’re treated to a French version of the racing board game Totopoly, footage of dressage-Wunderpferd Totilas and the Saudi showjumping team and then out we’re spat into the exhibition shop. What’s the connection? That all these horses have Arab ancestry? Where are we going? Would you like a hobby horse with your catalogue?

    A few weeks ago I wrote about Donna Landry’s excellent Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture. Landry carefully draws on the work of many scholars to show how the English adopted not only oriental horses but also oriental horsemanship. We took their light, forward riding seat and called it the English hunt seat. We copied the Bedouins’ meticulous breeding records, pedigrees and carefully planned matings – it’s to these nomads that we owe the very notion of a “pure bred horse”. Landry’s “Houyhnhnmization” is the ideal inspired by Middle Eastern horsekeeping practices of the Arabian or oriental horse as a loyal, intelligent and noble creature that was both queerly human and better than a human, and to be treated as such by devoted grooms.

    This is what the Saudis were looking for. This is a vision of Eastern culture as a civilizing force that left a deep mark on British ways of doing and thinking: the horse in Landseer’s Bedouin tent with its gentle eyes, the feather-light jockey’s hand on the reins.

    In this version of events Arab culture would, however, have had to share credit with the Turks and North Africans, and this, perhaps, is the problem. The British Museum states that the thoroughbred was descended from three Arabian horses, but as Landry and others have pointed out, the Byerley Turk was probably so named because he was just that, a Turkish horse, and during his lifetime no one could decide if the Godolphin Arabian was not, in fact, the Godolphin Barb. There is evidence that Arabians themselves are originally of Turkic origin (think of an ancient Akhal Teke type), or perhaps desended from the tiny and fine Caspian horses of Northern Iran.

    This rich and complex picture is not only blurred at Great Russell Street but supplanted by an attempt to write a new narrative. At the furthest end of the air-conditioned maze sit the Al Maqar stone carvings, aka Saudi Arabia’s much-trumpeted evidence that horse domestication took place in the Arabian Penninsula 3,500 years before the Kazakhs pulled it off.

    It’s a treat to see them so soon after their discovery: the Al Maqar horse is beautiful – hefty, primitive, precise. It has a blunt profile and a smoothly joined rather than pronounced cheekbone. A groove cuts horizontally across its muzzle. To me it’s a Przewalski from the shape of its head to the mealy nose. There’s a vertical line running down its shoulder which the caption optimistically claims “may represent part of a halter or a harness” – what sort of harness would that be? Horse collars and breast yokes for draft are not believed to have been invented until 4th century BC China, and a loose strap on the neck would provide little control for a rider. Even if domestication had happened in the peninsula at that period, it became obsolete as the hypothetical Al Maqar domesticated horse died out: new DNA research shows that all modern domestic horses are descended from animals of the Eneolithic Eurasian Steppes.

    The limbless stone horse is exhibited side by side with two companion carvings, one of which is believed to be a saluki and the other a hawk: the classical Bedouin accoutrements of horse, dog and raptor. Could this triptych have been set literally in stone in 7000BC? The caption hedges its bets: “Further research may determine the exact date of the three stone carvings.”

    Just behind this display case is a light box which shows a series of images of striking Bedouin rock paintings of Arab-like horses led by stick figure men, black against gradations of red. When you press on an image it is projected onto the wall of the exhibition space. The figures look primitive and ancient enough but bafflingly, no date is provided for them; the caption refers to the artists using the Thamudic script but does not place them in history.  A short Google reveals that the Thamudic alphabet was used by Bedouins in the period 200BC to 300 AD. Quite a jump from the Neolithic.

    Ignore me though. Go and have your eyes widened. Pass over the narrative and feast on the tiny golden chariot of the Oxus treasure, on Letitia Lade’s nonchalance and devilry, on a delicate pink chalcedony seal of a flying horse and Rembrandt’s copies of Mughal miniatures. Get confused. Forget the title. Start thinking about 19th century Sudanese cavalry and what inspired Bedouin tribesmen to paint horses on desert rock formations. Take a deep breath and throw yourself headfirst into the richness and diversity that results from millennia of interaction of humans and horses.