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Equine Landscapes in Southern California
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The San Diego Natural History Museum opened a West Coast premiere of a touring exhibition entitled “The Horse” on June 1, 2012. This production is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, United Arab Emirates; the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau-Ottawa; The Field Museum, Chicago; and the San Diego Natural History Museum. It ran at the Balboa Park until January 20, 2013. It previously was on show at the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Kentucky.

The sub-title of the exhibit is “How Nature’s Most Majestic Creature Has Shaped Our World,” and a major focus is on the evolution of horses, horses and hunters, domesticating horses, and the nature of horses. Within the context of “how we shaped horses and how horses shaped us” other themes explored are warfare, work, spirituality, trade and transportation, and, of course, sport.

One of the strengths of “The Horse” exhibit is that it is set up in a single large basement area that avoids the problems of a series of rooms that can compartmentalize historical road maps, rather than craft a continuing, and flowing, narrative. The various spotlighted areas cleverly see the horse in transition, and the sections on the athletic horse alone are worth the price of admission.

The exhibit’s mantra is to have eye-catching headings that guide the visitor to a particular sub-plot. “At the Races” describes chariot races at the Parthenon, gives quotations from Xenophon about mounting a horse, and ends with pictures, and discussions, on show jumping horses in the Olympic arena.

Hard on the heels of ancient and modern horses, featured in competition, is a banner stating, “The magnificent athlete.” With bold lettering and, happily, an absence of an overly dense text, the museum visitor is pointed towards grasping just what champion horses can do. A quarterhorse can cover a quarter-mile in twenty-four seconds while a show jumper can clear seven feet.

The next museum exhibit is devoted to trotting and has the skeleton of a celebrated American standard-bred (the fastest of all “trotters”) called “Lee Axworthy.” The skeleton shows a gait stage with “Axworthy” moving at a fast trot. “Axworthy” made history in October of 1916 by covering a mile in under two minutes—the actual time being 1 minute 58¼ seconds.

Arguably, the piece de resistance of the exhibition is a well-positioned and excellently captioned display on the pioneering endeavors of the gait maestro, and extraordinary photographer, Eadweard Muybridge. From 1877 to 1878 he used multiple cameras to show—1000 frames per second—horse motion in a series of stop-action photographs. He also invented a zoopraxiscope, an instrument that essentially projected still pictures that, via the medium of speed, became transformed into motion pictures. His ingenious technology set the stage for the perforated film strip that launched cinematography. Lines of visitors at “The Horse” exhibition were animated and enthused as they peered into a zoopraxiscope that showed horses at canter, trot, and gallop gaits.

Other displays featured rodeo, the Calgary Stampede, and Wild West Shows. Equestrian sports such as the Afghan game buzkashi, thoroughbred racing, and hunting on horse-back were also on show.

Two thoughtful studies to catch the eye were on new, safer racing surfaces for thoroughbred racing—a moving side-bar chronicled the attempts to save the life of “Barbaro”—and a vignette on polo. This spotlighted the person of Argentinian star polo player Ignacio “Nacho” Figueras who leads the Black Watch team out of East Hampton, New York. The Black Watch top has the golden crest of the Ralph Lauren company (a polo player!) and points out the manner in which commercial sponsorship is critical for the survival of equestrian sport. Nevertheless, the question is raised, what of problem areas with making horse and ponies, faster and more competitive. The issue of doping, however, is ignored as are training and breeding “grey” areas. In 2012 “I’ll Have Another” was retired to stud after winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Tendonitis ended his racing career.

The end point of “The Horse” exhibition is a...

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