#ShelfieSunday: My Colourful Life: from Red to Amber

ginger

Review of Ginger McCain, My Colourful Life: from Red to Amber. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2005, 2006, 2014.

Review by Anastasija Ropa

    In this lively autobiography, Ginger McCain, a trainer of racehorses, best-known as the trainer who has won the Grand National four times, tells of his experience of horses on and off the racetrack over more than half a century. Not only is Ginger McCain a man who made history, having trained Red Rum, a three-time Grand National winner and a national sporting hero, but he also lived through a period of change, as the jockeys and trainers of the post-war Britain retired to give place to the men – and women – of today’s racing world. Much of the book, is, appropriately, about Red Rum, who, the author declares, “changed the course of my life as no man or woman or child could ever do.” Arguably, Red Rum influenced the lives of many other people, both those who were directly involved with the horse and the countless racing enthusiasts, those who place their bets at the Grand National, or simply watch the great race. Indeed, Ginger and Red Rum had contributed to saving the Grand National when the race undergoing a rocky patch in the 1970s and was nearly closed.

     Ginger’s involvement with horses – and horse people – is no less remarkable than the Red Rum phenomenon. It began at the time when horses were still part of daily life rather than a luxury or an oddity. The day-to-day reality of working horses and the care the drivers took of the animals laid the foundation of Ginger’s respect and care of his race horses.

     Throughout the book, Ginger outlines his position on several issues that make today’s British racing world very different from that of the previous century. Some of his statements may be hard to accept for a reader raised in the age of tolerance, animal rights and globalisation. Thus, when Ginger describes the treatments applied in an attempt to improve the condition of lame racehorses – which he applied himself as a cure or prophylaxis to some of his horses – one is vividly reminded of medieval hippiatric treatises. For instance, a treatment colloquially known as a “blister” meant clipping the problem leg and rubbing a red mercury blister into it, then bandaging the leg for six weeks. Another common remedy was bar-firing the legs (illegal in the UK, bar-firing is still used in other countries). Doubtless, such medicines have no place in modern veterinary, yet, as Ginger claims, they worked. Even if we may not want to reintroduce these very risky treatments, Ginger’s experience may lead us to reconsider our views on the efficiency of veterinary medicine in the past.

     At other points, Ginger’s position is full of contradictions. On the technical side of racing, he deplores the fact the jockeys nowadays have shorter stirrups, making it impossible to apply the leg when racing – but he also claims the new regulations on using the whip are do not take into consideration individual peculiarities. While conceding that he does not condone beating a horse that has already lost the race, he believes that some horses would be stimulated by harsher application of the whip: “It has to be an effective way of encouraging a horse to dig deeper within himself.” Yet he remembers the first Grand National won by Red Rum and the state in which the horse, ridden by Tommy Stack, arrived at the finish, in a somewhat apologetic tone. “Red Rum was striped on both flanks – he wasn’t just a sergeant, he was a top sergeant.”

     At many occasions throughout the book, Ginger expresses his attitude to women in the racing sport, opening him to possible accusations of chauvinism. Indeed, should women be excluded from racing just because the weighting room used to be “was a man’s domain, like a fighter’s gym”, and now it “smells like a pool’s parlour”? Ginger may be excused, though, when he explains that “in the years after the war most of the jockeys were senior riders who’d been in the forces, like Brian Marshall, Dave Dick and Dick Francis”, implying that racing is, in fact, a dangerous and cruel sport and that women should not risk their necks on the racecourse.

     Among Ginger’s less controversial remarks are his observations on the management and practice of training. He compares the situation in his early years, when few trainers would have as many as forty horses in the yard, to the later developments, when many yards have expanded to include over a hundred horses, so that a trainer cannot possibly pay attention to all animals and must rely on assistants. Again, Ginger’s attitude may seem old-fashioned, but he has a point: quantity does not always lead to quality. A horse like Red Rum, who had chronic leg problem prior to arriving on Ginger’s yard in Southport, and who showed lack-lustre performance over the less challenging jumps would have a high chance of being overlooked at one of the bigger yards. Whether this is outweighed by the availability of better facilities – something that was not available in the earlier post-war yards – is a question Ginger does not countenance.

