The Horse: A major exhibit trails equine history

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Story & Photos by Sandra Hale Schulman
New York, New York (NFIC) 7-08

One of the most iconic images of Native America is the horse. Nearly every culture and tribe relied on them for transportation, hunting, displays of skill and sources of decoration and pride.

A major exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York City traces the history of the horse, from it’s early evolution as a dog sized, three toed Equidae to the king of racing, rodeoing, and pleasure riding.

The opening day festivities included demonstrations of horseshoeing and horse grooming; an appearance by Thumbelina, a creature billed as the world’s smallest horse (17 1/2 inches tall); and a visit by a vintage horse-drawn ambulance. The exhibition is not country fair spectacle, but is really more of a provocative history of the ways in which humans and horses became, as the show says, “powerfully linked.”

Those links may be as slight as fashions in clothing (trousers, we are told, developed specifically for the riding of horses) and as important as the fate of empires (“Next to God,” Cortés is supposed to have said about the conquest of Mexico, “we owed our victory to the horses”).

The exhibition, created by Ross MacPhee, the curator of mammalogy in the Division of Vertebrate Zoology at the museum, and Sandra Olsen, the curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, makes it clear just how crucial a role the horse has played in every era. With the aid of dioramas, interviews, marvelous computer graphics (kids were especially intrigued by the animated inside look at the digestive system), varied skeletons, archaeological finds, reproductions of cave paintings, and objects including a World War I gas mask for a horse and Triple Crown trophies. The ancient Greeks, the show points out, might have been so surprised by their first sight of warriors on horseback that they imagined that they were centaurs.

horsesfield3.gif Horses, the show reminds us, “have cleared forests, plowed land, herded cattle and driven machines.” From the moment they were first used to pull chariots into battle (perhaps 1500 B.C.) until their winning cavalry campaigns in the Second World War, horses were bound up in human warfare.

Natives in particular relied on horses to eat and travel. That role may be much diminished now in the automotive era, but the show reminds us just how recent a phenomenon this diminution of importance is, and how difficult it is to think of any human activity untouched by the powers of the horse.

The opening diorama shows ancient horses of North America, some 50 million years ago: a three-toed Hypohippus feeds on forest shrubs as a large, modern-looking Dinohippus grazes in the grasses. A large number of horse species were “forest browsers” with three toes. But with the changes in climate about 35 million years ago, the predecessor of the modern horse became dominant, his two outer toes yielding to the single hoof, suited to the harder grasslands.

In outlining the evolution of the horse, the exhibition also traces the animals’ mass migrations, which are almost the inverse of human pathways. Instead of beginning in Africa and migrating to Europe, Asia and finally to the Americas, like mankind’s ancestors, horses took just the opposite path: the majority of horse species began in the Americas. Some 20 million years ago, three-toed horses crossed into Asia and then into Europe and Africa. About 10,000 years ago, horses became extinct in the Americas – perhaps because of environmental change and overhunting – which is one reason they had such a forceful impact when the Spanish took them back to the Americas, in conquest.

The show argues that all contemporary horses – perhaps even the Asiatic wild horse, the Przewalski – are part of a single species, Equus caballus. Even the genus Equus is small, containing only seven living species, including donkeys and zebras.

The impact of the horse, though, is apparent in the earliest surviving human evidence. The show reproduces some of the extraordinary cave paintings of Southern Europe, which are perhaps 16,000 years old. One, in Lascaux Cave, shows a horse looking exactly like the Przewalski wild horse of Central Asia, with its pale stomach and dark mane.

Horses were also “good partners”: herd animals that could also show intense loyalties. They were easily trained and relatively free from the territorial viciousness of related species, like zebras.

Human planning split this single species into numerous branches and over 200 breeds. One ambition was to increase the animal’s size, so it could become a more imposing war-beast, strong enough to bear its own 50 pounds of armor along with the hundreds of pounds of a mounted warrior.

Some parts of this show are too brief – the transformation of the American West could have been more imaginatively presented – they show a single horse decorated with gorgeous beadwork saddle, bridle and blankets from 1800s Montana – and some parts are less than revelatory: the presence of horses in sports is familiar. The show might also have provided more extensive glimpses of the horse in the arts – but perhaps that should be left to the art musems.

horsetribal1.gif Despite weaknesses, though, the show’s impact is strong. And could interaction between humans and any other animal bear this sort of examination? Dogs may inspire more intense and complex friendships, but horses were almost more than companions; they were partners in agriculture, war, industry and commerce.

The final gallery contains a remarkable life-size sculpture of a horse, “Isbelle,” by Deborah Butterfield. It seems constructed out of scraps of driftwood, but is actually cast bronze, its weathered skeleton looking worn and ancient. It seems old, randomly shaped with its curved relics and remnants, but the creature is so tautly formed, its skeletal innards are charged with dynamism and power. A more amazing melding of nature and horse has rarely been seen.