Did you know that in 1900, some 130,000 horses were working in Manhattan? That’s ten times more than the number of taxis racing around New York City streets today. It just goes to show how the horse went from untameable to employable. But how have we been able to build this special relationship with a creature so much bigger and stronger than ourselves? This question is at the heart of “The Horse” – a new exhibition stabled at the Canadian Museum of Civilization from May 28, 2010 until January 2, 2011.
The horse – always and forever
The ancient ‘Hyracotherium’ horse lived over 55 million years ago, and at barely 20 kilograms, was just a small herbivore. It evolved into the impressive ‘Equus ferus’ that was likely hunted and domesticated for its meat and milk, eventually transforming into a vital companion that allowed us to explore further terrain, expanding who we were and what we knew.
With this new access to distance came a desire to conquer, and so the horse quickly became a machine of war. Horses helped the Mongolians build the largest contiguous empire in history and the Spanish to conquer Peru. This particular relationship would endure the loss of many men and horses until the industrialization of war brought it to an end.
From explorers and warriors to the modern jockey, even the Pony Express, speed has long been an essential aspect of our association with horses. But its formidable strength, too, is a trait we came to rely on. Through fields to forests, rivers to roadways, we have asked horses to pull all kinds of things: chariots, sleighs, ploughs, coaches, barges, ambulances, tree trunks, even tramways. So many hooves away from that tiny ancestor, the Hyracotherium, has our beloved horse grown – even the modern Percheron is known to weigh up to 1,200 kilograms!
War, transport, work – the horse has held an important place in our daily lives. And while today the horse is used more for show than for labour, our profound respect and admiration for this magnificent creature remains unchanged.
Canada in full gallop
The horse evolved over millions of years in North America and migrated from here to the rest of the world. It died out on this continent 10,000 years ago. Reintroduced in the 16th century, it contributed to the development of society back on its “home” ground.
In its first incarnation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, “The Horse” exhibition featured several Canadian artefacts, but its installation here was a perfect opportunity to enhance its Canadian content and emphasize the significance of horses in our history.
To enhance the exhibition with some home-grown pieces, Sheldon Posen, Curator of Canadian Folklife at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, went on a nation-wide hunt for art and artefacts. Visitors will enjoy Joe Fafard’s spectacular “Chevaux au galop” (“Running Horses”) installation and the horse-drawn steam fire engine that fought the big Hull and Ottawa fire of 1900. Posen also arranged to borrow the four magnificent gold and silver trophies of Kinghaven Farms’ 1989 Triple Crown winner “With Approval”, and Alfred Munnings’ masterly depiction of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade at the end of the First World War, “Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron.”
A visit to “The Horse” is more than an exciting history lesson – it will deepen your appreciation for the role this majestic animal has played in our evolution as human beings, both here and around the world.