#Shelfie Sunday: Horses, Oxen and Technological Innovation: The Use of Draught Animals in English Farming from 1066 to 1500

Horses, Oxen and Technological InnovationJohn Langdon, Horses, Oxen and Technological Innovation: The Use of Draught Animals in English Farming from 1066 to 1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Review by Jordan Claridge

Now more than thirty years old, John Langdon’s Horses, Oxen and Technological Innovation: The Use of Draught Animals in English Farming from 1066 to 1500, still stands as not only one of the most influential historical monographs about horses, but also as a broad window into the economy and society of medieval England.

Langdon’s foray into the world of medieval horses was not through any of the ‘usual’ channels, as he was neither an historian nor an equine enthusiast. Originally trained as a chemical engineer, Langdon abruptly changed careers in his late thirties, moved to England and tried his hand at writing novels. In the course of writing two books set in the Middle Ages, he developed a taste for research and enrolled in the history PhD program at the University of Birmingham. It was at this point that he discovered a significant gap in the historiography of the medieval English economy: scholars such as Lynn White Jr. had long argued for the theoretical advantages that working horses held over oxen, but this had yet to be tested on any scale with historical evidence. In addition, there was still a strong contingent of historians who claimed that the introduction of the horse to English agriculture was basically irrelevant. So, Langdon set out to basically count the numbers of horses and oxen in England from Domesday Book in 1086 to the dawn of the early modern period.

Langdon’s background as an engineer allowed him to tackle this question with a method relatively novel to the field of medieval history at the time. Most economic and social studies of the medieval period were focused relatively narrowly in time and/or space. Some studies would look at a single manor over a long period of time, others would focus on a broader region, or even the whole country, but at a single point, like the Norman invasion in 1066 or the Black Death in 1348. Langdon endeavoured to take a national data sample that covered as much of medieval England as possible and to do this for most of the Middle Ages. Looking back on this from 2018, the amount of work required to assemble his data sample is impressive. This was before the technological advents of digital photography or even Excel spreadsheets. Langdon travelled around the country painstakingly reading medieval Latin manuscripts and tabulating the numbers of horses and oxen by hand.

The results were impressive. Langdon looked closely at the numbers of oxen and horses employed on both demesnes (the lord’s own farm with the manor, as opposed to the lands allocated to his or her peasant tenants) and peasant farms in medieval England. He found that, between the Domesday survey of 1086 and the end of his study in 1500, horses had largely superseded oxen as the choice for animal power both on the roads (as cart animals) and in the fields (as plough beasts). The proportion of working horses increased from about 30 percent in 1086 to over sixty percent by 1500. So, before 1200, oxen were the dominant work animals, and source of kinetic energy, on both farms and roads in England. By the sixteenth century, however, horses had achieved almost total ubiquity in the world of work animals. This had critical implications for the economy of medieval England, as the speed advantage of horses over oxen allowed more work to be done in less time. Horses offered significant premiums over oxen in terms of both speed and power which, in turn, had critical implications for agricultural production, transport and market transactions. The introduction of working horses allowed goods to be transported with greater efficiency while also helping improve agricultural output through increasing the speed at which essential tasks such as ploughing and harrowing could be completed. Improvement across all of these areas, facilitated by the introduction of working horses, was a key ingredient of England’s economic development.

Langdon also found that the change from oxen to horses was not uniform. Especially in the case of plough animals, for example, Norfolk, the Chiltern Hills and eastern Kent embraced all-horse plough teams earlier than any other part of the country. Also, while horses were increasingly employed in tandem with oxen in the midlands and the home counties over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, many demesnes, especially in the West and North, never made the change and stuck exclusively with oxen for plough work. His long durée approach allows readers to appreciate how the evolving dynamic between horses and oxen existed not in a vacuum, but as one consideration that depended greatly on regional topographies, managerial mentalities and a host of other variables.

