equestrian history · Uncategorized

What is a butteris?

So, I work in a museum. Every week, we do a “what is it?” object focus on something random from our collection.

Here’s this week’s object.


Do you know what it is?

Well, the social media person came to me and said “The collections record says this is a hoof parer. Can you tell me more about that to share?” To which I said, “Wait, a WHAT?!”

Yeah. It’s apparently a very old style of hoof knife. The proper technical term for it is “butteris,” sometimes spelled buttris, buttrice, butterys, and a bunch of other variations.

By “very old,” I mean that according to The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment by John Clark,

The word is recorded quite early in English – as in 1366, when John Wyot was accused of having maliciously wounded a horse at the smithy of John Mareschal in Wood Street[in London] with an instrument called a ’boutour.’

Clark also finds illustrations of the tool dating to the 15th and 16th centuries, but states that “by the early 19th century, the use of the butteris was being actively discouraged.” He cites an 1831 veterinary manual that calls the butteris “that most destructive of all instruments.”

But how would you use it, you ask? Well.


An article from The Carriage Journal describes the process.

With the horse’s hoof held with his knees, the farrier held the butteris at the grip with his right hand and the rest in his right shoulder. Short thrusts forward from the shoulder were used to trim the hoof.

True story, we were looking at the above photo in awe when a volunteer who is also a horse person came up behind us, saw the photo, and yelled. Blunt force trauma trimming, anyone?

By the early 19th century, the hoof knives we know and love today had started to supplant the butteris for obvious reasons, and by the mid 19th century there are patents for hoof nippers that are basically the same as today’s designs. I can only imagine that both worked better than a wholesale shearing off of the bottom of a horse’s foot.

You can still buy them, though. For a cool $119.

equestrian history · Uncategorized

San Francisco, 1906

I fell down a bit of an internet rabbit hole and got totally sucked into this article on Jane Stanford (co-founder of Stanford University) and her mysterious death.

In the article, SF Gate linked to this astonishing video of a street in San Francisco in 1906. (Presumably before the earthquake & fire.)

I was struck, of course, by the horses. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. How normal they looked on the street. The one boy, early in the video, who runs right in front of the horses – and how neither he nor the team even blink. The nonchalance of all of it.

I also thought a lot about the historical socioeconomic divide between riding horses and driving them. It’s so recent in human history that we think of sitting astride as more common than driving. Sitting on a horse was for the wealthy. The kinds of horses that go well under saddle are usually not the kind that can also plow your fields. How tie up this all is with class – foxhunting, horse showing, military officers, ladies riding in the park.

Video can drive that home in a way that photographs and paintings almost never do. I couldn’t look away from this.

equestrian history · morgan history · Uncategorized

Justin Morgan’s Amanda

I’m tired and grumpy and generally fed up with the world right now, so I am not up to an actual blog post, but here: have a hymn composed by Justin Morgan (yes, the one who had a horse) and named after me.

Not really, probably a random name he picked out of a hat more or less, but definitely a lament/love song written for his wife. (Who was not named Amanda.)

In his lifetime, Morgan was far more famous as a singing master and composer than as a stallion owner. In certain circles, he still is. The tune is still popular in shapenote circles.

If you’ve never heard shapenote singing before, it’s kind of a trip and worth watching the second video. It also has the actual hymn words in caption, though they’re super depressing. (“Death, like an overflowing stream/Sweeps us away, our life’s a dream, etc.”)

I like the Canning/orchestral treatment of the melody better, though.

I’d known about the melody for quite a while, but a few weeks ago came in to work to find a copy of the sheet music on my desk, so now it decorates my tiny little half-cubicle and makes me smile at least a little bit when I see it.

equestrian history · photos · Uncategorized

Old Movie Stars with Horses

Let’s talk about two things that are very near and dear to my heart: old movies and horses.

If I had my way, we would never have moved into the morass of color movies and Method acting. (Seriously, though, fuck Method acting forever. It’s the worst.)

So, happy Friday; I’ll round up some of my favorite old movie stars with horses, because in those days everyone starred in a Western or a period film at least once.

First, I’ll have you know that Carole Lombard lived my dream life. (except maybe for the dying tragically & young part? but: defining screwball comedy, famously smart and sassy, worked her ass off for charity, nailed Clark Gable at his hottest, yes, I will take all of that)


Clark Gable looked damn fine with a horse, too, which he would have to. He owned a ranch with Lombard and they were avid racing fans.


Barbara Stanwyck also owned a ranch. Despite the many Westerns she starred in, there are not a ton of pictures of her out there actually on horseback.


Elizabeth Taylor had to learn to ride for National Velvet, and fell off a lot, and did not really ride much later in life. But there are some gorgeous photos of her from that movie.


I think probably Ginger Rogers knew she looked fantastic with horses, but didn’t love them too much for their own sake. She was a city girl.


She did get to do one of the great dance sequences in Hollywood history wearing a riding outfit to die for.

There are of course a million pictures of John Wayne with horses, but did you know as a young man he was gorgeous?


I know, this one doesn’t have a horse, I’m just on a perpetual mission to let people know that their mental image of John Wayne is, like, 40 years too late. Because DAMN.


Shirley Temple had a succession of ponies, obviously.


Jean Arthur only did one Western that I know of, but it’s the best movie you’ve never heard of: 1940’s Arizona. Here she is on semi-famous stunt horse Dice, who put up with a lot during his career.

jean arthur foto

Gregory Peck, yes please. I believe this is also Dice. Peck did a ton of Westerns.


Joan Crawford did everything, including Westerns.


Gary Cooper AND Ingrid Bergman, be still my heart. (This is a still from a very bad movie called Saratoga Trunk. If you thought a movie starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman could not be anything but perfect, well, I’m here to disillusion you.)



Gary Cooper grew up in Montana, so he gets actual street cred here. Myrna Loy was born in Montana but moved to California, and despite having some really terrific roles in movies with horses (Broadway Bill and Love Me Tonight both come to mind) she was, like Ginger Rogers, a city girl who never quite looked comfortable with horses. Or pit ponies.


Her frequent costar William Powell…also not entirely comfortable with horses. But he looked good being skeptical.


I could look at pictures of Katharine Hepburn all day.


She was famously athletic, a quality she shared with her longtime lover Spencer Tracy.


I am not much of a Spencer Tracy fan, but…wow.


Ethel Merman always looked good, and had the confidence to pull off…whatever it is she’s wearing. That horse’s face says it all.


And finally, the original movie stars, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Can we bring this look back, please? If hunter shows had a cosplay/reenactment class in which I could dress like either Pickford or Fairbanks here, I would switch disciplines in a hot second.


Obviously that’s far from an exhaustive list, but I had fun with it. Do you have any favorite classic Hollywood films featuring horses, or a favorite star that loved horses?

book review · equestrian history · mustangs

Book Review: Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs: The Life of Velma Johnston

Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs: The Life of Velma Johnston
by David Cruise & Alison Griffiths

If you’ve read Marguerite Henry’s Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West, then you have some passing familiarity with the story of the American mustangs and with Velma Johnston, the Nevadan housewife who made it her personal crusade to save them.

If that’s all you’ve read about the preservation battle behind the mustang, then you’ve only got a quarter of the story. This book is a superb way to get the rest of it.

Velma Johnston was born in small-town Reno, Nevada. Stricken with polio at an early age, she grew up solitary, smart, and driven. She spent her entire life in pain from post-polio syndrome and facing a world that judged her harshly for the hunched back and misshapen face that polio left behind.

One of the biggest strengths of this book is its unflinching, compassionate look into Velma’s life, achieved through a deep dive into her personal papers – tens of thousands of pages of letters, primarily. The Velma you get to know through this book would have initially said she was happiest as a successful executive secretary to the owner of a real estate business and a ranch wife.

The trajectory of her life changed when she followed a truck dripping blood to discover that it was full of badly injured and dying mustangs. She and her husband Charlie were gradually drawn into a life of activism as they started finding and releasing mustangs that had been rounded up for dog food, then networking to stop roundups before they started. Soon, Velma was the central figure in a widening campaign to ban mustang roundups by airplane.

The book doesn’t shy away from the cruelties inflicted on mustangs, and it does a good job of dispassionately presenting the various arguments for and against the mustang. It’s perhaps a bit light on the history of the mustangs (a little more time spent on parsing the difference between “wild” and “feral,” and the different emotional weights to each, would have given context to one of the main points of disagreement between mustang activists and cattle men), but gives a pretty decent overview of the ecological challenges of the Western ranges.

As someone who knew the broad outlines of the story, I found this telling of it to be superb. It was tightly and engagingly written, well-researched, and had a strong narrative and tight focus on Velma herself. Nor did it shy away from Velma’s failings and character flaws, particularly in her dealings with photographer Gus Bundy and then in her relationship with Marguerite Henry (which began warmly but grew overly emotional and difficult). The section dealing with Henry was actually one of the best in the book, since it allowed both for a grounding of the broader story and for a reflection on Velma’s life and character.

While it presents both sides fairly, the book can probably be said to have a point of view that is pro-mustang. The Bureau of Land Management doesn’t come off terribly well, though all of the most damning material is simple statements of fact and quotes from BLM officials. (The authors acknowledge this in a note at the end.)

