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place the welfare of the horse at the core, and the “thrill” of older sports like chariot racing and jousting have been replaced by new thrills in highly competitive, colorful and technical sports that demand the utmost partnership with the animal.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.