As Joan Thirsk had done before him, Langdon likened the medieval horse trade to the more modern car trade; with horses available at almost any price point. With this wide range in prices, cheap draught animals were made available to peasants just as the lower-end used car market does for lower-income people today. This led to another key finding: in medieval England, horses were very much a peasants’ animal. While horses had been expensive and prestigious beasts in the Anglo Saxon world, the taboo of eating horse flesh in England meant that older horses, perhaps nearing the end of their productive working lives, had very little market value. As they could not be fattened and sold for meat, an older horse was basically only worth the few pennies that could be fetched for its hide. However, for less demanding work on a small peasant farm, an older horse could be bought for little money and used for a number of years. The wide adoption of horse power by peasants did much to increase the area in which goods could be both bought and sold, allowing individuals access to previously inaccessible markets and thereby increasing the integration of previously disparate locales.

Alongside water and wind power, working animals were one of three essential sources of energy in the medieval economy. By understanding how England was furnished with this power, Langdon helped unlock key insights into how the medieval economy was able to grow during the crucial period of England’s, and indeed Europe’s, demographic and economic development from ca. 1250 to ca. 1350.

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#ShelfieSunday: Kingdom of the Workhorse

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Kingdom of the Workhorse by A.J.Dampier
Countryside Publications, 1987
ISBN 0 86157 226 2

Review by Miriam Bibby

 

   This splendid account of the lives of working horses in and around the city of Manchester at its 19th century zenith, when it was the “workshop of the world”, home to the greatest manufactories in Britain, is one of my favorite books.

   A.J. (Tony) Dampier was from north west England and knew his subject both from his own research and from contact with the horsemen of the region from the middle of the 20th century until his sad death in 2011. It’s therefore largely, though not exclusively, based on local history and oral traditions. Arguably it’s the type of history of which we need more, because all too often the stories of working people and animals are not recorded and then they simply disappear. Frequently the only histories we have are those created after the theme has been viewed through a middle-class lens and dissected for academic purposes.  This, however, is working class history recorded by a local man with an in-depth knowledge of and passion for horses, and who had extensive, practical equine and equestrian experience himself.

   There are limitations to the book, however. Dampier’s broader brush strokes relating to early history are unconvincing: “No doubt these ‘dark Phaenicians’ horses were of Arabian origin” (11); “Then came the terrible, cruel Vikings, their contribution to our story is minimal, being a force of destruction rather than construction” (5). In fact, the Norse contribution to the north and its equine history is becoming better known and it’s increasingly looking like a substantial one, not just linguistically but also in terms of horse breeding and exchange. Dampier himself points out that the Norse derived “Rossendale” in Lancashire is the “Valley of Horses”.

   Away from the general though, Dampier is compelling. He understands the connectedness of early modern infrastructure, commerce, settlement, place names and language in the region in a way that’s both instinctive because it’s an embedded part of his own heritage, and academic, because he acquired local research library-based facts about the working horses of Manchester and the surrounding dales.

   This is revealed not just in the text but also in an excellent choice of outstanding images, such as the unidentified horse-drawn mass funeral in Manchester, ca. 1900, on page 25. We can only speculate on whether this reflects a local mining or industrial disaster, a family tragedy or an outbreak of disease. One local “Black Master” (director of horse-drawn funerals), John Greenwood, appears to have specialized in ensuring the working class had respectable funerals, for his advert in the Manchester Guardian in 1860 read: “John Greenwood begs respectfully to intimate that, in order to meet the requirements of the working classes, he has always for hire neat one horse hearses and coaches, terms (inc. coachman) 7/6d. each” (77).

   That’s another of the great strengths of the book – the attention to detail, a boon for those of us who like the facts of what things cost, how they were obtained and how ordinary folk lived. There’s plenty of detail about individual characters, such as Ailse O’ Fussers, the owner of Jerry, probably  “the last commercial pack horse in Great Britain.” (Actually a donkey, p. 7) Ailse (also known as Alice Hartley) was a commercial carrier, and her team of “gals” (Galloway ponies, though the term was probably being loosely applied to type and function rather than a “breed” here) carried lime across the moors to Rochdale until her death in 1879. “In build she was short and stout, and she wore over her petticoats a male’s topcoat. A ‘Jim-crow’ hat was fastened securely on her head by a handkerchief over the top of her hat and tied under her chin. She carried a long stick in the style of a shepherd, and presented more the appearance of a man than a woman. Yet she had a lover, named Thomas Walton, a young farmer…” (William Roberts, quoted on p. 15)

   Pack horse trains continued to be used across the Pennines, from Durham and Westmorland in the north, to Derbyshire in the south, until the late 19th century and even, in some cases, possibly into the 20th. However, millennia of pack horse use were mostly brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of steam and it was now in the great cities and on ploughland that working horses were to find a place.

