Category Archives: English

Meeting Whistlejacket and Eclipse

“All done from nature” 

George Stubbs (1724-1806) himself wrote this sentence on the title page of his work The Anatomy of the Horse (1759).  Most people know Stubbs as the artist who painted the most famous horses of his day for the British elite of the racecourse, but when you visit the current exhibition at the Milton Keynes Gallery, which will also be held at the Mauritshuis later this year, you learn that Stubbs was a more versatile artist. 

The Anatomy of the Horse

From a young age Stubbs knew he wanted to be a painter and dreamed of being an academician (Royal Academy of Arts). Tradition dictated that he would then have to visit Italy to learn about and from the classical forms of art, Roman and Greek.  He traveled to Rome in the year 1754 and was already back in England by the end of 1755. Stubbs himself recalled that he often differed from his peers in their opinions of old master paintings, probably due to the fact that he thought “nature always superior to art, whether it be Greek or Roman”.  

Back in England he plunged himself back in his passion for anatomy. Stubbs resided in Lincolnshire from 1756 – 1758, where he spent his time dissecting horses to draw them for his The Anatomy of the Horse which was to be published the following year when he moved to London. In the capital he was introduced to his patrons who would commission at least one third of the work he would produce in his lifetime, the prince of Wales himself commissioned nineteen works in the 1790’s. 

A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Servants

But is its questionable whether Stubbs can be seen as part of the aristocratic horse world of his time. It is often said that Stubbs must have loved horses because he painted so many, especially commissions suggest that he was the go to man if one wanted his horse painted. The title of the current exhibition will change when it moves to the Mauritshuis; “The Man, the Horse, The Obsession”, making one feel that Stubbs was obsessed with horses.  He however lived in a time where horses were still part of daily life as a mode of transport as well as an important supportive source of working power. But I have not yet found out if he owned horses himself for either transport or leisure. In his own time Stubbs was famous for depicting animals that were new and exotic to the British public. He was able to paint leopards, eagles, wolves, bears, and much more because many of his patrons owned menageries that functioned as private zoo’s. Of course there was also the public menagerie at the Tower of London where the crowd could see tigers, lions and monkeys. 

In 1763 Stubbs chose to exhibit The Queen’s She’ass (now called Zebra) at the Society of Artists, where he was  a member and eventually took on the role of president in 1772-1773. His painting of a zebra looking quite lost under the trees of a presumably English forest was not a commission.  The subject of the painting was the first ever zebra to voyage to England and became known after having been presented to Queen Charlotte in 1762. It was brought over from Cape of Good Hope, South Africa by Sir Thomas Adams who was the commander of the H.M.S. Terpsichore. He loaded a couple of zebra’s onto his ship but the male did not survive the journey. The female was kept in a paddock at Buckingham gate where the public could see her, drawing such large crowds that extra guards had to be placed to keep it safe, especially at night. Stubbs may have been among the public when he was painting his Zebra, and for unknown reason it is one of the few works that remained in Stubbs own possession until his death in 1806. 

For thirteen years Stubbs exhibited annually at the Society where he showed 35 pictures between 1761-1774, of which nearly half of the works were concerned with ‘wild’ animals instead of horses. In 1775 he switched his allegiance from the Society to the Royal Academy of Arts, getting closer to fulfilling his dream of becoming an academician. In November 1780 he was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy.  In the February 1781 election of full Royal Academicians Stubbs was favoured by the majority.  The only thing left to do was to hand in a work of art presented to the academy that would be his Diploma Work in order to receive the diploma signed by the King. In December of the same year a new rule was imposed stating that every RA elect had to hand in the diploma work within one year of election, and sadly this meant that Stubbs was now too late as he had failed to deliver. In the following years Stubbs did not exhibit annually with the Academy due to anger over not being a full Academician as well as disputes over his works he chose to be shown not being exhibited. Over the years Stubbs exhibited more dogs than horses at the Royal Academy, which can be seen as more evidence for critic Geoffrey Grigson (1940) who asserted that “Horse painter .. is not the right description for him at all. He was a painter who painted horses”. 

