India’s national tent-pegging championship begins today at the Equestrian Grounds of the Punjab Armed Police in Jalandhar Cantt.
- A sanctuary in Devon provide an orphaned foal with teddy bears for company. Video ensues. (ZapIt)
- A pony in Canada is attacked by a bear while minding its own business. (Kamloops)
- A cob called Buddy goes for a swim in Kent, and requires the help fo the fire brigade. (Kent Online) A pony in Essex also took a dip with the same results. (Epping Forest Guardian)
- Two-headed pony discovered in Wales. Sort of. (Daily Mail)
- A man in Rhode Island took a shetland pony called Willy Wonka into his local Liquor store. Something entirely predictable ensued. (ABC News – thank you Ed Ward)
- A psychic helped rescue an adventurous Norwegian Fjord who wound up in a ravine in Seattle. (Seattle Times – thank you to Christina Wilsdon)
- Edinburgh decides it’s really rather nice to have pony rides in the centre of town. (The Edinburgh Reporter)
- Mumbai teenagers rescue a tiny, sick pony they found grazing on a garbage dump. (dnaindia.com)
- Nice New York Times piece on the family that bred Kentucky Derby winner Orb. Post-and-rail and lush pastures galore. Orb is the seventh generation descendent of a mare the family bought in 1926: truly the breeder’s dream (NYT)
- A restored cheese barge (they existed!) is the first horse-drawn canal boat to cross the Chirk aqueduct near Wrexham in decades (BBC)
- A plan to put semi-feral Dartmoor Hill Ponies on contraception has been hailed as a success (BBC)
- Ireland plans to introduce a central equine database in the wake of the horse meat scandal (Irish Times)
- You’ve probably heard about the official culls of Brumbie horses in Australia, but did you know that there’s a proposal to kill 10,000 walers – the nation’s classic cavalry horse breed? (ABC)
- When Metro Meteor retired, he took up painting. Some sell for thousands, but his handlers remain sanguine: “Lets face reality. Art scholars are not going to have long lengthy discussions trying to decipher the hidden meaning to Metro’s paintings. He is a horse.” Thank you Rowan, for this treat. (TIME)
- A horse is found disembowelled and mutilated in Dublin. €5,000 offered as a reward for information. Not for the fainthearted. (Irish Times)
- Larry Wheelon, president of the East Tennessee Trainers’ Association and member of the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association board and ethics committee, has resigned both posts after nineteen Tennessee Walking horses were removed from his care showing signs of soring and other illegal and harmful training methods. Between 1991 and June 2012, he’d racked (ha!) up fourteen violations. I wonder who else is on that ethics committee and what’s in their barns. (WBIR)
- A romantic British man took riding lessons, then found a white steed and a suit of armour to make his proposal to his girlfriend especially memorable. Unfortunately he didn’t practice his dismount, and came a cropper. Fortunately his girlfriend said yes anyway (The Sun)
- Meanwhile, in India, a dalit or “untouchable” man who claimed his right to equal status with other Indian castes by riding a horse to his wedding was pelted with stones. Three people were subsequently arrested. (Times of India)
Alice Hayes was a British horsewoman married to an army vet, Horace Hayes, who wrote many books on horsecare in the nineteenth century. She travelled widely with him in the course of his work, and rode a great variety of often difficult horses. The most wiley, perhaps, wasn’t a horse at all:
“The most awkward kicker I ever rode was a mountain Zebra, which my husband broke in at Calcutta. He kicked very neatly without lowering his head, and, as the slightest touch on his ears drove him nearly out of his mind, I had great difficulty in avoiding them, as he kicked with a sort of peculiar wriggle which complicated the performance for me, because I had had no practice on a kicking zebra, and had to pick up my knowledge as I went on. It was no use trying to rein him back; for he had a neck like a bull, with a small rudimentary dewlap, and at every kick he gave, he made a noise like a pig grunting. His skin was the best part about him, and was as lovely and soft to the touch as the finest sealskin. As I believe I am the only woman who has ridden a mountain zebra, this photograph is probably unique. It ought to be a better one, seeing the trouble I took to make my obstinate mount stand still; but he seemed to regard the camera as an infernal machine destined for his destruction, and flatly refused to pose nicely for his portrait. He was far too neck-strong to make a pleasant mount for a lady. Kickers, as I have already said, should never be taken into any hunting field.
The Horsewoman, by Alice Hayes (1893)
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.
The pastime of the royals, which originated in India’s North-east, is facing extinction in its birthplace. Unless urgent steps are taken to conserve Manipuri polo ponies, this magnificent breed of horses will be on its way to oblivion. Over the past few years, say sources in the state veterinary and animal husbandry department, the population of the Manipur pony breed has been dwindling. In the last livestock census done in 2007, the number had dropped to 1,037, a steep decline from the figure of 1,893 estimated during the 2003 census. A Food and Agriculture Organisation publication on the World Watch List on Domestic Animal Diversity has listed the breed as “an endangered animal.”
“Superficial observers regard the game as a mere amusement, and consider it mere play, but men of more exalted views see in it a means of learning promptitude and decision. Strong men learn, in playing the game, the art of riding, and the animals learn to perform feats of agility and to obey the reins. It tests the value of a man and strengthens bonds of friendship. Hence His Majesty is very fond of this game.”
From Abu I-Fazl Allami’s The Institutes of Akbar or Ain i Akbari (1590). Allami was adviser to the third Mughal emperor, Akbar, who used to play polo at night with luminous balls made of palas tree wood.
Quoted in “From Iran to All of Asia: The Origin and Diffusion of Polo,” by H E Chehabi and Allen Guttmann in Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 19, June–September 2002.