   In and around the streets of Manchester, Dampier introduces us to characters both equine and human; Dick Dalby, head horseman of the Prestwich Co-op stables, for instance, who taught all his horses to go on the ‘Pee Patch’ before they came into their stables after work – they had to pee before tea; Joe Bumper, the coal carrier from Rochdale who brought two poor horses to the local smith/farrier/vet and asked him to make one good one out of them only to be disappointed to discover that the “one good one” that the compassionate farrier “made” for him had a wall-eye, which Bumper “conna abide” (35).

   We learn about the secretly brutal methods of “horse whisperers” and the visit of the more enlightened (in Dampier’s view) Solomon Rarey to Manchester. We discover why a monopoly on the horse-drawn omnibuses in Manchester, created by the amalgamation of several companies in the late 19th century, was bad for passengers but good for horses. We hear of the clever horse who taught himself to use the metal curbs on the edges of pavements as a brake, and the well-trained horse who stopped when a police officer held up his hand, even though his driver was asleep!

   Dampier explains why the trandem was used so widely in Manchester that it came to be known as a “Manchester Team” and why all newspaper delivery horses in Manchester were referred to as “Chron. Horses.” Plus, why well-meaning ideas often have unintended consequences. The horse troughs brought in by named donors at locations throughout the city were often key points for the spread of equine epidemics and “many transport companies forbade their drivers to stop at the troughs for fear of infecting their horses” (50).

   Some working horses were more fortunate than others, and the horses of the monopoly Manchester Carriage Company Ltd. in 1865 were “stabled in conditions approaching those that accommodated the pampered private horses. Large, well-ventilated stable blocks were constructed where the animals’ every comfort was considered. The usual dirt floors that had been expected to absorb any moisture and urine were replaced by blue brick floors with good drainage, high ceilings and plentiful windows all contributing to the sweet atmosphere” (49).

   They were the lucky ones. Where hard-nosed commercial demands prevailed, it could be a different story, driving the undercurrent of violence, superstition and chicanery that was never very far from horse trading. “Mugs” were set up by “horse for sale” adverts for in the Manchester Chronicle and Evening News, “using terms such as ‘Property of a gentleman going abroad’ or ‘Lady in reduced circumstances’. All horses were ‘regretfully for sale’ and ‘To good home only.’” (Both these last phrases are still in daily use on Facebook, with the usual addition of “through no fault of his or her own.”) The mugs, inevitably, ended out of pocket and the advertiser nowhere to be seen.

   Whether it’s describing travelling in the “rumble-tumble” (a large basket on the back of coaches that was supposed to hold luggage, but frequently carried unfortunate passengers desperate to travel), or describing the underhand methods used by coach companies to get round the “no galloping” rule, Dampier is always lively and readable. Like Anthony Dent, he entertains and carries the reader along, and as with Dent the reader is left wondering “Where did he get that?”, frustrated sometimes by the lack of references for follow-up purposes. It wasn’t written as an academic text but to record local stories and memories. Nonetheless, I believe that this is an essential source book for anyone with an interest in the working horses of 19th century industrial Britain.

   It was clearly a labour of love for Tony Dampier, who also gave a home to Major, the last working horse on the streets of Manchester, for his final years. For this reason more than any other, Tony Dampier is a personal hero of mine and, to coin a phrase from Anthony Dent I think this is an outstanding book, “but I am prejudiced, so let it pass.” Dampier was a hero I never met; for though he wrote some articles for a magazine that I edited in the 1990s we didn’t have the opportunity to meet and talk, something that is of lasting regret to me. So, contact the knowledgeable while they’re alive; make the most of their experiences before it’s too late. And enjoy one of the most interesting books ever written about working horses.

