During World War II food shortages, horse meat once again found its way to American tables, but the post-war backlash was rapid. “Horse meat” became a political insult. “You don’t want your administration to be known as a horse meat administration, do you?” the former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia demanded of his successor William O’Dwyer. President Truman was nicknamed “Horse meat Harry” by Republicans during food shortages in the run up to the 1948 “Beefsteak Election.” In 1951, reporters asked if there would be a “Horse meat Congress,” one “that put the old gray mare on the family dinner table.” When Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1952, he was also taunted as “Horse meat Adlai” thanks to a Mafia scam uncovered in Illinois when he was governor.
Therese Renz of the famous Renz circus dynasty, c. 1895. I’ve seen wonderful pictures of her in action (have you see the one where she and her horse are jumping rope?) but didn’t realise that she was a Berliner, and is buried just up the road from me in St Hedwig’s cemetery in Weissensee. She died in 1938. More essential to know, she used to tame elephants and was known as “the lady in white” when she performed at the Wintergarten variety theatre, which was destroyed by bombs just six years after Therese left this mortal sawdust ring.
Just as Therese was getting back to business, World War I would disrupt her comeback and leave her penniless, begging on the streets not for her own food, but anything people could spare to keep her two beloved elephants alive. After one died of starvation, she sold the second, her prized elephant “Dicky”, to another circus just to prevent him from suffering the same fate. Therese would yet again be starting over.
When the war ended in 1918, Therese was 60 years old, but that wasn’t going to stop her. She joined a troupe in Vienna in 1923, and continued performing well into her seventies on a mare named “Last Rose”, a fitting final partner.
To greet the horsemen and women of Olympia 2016, here’s some hot Olympia action from 1922. Let’s hope they have a few more bums on seats in W14 this week! It’ll be superstar dressage horse Valegro’s last competition before he returns to Carl Hester’s yard for a gentler life altogether.
The last British pit pony retired astonishingly recently in 1999. Between the mid-eighteenth century and the very start of the twenty-first century, stout “pitters” (short-legged Shire crosses), Welsh cobs and British native ponies of all stripes hauled coal underground and above ground and worked pumps to keep mines from flooding. They were often stabled in the mines themselves. Conditions were grim in some (but not all mines) until the 1920s, when the Pit Ponies Protection Society was founded and began to make some legislative headway to improve welfare standards. Have a look at this section of Hansard, where pit pony health is discussed in detail in the House of Lords, including the problem of “roofing”, where horses and ponies suffered injuries to their withers and backs because the ceilings in some tunnels were simply too low.
Here are three Pathé shorts on pit ponies. This one shows pit pony races in Yorkshire, with twenty local pits racing their lads and ponies against one another. Doesn’t look like all that much fun for the ponies given some of the riding, but their lads seem proud of them. I love the bells on some of the ponies’ bridles, too.
And here is “Horses’ Bank Holiday” from 1952. It’s a reel of unedited, silent footage showing Tondu Veterinary stables in Wales, where some working “pitters” or cobs are being treated and turned out to gambol with rather stiff legs about the hills. I hope to have more info soon, but alas the British Pathé site is down.
This one is just a fragment: Welsh miners and their pitters come to the international horse show at Olympia in London. Some of the horses have been in work for twenty years, and they look pretty splendid scrubbed up.
Wonderful news for overworked writers who don’t have time to maintain their blogs: British Pathé have uploaded their stock of vintage film clips to YouTube. As the old slogan of the British tabloid the News of the World used to claim, “all human life is there”, and quite a bit of horsey life too. So where shall we go today?
Maybe to Soviet-era Dagestan to watch the locals ride:
Or a ladies’ point-to-point in 1920s Britain, with half the field sidesaddle and half riding heels-first like sulky drivers:
To 1920s Vienna, where the lipizzaners at the Spanish Riding School look as though they are about to join in the human conversation to clarify some of the finer points of the piaffe:
And Liverpool’s cart horse parade in the 1920s, featuring shires got up in elaborate floral rigs and stepping out for the lady mayoress. For more about the tradition of the parade, click here.
The Guardian has a piece on the plight of the Dartmoor Hill Pony. Apparently prices are falling, and by the close of a recent auction only 20 of 60 animals had been sold. The piece goes on to say that “in the last century” the hill pony thrived.
This isn’t strictly true. I’ve blogged about this before – pony prices frequently tumble, causing fears that there will soon be no ponies on the moor. There’s also a long-standing debate as to whether the Hill Pony should even be there in the first place – purists think the “true” Dartmoor pony has a better claim than the Heinz 57 Hill Pony. On the whole it’s one long decline, which is unsurprising as a) ponies have fewer uses these days, thanks to cars and b) we’re in the middle of a long recession.
Here’s a 2010 piece which echoes a 2001 article and one from 1998.
And here are historical sources including one from 1928, showing concern at the end of the Dartmoor Pony breed, and one from the 1950s that makes the distinction between the true Dartmoor Pony and the Hill Pony. Both are pretty fascinating reads if you want to understand more about the story. Even with no adjustment for inflation, the ponies sold in 1928 fetch more than those in 2013.
This is a 1920s letter from Ada Cole concerning the shipment of Dartmoor Ponies to Belgium for slaughter.
The latest is Sharon B Smith’s The Best There Ever Was, about Dan Patch, a harness racer from the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century who became America’s national pet. It grounds Dan Patch’s career against a time of rapid social, economic and technical change, as he moves, like every biographised horse since Dick and Black Beauty, from owner to owner.
And thanks to Mark Bond-Webster for alerting me to a book I missed in May. Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread is about showjumping in Australia in the rough and ready 1920s and a rider who is slowly paralysed after being struck by lightning. In the words of Alfred Hickling, reviewing for the Guardian:
The bush country of New South Wales is a tough, unforgiving landscape and Foal’s Bread turns out to be a tough, unforgiving book. But to her immense credit, Mears’s account of a terrible illness never becomes self-pitying or sentimental, while her galloping prose thrums to the rhythm of some perfectly constructed sentences: “The sound of horses’ hooves turns hollow on the farms west of Wirri.” The outlook may be pessimistic in the extreme, but you are unlikely to read a more courageous novel this year.