We are pleased to announce our keynote speaker for Equine History 2018, Dr. Richard Nash. His work likely needs no introduction, including “‘Honest English Breed:’ The Thoroughbred as Cultural Metaphor,” in The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline, and Identity in the Early Modern World, one of the works that reinvigorated the field of equine history.
PhD, University of Virginia, English
What got you into history, and into equine history?
I have only worked two places in my life: the university and the racetrack; my parents were both English professors who met in their first year of teaching at the University of Louisville at a New Faculty mixer at Churchill Downs. As my webpage indicates, my developing interest in theorizing nature-culture hybridity as integral to understanding “modernity” directed my attention to combining my two lifelong interests by studying the role of the creation of the thoroughbred horse in early modern culture. That project, once began, kept proliferating and generating more avenues for exploration, which I imagine I will continue to pursue for some time to come.
Who is your favorite historical horse?
I am sure many will agree with me that this is an almost impossible question to answer; there are simply too many possibilities for different reasons, and my mood fluctuates too much, for me to ever settle on just one. I will say that we tend to think of “historical” in terms of the distant past, but it also extends right up to the present. More than any horse in my lifetime, American Pharoah arrested my attention every time he moved. No matter what I was doing, if someone sent me a video clip of him galloping– not even racing or working, but just galloping– I would stop what I was doing to watch it immediately, because he hit the ground so perfectly when he ran. That sheer aesthetic pleasure in pure animal physicality is an important part of how humans admire horses. But my historical work is grounded in the era of the foundations of the thoroughbred and of the sport; and my interest as a historian, has always been in recovering significant figures too long neglected by history. I have several of those who I work on, in various ways, but let me mention two in particular. A horse named Buckhunter, but most often referred to as the Carlisle gelding ,was arguably the first important gelding as a racehorse. Obviously, he left no lasting mark on the breed, but early in his career, he won important races at York; and while he changed hands frequently, working his way down the ladder of competition, he continued winning when placed at the proper level for nearly a dozen years, finally breaking down in his final start, and being buried entire,* near where he died. In many ways, he set the type for an important– and difficult– part of the sport. Arguably, the most important horse to the bloodlines of the modern thoroughbred is a mare named Old Bald Peg. While her importance has been known for some time in at least a statistical way– if one follows both sides of the pedigree, not just sire lines, no name shows up more often in a foundational role– some of my recent research is directing me to an argument that the breeding program developed around her by Lord Fairfax was also profoundly influential on those near neighbors of his in North Yorkshire who established the protocols for developing the thoroughbred. So, now I have managed to name an intact male, a gelding, and a mare, so I will stop here. Though I could go on forever.
What are you working on right now?
My primary contribution to The Heath and The Horse was to tell the story of the early years of the Jockey Club, which had long (mistakenly) been thought to have been created in 1751. My work shows that the Club was founded in association with King George’s visit to Newmarket in 1717, and the events that followed from that– one way or another, we can say that we have just witnessed the 300th anniversary of the Jockey Club. That work is, itself, part of a larger story that I am working on about the intertwining of horse racing with cultural and political history in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries; while there will be some discussion of preludes and codas, the heart of my narrative focuses on roughly the 100 years between the Restoration of Charles II and the death of the Duke of Cumberland and the breeding of Eclipse a century later. The piece of that project that currently engages my attention is the important era– for both horse racing and national politics– between the last years of the reign of Charles II and the succession of Queen Anne; and the process by which certain racing courtiers active in the sport during the reign of Charles negotiated the establishment of parliamentary monarchy, and how horse racing served a purpose of political theater in that process that would serve as a prototype for the founding of the Jockey Club by their immediate descendants.
Where do you see the field going?
This question takes me back up to those theoretical questions where my project began: how do we think about modernity in relation to the question of nature and culture? How is such a set of theoretical questions necessary to re-thinking the anthropocentric stories of human history told by modernity, in order to develop better, more ecologically attuned historical narratives that see humans involved with other animals in a common history. If the world we live in is not here for us, but rather includes us within it, then any proper historical understanding of how we came to occupy our current place in this ecology requires us to attend to more than just human actors. I think the future of the field is in contributing to a much larger transformation of thought, as we begin to learn how to think ecologically instead of anthropocentrically.
*This was a huge honor! See US Sport History: Death of a Hero for how recently it was unusual to bury a horse whole.