#ShelfieSunday: ‘A plaine and easie waie to remedie a horse’: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England

Louise Hill Curth, ‘A plaine and easie waie to remedie a horse’: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

'A plaine and easie waie to remedie a horse'Review by Janice Gunther Martin

Louise Hill Curth’s ‘A plaine and easie waie to remedie a horse’: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England is the first modern study in English of early modern equine medicine. It follows from Curth’s earlier scholarship examining early modern veterinary medicine in general.She applies current methodologies in the history of medicine to her subject; in particular, instead of dismissing past medical ideas and practices as barbaric and ignorant, she seeks to understand them on their own terms. Though the ideas and practices in this book might be unfamiliar to those outside the fields of the history of science and medicine, the clarity of writing makes the material accessible and interesting to non-specialists.

The book begins with an overview of ancient and medieval equine medicine before turning to the structure of equine medical practice in early modern England. Medical historians sometimes apply the term “medical marketplace” to describe the multiplicity of healing options available to people in this period. Curth extended the concept to animal healing in a 2002 article in which she coined the term “veterinary marketplace,” which she continues to use here.2 She accordingly explores the different people charged with equine upkeep and healing, including members of the London Company of Farriers, horse-leeches, and servants. The book’s main chronological scope ends with the institutionalization of veterinary education in England with the founding of the Royal Veterinary College in 1791.

Her exploration of early modern medicine on its own terms is evident in the book’s middle chapters on medical beliefs and practices. Like other recent scholars, she attends to the connections between astrology and medicine in this period and the logic thereof. Due to the importance of the “non-naturals” for preventing ailments in early modern medical theory, she explains how these factors applied to advice about horses. These included issues like air (by extension, the general environment), diet, and exercise. The book also provides an overview of the diagnosis and treatment of ailments, including pharmaceutical remedies and surgery. It concludes with two chapters on the dissemination of equine medical information through oral, manuscript, and printed means.

Curth writes that her purpose is to “open up a new area of academic interest and study” in the “virtually unexplored area” of the history of early modern veterinary medicine (p. 6). Indeed, the book contains many fascinating details about past equine medical care, such as advice about stable construction, the commercialization of equine medications, and the connections between bloodletting and astrology. It accordingly prompts many questions for further research, facilitated by Curth’s clarity regarding her source base. For instance, the seventh chapter “Oral and Manuscript Culture” includes summaries of household manuscript collections containing horse remedies digitized by the Wellcome Library. She offers some comparisons between these household books and printed remedies; additional research using such manuscript evidence will hopefully provide more clues about the most common equine ailments, the cures used in practice, and their relationship to treatments in printed sources.

In addition, the book invites further investigation about the similarities and differences between human and equine ailments and treatments in this period, especially since Curth relates her work to the “One Medicine” movement (more recently coined “One Health”). This initiative seeks to promote collaboration between researchers across medical and ecological disciplines, in part to better understand the relationship between human and animal health and the environment. Historians like Curth have shown that past medical cultures (like that of early modern England) did not exhibit as sharp a divide between human and animal medicine as exists today, and operated with a more holistic concept of medicine.

Curth’s book is a helpful and engaging overview of early modern English equine care for specialists and non-specialists alike, and provides an important framework and foundation for further research.

1 See especially Louise Hill Curth, The Care of Brute Beasts: A Social and Cultural Study of Veterinary Medicine in Early Modern England (Leiden: Brill, 2010).

Curth, “The Care of the Brute Beast: Animals and the Seventeenth-Century Medical Market-place,” Social History of Medicine 15, no. 3 (December 2002): 375-392. https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/15.3.375.