     In all, My Colourful Life is not a critically balanced study; it is a subjective account of an individual trainer, tinted with his personality and opinions. Not everything of what the author says is to be taken at face value, and, with characteristic wit, Ginger is prone to undermine many of his own statements. However, the book captures the atmosphere of the racing world it portrays and sketches vivid images of the jockeys, trainers and owners who inhabited it: Red Rum’s owner Mr Le Mare (“the Guv’nor”), the jockeys Tommy Stack, Brian Fletcher, Jonjo O’Neill and Jackie Grainger, the trainer Bobby Renton, and many others. To counterbalance Ginger’s views, the book includes many testimonies written by other people, including his wife and his business partners. Complete with photographs of Red Rum and other horses with which Ginger McCain was involved, the book will be captivating reading for all who are into horses and history.

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#MemberMonday: Anastasija Ropa

Lady Ana

 

Education:

Bangor University
PhD, Arthurian Literature

University of Latvia
BA & MA

 

What got you in to history? In to equine history?

     It probably suffices to say that my role models as young adolescent were Tolkien’s riders of Rohan and Dumas’s musketeers… As a postgraduate, my principal research interest was medieval literature, and especially Arthurian romance, while horses were my private passion. A natural step forward after completing the PhD was to combine the two.

Who is your favorite historical horse?

     Eclipse: his is a fairy-tale scenario of a horse who was deemed unfit for sport by his contemporaries and retired from racing an unbeaten champion. Eclipse went on to become a prize breeding stallion, so most of today’s Thoroughbreds – including my own ex-racing horse – are his descendants.

What are you working on right now?

     A lot of diverse projects, mainly to do with the Middle Ages. I am involved in organizing sessions on the medieval horse at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, and related activities. I am also preparing articles on the prices of medieval horses and horse welfare in the Middle Ages. I am currently on maternity leave, with fewer opportunities to ride, but, in the summer, I will resume training horses, which gives me an opportunity to gather empirical evidence for my long-term project on medieval horse training.

Anastasija is the organizer of the “Equestrianism” strands at IMC Leeds and several other equine history projects. She is currently a lecturer of English and translator at the Latvian Academy of Sports Education. Find her here.

#ShelfieSunday: Race Horse Men

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Katherine C. Mooney
Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014
Hardcover: $35.00
ISBN 9780674281424
Subject matter: Horse Racing, Nineteenth-Century United States History, Slavery, Race and Race Relations.

Review by Charlotte Carrington-Farmer (Roger Williams University)

     Race Horse Men examines how the racetrack was an important political and cultural arena, where slavery was “made” alongside freedom in the United States. The book’s seven chapters, which are structured chronologically, weave together a picture of the lives of the so-called “race horse men” from the early 1800s through to the 1920s. Thoroughbred racing was arguably America’s first spectator sport, and black jockeys were amongst the best jockeys in the country, who rode in (and won) many famous race. Enslaved grooms, jockeys, and trainers were granted significant autonomy from their white masters, and their opinions were valued. They were often well-paid for their work, and were permitted to travel as part of their job. However, Mooney complicates our understanding of slavery and systems of power. Her most persuasive argument demonstrates the shades of oppression within a larger system of total subjection. Mooney convincingly argues that whilst race horse men were some of the “freest” unfree people in the United States, their freedom served to reinforce their master’s dominance. Race Horse Men is not an overly simplified story of how black men crafted nooks of freedom at the racetrack; it is a more complicated story of how white men used the racetrack to advance their power bases and to create a microcosm of their version of the United States, in which they ruled supreme. Masters used race days to “demonstrate their power was rightful” (37), and through the track they “saw in miniature the hierarchical world they wanted, its boundaries policed by violence” (173.)

