- Equine Orientalism
The horse is one of few nonhuman animals that have been deemed worthy of historical representation. From the earliest stone reliefs of the ancient world to paintings of Napoleon or Teddy Roosevelt, horses have figured both as literal supports, carrying men into battle, and as representatives of the defiant forces of nature that man has harnessed to his control. In the first natural histories, horses were placed at the top of the animal kingdom—closest to man through their service to him or their ability to reflect his power and nobility, though assuredly distanced from him in their status as mere brute. According to Donna Landry, that brute status underwent a marked transformation during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, under the influence of "eastern" horses—horses that were brought from North Africa and Turkey to England and bred with English stock. The title of her book, Noble Brutes, refers to the double, if contradictory, status of equines in English culture at the time. On the one hand, the new breed of the English Thoroughbred that was thereby produced would become "the epitome of noble blood in equines," even functioning in art and fiction as ideal selves (4) for the British.1 On the other hand, to regard a horse as having something like a self was rare. As domesticated animals, they were chattel property and, as such, subject to whippings, beatings, [End Page 349] and overwork. When not observed and studied for their "blood," it was their labor that mattered and, as laborers, they were more often invisible to a culture that depended on them.
Although Landry does refer many times to what was regarded as the surprising "rationality" of the Eastern horse—which usually meant its keen sensitivity to human signals or intention—the book is not about the mind of horses or Thoroughbreds. It is rather about how horses may be agents of history, regardless of whether they are aware of the world they change. This is a historical perspective that has been opened by the emergence of animal studies. In an essay on "The History of Animals," Erica Fudge explains that for animals to have a meaningful role in history does not depend on their having "subjectivity." One can have the capacity to shape the world without having a "sense of self-in-the-world."2 Landry's book thus contributes to this animal history that seeks to understand not only how humans have constructed and represented their interactions with animals, but also to how humans have, themselves, been constructed by those interactions. Eastern horses changed not only the way the British rode and trained their horses, and thus the manner of horsemanship that has been so intimately linked to British identity, but also how they would represent horses in art and literature. In this way, they were crucial actors in the shaping of British culture.
If Landry's book has a place within animal history, it also finds a point of convergence between that history and the history of orientalism. Curiously, what begins as the attraction on the part of the British for the otherness of Eastern horses (their dished faces, their speed, and their sensitivity to human touch) or for the otherness of Eastern riding (shorter stirrups that make one sit forward in the saddle as opposed to the upright seat of classical, continental riding) becomes a story of the appropriation and suppression of oriental influence. Landry explains this convincingly in terms of a Lockean logic whereby the English took what was seen to exist only as potential in the Eastern horse and transformed it through breeding and nurturing on British soil into the "rightful possession of the imperial cultivator" (86). In an even more critical vein, she writes that Eastern influence was unacknowledged because of the "failure to recognize oriental knowledges as knowledge" and the practice of regarding "the Orient as a source of raw materials, but never of cultural practices or end products" (25). Eastern horses, in this respect, along with the people who...