#ShelfieSunday: The Comanche Empire

comempThe Comanche Empire. By Pekka Hämäläinen. The Lamar Series in Western History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Review by Christopher Valesey

    Winner of twelve book awards, Comanche Empire is a landmark of ethnohistorical scholarship. Pekka Hämäläinen challenges more typical narratives of European imperialism that feature the rapid dissolution of indigenous civilizations by drawing attention to the rise and fall of the so-called Comanche Empire in the modern American Southwest from roughly 1750 to 1850. Despite being surrounded by Spanish, French, and Anglo-American domains, Hämäläinen argues that “European imperialism not only stalled in the face of indigenous resistance, it was eclipsed by indigenous imperialism” (2). This Comanche-style imperialism differed from Euro-Americans in that Comanches sought coexistence, control, and exploitation rather than conquest and colonization (4).

    Ethnohistorical research is often hamstrung by a dearth of sources written by the indigenous group under study. While this is true for Comanche Empire, Hämäläinen offers an impressive analysis of Spanish, French, Mexican, and Anglo-American sources like government reports, captivity narratives, travelers’ journals, and traders’ accounts. Although Euro-American sources accentuate the military and economic aspects of the Comanche Empire rather than the cultural, they allow Hämäläinen to pay close attention to the implications of various events like the Bourbon Reforms, the French and Indian Wars, and the Mexican-American War. Taken together, Hämäläinen structures the book primarily chronologically to examine the lifespan of the Comanche Empire, beginning with Comanches’ alliance with Utes in the early eighteenth century and concluding with the empire’s collapse soon after the American Civil War.

     Perhaps the most striking feature of the Comanche Empire was their adaptive use of horses, particularly the Spanish-introduced Barbs that descended from North Africa and thrived in the southern plains. Indeed, tying in previous publications in Western Historical Quarterly and the Journal of American History, Hämäläinen describes Comanches’ adoption of horses as an “equine revolution” (347). Equestrianism dramatically altered Comanche hunting, warfare, and transportation, exponentially expanding their world and the speed in which they could travel through it. With horses, Comanches transformed their entire economy to center around bison hunting and horse herding.  Horses’ voracious appetite for the abundant buffalo and grana grasses not only allowed the equine and Comanche populations to skyrocket, but in Hämäläinen’s words, allowed Comanches to “exploit the vast reserves of bioenergy stored in the plains’ bison herds more thoroughly than any of their competitors” (66). Comanches’ use of horses was so effective that nearby plains tribes had no choice but to become mounted if they wanted to avoid being marginalized by Comanches (356). Ironically, the success of Comanche equestrianism also contributed to the fall of the empire: the rapidly declining bison population in the mid-nineteenth century, exacerbated by Euro-American hunting, appears to have crippled Comanches’ military and economic hegemony more than any armed conflict with Euro-Americans.

     In addition to the military, demographic, and economic ramifications of horses, Comanches established a distinct culture of equestrianism with influences on wealth, social status, and gender. They selectively bred horses to optimize their endurance, speed, size, and even color. According to Hämäläinen, Comanches recognized at least seventeen different types of horses based solely on their color (246). The wealth of individual or families of Comanches could be determined by the number of horses they owned as private property. The average Comanche family owned twenty to thirty horses, but the most affluent elites could own hundreds (260). While teenage boys worked most closely with the horses on a daily basis, women participated in horse herding in addition to their responsibilities for childrearing, meat processing, the tanning of hides, and a range of household duties. Horses constituted a form of social currency that provided men with the means of gift-giving in exchange for wives, a massive advantage for the wealthy in a polygynist society. A lack of horses prevented young men from acquiring wives, and it also limited their access to other activities like trade. Without a horse, men were required to borrow them from peers, indebting them to a portion of the spoils of war or any wealth they would receive. Elites, on the other hand, could use their horses to make investments in more slaves and wives, in turn generating surplus commodities and food.

     As any effective work of scholarship should, Comanche Empire raises nearly as many questions as it answers. Although this reader is convinced by the author’s usage of “empire,” some of the sharpest criticisms of the book revolve around whether or not Comanches established one. These discussions may be the most exciting contribution of the book. One productive and related question is the extent to which Comanches’ created an empire not only like Euro-Americans, but like other well-known indigenous empires like the Mexica in Central Mexico and Inca in Peru. This is not a critique of the book, but just the opposite: Comanche Empire’s ability to challenge historiographical trends and generate debate secures its spot in graduate class syllabi and the bookshelves of all ethnohistorians.

