“When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.”
~William Shakespeare, Henry V
The beautiful bronze sculpture of an American saddlebred horse featured in the current Museum exhibition entitled Equine Art reminded me of my first horseback riding experience well over forty years ago, astride my father-in-law’s quarterhorse Dusty. I was a city slicker (well, not particularly slick at age nineteen) visiting my future wife’s family at their Lazy K cattle ranch in the sandhills of north central Nebraska. Perhaps the weathered old cowboy and his horse simply wanted to test the new suitor’s mettle, so we saddled up the formidable stallion and headed off to herd cattle somewhere on the horizon.
While I didn’t exactly soar like a hawk, my riding efforts at least convinced him I wasn’t a chicken. I certainly began to appreciate the incredible power and grace of the horse. Dusty could (and did) turn suddenly at a 90 degree angle to block the path of the cattle, and the sound of horse hooves pounding the earth is indeed a meter of mystical music. The old cowboy actually complimented me (for staying mounted, I suppose), so the kid from north Saint Louis briefly felt on top of the world. That tenuous moment lasted only until Dusty decided it was time for his supper; suddenly I found myself riding the wind across the Great Plains. Racing toward the ranchhouse down a path with overhanging tree limbs and branches proved even more exciting than flying across the open prairie; my wife and father-in-law later told me they couldn’t believe I survived that gauntlet. Dusty finally stopped exactly where Dusty wanted to stop, and the little herd of pale horse and equally pale rider gratefully parted company.
However, the many images of horses displayed in the Equine Art exhibition reminded me that horse and human have never really parted company, co-evolving so closely that Equus caballus has entered the deepest levels of our imagination. For example, mythic steeds often depicted in art include the winged Pegasus as well as the fabulous unicorn celebrated in glorious medieval tapestries or in lyric poetry:
The saintly hermit, midway through his prayers
stopped suddenly, and raised his eyes to witness the unbelievable: for there before him stood the legendary creature, startling white, that
had approached, soundlessly,
pleading with his eyes.
The legs, so delicately shaped, balanced a body wrought of finest ivory. And as he moved, his coat shone like reflected moonlight.
High on his forehead rose the magic horn, the sign of his uniqueness:
a tower held upright
by his alert, yet gentle, timid gait.
The mouth of softest tints of rose and grey, when opened slightly, revealed his gleaming teeth,whiter than snow.
The nostrils quivered faintly:
he sought to quench his thirst,
to rest and find repose.
His eyes looked far beyond the saint’s enclosure, reflecting vistas and events long vanished,
and closed the circle of this ancient mystic legend.
Like poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s mythopoeic creature, the image of the horse entered my imagination well before my epic equine adventure. Growing up in north Saint Louis, the famous equestrian statue atop Art Hill in Forest Park in front of the Saint Louis Art Museum became an early addition to my collection of iconic equine images. Not surprisingly, I also became fascinated with the legendary destriers (warhorses) of medieval knights and learned to appreciate the equestrian statues of Union Civil War heroes that graced my city parks. The famous horses of my cowboy heroes also belonged to my own imaginary Equine Art collection, as later did my cousin’s awesome red Ford Mustang automobile, the first of the so-called ‘pony cars’. The Mad Men of Ford Motor Company decided that an image of a galloping horse best represented the free spirit of the prospective Mustang owner. To further drive home that barely subliminal message of a free-spirited stallion, they depicted the galloping horse on the Mustang logo running the opposite way from that of trained racehorses.
Horses also figured prominently in my (somewhat) more mature cultural imagination. My doctoral work in American culture studies and museum education work for the National Park Service at the Museum of Westward Expansion on the Saint Louis riverfront clearly revealed the crucial role of the horse in American cultural history. In the dramatic struggle for control of the American West, the horse played a leading role both for the nomadic peoples of the Great Plains whose freedom depended upon domesticated horses as well as the cowboys and cavalry (shown in the bronzes of sculptor Frederic Remington) who used them to end that way of life.
Just like the end of the American frontier closed an amazing chapter in the co-evolution of horse and human, today the future of the horse also seems to be closing. Development pressures are tightening the noose around wild horses and threatening their very existence. Perhaps the circle is finally closing on this ancient mystic legend and on our incredible evolutionary odyssey together. Yet the Equine Art exhibition reminds me that horses still speak deeply to the human soul. For example, horse therapy with autistic children like that depicted in the film Horse Boy shown in conjunction with the exhibition, suggests yet another evolving role with humans for Equus caballus. Please saunter through the Equine Art exhibition and discover your own Dusty memory. Who knows? Perhaps unicorns really do exist…
W. Arthur Mehrhoff, Ph.D., Academic Coordinator, Museum of Art & Archaeology