Dutch Stables: Horses in the Heart of Amsterdam

I went to Amsterdam last weekend to see friends I hadn’t seen for far too long, and ended up doing a little unscheduled horsey tourism. I hadn’t planned it, honest! I had no idea that Amsterdam had a nineteenth century riding manège right by its main park, nor that the building was still home to horses. And I didn’t realise until I wandered into the Van Loon House museum on the Keizersgracht that there was a beautifully preserved coach house and stables tucked away at the end of its garden. Maybe it’s the canals and narrow streets – boats and bikes dominate – but Amsterdam is not Venice, and there are plenty of cobbled streets once traversed by the thousands of horses that made the city on the Amstel function in the nineteenth century and earlier.

Van Loon House Museum, coach house

Van Loon House Museum, coach house

This palladian construction sits at the end of the garden of the Van Loon family’s townhouse. The house itself was built in 1672 and the wealthy Van Loons moved in in 1884, only departing in 1945. The coach house was home to up to six horses (cared for by two grooms, a coachman and a footman) and was enough of a source of pride for the family to take guests to view it. They also had country estates, and the stable has now been reconstructed using mangers from one of these homes. When in town, the family’s equestrian activities were probably confined to the Vondelpark, where they could ride or drive as the fancy took. There are some photographs of the family sleigh in the park, and the sleigh itself is sitting on the old brick floor, opposite a cabinet of harnesses decorated with the family colours:

Sleigh

Sleigh

And this is the charabanc, from the French for “wagon with benches”, also in the family colours (yellow and black). One of the Van Loons was hunting master to King William III, and his hunting horn is strung up on the stable wall, along with a black-and-white photo of a Van Loon lady leaping sidesaddle over a hurdle on an affable, old-fashioned-looking grey.

Charabanc

Charabanc

There’s also a model of the stable as it once looked – a family children’s toy, complete with saddles hanging on the partitions and horses with plaited tails. If you look closely you’ll even see the nameplates over each stall. I bought some postcards with old images of the stables, horses, grooms and coachman. The horses look just like Gelderlanders – chestnut or bay with backs as long as fire dogs.

Children's model stable

Children’s model stable

Mention of the Vondelpark led me to the Dutch Equestrian School Museum on a leafy, blossom-lined street just yards from the park itself. The large detached houses give way to this façade:
IMG_0953Slip under the archway and there’s a potent whiff of horse and horse by-products, a long corridor with a red carpet and a large door that opens into the Hollandesche Manege,  originally founded in 1744 and in its current form since 1882. It’s still in use as a riding stable and still hosts “carousels”. Here are a selection of blurry cameraphone shots (no flash) of the hall, foyer and stables: the grand staircase with its treads worn down by 130 years of riding boots, the loose boxes and their friendly (and hungry) inhabitants and the stucco decorations, with some visual depth added by a layer of manège dust. The foyer is the most beautiful riding “club house” I’ve ever been in (although most of the riding club houses I know where full of janky old heaters, dirty tea mugs and folded up horse blankets, but I digress). Alongside the pony club summer camp adverts, copies of Black Beauty and old plates of “Equitation Around the World”, is a huge nineteenth-century gouache drawing of gentlemen in top hats playing at quintain and running at rings. One of the information cards provided says that women were very much involved at the reopening ceremony in 1882, and there were sidesaddles for sale and on display. My ticket included a free cup of tea, so I sat on the balcony and watched the current crop of riders go through their paces before wandering out to the crowded Vondelpark and hunting for old bridle paths.

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The Pre-Evolution Of My Little Pony

The Huffington Post have a  great slideshow showing the evolution of MLP from the babyish but still equine Cotton Candies of the early 1980s to the bizarre-o “Equestria Girl” of 2013, a new model that’s an even stranger mutant than the hideous “Struts, fashion-forward ponies” that were unveiled and then disappeared a few years ago. Equestria Girl is a kind of anime-goth human–horse hybrid whose designers must have had at least one knowing eye on the pony girl fetish scene, which also draws on Japanese comic book and goth influences. The mini skirts, the brightly coloured hair, the stacked boots… It’s a direct appeal to the much-trumpeted “Brony” craze that’s seen young men adopt a girl’s toy and cue up an avalanche of press interest and pseudo-analysis. How did we get here?