University of Reno – Nevada, Special Collections

Ultimately, the last chapter after Velma’s death is the most unsatisfying; she passed away just in the midst of the architecture of wild horse management as we know it today, with its inherent contradictions and fatal flaws. It’s especially depressing because she fought for a comprehensive scientific range management from the start, and never saw that urgently needed piece of the puzzle realized. Without thoughtful, objective study, it was inevitable that we get to the place we are now, where no one can even agree on the number of mustangs in the West, much less how they actually use the range and how to effectively balance the needs of the flora and fauna.

In that last chapter, Cruise & Griffiths bring the fight quickly up to date and touch on the process of adoption and the regular Congressional attempts to round up mustangs for slaughter again. They also point out how deeply unsatisfying Velma herself would’ve found the holding pen system, in which thousands of mustangs are rounded up and simply transferred from the range and pastured on private land, paid for by tax dollars.

Despite its muddy ending, this is a really terrific book. I’m very picky about my narrative nonfiction: the writing has to be good, the interpretation deft, and the research solid. This ticks all of those boxes. I generally have even less patients for topics I already have a background in, but this holds up to that test as well. I genuinely couldn’t put it down.

If you’re looking for a thoughtful read about horses and history, I strongly recommend this. If you want to understand more about mustangs and how we’ve reached this point in our national discourse about them, it’s essential reading.

equestrian history

Boston Public Library Photograph Collections: Horse Sports, Part 2

More gorgeous photos from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr collections!

 Part 1 of this post gives some background.
    Millwood Hunt Club horse show, Framingham, Mass.
Millwood Hunt Club horse show, Framingham, Mass.//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Horse race//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Horse and woman//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Hunt class going over the top at Framingham//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Horse jumping - Myopia//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Horse show at Narragansett Park//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Horse jump//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Horse racing at Brockton Fair//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Young equestrian//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Mr. McDonald has exercised the horses for years at the Charles River Speedway for the driving club//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Blacksmith shoes a horse backstage at the Boston Garden for the horse show//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Woman on horseback//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Phyllis Tuckerman and Upstick at Myopia//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Danny Shea holding Hugh Bancroft, Jr.'s Pastime at Brockton Fair. Horse is prize jumper.//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Myopia Hunt at Bradley Palmer estate, Hamilton//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Horse in harness//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Grafton Smith with woman and boy on horse holding trophy//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Patricia Bird, horsewoman//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Dogs and riders gather on Bradeley Palmer's estate for Myopia Hunt//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Group horseback riding//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Woman with horse//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Horse racing//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

equestrian history

Boston Public Library Photograph Collections: Horse Sports, Part 1

Massachusetts – and, more broadly, central/coastal New England – used to have a much bigger tradition of horse sports than it does now. Not for nothing was the USET based out of Hamilton, MA, one of the earliest international three-day events was at Ledyard Farm, Myopia Hunt is one of the oldest in America, and equestrians like Karen O’Connor and Bobby Costello grew up in the area.

So here are a selection of photographs from the Boston Public Library about the halycon days of eastern Massachusetts as the center of the equestrian world.

The horses with no riders after the spill at Raceland, Framingham//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Trotters at Salem, N.H., Rockingham//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Davidsons of A and P - Cohasset//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Bayard Tuckerman on Bective Lad at Myopia//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Virginia Tolman on Homestead at Weymouth fair//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Bayard Tuckerman - Myopia Hunt//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Jumping - One of those times that the horse refuses to jump at the stone wall//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Hamilton horse show - Mrs. F. Ayer on River Sand wins Buddy Cup - light weight hunters//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Betty Dird - horsewoman//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Bayard Tuckerman at Southborough, MA//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Ballymore of Oldtown Hill Farm jumping at Brockton fair//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Horse jump//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Woman with 3 horses//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Horse jumping//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Three women on a sawhorse//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Hugh Bancroft Jr. thrown by his jumper Pop-Over - Millwood hunt//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Danny Shea on Crowell's Fairfax at Scituate Horse Show//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Millwood Hunt - Framingham//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
Millwood Hunt - 2-4 - Stout Fella - Mrs. William B. Song, 2-7 - Martins's Caddy - J.F. Broderick//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

equestrian history · horse racing · suffolk downs

Boston Public Library Photograph Collections: Suffolk Downs

I’m going to do a series of posts exploring the superbly digitized collections of the Boston Public Library, as held on Flickr.

Today’s topic: Suffolk Downs.

I can’t think about Suffolk Downs without feeling a pang of grief. It was a grand track, a classic track, a real Boston kind of track: the sport of kings, but in a hardscrabble kind of way. It was the place where Tom Smith discovered Seabiscuit in 1936, when the track was a year old, which is such a perfect Suffolk Downs story: diamond in the rough, champion amidst the claimers.

When I turned 18, I celebrated at Suffolk Downs. I could bet by myself! I brought friends and my then-boyfriend and we spent the day and I broke even. It’s a place where my two favorite things in life converge perfectly: horses and history.

