Mustangs for Your Ears


Deanne Stillman’s Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West came out in 2008 and remains definitive. It takes you from the arrival of the first Conquistadors’ horses – like Pedro de Alvarado’s “bright bay mare” “good both for tilting and to race” and the grey “Bobtail” who was “fast, and had a splendid mouth” – to the politicking of the Bush years when America’s wild horses once more came under threat. It will give you some pointers about their fate in the next four years, too. Her next book, Blood Brothers, flows out of it and tells the story of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Simon and Schuster will publish in the autumn.

Those of you who like books but have to fit them into a life that includes school runs, commutes, housework, an exercise schedule and/or poo-picking might be interested in the audio version of Mustang. It features the voices of Anjelica Huston, Frances Fisher, Wendie Malick, Richard Portnow and John Densmore.

Making Fearless Men: A Medieval Riding Lesson

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I briefly mentioned King Duarte I of Portugal’s Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela (The Book on the Instruction of Riding Well in Every Saddle) in The Age of the Horse. It was written in 1434, 82 years before Xenophon’s On Horsemanship was first printed. If you’re used to the narrative in which all riding was brutal and dire until the Italians rediscovered ye olde Greek texts, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this medieval Portuguese book, which was finally translated by Jeffrey L Forgeng and issued by The Boydell Press as The Book of Horsemanship this year.

I spent a few hours poring over it in Cambridge University library last summer, kicking the desk in frustration that I hadn’t been able to include it in the book. It’s quite a revelation. Every now and then archives deliver a shock of realisation: these people from the past were human! They breathed and farted and got anxious! This is one of those texts.

Duarte I, “the philosopher king”, reigned from 1433 till his death in 1438, and had a difficult apprenticeship as a prince: at one stage he was incapacitated by depression for three years. He was also a superb horseman and hunter. In The Book of Horsemanship, both these elements come together, because not only is there advice on riding, there’s also tips on how to handle nerves in oneself and in one’s pupils. He is preoccupied with “will”, which sounds, in this context, rather like self confidence.

When I was researching If Wishes Were Horses, I found very little pre-eighteenth-century material on teaching the young to ride – especially girls. So I was delighted to find a chapter that gave me an insight into medieval pedagogy and psychology. I’ll share a brief extract from “How good experiences make some men fearless; and how to teach boys and others who are starting to ride”:

You should not give him instructions except to stay tight on the horse’s back and hold himself well however he finds most suitable. Whatever he does wrong, you should not correct him much, but minimally and gently. If he does well, you should praise him generously – as much as you can without lying. You should continue in this way with him for a time until you see that he is coming to enjoy learning and practicing, and wants to receive correction and teaching. From then on start explaining to him how to hold himself strongly, for this is most necessary, always minding what I have said: more praise, less blame. If he happens to fall, or loses a stirrup, or some other contrary thing, and you see that he feels it greatly, you should excuse it as much as possible, so that he does not lose the hope and will that is of great value for this and all other things.

Horses in the Wings

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The theatrical and circus historian A H Saxon is the don of hippodrama history. I bought an old library copy of his Enter Foot and Horse when I was working on The Age of the Horse because I knew it would be the key to nineteenth-century equestrian theatre. I wasn’t disappointed.

Hippodramas were, to quote Saxon himself, plays “in which trained horses were considered actors, with business, often leading actions of their own, to perform.” They grew out of the very early equestrian circuses and were generally light on serious content, heavy on melodrama and chock full of sensational sets, scenes and galloping horses.

Saxon’s work is invaluable because the hippodrama is not exactly popular with theatrical historians and it also fell from fashion fairly rapidly, thus ensuring that few traces of it lingered in popular consciousness. I was delighted to find the facsimile of a script for one on Archive.org. It’s called

The Blood-Red Knight

or

The Fatal Bridge

A Grand Melo Dramatic Romance

In Two Acts

 

It was created by George Male for John Astley in 1810, just as the genre was taking off and getting steadily more spectacular. The plot is a classic piece of melodrama. The Blood-Red Knight, Sir Rowland, is hellbent on challenging the chastity of his brother Alphonso’s wife, Isabella, and begins the first act by chasing her and her son Henry through a sinister wood and up and down mountains.