Whistejacket and myself for scale

It has been suggested that Stubbs did not love horses or the equestrian circles that he is often said to have been part of. His extraordinary talent to observe and depict nature in the most realistic way made him a favourite by those who wanted their exotic and precious animals depicted. Stubbs however did not always comply; his most famous work, Whistlejacket (1762) was commissioned by the earl of Rockingham as a portret of George III. Rockingham intended the horse to be done by Stubbs, the portrait by Reynolds and the landscape by yet another artist.  When he saw the horse on the canvas he decided to leave it without a background, the lacking of the portrait of the king is most possibly due to Rockingham’s resignation as Prime Minister in 1762. 

Another example of Stubbs work not living up to the expectation of his patron is that which critics call his greatest painting ever; Hambletonian, rubbing down (1800). Sir Henry Vane-Tempest’s Hambletonian defeated Diamond at Newmarket and he commissioned two paintings, one of Hambletonian winning the race and one of him after the race. It is unknown if Stubbs ever produced the first one, but the second shows a horse that is nervous, exhausted and features a trainer and groom that angrily look at the viewer as if the public does not feel enough empathy for the horse.  Vane-Tempest took Stubbs to court because he refused to pay for this painting, which can be seen as Stubbs’ criticism on the industry. 

The greatest painter of racehorses did not like horse racing. The antipathy was part of his greatness.” – Nicholas Clee

Horse devoured by a lion (1763)

Stubbs his work offers us a good view of his time, during which the role of the horse in society was changing as equestrian sports were becoming more popular in the mid 1700’s. The English Thoroughbred was a new breed that was only about fifty years old when Stubbs was alive and just as the newly acquired exotic animals, a symbol of empire and English superiority. For over thirty years Stubbs kept returning to his series of lions attacking horses. Although he himself was not impressed by what he saw in Italy, the model of a lion sinking its teeth into a horse went back into antiquity as Stubbs possibly saw an early Hellenistic sculpture of a lion attacking a horse in the Palazzo dei Conservatori when he was in Rome. Robin Blake has argued that Stubbs exhibited a political point supporting the Rockingham Whigs, showing the white horse, a symbol of Hanover, being attacked by the lion of England.  

For the first time in history Stubbs work is being accompanied by the skeleton of Eclipse (1764-1789) whom he painted four times. Eclipse remained undefeated at the races and is often called the father of all Thoroughbreds as he features in the majority of todays racehorse pedigrees. It was an honour to meet this English historical icon together with Whistlejacket and I can recommend everyone with an interest in horses and art to visit the exhibition for the detail and colour of Stubbs work is truly astonishing!

Eclipse (d.1789) with his portrait by Stubbs

Book Review: Noble Brutes

Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture, Landry, Donna. The John Hopkins University Press, 2008.

In light of a paper I am working on for WOCMES this year I finally read Noble Brutes. It was long overdue as Donna Landry is an authority in our rather small group of equine historians. She has published on horses as cultural agents throughout history, women writing, travel writing, imperialism and Orientalism. Combining all these elements resulted in the interdisciplinary work Noble brutes, in which she also touches upon Ottoman history, art history and military history.

The book starts with the introduction of “His lordship’s Arabian”, a phrase that characterizes a large part of equestrian discourse in 18th century England (and Ireland).  Landry explains how the Eastern/Oriental horse rose to tremendous popularity following the first wave of imports between 1650 and 1750, and shows that it did not matter at that point where the horse actually came from or what breed it may have been, there was a general tendency to call them Arabians.  She shows how various identities developed in the British Isles, such as English, Irish, Scots, Welsh etc., and argues that a similar movement happened in the horse culture at the same time. Eastern horses represented a legendary equine ideal that had already been formulated in the 16th century, however had perhaps more to do with the way of riding them than the horses themselves.

