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.

Peach Blossom, Trout and Tiger: Horse Colours in 1730s France

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Screengrab from Archive.org.

A list of horse coat colours taken from The School of Horsemanship by François Robichon de la Guérinière (first complete edition 1733. Translated by Tracey Boucher. Published by J A Allen, London, 1994):

light bay
chestnut bay
black-brown
golden bay
dapple bay
jet black
rusty black
dapple grey
iron grey
silver grey
tiger (grey with black spots and large solid black areas on white undercoat)
flea-bitten grey
pied (black, bay, chestnut)
light chestnut
dark chestnut
wine-coloured roan
moor’s head roan (blue roan)
rubican
mouse dun
wolf-coloured (with dorsal stripe)
all-flower or peach blossom
trout (a black undercoat and a body and head dotted with reddish or chestnut spots)
blue-grey (“a white undercoat and spots over the entire body, such as one sees on porcelain vases”)
isabella
palomino
cream

UPDATE 17/1/2017: I rediscovered my copy of The Wilton House Riding School, a reproduction of 55 paintings by Hapsburg riding master Baron Reis d’Eisenberg depicting haute-école movements. I can’t find a date for the completion of the paintings but in his introduction Dorian Williams says that the baron lived in the mid-eighteenth century. As I flipped through the pages I noticed that several of the colours mentioned by Guerinière appear, which might help to decipher the original French list.

There’s a German-bred horse described as a “porcelain piebald” which turns out to be a dapple grey (he’s called “Superb”). A Turkish horse is “silver trout” – what we would call flea-bitten grey. A leopard-spotted appaloosa is “tiger” (a confusion I’ve come across in some nineteenth-century descriptions of spotted horses). Our mysterious “mille fleurs” or all-flower looks rather like a blue roan with black freckles.

The Marquesa and I

My treat for the week’s travel was a copy of Penelope Chetwode’s Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia, her tale of wandering through Spain on a fat mare called Marquesa in the early 1960s. It’s vivid, pungent, beautiful and funny; she describes a country that has long since disappeared, swallowed by modernity. I recommend the work as a whole, but this passage had to be quoted in isolation:

“‘Bridle Road to …’ When I see this notice in England it has the same effect on me as Mescalin does on Mr Aldous Huxley. Here there are no such notices but you can see bridle roads leading over the plains and the sierras  in every direction and to an addict the sight is intoxicating. Everyone has his weaknesses: some people run after women, others after Dukes; I run after priests and along carriles which, with their alluringly sinuous ways, are gravely tempting me  to throw all my family duties to the wind and to go on riding along them forever.”

When I googled Penelope to find out more about her life, I discovered that she had, in fact, had the perfect, most gentle death, far from the Pony Clubs, the parish churches and tame bridle ways of England.

Salvos Across the Equine Gene Pool: a Reader

This is not so much a post as a string of links to some interesting, thought-provoking essays elsewhere and a question: what is “pure blood” and should it matter?

Let me explain. Roughly speaking, until the nineteenth century and even the twentieth century, the vast majority of horses and ponies in the West were not bred by someone who wanted to “preserve a bloodline” or produce a very specific set of characteristics. The aim was to make a “type” of horse to do a specific job, using the sires and dams that were available – ideally with good conformation. It was thoroughbreds whose breeders, inspired by Arabian breeding practices, changed the game. You can see that in the etymology of the words “thorough bred” “pur sang” “voll blut”. Soon it wasn’t enough to have a good horse, it had to be a “pure horse” (The warmblood bucks this trend, in theory. More anon). To a large extent, this probably did improve the quality of many horses: stallions were selected for meeting certain characteristics and performance criteria. But could the preoccupation with “breeds” over “types” eventually cause problems?

Here are my scattered thoughts and links.

1 – I just finished reading John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs, which deals, among other issues, with the problem of pedigree dogs:

“Until very recently, the amount of variation in the domestic dog was sufficient to maintain genetic health. Multiple domestications and back-crossing with wolves meant that dogs worldwide still have an estimated 95 per cent of the variation that was present in wolves during the time of domestication. Most of this variation lives on today in street dogs and mongrels, but pedigree dogs have lost a further 35 per cent. That may not seem much, but let us imagine the scenario in human terms. Mongrels maintain levels of variability that are similar to those found globally in our own species. In many individual breeds, however, the amount of variation within the whole breed amounts to little more than is typical of first cousins in our species. And we humans know that repeated marriages between cousins eventually lead to the emergence of a wide range of genetic abnormalities, which is why marriages between close relatives are taboo in most societies. It is astonishing that the same consideration is not given to dogs.”

Over just the last six generations, inbreeding [of golden retrievers] has removed more than 90% of the variation that once characterised the breed. … In a recent sampling of Y (male) chromosomes of dogs in California, no variation was found in fifteen out of fifty breeds, indicating that most of the male ancestors of each and every dog in those breeds have been very close relatives of each other.”

