All month long we will be featuring speaker’s abstracts for the upcoming Equine History Conference: Why Equine History Matters. Register now!
No Flatterer: Brutally Honest Horses in Seventeenth-Century England
Amber Roberts Graham, University of Kansas
Ben Jonson famously claimed, ‘They say Princes learn no art truly, but the art of horsemanship. The reason is, the brave beast is no flatterer. He will throw a prince as soon as his groom.’ His quip distilled the value of horsemanship in early-modern England to its fundamental physicality and praised the horse’s honest reactions to a man’s true ability rather than his social station.
This paper argues that equine history matters because early-modern Englishmen openly and forthrightly recognised equine indifference to human social machinations. Without directed study of early-modern equestrian references, scholars risk eliding facets of broader conversations and contexts that held significance for early-modern speakers and authors. They knew their horses felt no compunction about embarrassing a nobleman or betraying his incompetencies, so they came to rely upon their horses’ insights as they navigated the fraught personal politics of the English Stuart courts. While much of the scholarship on animal agency has focused on the notion of misbehavior, this oversimplifies the case of horsemanship. Jonson’s comment did not praise disobedience in a horse; it praised the horse for reacting honestly to bad riding. Vicious and aggressive horses were not tolerated but men trusted well-trained and obedient horses whose reactions showed observers that a man lacked the equestrian skill expected of his station. From the perspective of true horsemen, Jonson suggests, his “brave beast” collaborated with human interests by being willing to expose the prince’s lack of skill. A horse’s willingness to take on the role of an uncompromising teacher meant young noblemen were more likely to internalise the lessons of horsemanship than of other arts, where it was often in a human teacher’s social or political interest to flatter a prince’s mediocre skill. Studying equine history amounts to studying how seventeenth-century English noblemen were educated and how their learning was evaluated.