For several years of my childhood, I attended weekly riding lessons at Huntington Meadow Stables outside Rochester, New York, where I grew up. I advanced slowly from beginner to intermediate level classes in English-style jumping, occasionally participating in shows in which I almost invariably placed last; I had a string of pretty, pale 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-place ribbons hanging in my bedroom. For one week during the summer, I went to day camp at the stables, where we trained more intensively and learned to care for the horses, mucking stalls, braiding their manes, rubbing the dirt out of their coats with curry combs. I was, it turned out, not only an untalented rider but also viciously allergic to horses. My parents would load me with antihistamines, but by the end of each day my eyes were swollen shut and I could barely breathe. I loved horses so much.
How does a girl from the striving middle class—unathletic, bookish, growing up in a suburban townhouse—learn to love horses with such fervour? The bond between girls and horses is, for us, a cultural truism. I lived it, enduring not only physical torment and humiliation in competition but also my first conscious experiences of class anxiety, all for the privilege of exercising my devotion. But horses have this effect on us; for centuries they have been central not merely to the mechanisms of human society, but to the formation of human identities. The West’s cultural association of horses with girls is a recent development, following hundreds of years of hippocentric manhood; as Ulrich Raulff notes with rather too much of both titillation and disdain in Farewell to the Horse, it is only in the second half of the twentieth century that “endless waves of young girls…have transformed the riding school into a pleasure ground of pubescent and teenage nymphs.” Given the unavoidable sexual innuendo of the “horse girls,” as Raulff calls them, it’s tempting to dismiss the human fixation with horses as no more than a barely sublimated Freudian romance. Certainly, in both Raulff’s book and Monica Mattfeld’s Becoming Centaur, a horse is never just a horse. But these accounts lay bare how political the horse-human bond has always been, and how central it is to the way Western cultures have made sense of large-scale historical transformation.
Becoming Centaur focuses on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, tracing the link between horsemanship and masculinity in the context of political revolution and the rise of modern commerce. Mattfeld opens with the riding manuals authored by William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, a close friend of Thomas Hobbes and a devoted royalist who served the Stuarts in war and in exile. Cavendish published a number of manuals in the mid-1600s promoting a style of riding that doubled overtly as a theory of monarchical governance. Extending Hobbes’s theory of the commonwealth as a kind of artificial beast, where men’s natural passions are harnessed to the overriding will of the monarch, he imagined horsemanship as a pageant of sublime obedience celebrating the ravishing power of a sovereign ruler:
What Prince or Monarch looks more Princely, or more Enthroned, than Upon a Beautiful Horse…making his Entry through Great Cities, to Amaze the People with Pleasure and Delight?…What can be more Comely or Pleasing, than to see…so Excellent a Creature, with so much Spirit, and Strength, to be so Obedient to his Rider, as if having no Will but His, they had but one Body, and one Mind, like a Centaur?
Cavendish emphasized the maneuvers of classical dressage, or haute école horsemanship, based on ritualized displays of movements and postures derived from cavalry exercises. A version of this highly stylized equestrian choreography persists in our own time—often set to grandiose music, and sometimes called “horse ballet.” It is likely to come across in our cultural moment as an example of the weirdness of archaic upper class rituals, in all their comic formality and earnestness. (Look up the YouTube video titled “Best dressage EVA” of Dutch gold medallist Edward Gal for an entertaining illustration.) But, for Cavendish, writing from exile in Antwerp after the beheading of Charles I, and then from the tenuously restored court of Charles II, the political stakes of good dressage were high. The perfect “centauric state” could only be achieved through years of dedicated practice, through which the physical and mental boundaries between man and horse gave way to a formal symbiosis; riders “were fashioned by the willed kinesthetics of their horses, and their horses were formed through the rational domination of the rider.” English noblemen were, in this tumultuous period, tasked with proving themselves worthy of power in the political arena,
a challenge reflected in how the horseman must “govern not only his mount but himself through reason, experience, and patience.” This was a tall order: like Restoration rakes, those notoriously libidinous, prodigal aristocrats who threatened to turn the royal court into a farce of drinking and womanizing, the mythical centaur was “a dangerous dual-natured creature,” as much a symbol of brute passion as of noble dignity. The beauty of riding, with its implied control of the beast within, thus served as an allegory for the happiness of the nation under proper, civilizing domination.
