Equestrian Sport: ancestor of Circuses, Fairs, Parades & Festivals

Last weekend I visited our local Boston racetrack, Suffolk Downs, for an instant trip back in time. The white fences, the green landscaped infield, the mixed scents of horses, concessions and people, the growing excitement as a race approaches … it was a scene both nostalgic and modern.

Festivals and horses are an ancient tradition. Milling crowds, vendor booths and concessions, programs and barkers–the moving color and pageantry of our favorite public events trace a lineage through mounted cavalry exhibitions and roaring chariot racing “circuses” of antiquity.

Not so much has changed: clay tablets were once sold to eager audiences by shouting ushers of Roman times. Triumphal “parades” of horses drawing chariots marked victory in ancient ceremonies, and horseback entourages of through Medieval towns were an occasion of spectator celebration that continues in the parades of today.

Equestrian exhibitions of dressage in Renaissance Europe were the predecessors of the three-ringed Circuses beginning well before modern Barnum & Bailey and others. Even the modern Fair owes its beginning to harvest festivities with horse-racing and other competitive spectacles orbited by farmers’ stands and open-air markets.

Today equestrian sport has reinvented itself to keep pace with the modern world, and the ancients would have been amazed at the level of partnership seen in our modern horses and riders.  Today’s international equestrian sports place the welfare of the horse at the core, and the “thrill” of older sports like chariot racing and jousting have been replaced by new thrills in highly competitive, colorful and technical sports that demand the utmost partnership with the animal.

It is amazing–and heartening–to see the reinvention of horsemanship in our modern age. The crowds have changed, the sports have changed, but the atmosphere and tradition of the festival continues in echoes of what has gone before.

Through the Looking Glass of History

Why I wrote “The Legend of the Great Horse”


A tragedy sparked The Great Horse trilogy (of which Eclipsed by Shadow is the first volume). I came to know of this sad event because I lived in Cambridge, MA, where it occurred.

It happened in the 1990’s as a wave of corporatization washed over Harvard Square, which was at the time a vibrant, diverse, spirited bright spot of educational culture situated near the heart of Harvard Yard. Due to the end of rent control, incoming corporate chains and commercial development replaced the great old used bookstores in Harvard Square, which housed decades of professor libraries on their shelves and in high-piled boxes and book stacks.

A trove of civilization’s knowledge, irreplaceable in aggregate, telling the story of the decades of the twentieth century in first person. Walking along the crowded aisles and browsing historical works was like running your fingers through treasure that was never to be yours—or anyone’s.

Happily, people haven’t stopped reading or buying books, and a few of the old stores do still survive around Harvard. You can still stoop and step down to get inside often cave-like entrances, to the honeycomb of ceiling-tall smooth-worn wooden shelves completely filled with reams of books, multi-varied colors in a celebration of thought.

History books can be the most colorful of all, and they noticeably contain horses. In all of human history, since prehistoric times of cave paintings, some successful part of mankind has had horses. Horses have adapted to human needs in every era throughout history, from pack animals to chariot teams–and yet have not essentially changed at all.

Horses are not domesticated in the sense of cats and dogs, but still retain full basic instincts. That inner permanence has made the horse a cultural barometer of sorts: flourishing horsemanship is very often associated with successful society. The reverse is also true, and horsemanship can be lost to barbarism. (ie, Eclipsed by Shadow, Bk 1)

The idea of The Legend of the Great Horse came from the ancient belief that horses were a gift from the supernatural. The time-traveling ability of the Great Horse is inspired and informed by the ancient legends. Flight, mobility and transcendent transportation are symbolized in the horse: time-travel is a development of that role.

The story of human history is one of many worlds, and the horse has galloped through them with us. The Legend of the Great Horse trilogy is a celebration of the adventures our horses have shared with us.

It has been an exciting ride!

Horsemanship is a Mirror of Civilization

Chariots of early history (16th century BC)
Chariots of early history (16th century BC)

This is my third “Mirror” post in a row, and where I finally explain the use of the metaphor and close the barn door after it.

In the first post of this Mirror trilogy, I mentioned becoming interested in reading about history while browsing the shelves of the doomed used bookstores in Harvard.

I didn’t and don’t have answers about what history people should remember, or what conclusions should be drawn. I am simply interested in knowing about factual history and discussing it. That interest led to the idea of The Legend of the Great Horse trilogy.

My blog’s “Mirror” Trilogy Concludes

Horses were a common factor in almost every time from primitive man and antiquity to the Renaissance and the American West. The animal has literally been with mankind every step of the way. As someone who competed in equestrian sports and worked in the horse industry, I found this to be an example of common knowledge not commonly explored.

Horsemanship was not an obvious process to humanity: it took thousands of years for mankind to learn to control a horse as a rider. While the first uses of horses are misty and inconclusive, truth be told early horsemanship was a dog’s breakfast of nose-rings, superstition and brutality.  So poor were the prospects of the first mounted riders ending up where (and how) they wished to arrive, that as a practical matter driving appears to have been the main use for horses in the early days of civilization.

This changed in the last millenia B.C. with a new kind of horsemanship based on working with the horse in an empathetic and humane way. The horse responded to empathetic methods so well that the new art, today called “dressage,” led to a revolution in mounted riding. As the human consciousness arced up our horsemanship advanced to new levels of cooperation and partnership.

da Vinci's "Rearing Horse"
da Vinci’s “Rearing Horse”

However, when Rome fell into centuries of brutalized Dark Ages, dressage was lost to Western Civilization. In fact, dressage was one of the “rediscovered” Classical arts that sparked the new age of the European Renaissance. Riding schools were set up and Riding Masters emerged as students in the laboratory of the ménage. Horsemanship recovered its humane component and advanced to unprecedented heights of sport and art.

The history of horsemanship seems to highlight the relationship between empathy and human progress. It is fascinating to see how horses have adapted to the different stages of human development; horses are not only a true link with our past but a reflection of their times. Progress in horsemanship has mirrored the progress of mankind itself.

It makes for a fascinating study–and the greatest canvas on which to tell a story.