I wrote a bit about the history of the toy in If Wishes Were Horses, and the still earlier stage of evolution that predates the transition from tchotchke to dolly bird. The proto MLP was dreamt up by a woman and former little girl called Bonnie Zacherle. This is an extract from an interview she gave that was originally published on Fauquier.com (accessible on this MLP forum):

I got the idea for My Little Pony because a pony or horse was the only thing I ever wanted.

I came up with drawings of miniature, realistic horses like a Pinto, Paint, or Appaloosa, but my vice president of R&D told me little girls liked to cook, clean and iron. I knew he was just killing my idea. Later he got his own group that came up with another idea, and it was nothing like a horse – it was a pony. …

It was [aggravating]. This toy was hard, had an ear that wiggled, an eye that blinked. They thought that little girls would like to sleep with it. They called it My Pretty Pony, and it sold a couple million units. The VP of marketing took this thing home, and his wife said, “You know, this is nice, but it should be soft, simple, and have a combable mane.” …

They asked me to miniaturize what I had already designed – I did original design work on all of them – and make it soft with rooted hair. And the first ones, believe it or not, were Palominos, Pintos, and one was black. My marketing director asked what I thought of making them pink and purple. Though I was a purist, we tested it and it tested great. …

The sellers, all men of course, said they couldn’t sell it. But the VP of marketing said he was going to stick with it. He thought it was his wife’s idea, which if she hadn’t had it, my idea wouldn’t have seen the light of day. I was the inventor of My Little Pony, though several people claim that. I am the undisputed designer, along with the original sculptor.

So there you have it: marketing has taken a girl’s love of horses from realism to kitsch to sexualisation, keeping MLP at the forefront of a long-running Western tendancy to anthropomorphise animals and sexualise children. Will the Equestria Girls be a hit with real little girls, or are they solely for the cosplay-attending Bronies and Pegasisters? Which is the better source of cash and brand loyalty for Hasbro? What do little girls really want?

* The all-new Equestria Girls are in fact a reworking of an earlier attempt to create a “My Little Pony goes to High School” scenario, called My Little Pony Tales, in 1992. It didn’t really take off, despite the jocks, rollerskating and dating. The ponies were anthropomorphic, but still resembled equines. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for ponies with lockers in the early ’90s, but apparently we’ve evolved too…

** Excuse choppiness and scant blogging. I’m hard at work on plans for book two, and it’s making coverage here skimpy.

Genius Rides Out

From a great NYT feature on geniuses as children:

After the English lawyer Daines Barrington examined the 8-year-old Mozart in 1764, he wrote: “He had a thorough knowledge of the fundamental principles of composition. He was also a great master of modulation, and his transitions from one key to another were excessively natural and judicious.” Yet, Mozart was also clearly a child. “Whilst he was playing to me, a favorite cat came in, upon which he immediately left his harpsichord, nor could we bring him back for a considerable time. He would also sometimes run about the room with a stick between his legs by way of horse.”

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

– the march of the Bronies continues apace – literally. We now have a thriving “military bronies” community, dedicated to adult My Little Pony fans, and a full range of customised guns to accessorise. (Military Times)

– a two-year-old cob in West Yorkshire managed to trap himself in an underground pump chamber for five whole days. Thankfully he’s now been liberated. The BBC has a video of the rescue. (Horse Talk, BBC)

– ‘”Think about it: They spend most of their lives with the world looking down on them,” Murray said. “Now they are up on top and above everybody. It is very empowering.”‘ Equine therapy in Houston. (Chron.com)

– A horse festival in Tajikistan. (Huffington Post)

– Zippy Chippy, a racehorse who couldn’t win a race to save his life is now saving lives by being a loser. (Washington Post)

– Kathleen Stiles on “How to Survive a European Horse Shopping Trip”. “Meals are all taken and enjoyed. However, some are at “tank stops,” or gas stations as they’re known in the United States. They are everywhere since one blows through expensive fuel at an alarming rate. But I am horrified. I am spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on horses and am lunching where I would not normally visit a restroom?” It’s another world… (Chronicle of the Horse)

– Paralympic dressage rider Lee Pearon’s kit in detail. (Guardian)

– Thank you to Anne Billson for a link to Amazon’s sale page for those rubbery horsehead masks. Happy purchasers have sent in an entire album of images of themselves making use of them. Have fun. (Amazon)

– in a year in which horses have unexpectedly taken centre stage in politics, from David Cameron’s rides on Rebekah Wade’s old police horse to Rafalca Romney, we have the first dressage-based political broadcast: