A recent posting of a photo similar to the one at right raised the usual reactions of disgust, with one person asking simply, “How is this allowed to continue?” Of course the usual theories of money and corruption were raised. I won’t deny there may be some validity to those claims, in some cases. However, I have pondered another root that runs much deeper and older.
I would argue that the history of the horse in art and entertainment has set up a faulty perception that causes many people to ignore the actual agony that is demonstrated in such an image.
First, a disclaimer that all of the things I am about to discuss happen to be near and dear to my heart – all are part of my cultural passions. Some I have accepted as artistic license; and some escaped my notice early in life. But as I engage in conversations where people question why the public allows such cruel treatment as pictured above, and why even “horse lovers” don’t see the issue, I can’t help but see the subconscious influence a lifetime of exposure to these cultural icons is bound to have.
Starting with some of the earliest equestrian art you find gaping mouthed horses. Most of the early works were associated with battle – a tradition that continued for as long as horses were used in war. The tradition of the gaping mouth can be found throughout that long history.
Whether it is to indicate fierceness and spirit in the rider’s war horse, or whether it symbolizes the power of the rider over a mount many times his size, this visual image has obviously resonated across the millennia.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the many public equestrian monuments. As I pondered this post, the furor over the Civil War Monuments was boiling. The images of these memorials supported my position, but it made me wonder if there was any difference in memorials in Europe. There is a much more classical equestrian tradition in Europe, so I would expect better depiction of the horsemanship. I did find some, which I will share in a later post (I love public sculpture!) – but the majority stuck with the gaping mouth. Here are but a tiny handful of representatives from but a simple search for “equestrian monuments”.
Again, these are typically associated with heroes of war, or powerful people who want to be portrayed as warriors. Clearly a visual standard for the spirited steed of powerful (mostly) men has been the gaping mouth of the spirited mount.
I grew up a huge fan of Westerns. How could a horse crazy girl from the U.S. western states not? To this day, some of my favorite old movies and television shows are westerns. In recent years I’ve been reacquainting myself with the genre – but now a key fact came leaping off the screen. Most heroes of Westerns do not treat their horses well! Whether film or television, it is rare to see a horse handled in a way that does not cause the mouth to gape, and lead to me physically wincing.
Multiple generations of children grew up admiring their Western heroes, treated to image after image of man handling their “trusty steeds”. Most of the heroes are meant to come across as tough, and many are paired with “spirited” horses to fit their romantic image. Again, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that this ham fisted way of riding is meant to show the hero’s power. Clearly these good guys in “white hats” would not do anything that caused their horse great pain, right?
Nothing characterizes childhood more than the carousel. As a horse crazy girl, this was always my ride of choice at any amusement park or fair. To this day, carousel horses are my favorite form of art – albeit a commercial form. The best carvers had a clear knowledge of equine anatomy, and a stunning eye for detail. Yet, it is rare to find a horse who does not have a gaping mouth. When you do, they are typically the inner row horses, and not usually the exciting steeds that are a child’s first choice.
At the earliest age, children are exposed to these otherwise stunning carousel mounts. The uninitiated have no reason to believe that something as innocent as a child’s ride would be portraying what amounts to equine torture.
I have barely scratched the surface on where you can find examples of inverted, gaping mouthed horses portrayed in a “friendly” or “romantic” way. Toys, paintings, jewelry – the list goes on and on.
When you look at the totality of how we are exposed to horses, in image and film – and the fact that this standard of a wild eyed, gaping mouthed steed has roots that goes back to the early days of our shared history – it seems likely that our lifetime of exposure to the romantic depiction of pain in horses has made us culturally immune to it in the living animal.
It is to the horses’ detriment that they do not vocalize their pain, as dogs do. If they did, then the uninitiated would quickly realize this is not a model to be emulated. It is up to those of us who know better to be the horse’s voice, and try to counter the overwhelming culture message that romanticizes this cruelty. But have a little understanding for those whose main exposure to the horse has been this long standing romanticizing of cruelty.
Be good to your horses!