A  brief sketch is made of “Horsemanship in the British Isles before the Eastern invasion” when horses were still seen as property yet embodied a powerful symbolic. Owning a good horse and riding it well  showed that one possessed all the necessary qualities for social authority and political rule.  The idea of the horse as a ideal version of the human self was on the rise and Eastern imports would “revolutionize” this concept, as argued by Landry.  She starts by showing that the equestrian culture of England has always been based on immigrants.  The phenomena of racing was brought to the Isles by the Romans and during the 16th century, Italian and Spanish equestrian masters of ‘haute d’école, set the trend of riding in the arena.  It is generally thought that European horsemanship went through a “renaissance” following the rediscovery of Xenophon’s work, however Landry points out that we might look a bit further east for support of this rebirth of equestrian values.  She finds a foundation for her argument that the East was the place to look for the origin of the equestrian renaissance, in the existence of a vast discourse on horsemanship from the Islamic world, called furusiyya.  Although furusiyya has not received the scholarly attention it deserves and Orientalism has long been (and still is) so common that Eastern influences on European culture seem absent, the equestrian culture of the east has not gone unnoticed. At first through Italian and Spanish horse masters, English equestrian authorities discovered a more friendly way of approaching the horse, and found confirmation in their observation of the Ottoman’s seemingly very successful handling of ‘noble brutes’.

Landry eases the reader into the idea that there was more to the English admiration of Eastern equitation by explaining of what she calls “The making of the English hunting seat” and the “Stealing of a Turk”.  The idea of “riding like a Turk” is very appealing but Landry does not provide much evidence that the development was so directly based on Ottoman example. However, competitive as the English were in the wake of Imperialism, the shortening of the stirrup and posting the trot became viewed as a final departure from European example and the birth of a superior English way of riding.  Hand in hand with colonizing various parts of the east, many products from that exotic part of the world were naturalized and now viewed as rightfully English. The equestrian culture was no exception to this rule.

But Landry takes it a step further, arguing that through what Gerald McLean called “imperial envy” and the ideology shaping Edward Said’s Orientalism, the imported horses and their naturalized descendents became valued as the epitome identity of British imperialism; Eastern exotic and English appropriated asset of ultimate Englishness.  She uses the story of the Bloody Shouldered Arabian to guide the reader to the various roles this horse has played and perhaps still plays in English equestrian culture. Topics like the trouble of importing horses, marvel over their exotic features, their status as living art and especially the birth of the new genre of “equine portraits” that elevated George Stubbs, John Wootton and others to world famous painters, are discussed extensively. More and more the blood-horse featured in art and literature, while the equestrian society became obsessed with hot blood. Imperial envy was so strong that even horses born on English soil were often called Arabian or Barb, solely as proof of their hot pedigree and not as a reflection of modern ideas of breed identity. The idea that the Eastern horse was superior to any other breed prevailed during the 18th and lasted well into the 19th century.

But what happened when the English Thoroughbred, viewed as the mirror image of the perfect English self was a well established breed of its own towards the second half of the 19th century? I was happily surprised that Landry does touch upon that question a bit. As she opened the book with “His lordship’s Arabian” she closes it with “Her Ladyship’s Arabian”. The Eastern horse had now fallen behind its product, the ever faster and taller Thoroughbred and Landry shows that men now preferred their own ‘hunters’ to the imported stock, a shift that left the once so sought after Oriental horses in the hands of women. The “graceful and short-coupled” horses were perfect for carrying a side saddle and their willingness to cooperate with their rider gave women something of their own  as men didn’t show much interest anymore. A second wave of imports did happen at the end of the 19th century as European travelers went to the Orient in search of fresh Eastern blood to replenish the Thoroughbred stock.  As women were not yet ready to let go of their beautiful and exotic mounts, a new preservation theory was born and the idea to breed purebred Oriental horses ‘back home’ was on the rise, with the efforts of the Blunts mentioned as an example of these expeditions. Landry concludes that with this newly found purpose for the imported stock, namely to not only use it as a source for the English thoroughbred but to breed them as a breed of their own, the Turkish roots were buried in favor of the Arabian. She supports this argument with examples of anti-Turkish prejudice prevailing in Britain at the time, but I personally believe that this issue requires a closer look, not only in terms of the historical or political context but also into the motives of the individual promoters of the ‘newly’ created breed that we now know as Arabian horse.