But racing and horses have been fading fast in eastern Massachusetts for the last twenty five, if not fifty, years. When I was growing up, there were a half-dozen horse farms in my town. There was a Thoroughbred breeding farm that bred for the track. The barn I grew up riding at took in racehorses on layoffs for rehab, a half-dozen at a time. All of that is gone now, except the barn I first rode at: now it’s just a lesson barn, no rehab horses. It’s all buried under McMansions and suburban sprawl and godawful assholes driving pristine pickup trucks.

A few years ago, Suffolk Downs changed hands around the same time as Massachusetts was desperately trying to shove through casino licensing. The new owners said the only way they could make the track viable was if they were granted one of the casino licenses. They were voted down, and now the track is mostly shuttered. It no longer holds regular racing meets, settling instead for occasional days. In 2016, there were only six days of live racing.

But during its heyday, when it was one of the jewels of the American racing scene? There was nothing like it. So today, I’m throwing it back to those days.

All photographs are courtesy of the Boston Public Library’s Suffolk Downs album on Flickr, They’re embedded here, so you can click on them and go see the higher-res pictures.

Crowd watches as horses are led to the track, Suffolk Downs//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Crowd and horses wait, Suffolk Downs

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Race at Suffolk Downs

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Race at Suffolk Downs - see program

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Horse race

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Boston police search stable at Suffolk Downs for Brink's Robbery suspects and loot

(Caption is “Boston police search stable at Suffolk Downs for Brink’s Robbery suspects and loot.” Amazing.)
//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Horse race

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Jockey R. Workman on Time Supply after winning the fifth race at Suffolk Downs - see racing form

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Crowd watches as the winner crosses the finish line at Suffolk Downs//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

equestrian history

Sometimes I do cool things at work

This is a Civil War-era parade tack set that belonged to General George Stannard. He probably had most of it made as a matched set after the war.

Stannard was in command of the Vermont Brigade, several regiments that were positioned at the wheel point of the Union line on the third day of Gettysburg. Some of his historians argue that it was his quick thinking in swinging two of his regiments to send enfilading fire into Kemper’s Confederate brigade that ultimately signaled the death knell for Pickett’s Charge.

I got to spend some time examining the condition of the tack as well as giving much more specific information about the pieces that were included so that they could be more thoroughly described in our system.

In this one I’m taking a closer look at the stitching on the saddle covering. The underside was lined in a really interesting floral fabric and the whole thing was handstitched. 

And here I’m taking a closer look at a padded seat saver that was attached to the saddle. The saddle underneath is a pretty typical McClellan cavalry saddle, and they’re not the most comfortable things. Stannard had a custom leather cover for the seat that was padded with wool or felt.
The set also included a crupper, padded breastplate (you can see a strap of it in the bottom left corner of the second photograph), matching bridle, running martingale, and saddlebags. It’s faded now, being 150+ years old, but the leather was still in pretty good shape, and it must have been something spectacular when it was new.
I also got to design a new saddle rack for this and for another sidesaddle that we have.
This is not a typical part of my job, but it’s going to become more common and I’m excited!
equestrian history

Visiting the Danish Royal Stables

I’m not sure I’ll get up a full post or even series of posts about our honeymoon, but here’s a start, for a sort of Wordless Wednesday placeholder. One of the first places we visited was Christiansborg Palace, in the heart of Copenhagen. We saw the kitchens, the royal apartments, the excavated old castle underground, and then the royal stables, which were all part of the same complex.

Apparently the Danish royal family really likes their carriage horses. They used to use a breed called the Frederiksborg horse (named after another of the royal palaces) but they stopped doing that in the late 19th century. The breeding pool was too small and it led to some really inferior horses.

Now, they have Kladrubers, a Czech breed – a whole stable full of gorgeously bred grays. The stables used to hold quite a few more horses, but they have about 15-20 now. We weren’t there at the right time to get a behind the scenes tour – in which they would’ve shown the tack rooms and the indoor manege – but we did poke around the stables themselves and see the carriages.

Stuffed Frederiksborg horses

They did love their swallowtail pads.

That is in fact the King of Denmark riding an Icelandic pony.

Leopard spotted Frederiskborg, stuck caprioling forever.

The label accompanying that horse. Assholes.

All of the stalls were originally standing stalls – you can see the originals on the left – but at some point an animal cruelty law was passed in Denmark making standing stalls illegal, and even the king had to change his barns around!

This guy had such an awesome derp face. We bonded.

This guy slept through multiple families with obnoxious toddlers yelling at him. Good on him.

The names varied in dignity. Derpface above was Extracta. Note the Favory – the Kladrubers are closely related to Lipizzaners.

Fanciest wash stall ever or fanciest wash stall ever? Please note the bottle of Vetrolin whitening shampoo on the back shelf: some things are universal.

Old grain carts.

Six-in-hand livery.