Donna Landry on Horses and Courts: The Reins of Power, an International Symposium

Held at the Wallace Collection from 21-23 March 2018, coordinated by the Centre for Studies in the Long Eighteenth Century and the Society for Court Studies

This was the first event of its kind devoted to horses in history with a focus on courtly display and horses as intrinsic to power. It was organised in collaboration: the Centre for Studies in the Long Eighteenth Century (Donna Landry), the Society for Court Studies (Philip Mansel), and the Wallace Collection (Tobias Capwell).

This truly international gathering brought together some 110 delegates and speakers from the UK, Ireland, the USA, Canada, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Sweden, Denmark, South Africa, Armenia, and Morocco. The approaches offered for exploring equine and equestrian histories included biophilia (how horses may restore the balance, or equi-librium, for troubled human affairs) Karen Barad’s agential realism (how horses and horseracing served to heal the nation of Britain after the legacy of civil violence bequeathed by the 1640s-1680s), re-enactment studies (how Baroque horsemanship at the Fürstliche Hofreitschule in Bückeburg answers archival research questions through practice-as-research, e.g., how intricately fashioned  eighteenth-century curb bits with long shanks may not be at all unkind  instruments  but rather quite easy in the horse’s mouth and calibrated for delicate contact).

Other findings exposed myths: jousting did not decline in seriousness in the late sixteenth century; women did not abandon their side-saddles as a result of the First World War; horses are not only vehicles of imperialism, as evidenced by their keen appropriation by King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho. It was further revealed how ‘breeds’ of horse and concepts of ‘pure race’ (the Spanish rasa) may best be understood as elaborate fictions grounded in hybridity and transnational networks; how for centuries rulers or nations were only as good as their horses, and this applied to Armenian kings as much as to Louis XIV; how horses have served as ‘transculturally legible’ objects and gifts. Horseracing was politics by other means. Use of the Household Cavalry as police during London riots led to restraint instead of violence and the concept of ‘minimum force’.  The last paper was devoted to the Queen: her regular morning rides on a Fell pony, wearing not a helmet but a headscarf, should be understood as a courtly event with strict protocols. Elizabeth II’s devotion to racing (she might well have been a trainer in another life) may be her one source of distraction and relief from the duties of state; she has even been known to show emotion during a finish.

Visits to the Royal Mews, with champagne supplied by Pol Roger, and to the Household Cavalry Museum and the Household Cavalry Barracks enhanced the mix of scholarly and practice-led methods, with horses themselves being present at each site.

Plans are afoot for further gatherings at Chantilly and Vienna.

Videos of the conference will be available soon. Meanwhile, you can read more about the event on the conference website, and use the event hashtag, #HorsePower2018, to follow the conversation on Twitter.

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