When he finally gets his mitts on Isabella, he gives her a choice – give in to him or her son will be killed. Alphonso (earlier reported to have died in “the Holy Wars”) interrupts at the crucial moment but is bundled away to his death, forcing Isabella to agree to marry Sir Rowland. Luckily Alphonso wasn’t dead at all, and he and some friends storm the castle and launch into a stirring sword fight followed by a cavalry assault across a falling bridge.

At its climax, Isabella shoots Sir Rowland just before he can chop Alphonso in two, and it all ends happily ever after.

The full script at Archive.org is later, US edition, which you can browse here. It’s just 24 pages long. As A H Saxon points out in Enter Foot and Horse, this is not much of a script for a performance that lasted an hour and forty minutes. Not for nothing are the directions so long, although sadly they contain none of the minute moves that must go into coordinating a stage fight. Just how possible was that level of planning if horses were involved in a mêlée? Or did everyone just muck in and aim to get to the right spot at the right moment?

I have found, thanks to Caroline Hodak’s paper on hippodrama, information from the playbill about the special effects. I don’t have the original, so please forgive this re-translation of Hodak’s French translation:

The castle is attacked, the surrounding river is covered with boats filled with warriors while the walls are violently attacked […] Men and horses are represented injured and dying, in all positions, while other soldiers and their horses emerge from the river, forming an effect [sic] completely new and unprecedented in this country – and elsewhere – all ending with the complete defeat of the Blood Red Knight and the reunion of Alphonse and Isabelle.

Hodak quotes one report from the French writer Louis Simond, who saw the play and compared it unfavourably to performances in France:

Astley is a show of equitation and one naturally forms an advantageous notion of this type of spectacle as performed in England, which is something of an island of Houyhnhms . I expected something far superior to what I had seen in other countries, but I found the horses moderately well-trained: the men did no tricks that were out of the ordinary. Instead of equitation, we had drama and harlequinades, battle and fights. The characters were Moors and Saracens, and the horses were there like actors, as at Covent Garden; they ran in to the pit, and climbed onto the boards of the stage – all was covered in earth.

He goes on to say that between each act acrobats performed in the pit (at a guess this is the ring in front of the stage), sending up clouds of dust and tearing their trousers. Those is the cheap seats roared while respectable looking middle-class Londoners sat in the boxes. There was, Simond concluded, “a little corner of barbarity in most English popular amusements.” He moves on swiftly to Westminster Abbey.

Here’s a contemporary image of The Blood-Red Knight from the British Library’s archives. It had a first run at Astley’s Amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road in London of 175 performances, making an eye-watering £18,000 for Astley and company, and was introduced to New York in 1823.

The Noble Truck-Horses

A Cart-horse, by James Ward, R.A. Courtesy of the British Museum, London, via Wiki Commons.

A Cart-horse, by James Ward, R.A. Courtesy of the British Museum, London, via Wiki Commons.

Among all the sights of the docks, the noble truck-horses are not the least striking to a stranger.  They are large and powerful brutes, with such sleek and glossy coats, that they look as if brushed and put on by a valet every morning.  They march with a slow and stately step, lifting their ponderous hoofs like royal Siam elephants.  Thou shalt not lay stripes upon these Roman citizens; for their docility is such, they are guided without rein or lash; they go or come, halt or march on, at a whisper.  So grave, dignified, gentlemanly, and courteous did these fine truck-horses look – so full of calm intelligence and sagacity, that often I endeavored to get into conversation with them, as they stood in contemplative attitudes while their loads were preparing.  But all I could get from them was the mere recognition of a friendly neigh; though I would stake much upon it that, could I have spoken in their language, I would have derived from them a good deal of valuable information touching the docks, where they passed the whole of their dignified lives.

Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage, 1849

He rode an Arab horse
That King Darius had sent him. […]
You could not name the price of this horse,
Because he was so swift, and knew how to spin on his heels.
His back was two colours:
On one side he was white as an ermine,
On the other, black as a mulberry.
Nobody in the world could run beside him.
You can be sure, there was no other
So agile, be they bay or brown.
And he swiftly outstripped the brown and bay, left them flatfooted.
You would have to be mad to want a faster mount.

From the French version of the medieval poem, Roman des Thèbes. My (free) translation. All faults my own.