equestrian history · gadgets

Things that were probably not a good idea…

…though I guess they got away with it?

So let’s break this down.
This is a photograph taken for a promotional pamphlet about training at the US Government Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge, VT. At that time, it was the cavalry remount station for the northeast, breeding primarily Morgans but also some other horses: Thoroughbreds, mostly. Their goal was to breed for the cavalry but also to research horsemanship as an outpost of the US Department of Agriculture. The photo was probably taken c. 1920 – 1925.
That is horse harnessed to a box made out of 2×4 boards with wagon wheels on the outside. The man sitting behind is holding reins which presumably are just for whoa and go, since the box is attached to a pivot point in the center. Scale is tough, but let’s say it’s a 20m circle.
I mean: I freely admit that driving makes me a bit nervous because of the potential for wrecks. In fact, the day I took this photograph I was researching in the archives of the National Museum of the Morgan Horse; for lunch, I got a sandwich and went over to Weybridge to eat at a picnic table at the Morgan Horse Farm. The current director of the farm was schooling a young horse in a cart on their wide front lawn, and said young horse gave a perfect demonstration of what it’s like to train a high strung, fractious, young horse to drive. He was beautifully handled and it worked out but man, would I much rather have been in the saddle for some of those moments. Hats off to the driver, who was calm and professional and ballsy as hell.
But doing that while you’re trapped in a 2×4 box? Not to mention this is pretty clearly not a permanent installation. No way is that flat platform bolted down to the ground. I’ve seen other pictures of the area where it is and it’s a wide grass field. So if the horse went sideways, that sucker’s getting dragged with him
Honestly, the longer I look at it and think through all the implications the worse it gets.

equestrian history

They Also Served: Equine Veterans

Horses were part of warfare even before we were riding them. Before the first kid threw a leg astride, horses were driven; before that, they were used as meat.

Here are a few horses that have been in military service over the years. This is by no means a comprehensive list.

Reckless was a part-Thoroughbred mare who served with the United States Marine Corps in the Korean War as a supply horse. She performed some truly extraordinary feats of bravery and actually held rank as a Sergeant in the USMC. She also received two Purple Hearts.

Rienzi was a black Morgan ridden by Union General Philip Sheridan during the American Civil War. Sheridan was the Union’s top cavalry officer, and Rienzi his favorite mount. Rienzi was renamed Winchester after he performed extraordinary feats of endurance and strength on “Sheridan’s Ride,” a famous overland cavalry ride that brought Sheridan’s troops to the Battle of Shenandoah in time to win. Rienzi features prominently in a famous poem written about that ride:

With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;  
By the flash of his eye, and the red nostril’s play,   50
He seemed to the whole great army to say,  
“I have brought you Sheridan all the way  
From Winchester, down to save the day!”  
Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan!  
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!   55
And when their statues are placed on high,  
Under the dome of the Union sky,  
The American soldier’s Temple of Fame;  
There with the glorious general’s name,  
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright,   60
  “Here is the steed that saved the day,  
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,  
  From Winchester, twenty miles away!”

Rienzi/Winchester was so famous that he was mounted and today can be seen in the Smithsonian.
Copenhagen was, you could argue, the original OTTB success story. He was extremely well bred and raced until he was four years old, and was then sold as a riding mount. He was eventually given to Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, and became his primary battle mount. Copenhagen carried Wellington, most famously, for 17 continuous hours during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Supposedly Wellington dismounted at the end of the battle, patted Copenhagen’s flank in thanks, and the gelding let fly with a hind leg, narrowly missing bashing the general’s face in. Copenhagen was Wellington’s mount for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars and then his parade mount afterwards, and became so famous that his hair was a coveted accessory and was made into jewelry.
equestrian history · video

Behind the Scenes of Downton Abbey: Filming the Point to Point

Okay, I’ll confess. I haven’t watched Downton Abbey since the second-to-last episode of season 3, allowing me to preserve the illusion that a certain favorite character is alive and well and happily where he belongs. At one time I was as rabid a fan as it gets. Season 1 got me through my master’s thesis: for every 10 pages written, I got to watch an episode.