Mattfeld, an assistant professor of English and history at the University of Northern British Columbia, shows how fashions in the equestrian world have shifted alongside political currents. The 1688 Glorious Revolution, which brought William of Orange and his Stuart wife, Mary, to the throne, marked an end to the era of absolute monarchy and divine right of kings. As England embraced modern finance and more parliamentary rule, it grew to imagine itself “a polite and commercial nation,” as Sir William Blackstone later put it, and scenes and styles of riding evolved to express new ideals of sociable masculinity. While political philosophy made the shift from Hobbes to John Locke, horsemanship shifted its preferences from the stately beasts of the manège to the swift new thoroughbreds of the sporting club and racetrack. Discipline and display gave way to speed and ease of movement; new saddles and bridles allowed a rider “to sit light, and humour the Horse’s Motions, by inclining the Body,” as a 1729 manual described it. The eighteenth-century hunt was an opportunity for horses to carry riders at “full stretch” across rural landscapes, in enthralling pursuit of cunning prey. Where court jousting had been a way of embodying sovereignty, the hunt was an exercise in fraternity, common endeavour, and conquest—a pastime suited to a nation equally invested in ideals of liberal individualism and imperial expansion.
The new London riding houses represented the commercialization of horsemanship, which broadened access not only to riding skills but also to the kinds of social status that such skills conferred. Wealth-based equestrian clubs, much like urban coffeehouses, allowed for more socializing between men of the upper and aspiring “middling” classes; women, too, while still marginalized, were able to participate in this new riding culture enough that female equestrianism developed its own “closely regulated” conventions, such as sitting sidesaddle and a preference for docile mares over virile stallions. (The sexual connotations of women’s riding thrived nevertheless, as illustrated in satirical prints such as John Collet’s 1780 Soft Tumble after a Hard Ride.) The haute école and the chivalric masculinity it privileged did not disappear, but found themselves in competition with new, freer styles of horsemanship including common saddle and “leaping at the bar.” Top riding schools like Domenico Angelo’s academy taught both methods of riding, incorporating traditional masculine comportment into new fields of social interaction.
A century after Cavendish’s time, Philip Astley, a graduate of Angelo’s, transformed the haute école military style into a popular entertainment for a new age with his variety shows at Astley’s Amphitheatre in late eighteenth-century London. Trained in traditional horsemanship, Astley also drew on the fairground traditions of vaulting and trick-riding, combining low and high forms of equestrian spectacle to fashion his patriotic circus act. In 1788, Astley, a decorated veteran of the Seven Years War, channelled his own military reputation into the headline act, in which he rode the famous Gibraltar Charger through an elaborate display of fireworks. The charger was an even greater war hero: the horse who carried General Elliot to victory in the siege of Gibraltar, one of Britain’s few successful defensive campaigns during the American Revolution. As Britain dealt with the devastating loss of the American colonies, “Astley and the charger hailed their audiences back to a time of victory and strong men who brought peace and prosperity to the imperial nation.”
But the Amphitheatre also staged a very different form of masculinity in the performances of Philip’s son John, who became famous for dancing on horseback. One observer described his “pleasing Feats of great Agility”: standing on horseback, “in a most amazing Equilibrium whilst the Horse is on a Gallop, [he] dances and vaults, &c. Also plays an Air on the Violin, and displays a Flag in many comic Attitudes.” The phenomenal physical strength required to pull off these stunts allowed young Astley to conjure a form of masculinity that perfectly balanced a refined manner with unquestionable vigour. When the Gibraltar Charger carried the dancer, the horse channelled the distilled history of military nationalism into Astley’s playful, athletic display of polite bearing, as if Britain’s chivalric forefathers were endorsing this new man who famously drew the “attraction” of women and the “admiration” of men. Not everyone celebrated the flourishing of new masculinities, however, nor the variety of “horsemanship communities” that existed by the end of the eighteenth century. Mattfeld concludes her study with a chapter on Henry William Bunbury’s contemptuous satires of the Astleys and other lower class appropriations of horsemanship, which portrayed scenes of inept riding as spectacles of disastrous, vulgar social ambition.
