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.

Horses in Harlem Under Threat

Manhattan’s carriage horses aren’t the only ones whose livelihood is under threat. When the ritzy Claremont Riding Academy on West 89th Street closed down in 2007, many thought that it was the last riding school on the island. Not true. The New York Riding Academy was founded by Dr George Blair in 1988, and offers free lessons to local kids every summer in Randall’s Park in Harlem. Former governor Mario Cuomo gave Blair permission to use a scrap of wasteland he’d cleared of debris, and, five years and several hundred thousand dollars of his own money later, Blair had the stable up and running. For thirty years, the kids of Harlem have been learning to ride in the park. But.

all that changed this summer when the Parks Department blocked off access to a road that the couple used to bring supplies to the stables, stopped mowing their lawn, and took about 100 feet of the grazing land, Blair said.

The Parks Department asked for permission to use a bit of their land to install a container to store rental bikes, said his wife, Ann Blair, 74.

“When they asked for a small piece of land, of course without hesitation we said, ‘Sure it’s fine,’” she said. “But then we saw a large area that we cleaned up for the horses be gone and taken with the blink of an eye.”

Dr. Blair was furious that the Parks Department would take over land used to provide free services to children in order to store bike rentals that local children can’t afford and the park profits from, he said.

More about the subsequent negotiations can be found here at DNA Info, but it doesn’t look good.

Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, London and Stepney Bank in Newcastle are two community riding programmes that have found support and continue to make a difference to local kids, although it looks like the project working with Dublin “pony kids” has evaporated (if it hasn’t, I’d love to find out more). The Emilie Faurie Foundation provides riding lessons at schools across the country. Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre is (among other things) a Riding for the Disabled facility of long standing. Horses in the Hood works with youth in South Central LA. However, lately it’s seemed that many of the campaigns to ostensibly improve the welfare of urban horses seem to involve working against their owners rather than with them.

Most of the establishments targeted recently by campaigners and city authorities happen to be those run by people who are both poor and, often, not white: some Baltimore “street arabbers” lost horses earlier this year, Fletcher Street Riding Club in Philadelphia was bulldozed, and the Cedar Lanes Stables of the Federation of Black Cowboys was shut down. The Westway stables in London are underthreat of being replaced with a skate park.

Stables are not viewed as contributions to communities, perhaps because horses are still seen as the domain of the rich and the spoiled. And my goodness, the space they take up that could be converted into nice luxury apartments… AHEM.

To me there also seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the generosity of horselovers to rescues or therapy programmes, and the cold shoulder shown to potentially life-changing urban projects for kids. We horse-crazy people know just what gifts we were lucky enough to experience in our own horsey childhoods, and yet beyond charity appeals for great organisations like Riding for the Disabled, I don’t see much fundraising to help bring that joy to children who don’t have much else.

Go to any equestrian chat forum and you’ll see one familiar refrain come up among the battles over barefoot vs. shod and feeding regimens: other people don’t understand equestrianism. Why aren’t there more horse sports on the TV like there used to be? Why don’t cyclists and motorists slow down for horses? Are people really complaining about horse manure on roads? Why do people dismiss me as a posh idiot when I say I own horses? Why don’t people understand how important the issue of horse slaughter is, or what’s happening to mustangs? Why don’t they know how great equine-assisted therapy is?

And yet in cities everywhere there are projects that have the potential not just to improve the lives of locals, but to educate the world in general about what horses are, and what they can contribute. Stables that could give homes to rescued horses (look at Zig Zag, rescued by Redwings and now at Ebony Horse Club). That provide a place of comforting routine and daily escape for children in trouble. That could help bring fresh, healthy food to “food deserts“. That could be the heart of communities.

And all of these projects need our support.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Subway art at Campo Pequeno station, Lisbon

Subway art at Campo Pequeno station, Lisbon

  • The American Quarter Horse Association is being sued for not allowing the registration of cloned horses. (ABC News)
  • A New Yorker suggests that the local Boris bike system is replaced by one providing horses. (Gabe Capone)
  • The suspicious death of a racehorse in West Virginia. (Bloodhorse.com)
  • A profile on Marty Irby, a Tennessee Walking Horse breeder who switched sides and joined the campaign to end endemic cruelty in the Big Lick industry. (The Tennessean)
  • More intrigue in New York: carriage drivers say the ASPCA has funded a group that’s attempting to trash the campaign of a mayoral hopeful (New York Daily News)
  • Fascinating gif of a horse jumping – with a skeleton painted onto its coat, so you can see the physical process of leaping. (Reddit)
  • The Wall Street Journal on London’s mews: once stables and carriage houses, now des-res homes. (WSJ)
  • Lone Ranger star Arnie Hammer says his co-star stole the show. Not Depp, but Leroy, a tall grey Nebraskan who stepped into the shoes of Silver. (Omaha)

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

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  • Artist Mark Wallinger has made a 3D scan of a racehorse, produced it in marble dust and resin and set it outside the British Council building in London. Wallinger’s work frequently features horses, and he’s even a racehorse owner himself. The piece will tour internationally, and the artist hopes it will revive interest in his project to built a giant grey horse at Ebbsfleet, Kent, which appears to have stalled. (De Zeen)
  • A man declares himself the fiancé of a My Little Pony (AV Club, thanks to Anne Billson)
  • A poodle rides a pony (Komo News)
  • From a care home to a dressage team at Rio 2016? Here’s hoping. Sam Martin on his journey from London gangland to the dressage ring (Get Surrey)
  • Cedar Lane Stables in Queens has been shut down after concerns over the welfare of horses on livery on the property – six deaths were too many for local authorities. The Federation of Black Cowboys, who run the city-owned yard, have protested that the fault lies with individual owners, and that others will be unfairly punished by the closure. (New York Times)
  • Yosemite National Park is considering banning horses (as well as ice rinks, rafting, bikes and swimming pools) in its bid to return Yosemite Valley to its most “natural” state (Mercury News)
  • An Icelandic horse learns to count (HorseTalk)
  • Beautiful bird’s eye view by Brad Styron of the feral horses of Shackleford Banks (Tumblr, thanks to KK)

Horses To Dance In Grand Central Station

Thank you to Ed Ward for this gem. This sounds absolutely incredible. Grand Central Station will be the scene for a dance work called “Heard NY” in which 30 horses will graze together, before periodically bursting into movement. It will be performed by students from The Ailey School, choreographed by William Gill. Nick Cave is in charge. (via Creative Time)

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

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  • Where are we with burgergate? Rumours of Italian and Polish mafia involvement. (Guardian) Meanwhile the Independent reports that a newly enforced ban on horse- and donkey-drawn carts on Romanian roads may be responsible for the cheapness of equine flesh in the country. Folks, it’s GOOD for horses to have a job. (Independent)
  • “A most interesting and useful device.” What’s that? An odometer to tell you how far your carriage horse has drawn you. (Weird Universe)
  • A pony that was, according to official records, slaughtered last year, is found alive. (Daily Mail)
  • Horse-drawn carriages banned in Israeli cities (Haaretz)
  • Meanwhile, if you’re in New York on the weekend of the 23rd–24th March and you’ve always wondered what life is like for the carriage horses in Central Park, you should pop along to their open weekend. You can tour the stables, ask questions to your heart’s content and generally make up your own mind. (ClipClop NYC)