About Side reins

A little while ago there was much ado about the Rollkür in the Netherlands but also the rest of Europe. Here in Egypt people didn’t really get exposed to the same topic. The competitive environment here is mostly catered towards jumping with only a handful of serious dressage riders. However a new discussion has surfaced in horseyland that actually touches a sensitive subject here in Egypt. The draw rein.
It starts as if it were almost harmless. When a horse reaches his second year they start lunging and breaking it for riding. Immediately when a horse has understood it better run when the whip is approaching they start using side reins. Most popular are the leather side reins with the rubber donuts for some elasticity. The use of this infamous “aid” is much more a ritual than a case where grooms (riders don’t train their horses except under saddle) actually understand why they might use side reins. Engaging the hind quarter and stimulating an elevated back is not something they are familiar with. As long as the horse sticks his chin onto his chest it’s great, isn’t it?
Unfortunately I recognize this from the scene in Holland. Once starting out at the average riding school I remember the feeling of looking up to those who were marching their horses around the arena with giant spurs and a near perfect curled up neck. But if your horse does not get properly educated to go on the bit with an elevation of the back how well is it really going? Time to brush up the big means. I had studied it at several competitions in the past but I had never fully realized how terrible the side-rein-cult really is. Until I moved my horses to one of the better jumping stables of Egypt which is filled with imported warmbloods from Holland and Germany. Over 40! beautiful and very well cared for warmbloods are our neighbors. Many of them owned and ridden by the best of Egypts equestrian society. There are horses that participate in the highest classes at competitions and many times we get to see them practicing the enormous jumps while we are riding in the arena.
But I spend much time at the stables and I witness reality for those horses. Many of them are rarely turned out under the motto: if you ride them daily they get enough exercise. Training always happens in the same order. Rider calls groom. Groom brushes and tacks up the horses with many times a saddle that doesn’t even fit properly (real saddle makers don’t exist here ). With the girth pulled tight and fully tacked with a draw rein the horse awaits its rider. Subsequently they get on from the stirrup (they all laugh at me with my mounting block for my “dwarf” of an Arabian) and grab onto the rein and draw rein. Warming up exists from a lot of sawing on the bit until the horse safely plants its chin onto its chest and then it’s time to put those gigantic spurs to use and wildly trot and canter around the arena. In training they even jump with the draw rein and sometimes to the point where a horse makes an actual somersault because landing in a draw rein is more than difficult.
Sometimes people contact me with the question if I could teach them. In the past I used to say that I’d only be interested in serious combinations and am not into badly constructed training. But nowadays the first thing I say is: “Do you want lessons? Throw away the draw rein.” And they never show up. Those that did show up in the past had to go through a very embarrassing first phase. Without the draw the horses (or riders? ) don’t seem to understand anything. There are only two options, either chin to chest by force or sticking ones head up into the air. Because of the usual sawing their mouths are as hard as concrete. The first lessons make them look like beginners. They are able to jump a meter and half but they cannot make their horse engage and go on the bit. And cavaletti work is for children, right?
Fortunately my stud is being ridden by a Dutch rider who translates my words into deeds. Months on end we have worked on balance and power using no rein contact at all. Confidence and determination on her side and suppleness and self carriage on his side. Now Salmin is ready for the “real” deal. He goes on the bit, very light and very easy to steer around because he is mostly responsive to the seat. He is already engaged and with very little aids he performs exercises like in a textbook. The combination is well respected at the stables because riders slowly realize our methods may not be juvenile after all. And side reins? We don’t even own them!

Read six reasons to stay away from draw reins

An old blog

Being a horse mom is a very rewarding yet sometimes difficult job that certainly isn’t without road bumps. Especially in Egypt where nothing goes as planned or expected.

