The Legend of the Great Horse trilogy was inspired by man’s partnership with horses … the following is a response to an exceptional challenge to the horse’s place in society today.
The NYC carriage horse situation has given me the idea to ask the horse welfare activists to help with a project for the future of horses—by helping reconnect the public with their equestrian roots.
A New Era
The recent move to ban horse carriages in NYC follows a number of controversies involving the place for horses in modern society. The struggle against horse slaughter, the fight to keep free-running mustangs in the American West, and, for me locally, the disbanding of the Boston police horses and detached dismanagement of Suffolk Downs—these issues point to a need for an informed public conversation about horsemanship’s role in the modern era.
This is a conversation for our time. The discussion couldn’t have been had in 1900 when cavalry competitions in Jumping were new and gaining unprecedented popularity with horse-experienced audiences. In the following decades the ‘horse and buggy’ was being replaced by automobiles and made into a cliché of being old-fashioned and obsolete. A conversation about the future of horses wouldn’t have been hopeful in the WWI & II years as 21 million US farm horses were summarily ‘retired’ in favor of tractors and horse cavalries were being disbanded the world over. Even as new recreational forms of horsemanship were growing in the post-war era, it was too soon to see whether popularity would sustain or how the new forms would develop.
Today we have the evidence that human interest in horses goes beyond their use in transportation and war, and valuable experience in how humane forms of horsemanship can continue to benefit mankind. We are at a historic crossroads and, as the challenges to the horse’s presence in society are showing, we need to have that conversation for the good of our horses and future generations.
My proposal is to ask Mayor de Blasio to set aside in perpetuity a quiet 1.5 acre plot in the 840-acre Central Park for a ‘Horse Village’ dedicated to sharing horses with the public.
Part I: Background
I am convinced the greatest challenge for the future of horsemanship is the unfamiliarity the public has with horses. The animal is no longer a necessity of daily life for most people … even though horses have been with us since the founding of civilization, new generations of humans don’t instinctively ‘know’ horses. People can be misinformed without realizing it.
Widespread public ignorance about horses is dangerous because they are too easily anthropomorphized in false ways:
– Horses are very unlike humans, much more different than dogs or other domesticated animals (equines are not domesticated like chickens or cats; they are too old of a species to have been fundamentally altered to human specifications). People are not commonly able to ‘naturally’ understand this large, herding prey animal without guidance and experience—this difficulty has been a major factor in human history and is no less true today.
– The experience of horsemanship for mankind in history was not always pleasant. Historically the horse has been associated with aristocratic privilege and destructive war … incorrect cultural impressions can trigger undeserved resentment on an emotional level.
– The outer appearances of horsemanship can themselves look cruel to casual eyes. Properly fitted and correctly-used equipment is humane, pain-free and acceptable to the horse–that is good horsemanship. To people who haven’t had exposure to horses, however, simple tack can look abusive, and they can make well-meaning but wrong conclusions. Metal and leather harnesses are not gentle means of control in human experience. The truth isn’t obvious and has to be shown.
– The horse’s physical talents are literally superhuman, and high-performance equestrian activities can seem ‘extreme’ to those unfamiliar with the animal’s amazing abilities … this can be misunderstood as placing the horse in intentional, abusive danger. Another misunderstanding is the belief horses are physically ‘forced’ to do their jobs, thereby missing the entire point of modern horsemanship. People cannot know this without experience.
Education reveals the foundational man/horse partnership is both different and more than it seems and that horses are a unique and worthwhile experience. In today’s world, reaching out to the public is vital to the continued health of horsemanship.
The truth about good (empathetic) horsemanship is that it is humane and beneficial to both horses and humans. Sharing that truth is something the horse world is rather bad at doing, but in all fairness making introductions to new generations is an unfamiliar situation for horsemen.
The horse world deserves great credit for making a transformative leap into the modern era, changing from mass transport, farm work and cavalry … to recreation, sport and therapy. Yet modernization isn’t complete. For horses to thrive in the modern era, the horse world must quickly change 5000 years of historical development to become something it has never been.
The truth is that horsemanship is humane and beneficial, so education is the horse world’s friend. Four real strengths of horsemanship can help in ‘getting the truth out.’
Innovation – Horses are a fountain of innovation: the art/science/sport of horsemanship has constantly reinvented itself throughout human experience. Moving from chariot warfare to chariot racing, from nomadic lives to Olympic endeavors, archery to lances, knights to cowboys to jockeys … horsemanship has literally revolutionized civilization several times over. The spirit of change is with horse-enthusiasts, whether they know this or not.
Synthesis – There seem to be as many ways to enjoy the horse as there are people, but combining them into spectacle is one of the strengths of horsemanship. The sum of different, independent equine activities can combine into something even greater in other ways too.
Education – Horsemanship is one of the original forms of education. (Students take lessons from instructors on school horses). Learning and teaching are a fundamental part of horsemanship: the needed change is only to extend that impulse outward to a generalized public.
Philanthropy – Offsetting horsemanship’s historical elitism is the generosity of its patrons. Those who funded equestrian sport in antiquity (chariot racing) were the first recorded sponsors and the tradition has continued up to modern day. This positive aspect of benefactors contributing to public displays of horsemanship has an invaluable role to play in preserving horses in society.
