What Do Horses Mean In New York?

I’ve been hoofing around New York and DC in the pursuit of a holiday and book two (which will be out in, ooooooh, 2015?). Shanks’ Mare and I saw a surprising number of equines on our travels, although we missed the zebra and pony on the loose on Staten Island. Books two and three are about – among many things – the way that humans think about horses and use them both physically and mentally. Here’s a visual collage of New York horses (minus police officers and the urban cowboys of Queens) in November 2012 (with thanks to Helen for the 86th Street Pegasus):

The Myth of the Wild Zebra

The Chronicle of the Horse interviewed a Texan woman called Sammi Jo Stohler who has schooled her zebra to jump:

“As I was training horses, I kept hearing, ‘You can’t train zebras, they’re untrainable.’ I said, ‘Why?’ To say something is untrainable implies that it can’t learn, and we all know that if they couldn’t learn, they’d all be extinct. They have to be able to learn and adapt. Obviously, the burden lies on the trainer to be able to train them,” Stohler said.

Watch Zack in action:

I suppose the myth of the untrainable zebra has two bits of reasoning behind it. Firstly, that none of the locals in Africa bothered to domesticate zebras before Europeans arrived. Given that there were large parts of Eurasia in which other locals didn’t bother to domesticate horses before the Central Asian Steppes culture arrived in their midst, this argument doesn’t quite wash. The second question that arises: why don’t you see more Westerners riding around on them?

Well, you did. Here’s the Victorian sidesaddle expert, Mrs Alice Hayes, riding a mountain zebra trained by her husband, Captain Horace Hayes:

And here’s Walter Rothschild driving his four in hand:

They were also used alongside mules as draft animals in the Transvaal in the nineteenth century. Here’s the hideous sight of a colonial officer, straight from central casting, leaping a fence held aloft by native servants in East Africa:

from the Library of Congress’ collection

I’d guess you don’t see more “tame” zebras because we already have plenty of specially bred, larger horses to choose from, and the striped equid represents mere novelty value. You could buy one from a specialist exotic animal dealer in London for between £100–£150 in Victorian Age (thank you to Lee Jackson for that snippet), and nowadays some zebra species are so common that you can actually expect to eat them as pizza topping in the UK. Yes, in topsy-turvy Britain it’s easier to buy zebra flesh than horse meat.

One place they’ve always found a home is, of course, the circus. One of the early fathers of the modern circus, Andrew Ducrow, trained two zebras for performance in the early 19th century despite the claims of the French naturalist Cuvier that this was impossible. According to the Magazine of Natural History in 1840, Ducrow’s zebras “entirely lost their spirit and vivacity in consequence, assuming the humbled bearing of the common donkey.” I’ve seen a contemporary drawing of this feat but alas can’t find it online. Meanwhile, these rather surly beasts of the 21st century are doing liberty work – the artificial representation of natural freedom – for Circus Knie:

Bars and Stripes

… a team of US computer scientists and biologists have come up with a scanner, allowing them to identify individual [zebras] from a single still photo.

The system, dubbed StripeSpotter, only requires a small amount of human input. Users draw a rectangle around the zebra’s side, then this part of the image is automatically sliced into a number of horizontal bands and each pixel is made fully black or fully white, creating a low-resolution version of the zebra’s stripes.

Each band is then encoded as a StripeString, a sequence of coloured blocks with particular lengths – for example, white for two blocks, black for three, white for one – and the collection of StripeStrings forms a StripeCode, the zebra equivalent of a barcode.

More at the New Scientist.

Mourning His Lost Stones

“The wind breathed up the long hillside; remote clouds passed evenly across the sky. Now and then Jack’s big hunter brought his ears to bear; this was a recent purchase, a strongly-built bay, quite up to Jack’s sixteen stone. But it did not much care for hunting, and then like so many geldings it spent much of its  time mourning for its lost stones: a discontented horse. If the moods that succeeded one another in its head had taken the form of words they would have  run, ‘Too heavy – sits too far forward when we go over a fence – have carried him far enough for one day – shall have him off presently, see if I don’t. I smell a mare! A mare! Oh!’ Its flaring nostrils quivered, and it stamped.”

I love Patrick O’Brian and the brief Regency-era hunting scene he describes here in Post Captain, with the first glimpse of Diana Villiers and her “ram-you-damn-you air”, but I can imagine neither a horse that didn’t like hunting, nor a gelding that mourned its lost stones. In my experience, geldings have always been more equable than mares, who still have their hormones to take into account.

Also, why would a horse complain about a rider who sat forward? In Jack Aubrey’s day the prevailing opinion held that one must sit far back over a jump, “to spare the horse’s forelegs”, but thank God, Caprilli came along in the early twentieth century and introduced the forward seat for jumping (black jockeys in America first developed it for racing on the flat). If you want to see the full horror of the old way of doing things, take a look at this photograph of a tame zebra jumping. You start to understand why zebra are so reluctant to be ridden.

I am, however, pleased to note that note only does Diana favour Arabian horses, but the pragmatical Stephen Maturin rides a mule, about which, more anon.