So when I heard that season 5 featured Lady Mary Crawley riding in a point to point race…! Well. I scoured the internet for footage, and found this lovely little video. Enjoy!

equestrian history

Movie Review: Justin Morgan Had a Horse (1972)

Justin Morgan Had a Horse (1972)
(Available to watch instantly on Amazon and iTunes, or to buy on DVD on Amazon)

Let me be very explicitly up front and very clear before I delve into a review: this movie has little to nothing to do with either the actual historical events surrounding Justin Morgan and his horse Figure OR with the Marguerite Henry book of the same name.

If you want the historical review of the movie, I’ll be posting one on Figuring History in the next few days, so keep an eye there.

In the meantime, let’s do the horse-centric review of the movie. To that end, let me summarize the plot.

Justin Morgan is a schoolteacher and musician who travels to Massachusetts to settle a debt owed to him by his cousin. Said cousin died penniless, and the only things Justin receives are two horses and a cart. The younger of the horses is a small animal that Justin has named Figure.

The voiceover tells us that Justin Morgan Has a Dream: he wants to do something that will live on after him, something that really means something. Simultaneously, he wants to show the world a new way to train a horse. (Though at no point is there any explanation whatsoever of how his way of training a horse is different from any other way of training a horse, though at one point someone mentions that Justin wants to create an “all-around” horse that will do many different things…which is apparently a novel idea?)

Justin goes deep into debt to raise and train Figure, which is a problem because as a schoolteacher he doesn’t make much money to begin with. He borrows that money from Squire Fiske, who is a rich farmer and horse breeder who looks down on Figure and thinks he’ll never amount to anything. Justin also happens to be in love with Kathleen, who is an indentured servant who owes Squire Fiske five more years of work. Thus, the central tension of the movie is basically a love triangle between Justin, Kathleen, and Figure.

(Please note that the character of Kathleen is entirely invented for the movie, and Joel Goss, Marguerite Henry’s boy narrator, never appears.)

As Figure grows, he proves himself to be good at everything: hauling logs, racing in harness at the trot, and then racing under saddle at the gallop. Kids love him, and he’s fearless. There’s one particularly insane scene in which Figure hauls a log that no other horse could move, and then carries Justin Morgan and Robert Evans bareback down a quarry in a Man From Snowy River style scene in order to beat all the other loggers back to town.

Things finally come to a head, and Squire Fiske demands Figure in payment for Justin Morgan’s debts. Justin sulks and decides to leave town, but then Fiske receives a challenge to race Figure against two New York horses. Justin agrees to stay and train Figure for the big race. If he wins, he gets Fiske to agree to let Kathleen out of the rest of her contract so they can get married.

The big race happens, and Figure wins! Surprise! Not only that, but Squire Fiske is so moved by Figure’s devotion to Justin that he agrees to give the horse back to Justin in addition to letting Kathleen out of her contract. The epilogue scene of the movie shows that Justin, Kathleen, and Squire Fiske have all joined forces to create a new breed of horse.

So that’s the summary. What about from a horse point of view?

Here’s the central problem with this movie. It’s not about the horse. It’s about Justin. Justin’s dreams, Justin’s problems, and Justin’s decisions. The movie even waffles back and forth on what exactly makes Figure so special. Is he just a miracle wonder horse who was born great, and Justin got lucky? Does Justin get credit for recognizing the diamond in the rough and polishing it up? Or could Justin have created a wonder horse out of any old horse he found by the roadside, and the fact that Figure was such a scrawny little thing is only more of a testament to Justin’s skills as a horseman? Different lines of dialogue and scene setups all imply different things, and the movie has no central statement. Played well, that could be a subtle mystery; in this movie, it just comes across as sloppy.

With that in mind, a lot of other things are kind of weird. The way the horse is used in defiance of common sense. (That quarry scene comes to mind, holy crap.) For example, the log-pulling scene, which is a pivotal part of Figure’s legend and Marguerite Henry’s book, has been changed from a simple show of strength on Figure’s part to a show of cleverness on Justin’s – who has men sit on it so the front is lifted off the ground, and who has Figure move to unstick the log before pulling it.

Figure’s pivotal race is also played up as Justin’s cleverness. Figure is training well, but they need to make him faster, so Justin suggests that Robert Evans get up out of the saddle in a jockey crouch to stay off his back. (Duh?) He forges special ultra-light shoes himself. He trains the horse in all weather to be a stoic runner.

The really emotional moments of the movie are all centered on Justin, with Figure occasionally as a feature of those moments, but it’s not about him. It’s about Justin doubting himself, wanting to make a name for himself, trying to overcome odds. Justin doesn’t so much believe in Figure as he believes in himself and the way he’s trained Figure. Losing Figure is just one more setback in his life. He sulks a lot, but he’s not truly devastated.