#ShelfieSunday: The Warhorse in the Modern Era: The Boer War to the Beginning of the Second Millennium

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Review by Jane Flynn

Read her blog here.

Hyland A., The Warhorse in the Modern Era: The Boer War to the Beginning of the Second Millennium, Black Tent Publications, Stockton on Tees, 2010.

     Ann Hyland’s book The WarHorse in the Modern Era: The Boer War to the Second Millennium is the third and last in a series that together cover the role of horses in military history from the Medieval period to the present century. Hyland is a prolific author and has published on the horse in the Ancient World, on Quarter Horses and on, in Foal to Five Years, the development and training of young horses. Strangely, however, her work on war horses seems to have gone largely unnoticed, despite growing public and scholarly interest in human-animal interactions.

     In The WarHorse in the Modern Era Hyland examines the tumultuous final instalment in the horse’s long association with war. The War Horse in the Modern Era begins with the The Boer War campaign of 1899-1902. She illustrates why the South African campaign proved a turning point in how military horses were supplied and managed. The book follows a logical progression, continuing by covering the use of horses (and mules) in The First World War and into and beyond the Second World War; again comprehensively covering everything from purchase and supply, to veterinary care, transportation, equipment and feeding. Each chapter is divided into manageable and easily-navigated sub-sections.

     A great strength of Hyland’s book is that it has been written by a horse person for horse people. It would also be of interest to military historians and animal-studies scholars. In this sense it is a very refreshing read; successfully avoiding the sentimentality that has so often undermined serious consideration of the horse in history. The War Horse in the Modern Era is a book packed with useful information about every aspect of the war horse’s utilisation and has clearly been very thoroughly researched. It is, however, a book that rarely ventures into analysis. It is informative, but it does not enter into discussion and primary sources can at times feel as though much more could have been made of them. This is a shame, as on the rare occasions Hyland does enter into debate her writing is perhaps at its best. For example, on the subject of how historians have sorely neglected the important part played by horses during The Great War:

     Many historians seem to have written the cavalry off without giving credence to the effectiveness it often showed, and the sacrifices the horses made. How many writers give accolades to the artillery, but failure to mention that … it was the horse that enabled it to be positioned effectively. (p.109.)

     Similarly, and although a glossary of terms is given, this is a book that often assumes its readers have a comprehensive equestrian vocabulary upon which to draw. That being said, it is rare that writing on horses in war has gone into this sort of depth and for that reason The War Horse in the Modern Era is an admirable, and welcome, addition to the genre.

Editors’ Note: This review was originally going to run in November, when we featured other books on horses in warfare. However, unlike Hyland’s Medieval works, this book proved remarkably difficult to find! We suspect The War Horse in the Modern Era: Breeder to Battlefield, 1600 to 1865 will be likewise difficult. If you have a copy and you’d like to review it, or lend it to a reviewer, let us know!

 

#ShelfieSunday: Here Comes Exterminator!

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Review by Eric Banks

     In Here Comes Exterminator!, writer Eliza McGraw revisits the life of the 1918 Kentucky Derby–winning gelding Exterminator, one of the most celebrated American thoroughbreds of the first half of the twentieth century. Few geldings have won the signature race in its history—Exterminator is one of only nine, although the third in a short span between 1914 and 1920—and his career as a racer was prolonged for a greater period than most three-year-old champions. Much of McGraw’s book, and the appeal that Exterminator exerted for most of his racing life, concerns the determination of the horse’s owner, Willis Sharpe Kilmer, to surpass the career earnings of Man O’ War, which totaled $249,465. Exterminator did so as a nine-year-old in 1924, finishing fourth in a stakes race and collecting a small purse at the newly established Tijuana Race Course, nipping Man O’War’s winnings total by just over $3,000. Five starts later, he raced for the final time at Blue Bonnets Raceway in Montreal, pulling up lame while finishing third, and retiring with a remarkable record of 50-17-17 in a 99-race career.