All Together Now
The Horse Village idea uses these inherent strengths to create a new way to interact with the public. The Village will be for all levels of experience to enjoy, with a focus on finding the best ways to engage the general public. Kids especially. Good horsemanship and humane best practices will be on display.
The size of the Horse Village is modest to reduce cost and promote innovation for small, city-sized spaces. The goal is to encourage the potential establishment of other such ‘villages’ by sharing successful practices and ideas.
Many of the elements of this ‘Horse Village’ are commonplace: pony rides, equine art exhibits and retail space are standard attractions. In order to cater to the general public, such standard activities might be concentrated for easy access and placed in attractive permanent settings. If space is limited there does not have to be actual riding … or as in my example, there could be hand-led ponies and demo horses.
It doesn’t have to be called a ‘Horse Village’
I’m hoping to present this idea for discussion, new ideas to reach out to the public are welcome and encouraged with this project.
Taxpayer dollars should not be used, I don’t think … the project is a worthy cause that can be managed to give visibility to philanthropic contributions.
Part II: Tour of the ‘Horse Village’
And … we’re off!
Entering the Horse Village we notice an absence of horse manure or its smell. We also notice solid, clean footing for visitors in case they might be wearing nice shoes. Horses do not cross actual paths with spectating humans in the Horse Village.
We enter under an arch that opens to a circular, central courtyard. From this courtyard all the attractions can be easily accessed or exited. It is bricked with special donor bricks, so please take a few moments to check them out!
The usual path for visitors is to travel clockwise around the square 1.5 acre Village, which measures about 220 feet each side (rough estimate) …
#1: Horse Museum: the first building to the left as you enter the main arch is a building dedicated to the history of the horse. This idea is shamelessly taken from the Kentucky Horse Park and their wonderful museum. This space can be modest or elaborate, and can house attractions such as an historical art gallery, carriage display, model replicas of Great Stables, etc.
Though it is part of the Village’s umbrella non-profit organization, the Museum and all the other sections are run independently.
#2: Movie House / Other: The next building completes the 1st side of the Horse Village property. It contains displays on Equine Science (veterinary medicine), and also locker rooms, storage areas and maybe rent-out-able equestrian-themed conference rooms, etc. It has a small ‘cinema.’ Horse movies and coverage of events can be screened. Weekends it might someday host matinees for kids of old westerns and other horse-oriented films …
#3: Working Stables: On the second side of the property, the clockwise path takes us past a small working barn for the (few) demo and therapy horses. There is no public access to the actual horses’ stalls … but the stalls at the end of the row are an (unoccupied) open walk-through model of an equipped stall and feed/tack room for display.
#4: Equine Therapy Station: Next to the working stables is an equine therapy area to display current practices and cutting-edge discoveries. It combines a small arena with a standing area for spectators. Actual therapy may be conducted in the arena as a volunteer explains. This showcase for the future includes demonstrations of medical therapy, handicapped riding, behavioral therapy, work with disadvantaged populations, PTSD therapy, etc.
#5: Demo Area: Next to the therapy station, in the corner opposite to the main arch entrance, are stations with cross-ties for demonstrations of basic horse care. Visitors can see demos of grooming, tacking up, basic vet care, shoeing, etc. This area is also available for hands-on ground experience involving youth groups such as 4-H, FFA, and the Scouting program.
#6: Hall of Sports: Continuing clockwise to the 3rd side of the property, visitors can walk through a building dedicated to modern equestrian sports. Stand under a jumper clearing a high jump; check out colorful and dramatic displays for Polo, Dressage, Western gymkana, Reining, Eventing, Steeplechase, Flat Racing, Vaulting, Driving, etc. See displays for upcoming Olympics, World Equestrian Games, etc.
#7: Pony Rides: The next section is the only area that charges money, asking a few dollars for a pony ride. Free opportunities to ride are also offered: for example, kids might bring a small essay they wrote about horses, etc. Sponsors can offer special free days. The area features a small, beautifully landscaped ring for hand-led pony rides, with an attached scaled-down ‘pony (and child)-sized’ barn. This is an important area, and beyond the traditional pony rides is also a ‘workshop’ for innovation in the best ways to engage newcomers.
#8: Current Events: Making the final clockwise turn onto the 4th side of the property, the next area features displays of information about how to get involved in horses in the area, and events going on locally for interested spectators. This area can also display innovative business offerings.
#9: Art Exhibition: Coming next along this final 4th side is an area for local and visiting artists to display equine-themed work. Perhaps it can be built in such a way as to host regular museum-quality exhibits, and thereby might work in conjunction with other NYC art resources.
#10: Retail Space: The final attraction extends down the 4th side to end back at the main arch entrance. This area houses retail shops for equestrian-themed gifts and suchlike. The shops are run by independent retailers. Maybe one gift shop run by the Horse Village. Maybe it could have a used consignment space, or a horse themed book shop.
On the way out, we see coming attractions from new ideas, like mini-horse buggy rides, or holiday Hay Rides. Or a breed display, or lecture hall for speakers … anything that helps the general public enjoy and be informed about horses…
This concludes the tour of the Horse Village … where accidental activism meets horse sense.