     Mooney is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida State University, who works on the cultural history of inequality in the United States. Her work adds to the burgeoning scholarship on black race horse men, most notably Joe Drape’s Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend (2007) and Edward Hotaling’s The Great Black Jockeys (1999) and Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield (2005.) However, Mooney’s work goes beyond previous scholarship, which offers an overly sanguine depiction of the lives of black race horse men. One of the strengths of Mooney’s book is that it presents a complicated picture of enslaved lives, which never lets the reader forget the brutality of a slave society. She powerfully describes the horrors of how white owners tortured slaves, which included forcing young jockeys to stand in horse manure to stunt their growth and walk for up to twenty miles with heavy layers of clothing on to shed weight. Mooney’s work shows how enslaved horse men took pride in their work and enjoyed agency, but she goes beyond previous scholarship by demonstrating how masters ultimately controlled their lives and bodies: “Jockeys…were positive proof that slaves could be physically shaped according to white desire…proof that torture could make a perfect slave” (49.) Mooney fleetingly mentions that the largest sale of enslaved people in the U.S. took place at the Ten Broeck Race Course in Georgia, when approximately 436 men, women, children, and infants were sold in 1859. Mooney describes how the slaves were kept in the stables and potential buyers examined their teeth and “prodded them in the ribs,” just like they did with the horses (115). Whilst Mooney acknowledges that this shows slaveholders “ownership of animal and human bodies,” she could push this argument further. Readers interested in learning more about the slave sale at Ten Broeck Race Course should consider Anne C. Bailey’s new book, The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (2017).

     Mooney traces the lives of black race horse men through the Civil War and into Reconstruction. In the immediate aftermath of emancipation, black horsemen became sports celebrities and were a source of pride, hope, and inspiration. As racing moved north, formerly enslaved jockeys used their freedom to push for change. The fact that the most prominent jockey in the nation, Isaac Murphy, was African-American, served to raise these hopes. Mooney argues that the real change at the track did not come in the immediate aftermath of emancipation, but in the early twentieth century when segregation laws were enforced in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which legalised the doctrine of “separate but equal.” By the early twentieth century, black race horse men were only employed in the lowest rungs of the racing industry, as “Black horsemen’s success could not be safely channelled into the support of white supremacy” (225.) Whites explained the absence of blacks at the track using a range of techniques, including the scientific racism that gained currency at the turn of the twentieth century.

     Successfully weaving a story together about race and sport spanning over century is no mean feat. Mooney has clearly dug deep in the archives, and the book’s convincing arguments are supported by a plethora of sources, including photographs, newspapers, and personal letters. The images in the book are not only an interesting addition, but they also further Mooney’s arguments. For example, Mooney uses a Currier & Ives lithograph (231) to show white people’s uneasiness with black horsemen’s success under Jim Crow. Mooney’s work builds upon the growing animal turn in history, and it uses thoroughbred racing as a lens to explore the struggle against slavery and oppression. This work will appeal to equine historians, in addition to scholars of the long nineteenth century and race and relations. Mooney’s vivid writing makes this book accessible to a wider public audience beyond the academy, especially those with an interest in racing history. Race Horse Men offers an uplifting epilogue about the reburial of Isaac Murphy next to Man o’ War in Lexington Park in 1967, amidst struggle for black civil rights. Race Horse Men ends by bringing the story up-to-date with the recent Project to Preserve African-American Turf History and social justice initiatives such as the Isaac Murphy Bicycle Club and Everybody Reads Project. As America continues to grapple with its complicated history of enslavement, segregation, and oppression, Mooney concludes that “the ride” for equality “is nowhere near over” (248.)

#SourceSaturday: The General Stud Book

     It’s racing month here at EHC, so we’re kicking off our first #SourceSaturday with the General Stud Book, originally (and still) produced by the Weatherbys. First published in 1791, it is still the registry for British Thoroughbreds. As Margaret Derry points out, the pedigrees listed in the first General Stud Book were not detailed or usable by modern standards; the book was initially more concerned with proving identity, in order to confirm age and performance records, so that horses were entered in the correct races. While the initial pedigrees may not be detailed (and an error here or there has been discovered in later ones), it is still a spectacular source for early racing history, full of anecdotes, breeding choices being made, race records, and descriptions.

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   Digitized copies of some volumes are available on GoogleBooks and Archive.org

 

   Original bound stud books available at the National Sporting Library, the Huntington, and other institutions.

#MemberMonday: Alyse Yeargan

alysedyl

Education

University of California, Riverside
PhD student, Public History

California State University, Fresno
MA English Literature

SUNY Stony Brook
BA English Literature

What got you in to history? In to equine history?