This put me in mind of Fell Foal Syndrome, HYPP, assorted genetic problems in Friesians, Minxy the ill-fated miniature horse, the bug-eyed, seahorse-headed Egyptian Arabians who are unrideable…

2 – The new blogger at Fugly Horse of the Day asked readers to guess the breeds of a series of horses. Today she revealed that most of the commenters had gotten it right, they were all mustangs. She then embarked on what can only be a deeply unpopular polemic about America’s nominated “wild horse” and alternative national symbol:

“I’ve done some research on mustangs over the years, I’ve owned one, trained many and ridden one I would have liked to try to turn into a cowhorse. Each one was a very different type of horse. They were little and arab-y like, in the middle like a QH, big and draft-y or a horrible mix of it all. My overwhelming impression was I could easily find the domestic equivalent at an auction, or in someones backyard, or rarely, through a good breeding program. They had good feet and good bone, or bad feet and birdy bones, they were “primitive” in their coloring or they were red. Some had stubby appy tails, some had flowing tails, some were big, some were small, some didn’t seem like horses at all. OK, no more Dr. Seuss, you get my drift. I didn’t hate them, or consider them a waste of space, they were just horses. …

I learned there are pockets of different horses tucked away here and there with DNA which goes back to the Spaniards horses. Some go all the way back to the first horses reintroduced to America. This is kind of cool. I can see the value of preserving these little drops of history.I like the idea of watching a herd of ancient history running free through a national park. It does not make me think these horses are extra special, better than others, or worth more than any decently bred horse from a good breeding program. It seems to me small pockets of animals, holed up in a little tiny undiscovered part of the mountains for hundreds of years, will end up much like the royal families of yore which only married their kids off to others of royal blood. They ended up with weakened bloodlines, an influx of disease and mental instability. …

When I read about these rare pure bloodlines going back to the Arabs and Andalusians I think, Huh? Don’t ALL breeds go back to Arabs and Andalusians? Aren’t there still some Arabs an Andalusians out there? …

Then there are the other mustangs. The ones developed by ranchers turning out their own studs and shooting the wild ones to create their own herds. Or sprung up from the drafts and saddle horses turned loose before the World Wars or the Great Depression. These are nothing but grade horses folks. Nothing wrong with a good grade horse, but nothing to be revered either.

Shoot, we’re breeding a whole new kind of mustang right now in 2011. With horses being dumped in record numbers, natural selection should kick in any minute. We should be ready to start saving the elusive, yet kind of stupid, ‘Bushama Mustang’ in just another couple of years.”

It was the original FHOTD blogger who introduced me to the ever-increasing roll call of new “breeds” from “Gypsy Vanners” to “Warlanders” – to give two of the more reputable examples. Everyone wanted to have a “rare” horse, a “special breed” with an exotic history. It wasn’t enough to have a good individual horse. It had to have history and pedigree.

3 – An Australian racehorse breeder is launching a legal attack on the national Thoroughbred industry’s ban on artificial methods of reproduction. As this is a global requirement in horse racing, it will be very interesting to see the result. All other sportshorses can be bred using AI and often embryo transfer. Horse Talk covers the debate:

“Smaller breeders – the vast majority in Australian thoroughbred breeding are small operators with an average of three mares – would benefit from not having to ship their mares to stud, and would also be able to gain access to semen from top horses around the globe, Tonking argues.

McHugh does not put much stock in the central argument from the Australian thoroughbred industry that it would become a world pariah if articificial insemination was allowed. He has proposed a separate registry for artificially bred thoroughbreds. France, he has pointed out, allows such separate registries and it did not appear to have damaged its industry.

The whole debate is fascinating. The arguments offered by McHugh are hard to challenge. Yes, relaxing the live-cover rules would give smaller breeders access to stallions around the globe. It would undoubtedly save them money. Australia’s ban on thoroughbred artificial insemination goes back to at least the 1940s. The practice was banned to prevent any skulduggery, and to ensure that mare owners got the stallion service for which they were paying.

However, in the modern era of DNA identification, that argument has long since been buried. Does the requirement for live cover effectively create a restraint of trade? If you’re a smaller breeder unable to afford a top stallion’s stud fee, but able to afford a straw or two or semen from a similarly-rated sire, it is hard to argue otherwise.”

What then happens to the mid-range sires, the rare ones with no Northern Dancer blood? The ones that represent an outcross and variation in one of the smallest gene pools in the equine world? Where are the limits when top stallions can already cover a hundred or more mares a year? (I blogged a little about “partbred” racehorses here)

4 – A video, rather than an article. When I made my return, of sorts, to the horse world, one thing which struck me was the breeding of specialist horses for eventing, dressage and showjumping – to the extent that there are now futurity competitions for foals and youngstock in these categories. Performance is paramount. As a lumpen outsider, I’ve started to wonder if dressage horses in particular might become too specialised in a few generations. Maybe I should just relax and enjoy the sight of the dressage-bred foal which raised a record price of €200,000 at the Oldenburg Elite Foal Auction last week in Vechta. He’s even called A la Dressage:

A Little Light Horse Opera

“It takes a real horseman to understand the importance of the back. … Considering [Nuno] Oliveira’s repertoire of up to fifteen horses to school a day, it was scarcely surprising that he developed enormous strength and suppleness in the lower back or loins. Without the slightest appearance of movement in his proud shoulders and upraised chest, he was able to hollow or straighten his back with the utmost ease. This had the effect of rotating the pelvis forward or back depending on his requirement, and gave him that depth of contact so necessary for advanced dressage. …

He could collect and balance a young, fit, unschooled horse within seconds; he had taught horses which had never been trained to changes in their lives, two and even one time flying chances in less than a week; a passable piaffe and passage could be extracted from untalented riding hacks before unbelieving eyes. Often the horses seemed as surprised as their owners.”

From Dressage, The Art of Classical Riding, by Sylvia Loch.

Bits and Bobs

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