Horses on the wall: Equine art, history and culture in museums this summer

Wall to wall and coast to coast, horses are the stars in these art shows--and they're air-conditioned!

Wherever you go in the world, horse-inspired museum exhibits are bringing horse lovers indoors to admire art, sculpture and photography, or to absorb culture and history linked to horses. Here’s a list of just a few of the events you can experience this summer. See you there!

The listings are in no particular order; I’d love to visit them all!

What exhibits have you seen lately? Leave a comment at the end of this article.

If you’re sunstroke at the International Bromont CSI showjumping in Quebec, take a break for a trip into Montreal to see a collection of treasure from the Hermes flagship store in Paris. Courtesy of the Pointe-à-Callière museum, “Of Horses and Men” is an exhibition of 250 remarkable objects based on the private collection of Émile Hermès. The exhibit has also been transformed into a coffee table book by the same name. 

Normally, these objects dwell in private rooms at the company’s prestigious Parisian shop at 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Together, the artifacts recount the story of the horse and its relationship to people. Until this show, only a lucky few outside the company had ever viewed the collection, which includes the family’s personal rocking horse.

Sidesaddles, stirrups, spurs, and other horse tack share the stage with scarves and luggage are along this horse trail, which takes visitors on a journey from Antiquity through the Renaissance and on to the 20th century. The exhibition is also dotted with a number of whimsical drawings created especially for the occasion by the whimsical corporate-signature illustrator Philippe Dumas.

Founded in 1837, Hermès International began as a maker of harnesses and saddlery at a time when horses ruled the streets of Paris. While the company went on to design luxury products for the people who bought the saddles, Hermès never lost the symbol of the horse.

The exhibition ends with an intimate glimpse into the personal enclave and office of Émile Hermès. This immersive space displays an eclectic abundance of works honoring the horse and equestrian cultures: a small Mexican horse, a studded trunk, a parasol-whip, lanterns, and so much more. Stepping into this famous yet secret office transports visitors to a world of beauty, creativity, and emotion, as expressed inimitably by one company’s inspired use of the symbols of the horse.

No trip to Saratoga is complete without a visit to the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. It’s conveniently located across the street from the racetrack. Go early to park closer to the track, and spend some time at the museum before the races begin.

In fact, one of the highlights this summer is that you can book a place on a lunchtime tour of the museum with famed (and now retired) Saratoga track announcer Tom Durkin. Or, get up really early for a tour of the track with Saratoga Special photographer Tod Marks. On August 7, you can meet Michael Blowen of Old Friends, a Kentucky retirement charity for Thoroughbred superstars with a satellite farm near Saratoga. Book signing events are planned for Eliza McGraw’s Here Come Exterminator book (August 19), and William Thomas’s The Legend of Zippy Chippy (July 26), among others.

If you want to avoid the traffic in Saratoga, head down Route 50 to Ballston Spa. Feel immediately like you’ve just stepped back 50 years. The Saratoga County Fair is on this week, and you’ll want to check out this summer’s equine art exhibit at the Brookside Museum. Use it as an excuse to discover a great (and very horse-friendly) town.

In its heyday, Disney animation may have been ruled by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, but there was a very strong equestrian connection between the cartoons and horses, even in horses didn’t always play starring roles. This summer, a visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco is at the very top of my wish list. 

I have always been a fan of animator/illustrator Mel Shaw, but until now I only suspected that someone at Disney was a horseman. I did know that Disney himself played polo. And that’s how he met the subject of this exhibit.

Animator/illustrator Mel Shaw working on his mural of centaurs playing polo; notice the saddle rack behind his chair! (Walt Disney Family Museum)

But Mel Shaw: An Animator on Horseback opens a treasure chest of information and great art related to horses from Shaw’s pen. It’s the first exhibit on Shaw, who died in 2012. His career began in the era of Fantasia (1940) and ended somewhere around The Lion King (1994). Did you ever wonder who drew the animation cells for Bambi?

The artwork on the museum’s website is too wonderful for words, especially Shaw’s illustrations for The Little Prince. Did you know he also designed Howdy Doody? Shaw’s autobiography is titled, An Animator on Horseback. Shaw always credited being able to ride horses–and play polo, in particular–with his successful career and relationship with Walt Disney.

Under the “last chance” banner, head to Amarillo, Texas to see the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit, “The Bold and Beautiful: Trailblazing Women of the American Quarter Horse.”  You’ll get to know 12 female AQHA Hall of Fame inductees: Nancy Dear, Carol Harris, Ginger Hyland, Mildred Janowitz, Suzanne Jones, Anne Marion, Helen Michaelis, Betty Nix, Harriett Peckham, Carol Rose, Mrs. Fischer E. Simmons and Anne Burnett Tandy.

These women represent the breeding, showing, racing, and riding of Quarter horses. But their horse accomplishments will always be paired with what they did to promote and preserve the Quarter Horse breed in the USA.

The exhibit closes July 30th.

Did you see California Chrome in that stretch duel with Dortmund on Saturday in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar? It was one of the most exciting race finishes this year.

That’s right, California Chrome is back on the American racetrack as a five-year-old! If you can’t get to Del Mar to see him run in the Pacific Classic later this summer, head to Sacramento, where Chrome stars in a large exhibit about himself at The California Museum.

Here’s a video about it:

CALIFORNIA CHROME: A RACE FOR THE DREAM is open until September 25, 2016.

Not all the horses in the museums this summer are as real as California Chrome. But could any be more magical than antique carousel horses? A trip to Southern California will be a treat for carousel lovers this summer. The Pasadena Museum of History’s exhibit Flying Horses and Mythical Beasts: The Magical World of Carousel Animals, is based on a collection of priceless merry-go-round horses and sea serpents and giraffes, all from the collection of Lourinda Bray. The exhibit will run through August 28, 2016.

The Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec is trying to turn back time–and succeeding. They have assembled a new collection of horse-drawn carriages used in Quebec from the 1770 and 1950. Paul Bienvenu assembled the exhibit, which includes the provincial governor’s sleigh and a Hansom cab used to carry Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in a film. Bienvenu was the proud owner of the largest antique carriage collection in North America. The collection is on view until April 17, 2017.

You can be a cowgirl, but it’s also okay to paint and sculpt cowgirls. That’s what famed Veryl Goodnight did so well, and this month the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Dallas, Texas will honor her work with a retrospective exhibit in the Anne W. Marion Gallery. It is open through October 30, with 15 stunning sculptures and 11 paintings.

Did someone mention history? Treasures of the First Emperor at The Field Museum in Chicago will deliver. Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang paid particular attention to the equine aspects of his empire, going so far as to regulate the width of axles for chariots and horse carts as part of his regime’s standardization efforts.

Does your horse show schedule take you to the Kentucky Horse Park outside Lexington this summer? The International Museum of the Horse there has several great exhibits to choose from, as well as all the permanent exhibits in the outstanding museum itself.

But take some special time for an exhibit that is unlike any you’ve ever seen before. Losing Ground: The Greatest Threat is sponsored by Equus Magazine and the Equine Land Conservation Resource, and it is a meaningful exhibit for all of us.

Are we paying enough attention to the shrinking amount of land available to horses? Are we aware of the changing legislation regarding where horses can be ridden or shown?

According to the Museum, the exhibit “demonstrates the value of the horse to our communities and culture, and what can be done to protect these assets, not only for horse land owners, equestrians and equine enthusiasts, but for communities and the nation as a whole. It brings home the imminent need to protect horse lands now, before it’s too late.”

There’s a map mural to contemplate, and a film experience precedes the exhibit. Three interactive kiosks give visitors the chance to ask questions and get answers about land-related issues affecting horses, and what your government officials–and you–can do about it.

Honest Horses: A Portrait of the Mustang in the Great Basin opens July 28 and runs through September 26, 2016 at the Barrick Gallery of the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko. Elko is the home of the Cowboy Poets Gathering in the winter but this little museum, and the many historical buildings in the town, hold the past up to the light in a special way.

Photographer Paula Morin photographed the state’s wild horses almost 20 years ago, and, as we all know, these horses are still the subject of debate in the political arena. There will be no debate about the beauty of these images.

Morin photographed wild horse herds in their natural surroundings and recorded discussions with people whose lives are most intimately connected with them. Each black and white photograph was developed, printed, and then colored by hand with oil-based paints. These impressions are complemented by excerpts of Morin’s conversations from the field and are accompanied by traditional poems about the wild horse compiled by Idaho folklorist Andrea Graham. 

Funded by the Nevada Arts Council, the exhibit has an educator’s guide to go with it, to teach students more about wild horses.

The National Sporting Museum in Middleburg, Virginia invites you to the closing days of The French Horse from Géricault to Picasso: Works from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibit.

Have you ever seen Pablo Picasso’s Jester on Horseback? It’s in this exhibit, as are two Degas pencil drawings and 40 other works by artists eager to catch the magic of the horse in French sport, folk life and culture.

He won them all. Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown trophies won by American Pharoah are on exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, along with so much more information about the great champion. It opened during the Derby in May, but you can still see it this summer. Don’t miss it!

Here’s one that is a true original. The Westphalian horse museum in Munster, Germany has a special exhibit on horses and other animals that star in fairy tales! The exhibit begins with explaining what fairy tales are and what their place in childhood has been. Part of what makes these tales so popular are that there are so many “magic animals” at their heart.

This exhibit introduces some of these famous and unforgettable animals. What a great idea for an exhibit!

The museum itself is a classic collection of educational exhibits about the history of horses in Westphalia, included the Westfalen warmblood, the second largest breed in Germany. Olympic champions like the legendary Olympic showjumper Halla were of Westfalen breeding.

Some people like to show their horses at the Vermont Summer Equestrian Festival , also known as the “Dorset Horse Show”. But everyone loves to go there! The Untamed Horse exhibit at the Helmholz Gallery in Manchester is making sure that people know that the area is about more than fly fishing and the home of outdoor retailer Orvis. This summer, the gallery is hosting an exhibition of lovely images by horse show photographer Lisa Cueman, who lives right in Dorset, and the “driftwood” style horse sculptures of Rita Dee from nearby Bennington.

Photographer Bill Wittliff visited a ranch in Mexico almost 50 years ago, and his photographs are still making people marvel. He caught them just in time, as people say the Mexican vaquero no longer exists. Humanities Texas is sponsoring Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy with the Dallas Historical Society in the Hall of State in Dallas.

Finally, here’s the real deal. The American Saddlebred Museum at the Kentucky Horse Park is filling its walls with treasures donated to the museum by real-life show horse trainers. Everything from artwork to hardworking tack are on display. You’ll recognize the names. 

• • • • •

There you have it, a whirlwind tour if there ever has one. For any of these events, call ahead for viewing hours and access information. (Children are not allowed in some, for instance.) If you enjoy horse-related exhibits, let your favorite exhibit know. Maybe next summer’s exhibit list will be longer, or we’ll need to compile a winter edition, too.

Top photo: The Liverpool and National Steeplechase at Aintree, 1843 by William Tasker (1808 – 1852), courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. (Color enhanced by Fran Jurga.)




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