     I ended up in Public History almost by accident. I got my BA in English with minors in Art History and Women Studies, during my MA (also in English) I realized what I was actually interested in was culture and cultural theory. Public history, and history in general, not only sits at the intersection of all of my previous studies, but also provides an area for me to pursue my interest in the way culture is constructed.

     My interest in equine history arose from being a life-long equestrian. While I often feel that individual horses themselves are more interesting than the study of horses in general, I’m fascinated by the way our cultural constructions– masculinity, femininity, ideas about animal handling and treatment, and what it means to be human in general– get played out through our interactions with horses and in equestrian competition.

Who is your favorite historical horse?

     Favorite historical horse is a difficult question to answer! I have a real affinity for Justin Morgan. My great aunt breeds Morgans, and favors Lippitt and working western lines, so I grew up thinking Justin Morgan was the standard for what a horse ought to be– versatile and handy, stubborn but affectionate. I also adore Seattle Slew, and OTTBs more generally. As an eventer and trainer I love working with anything with Slew on the papers. They’re sensible, sweet, and brave mounts; as jumpers, they always have scope to spare! Though they will always go in for the long spot if you let them.

What are you working on right now?

     Right now I’m trying to figure out what my dissertation will be focus on. I’ve just begun my Ph.D. course work, so my projects are still nebulous. I don’t work exclusively in equestrian areas, but when thinking about culture animal studies always offers an interesting angle. Our interactions with animals are always telling of conceptions of ourselves, as they are frequently an ‘other’ which our culture employs to frame itself.

#ShelfieSunday: The Perfect Horse: The Daring US Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped By the Nazis

lettsby Jeannette Vaught

Review of Elizabeth Letts, The Perfect Horse: The Daring US Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped By the Nazis, New York, Ballantine Books, 2016.

     Elizabeth Letts, a noted author of popular equine histories, uses the lens of World War II to lead her readers directly into concurrent cataclysms: mechanized warfare, and apocalyptic eugenic racism across cultures and species in Europe.  Letts explains how the meaning of the Lipizzaner, and other carefully bred European horses, depended on human allegiance to national, eugenic, or cultural ideals, and she introduces a host of actors – representatives of The Spanish Riding School and post-Hapsburg Austria, Poles, Russians, the National Socialist Party, Germans, Americans – whose alliances shift in unexpected and often uncomfortable directions when it comes to these horses and what they come to signify. 

     Despite the breadth and horror of this tale, Letts attends carefully to the relations between humans and equines who form the core of the story.  This attention results in a narrative that teaches readers much about several topics.  The general knowledge readers gain finds real traction in her use of it to deepen readers’ understanding of what happens to the Lipizzaner horses who anchor the book.

     One example of how Letts’ balances the interplay between big historical shifts and their impact on the particular story of the Lipizzaner is her clear treatment of the uneven military transitions from equine cavalry to tanks and jeeps in American and European armies.  This knowledge has a direct impact on readers’ understanding the motivations of people who later act on behalf of the Lipizzaner, despite grave danger to themselves and an otherwise unclear reason why they would care about these horses.  Certain American officers, those who had been raised with horses and trained in the equine cavalry, had themselves recently transitioned from horse to machine warfare.  These men, when confronted by a dire situation regarding European horses they had never heard of, nevertheless had the knowledge needed to understand the cultural importance of the Lipizzaner, and the ability to understand the urgency and sincerity of Europeans who spoke on their behalf.  This small number of American officers who had themselves transitioned from horse to machine warfare were also uniquely able to understand the consequences of preventing Lipizzaner horses from falling into the more equine-centric military system of Russia, which would certainly have destroyed them.  This is just one example among many of how large threads of knowledge are made intimate in this narrative.

     Letts also does great justice to the complex relationships between humans and horses, and it is clear that she writes these encounters from experience.  For dressage riders in particular, her treatment of the relationship between Spanish Riding School director Alois Podhajsky – a towering figure in my own youth and training – and his Lipizzaner horse Neopolitano Africa is emotionally powerful and fully embodied, as attuned to the movements and signals horses express as well as how humans feel.  Letts does not diminish the role of emotions in human-equine partnerships, and she also ensures that the nature of these relationships is integral to the historical narrative of the meaning of the horses in this war. 