     Griswald, a contributing writer to Equus magazine, charts the horse’s tenacity against the background of Exterminator’s erstwhile trainer Henry McDaniel, who conditioned the horse following his purchase as a lightly raced three-year-old, and his bullheaded owner, the Binghamton, New York–based Kilmer. The former was the son of the legendary David McDaniel, the trainer of the great campaigner of the 1870s, Harry Bassett, and a steady if not spectacular success as a horseman. Kilmer by contrast was a newcomer to horse racing who parleyed a family fortune—his father invented the dubious cure-all diuretic Swamp-Root—into a powerful stable in the late 1910s. Kilmer cycled through trainers over the course of Exterminator’s career; at one point, Griswald recounts sportswriters trying to recall the nearly two dozen who had worked for him at one point or another. But McDaniel was most powerfully connected to the critical decision to enter Exterminator in the 1918 Kentucky Derby and to the later campaign in which he would at last better his paper rival, Man O’ War—a pyrrhic victory given that another horse, Zev, had already overtaken Man O’ War’s tally.

     The recognizable figural motif underwriting Exterminator’s biography might be called “the wrong horse.” Like the stories of other racehorses, including Seabiscuit, Swale, and even Secretariat, which Meadow Stud famously received after losing a coin toss (part of a foal-sharing agreement) to Ogden Phipps, the wrong-horse tale involves the emergence of a lesser-regarded juvenile blossoming into a champion. In the case of Exterminator, he was purchased for a modest sum on McDaniel’s advice to serve as something akin to a workout partner to the highly regarded Sun Briar in preparation for the Derby. After a stellar two-year-old campaign, Sun Briar had put in a desultory performance in the spring of his three-year-old year and trained poorly. He was finally removed from consideration for the race and replaced by Exterminator, one of the longest shots in the field, at 30-1, whose victory echoed that of the extreme long shot Donerail’s five years earlier, in the process galvanizing popular and media interest in the Derby across the country as an opportunity for bettors to strike it rich and for outsiders to be competitive.

     Donerail and Exterminator shared another thing as well: they were both sired by the English thoroughbred McGee, which makes the rags-to-riches narrative sometimes told about Exterminator suspect. Exterminator’s potential may have been underrated, but he had at least one classics winner as a half-brother. He was nevertheless an unprepossessing and gangly young horse whose skinniness earned him the nickname “Old Bones”; as McGraw reports, it’s not clear why the decision was made to geld him, but it reflects the lack of faith in his future as a stallion. Following his Derby victory, the lack of optimism seemed warranted; his win in Louisville on a muddy track appeared to be a fluke, and he lost races throughout the year, while Sun Briar rebounded to win the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Springs. But by the end of 2018, he showed mettle as a handicap horse and ability to win longer-distance races. He and Sun Briar—who remained Kilmer’s favorite, and who named his state-of-the-art indoor training facilities in Binghamton Sun Briar Court—made a formidable one-two punch for the stable, with Sun Briar a difficult horse to defeat at distances under a mile and a furlong, and Exterminator a hard-knocking stayer.

     McGraw writes engagingly about an important moment in the history of the sport. During World War I, a number of influential figures like August Belmont Jr. helped forged a connection, both actual and in the public imagination, between the thoroughbred industry and the US war effort through the Remount Service. The breeding program imaginatively helped to surmount the less salubrious view of the industry as it emerged from anti-gambling initiatives in the years before. The remount campaign, however, posed a question on the status of geldings in racing. The trade-off, however, was a lengthy career in which there was no issue, of course, of retiring Exterminator to stud duty (unlike Sun Briar, who sired the wildly successful Sun Beau after his retirement in 1919). This longevity and later development would later distinguish Exterminator in a manner similar to other memorable geldings like Kelso, Forego, Dr. Fager, and John Henry.