A few days ago the grooms notified me that Mister Salmin had ticks. I entered the box and they showed me what they had found in his mane…indeed there were some very tiny baby ticks that apparently had  just hatched. Instantly my mind wandered off, ticks? What do I know about ticks? Yes they are common in Europe and I remember well that we used to take care when riding outside in the forest. Common knowledge is that ticks carry diseases that are pretty serious such as Lyme and Babesiosis. The groom shouting to me that ticks can fly and an epidemic will bring down the stable brings me back to reality. I agreed, time to contact our vet and ask for advise.

In Egypt many problems and diseases in horses get treated with human medicine because the availability of veterinary medicine is rather poor. Things like de-worming and a few other common things like general antibiotics are available but many times I noticed our vets struggle to find human medicines that have similar effect and then calculate the dosage based on body weight. I respect our vets very much for their endless effort to save and treat our horses with what is available.

This time too, there is no solution that is meant to remove ticks of horses available.  Logically you can’t just treat a horse with stuff you’d spray on your dog so the vet assured me he would look into it and get back to me. I spent that night searching the net to enhance my knowledge about ticks. Raising horses in Egypt is not a different experience because of the difference in climate or the (non) availability of tack, medicine and other supplies. It is different because it is a chain of lessons.  That night I learned everything about ticks.

Ticks can carry a number of diseases, mostly after they have fed from the first out of three “hosts” they use in their life. Ticks CANNOT fly or jump, they use a different strategy to find a host to feed from called “questing”. They hold on to a leave or branch of plants, usually trees or high variants of grass, then sense odors of possible hosts and when the animal (in this case poor Mister Salmin) touches the leaves or passes under the tree the tick would just let go of its place and hold onto its host. The tick will then search for a place that has rather thin skin making it easier to cut into, such as in ears (probably you have all seen dogs with ticks in their ears). When the tick has fed itself it needs to find the next host, either by dropping itself from the first host and climb up a suitable place and quest again or by using the moment that its host touches another possible host. A female can choose to leave some eggs behind before leaving her host and in the hot climate the eggs hatch somewhere between 19 and 29 days, creating a bunch of small ticks that had planned to feed on him. Mister Salmin probably caught one of those unwanted passengers, as his window is under a tree, and when he leaves his box daily to be turned out he passes under the tree.

Back to the case, first thing to do with ticks is of course to remove them, so next day I equipped myself with gloves, tweezers, alcohol to drown the ticks in and some courage because I really don’t like bugs.  All ready for the “dirty” job I entered the stable where a terrible stench greeted me. The grooms had gone behind my back and washed him and other horses in a chemical made for cattle (which can harm horses because cows are more resistant to organophosphates than horses). To make the drama complete they figured that I would pay them for this..”because they had done such a good job”.  For those people that have not spent a little or a lot of time in Egypt I have to note that grooms are most of the time not blessed with an education and still tend to believe that they know so much better than horse owners or even vets. Next to being unknowing they can also have phantom knowledge such as I mentioned above ” ticks can fly and there will be an epidemic”. Mister Salmin is a colt and sadly is turned out alone so an epidemic is a bit overrated, and since they had seemingly killed most of the ticks on him they decided Salmin was now cured and I didn’t have to call my vet anymore. Unfortunately for them, I am a stubborn horse mom.

The vet was just as disappointed when I showed him the chemicals. He examined Mister Salmin and found ticks in his ears! The lesson about ticks continued when he explained to me that in male horses we have to check the penis because that is an area where ticks can get really comfy, thin soft skin and it is a place where the horse can’t easily remove the tick.  Thankfully there were no ticks there and after being given a mild sedation Mister Salmin had the tick family in his ears removed and his penis all cleaned just in case .We will be keeping an eye on him and make sure there are no unwanted passengers left. I am grateful that our vet has the same vision as I have, no chemicals if not needed and preferably no treatment with medicines not made for horses. Sadly it is difficult to control grooms as they do whatever they believe is wise, and most of the time that would be based on phantom knowledge. Many horses in Egypt die an early death because of wrong use of medicines by unqualified grooms. Being a very stubborn horse mom does not only include taking care of the horses to the best that I possibly can but also trying to substitute the phantom knowledge of grooms for real knowledge…in case they do take me serious one day.