     Many current fans of dressage in general and Lipizzaners in particular may not be familiar with the role that Nazism played in preserving these traditions of equine genetics and culture.  For much of the book, Letts carefully details how many horses were kept safe, while others brutally perished, because they were gathered into Nazi eugenics programs designed to create a pure, white “super horse.”  Readers learn much about equine breeding and genetic theories that operated in Europe before and during the war, trends that run concurrently with the decimation of human populations in Poland.  As this entwined story unfolds, Letts shows how several actors accepted or even sought Nazi protection in order to advocate for horses.  Letts details this complex tale with sensitivity to the horses, but without flinching from or sentimentalizing the human and equine costs of these decisions.

    The first half of the book builds up the prewar and wartime context of the people and horses involved, spanning several decades and continents while leading to a suspenseful midpoint.  The second half of the text takes time explicating a single moment of danger to the horses we’ve followed to this point, how it was resolved, and the consequences of this resolution into the present.  Based primarily on thorough archival research and oral history interviews, as well as drawing from Letts’ own experience as a horsewoman and military descendent, the well-illustrated book holds its own among academic and popular histories of World War II as well as equine histories.  To the great credit of its popular imprint, it has a sizable bibliography and notes section. 

 

#MemberMonday: Janice Gunther Martin

JGM & donkey at Versailles
This was actually taken at Versailles. Why spend all your time looking at palaces and gardens when you can also go see farm animals?

Education

University of Notre Dame
PhD Candidate, History
MA, History

University of Connecticut
MA, History

University of Pennsylvania
MS, Chemistry
BA, Biochemistry

What got you in to history? Into equine history?

     I have wonderful memories of visiting museums and historical sites on family vacations during childhood. One summer I even spent a week at a camp run by a living history center in New Brunswick, Canada, pretending that I lived in the rural nineteenth century St. John River Valley (a program at Kings Landing – the place deserves some free advertising). So, despite studying biochemistry and chemistry in college, the history bug had burrowed deep. A college course on the history of scientific thought led me to further consider the history of science and how human beings have defined, studied, and interacted with the natural world… And this interest eventually led me to graduate school!

     Unlike perhaps most equine historians, I came to equine history through books – and not the Black Stallion series, either. In my first year or so at Notre Dame I stumbled across equine medical treatises from early modern Castile, and realized that studying the treatment of equines in the past would be a fruitful way to address my broader interests about human beings and nature.

Who is your favorite historical horse?

     If I may slightly adjust the question, I would instead like to identify my favorite historical mule: a gray mule born about 1547 and purchased by a shoemaker at the San Miguel fair in Nájera in September of 1552. Without too much exaggeration I can say that this was a celebrity mule of the shoemaker neighborhood in Logroño. Alas, the mule met an unfortunate end. I will reveal the full, sad story in my as-yet-in-progress dissertation; or, if you can’t wait, find me on the conference circuit! 

What are you working on right now?

      At the moment I am finishing my dissertation, which investigates the role of Crown-licensed equine doctors in curing equines in sixteenth-century Castile. Since many Castilians were familiar with equines and how to heal them, what set equine doctors apart? I compare evidence from theoretical equine medical treatises and lawsuits to determine the distinctive status and practices of these equine doctors as they cared for everyday, working animals. I argue that equine doctors were distinct from others who healed these animals because they more explicitly framed their work using learned medical theory, possessed particular legal functions, and performed specialized surgery. Their activities show that human and animal medicine diverged in practice despite shared medical theory. This project will not only be valuable to historians of science and medicine for its examination of lay and learned medical expertise in an Iberian context; what’s also really exciting about my sources is that they allow me to study actual horses, mules, and donkeys from this period. I am able to examine the different types of equine knowledge that people possessed, and how equine treatment varied by the work expected of these animals and economic context. Thus, the project will contribute to a nuanced understanding of human-equine relations during this period, and to conversations about the treatment of domesticated animals, in general.