     Exterminator’s virtuoso performances on the track, McGraw writes, endeared him to fans of racing and a legion of sportswriters, from Grantland Rice to the less-remembered Brooklyn Eagle correspondent W.C. Vreeland. His timing could not have been better: a moment when mass spectatorship was emerging around a number of sports (baseball and boxing, in particular); postwar transportation developments were making travel by spectators and horses a vastly easier undertaking; and the nascent film industry widened the distribution of newsreel images and celebrity. McGraw mentions the (now lost) 1919 Hollywood film A Challenge to Chance, which featured the horse (apparently playing himself); the movie was a vehicle for boxer Jess Willard, pegged to be released as promotional lagniappe on July 4 of the same year, when he lost his belt to Jack Dempsey in a heavyweight bout. At any rate, Exterminator achieved celebrity in a decade noted in the United States in particular for developing its own spin on the concept.

     McGraw writes well, if anecdotally, on this pivot moment in the history of US racing, when the industry underwent an early wave of professionalization and established itself as a major mass spectacle sport with a seemingly permanent place in the news cycle. On Exterminator himself, she is a terrific Boswell. The horse may be poorly remembered today—the closest analogy I can think of from another era is probably Stymie, the fabulously popular New York–based who became the leading money earner of the late 1940s after making 131 starts—but McGraw makes an enthusiastic case for his rediscovery just over a century after his birth.

#SheflieSunday: Riding for Caesar

ridinfforc
Riding for Caesar: The Roman Emperors’ Horse Guards

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
1994
ISBN 978-0-674-76898-7
Michael P. Speidel

Review by Miriam Bibby

     Last summer (2017), the dispersed exhibition “Hadrian’s Cavalry” took place at venues along the length of Hadrian’s Wall, attracting large numbers of visitors. There were not only static exhibits, but also live displays of horsemanship drawing attention to the nature and function of the (almost exclusively auxiliary) cavalry units that occupied the northern Roman frontier.  

     In contrast, Speidel’s book brings to life a different and perhaps lesser-known aspect of the Roman cavalry – the emperor’s horse guards. Among many interesting aspects revealed in the book is the nature of the close networks that existed between those who served in the frontier cavalry and those who accompanied the emperor in Rome and also on his imperial journeys in peace and war. Whether in gala dress on the parade ground, clearing the crowds (often brutally) for the emperor as he passed through the streets, or skewering his enemies in battle, the elite horse guards of the ruler of Rome were a force to be reckoned with. 

     The relationship between the emperor and his horse guards offers a great opportunity for political and psychological exploration. Speidel’s examination of this aspect results in some reassessments of well-known incidents such as Caligula’s apparently random behaviour at Puteoli and on the Rhine.

     The keynote of the relationship, stressed throughout the book, was loyalty. Members of the horse guard were “tall, fierce and faithful” mounted warriors, drawn originally from the tribes of the lower Rhine, thus giving the guards the descriptive title “Batavi” that would accompany them through various incarnations. Plenty of pay, dispensed frequently, encouraged loyalty, but so did the emperor’s own ability to relate to and inspire his guards, not through words but deeds. Emperors such as Septimius Severus had the capability if not the charisma, but it’s easy to imagine others less able standing white-knuckled in front of their fearsome guard in a display of fake nonchalance.

     All the evidence suggests that the horse guards’ reputation, both as skilled horsemen and dangerous foes, was well-deserved. The tribes of the Rhine had a skill at their disposal that was the equivalent of an ancient secret weapon – dauntless courage in crossing rivers alongside their horses. The Rhine remained a psychological as well as a physical barrier during WWII, as Speidel reminds us with a modern description.  How this skill proved ultimately to be their downfall makes a gripping conclusion to their story.

     Speidel re-examines and reassesses the textual evidence relating to the guards to great effect. It is the funerary monuments of individual guardsmen that will probably prove most compelling to researchers of equine history. Here we see the grooms preparing horses by long-reining, a grizzled-looking trooper with his two horses, heads turned towards him, and observe the guardsmen’s devotion to the goddess Epona.

     By putting the focus onto the relationship between the emperor and the horse guards, Speidel gives genuinely new insights into the tense four-cornered game played out between the emperor, the imperial guards, the senate and the populace. Along the way, he also opens up new areas of interest to equestrian historians.