Training scenes are a bit bizarre. There’s a training montage during which Justin longes Figure from yearling colt on up to two year old…and the horse improves not at all. He’s a brat on the longe line through the whole montage. He just gets bigger and older. That big race that’s the climax of the movie, that Justin trains Figure for? They have a week to train him. A. Week. Granted, the horse is fit already, but…really?

There’s zero attempt to make tack even vaguely period – I’m pretty sure half the horses are just ridden in off-the-rack 1970s hunt saddles and flat bridles. The riding is piss-poor and there are some super-awkward scenes during the race when they try to get close-ups for tension. Buying oats for Figure is a central piece of Justin’s debt to Squire Fiske, when the horse is on lush pasture 24/7.

That said, there’s one thing they got very, very right. The horse they use for close-ups of Figure is a GORGEOUS example of a throwback, foundation Morgan. Just lovely. Many of the scenes with him really show that off. As best as I can tell, they use the same horse pretty much right through. Some of the action scenes it seems like they swapped in another random bay, but otherwise it’s that same beautiful Morgan.

In final summation, this wasn’t a terrible movie. It was perfectly engaging to watch, and at 91 minutes, relatively short. If you turn off the part of your brain that might know anything about history or Marguerite Henry’s book, you’ll probably enjoy it a fair bit. It doesn’t have any glaring flaws, nor any glaring strengths. It’s a perfectly enjoyable, somewhat bland little film.

equestrian history

The Ideal Horse, According to Daniel Chipman Linsley

I don’t intend to cross post over from Figuring History too often, but I came across this passage in Daniel Chipman Linsley’s book Morgan Horses, the first book to really detail the history and lineage of the breed, and couldn’t help but share it.

Prior to this passage, Linsley had devoted pages and pages and pages to a detailed conformation description of the ideal horse that would fit what he decided was the typical needs of the American population at the time – namely, a game driving horse that could also serve as a pleasure riding horse when necessary. (He basically meant an all-arounder, but spent a lot of time describing various jobs.)

He concludes:

Such a horse as we have attempted to describe, we feel the greatest confidence in asserting, will prove admirably adapted to all ordinary kinds of service. When used upon the road, he moves off easily, quietly, and freely, without the least disposition to fret, at a lively pace, on a pleasant rein; but when roused a trifle by an increased pull on the bit, and an urging word, his head raises higher, his eye dilates, and he is at once a full hand for the best horseman; the taller, more open built, and longer horse, with a long, reaching stride, may easily dash by him at the first start in the morning, but if their course is the same, and the journey be continued for a day or a week, he will have ample opportunity to renew the acquaintance. Such horses will be hardy, rarely affected with any complaint, easily kept in good condition, will always be ready for use, and easily taught to perform almost any kind of service, with ease to themselves, and pleasure to their owners.

Yeah, I would ride that horse!

equestrian history

A Horseback Balloonist from 1798

Here, have some absurdity on a Tuesday morning. From Wikipedia:

Pierre Testu-Brissy (1770 – 1829) was a pioneering French balloonist who achieved fame for making many flights astride animals, particularly horses.

Testu-Brissy made his first balloon ascent in 1785, and the first night ascent on June 18, 1786, in a hydrogen balloon. He made the world’s first electrical observations on June 18, 1786, as he ascended into thunderclouds, and said that he drew remarkable discharges from the clouds by means of an iron rod, carried in the car.

Testu-Brissy’s first solo ascent was on September 18, 1791 from Paris. He subsequently undertook more than 50 flights in his lifetime, including the first ascent on horseback on October 16, 1798 from Bellevue Park in Paris. He and his horse made more than fifty of these documented flights.

equestrian history

A stable full of imaginary horses

I am reading a book that I will review later on this blog, but I could not resist posting this one tidbit.

Apparently one of the performance horses with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, described as “one of the best hoop jumpers,” was named “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.”
That NEEDS to be an event horse name, y/y? “Now on course, Boyd Martin riding the Thoroughbred gelding Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.”
Someone make that happen, ok?
(I’m going to have that song in my head for the rest of the day.)

(these are the kinds of things I think about when I can’t get to the barn, ENOUGH ALREADY, WINTER.)