Stately equestrian prancing may have fallen out of favour in the West since the Enlightenment era, but horses have remained a cultural preoccupation. Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse offers a more sprawling account of this era of horse-human relations, from the eighteenth century to the present. Instead of presenting a historical narrative, this study hops around chronologically as well as geographically to show the variety of ways that horses have been woven into human life and self-conception. Ranging from the sixteenth-century Jewish refugees of the Spanish Inquisition who became “the first cowboys in America” to the fidgety, riderless horse named Black Jack who played a symbolic role in JFK’s funeral procession; from the horse-drawn carriage’s “particular song of sighs and groans” as it navigated pre-industrial country roads to Ernst Jünger’s harrowing photographs of horses killed in modern war, Raulff’s immense assemblage of anecdotes, images, and cultural tropes testifies to the density of Western civilization’s reliance on horses for ideas as well as labour, a longstanding intimacy Raulff calls the “Centaurian Pact.”
Since the industrialization of Europe beginning in the eighteenth century, Raulff argues, human society’s material dependence on horsepower has gradually given way to more discursive forms of reliance—cultural fantasies and convictions that continue to figure horses into humanity’s patterns of self-assessment, long after horses themselves have been pushed to the margins of everyday human experience. Raulff’s “long farewell” compiles an almost overwhelming number of examples of horses in the cultural spotlight: horses in art, horses in literature, horses photographed and gutted in the name of science, horses loved and mourned in the name of enlightened sentiment, horses sacrificed and memorialized through centuries of human conflict. The horse, as it disappears materially from everyday human life, is ushered by all of these means into the realms of iconography and cultural mythology.
Raulff’s project invites us to think critically about cultural narratives and the ways in which they not only depart from reality but distort it. It urges readers to imagine lost historical experiences through visceral descriptions and adept storytelling—the pace and crush of nineteenth-century Paris, running on the energy of eighty thousand horses; the georgic soundscape of rural Germany before mechanical engines replaced living bodies in agrarian economies; the “infernal gigantic, snorting, roaring, thundering, and flashing monster” that was a cavalry unit advancing in battle—but as it does so the book recruits our imaginations as earnestly as any of the mythologies it examines. Even as Raulff pays homage to the “nodding, hoof-scraping, warmly fragrant reality” of the actual horse, he is really interested the semiotics of what we might call centaurian form: how depictions of the horse-human bond generate meaning. While the overall effect is dizzying, it’s a real pleasure to immerse oneself in Raulff’s readings of, for example, the political propaganda embodied in the image of a general atop rearing steed, or the “chilling stare of a horse” in Rubens’s painting The Lion Hunt, or the twin tragedies of Frou-Frou’s and Anna Karenina’s deaths in Tolstoy’s novel. Anyone who reads this book will subsequently find it impossible to encounter a horse in art or in story without considering the depths of meaning corralled by even incidental appearances. As Raulff’s cultural evidence accumulates, the horse as cultural icon grows ever more mysterious for its mounting complexity; his aim is not to explain what horses have meant in Western culture, but rather to show that they mean too much for us to adequately say.
The mid twentieth-century appearance of the “horse girls”—those “schoolgirl Amazonian warriors wearing cowboy jeans”—ushers out the age of the centaurs; Raulff mourns the passing of this masculine age as if it spells nothing less than the fall of civilization. It will take another writer to do justice to the dynamics of feminized horse culture, and to explain how it is that girls have become the primary custodians of our horse-loving inheritance. (As far as I can tell, My Little Pony is the only show my six-year-old daughter watches that routinely passes the Bechdel test for female representation.) We horse girls continue, somehow, to feel the centaurian pact in our being, long after actual historical circumstances give any reason for it. Our childhood obsessions may be Western culture’s way of refusing to say farewell to the horse, after all.