Pony Express mailbag. Olympic gold medals. Gilded carriages. Championship belt buckles. Triple Crown trophies. Breathtaking art and antiques. Real, live horses. These, and much more, are on display at museums across the country.
Whether you’re interested in learning more about specific breeds or sports, delving into equestrian history, or just admiring beautiful paintings and sculpture, there is a museum out there that will capture your interest---and many are located near other amazing equestrian attractions. As you plan your travels this summer, consider arranging some time to tour museums that honor horses and equestrian pursuits.
AIKEN THOROUGHBRED RACING HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM
AIKEN, SOUTH CAROLINA
Thoroughbred racehorses and other equine athletes have been wintered in Aiken, South Carolina, for many decades, and champions such as 1984 Kentucky Derby winner Swale and 2013 Belmont winner Palace Malice were trained here. The Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum honors this long history.
Exhibits include the Cragwood Stable trophy collection, a tribute to African-American contributions to horse racing, and a “courtyard of champions” painted with the racing silks of the 40 locally trained horses in the Hall of Fame. “We’ve got the saddlecloth that Palace Malice wore in the Belmont Stakes,” says Lisa Hall, the museum coordinator, as well as other photographs and artifacts that tell the stories of owners, trainers and exercise riders. The museum also sponsors special events, Hall says, including backstretch tours of the Aiken training track. For more information, go to www.aikenracinghalloffame.com.
AMERICAN QUARTER HORSE HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM
Larger-than-life bronze statues of Quarter Horses greet visitors arriving at the American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame and Museum. Inside, the Grand Hall is lined with bronze plaques honoring the people and horses who earned places in the Hall of Fame of the world’s largest breed registry, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2015.
Exhibits tell the story of this versatile breed, and interactive stations teach visitors about horse care, feeding, conformation and anatomy. Annual events include the America’s Horse in Art Show and Sale and a Youth Art Show. “Whether you own an American Quarter Horse or not,” says Cailin Caldwell, the AQHA’s marketing and advertising coordinator, “the museum has something for everyone.” For more information, go to www.aqha.com/museum.
AMERICAN SADDLEBRED MUSEUM
A life-size bronze statue stands over the grave of famed Saddlebred sire Supreme Sultan outside the American Saddlebred Museum at the Kentucky Horse Park. The museum houses an extensive collection of trophies, tack, artworks and other artifacts that celebrate the history and versatility of the breed.
A history wing features hand-carved wooden statues of Saddlebreds, a children’s area offers hands-on exhibits, and a number of films explore aspects of the horses and their history. For example, “Out of the Shadows” tells the story of African-American horsemen in the Saddlebred industry.
“We have a lot of interactive exhibits that our visitors really love,” says Megan McClure, the gift shop manager. One favorite is life-size rocking horses. Additionally, visitors can sit in a saddle, and a blue screen will show them “riding” world champions. “It is a great photo opportunity,” says McClure. For more information, go to www.asbmuseum.org.
Appaloosas are plentiful in the Palouse region of Washington State and Idaho, which gave the breed its name, and a small herd of the iconic horses graze in a pasture adjoining the Appaloosa Museum. “People are continually surprised that we have spotties out back,” says Crystal White, the museum’s executive director.
Inside, a number of exhibits explore the history and influence of the breed---from early art and literature depicting spotted horses, to their relationship to the Nez Perce and their role in the modern world. A hands-on activity center for kids is one highlight of the museum. “There are saddles for the kids to sit on when they do their activities, and the adults have just as much fun sitting on them as the kids,” says White. For more information, go to www.appaloosamuseum.org.
HARNESS RACING MUSEUM AND HALL OF FAME
GOSHEN, NEW YORK
Housed in a historic 1913 Tudor-style stable, the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame is “a world-class, award-winning museum dedicated to the preservation, conservation and promotion of harness racing and the Standardbred,” says director Janet Terhune. The museum outlines the history of the breed from founding sire Hambletonian, through greats such as Dan Patch and Greyhound, to current stars---and it shows the evolution of Standardbreds, says Terhune, “from rough road horses to the sleek athletes that are on the track today.”
In addition to art and artifacts, the museum offers a number of interactive displays, including a 3-D harness racing simulator that puts visitors in the middle of a race, as well as a series of portrait sculptures representing each inductee into the sport’s Hall of Fame. Sulkies, tack trunks and other exhibits demonstrate the ingenuity of people involved in the sport. “They used tea strainers for goggles racing at Seminole Park in the late ’70s,” says Terhune. “It was a sandy track. They find something that works and they do it.” For more infor-mation, go to www.harnessmuseum.com.
INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE
With a collection that totals more than 16,000 objects, the International Museum of the Horse is the largest of the three museums at the Kentucky Horse Park. “We are the only museum that attempts to try to do all breeds and all disciplines for all time, so that makes us stand out,” says museum director Bill Cooke. “We have something for just about everybody who’s interested in horses.”
Cooke says he considers the “Legacy of the Horse,” a timeline that showcases the historic relationship between people and horses, to be the heart of the museum. Other highlights include the Al-Marah Arabian Horse Galleries, which trace the history of the Arabian breed; dozens of antique horse-drawn vehicles; and the Calumet Farm’s trophy collection, with more than 500 racing trophies earned over five decades, from champions such as Whirlaway and Citation, some by makers such as Tiffany and Cartier. For more information, go to www.imh.org.
KENTUCKY DERBY MUSEUM
At Churchill Downs, the site of the famous race, the Kentucky Derby Museum offers an interactive experience with “The Greatest Race.” Visitors walk through starting gates, tour the racetrack and watch a 360-degree movie about the Derby. “The production company had unprecedented access to Churchill Downs,” says Lindsay English, the museum’s communications manager, “and they used a 360-degree rig, so it is a one-of-a-kind experience.”
In addition to viewing colorful exhibits of jockey silks and Derby hats, visitors can ride in a simulated horse race, pose within the world’s largest horseshoe, and step into a booth to learn how to call a race. The newest exhibit, which profiles Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, is now open. “If you have a love of horses,” English says, “just coming here and getting the sense of pride that Louisville has for this event is a really special experience.” For more information, go to www.derbymuseum.org.
MUSEUM OF POLO AND HALL OF FAME
LAKE WORTH, FLORIDA
The Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame lies just a short walk from the polo fields in Wellington, Florida. “This museum is the only polo museum in the world even though polo is played in countries like Argentina and England,” says Brenda Lynn, the director of development for the museum. “Most people who want to know about polo are drawn to the fact that it is a horse sport.”
At the heart of the museum are artifacts tracing the history of the sport from its birth 2,600 years ago in central Asia to the present day. Other current exhibits include Women in Polo, A Day in the Life of a Polo Pony and more. Highlights include General George Patton’s polo saddle, historic trophies and a wooden “practice horse” used by top player Tommy Hitchcock. Visitors can also read the stories of Hall of Fame ponies, such as Sweet William, purchased for $500, who went on to win Best Playing Pony award in America. For more information, go to www.polomuseum.com.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE MORGAN HORSE
Located just a few minutes from the University of Vermont’s famed Morgan Horse Farm, the National Museum of the Morgan Horse is also close to other local sites important to fans of the Morgan horse. “We are really steeped in the heritage of Morgan horses in this region,” says director Amy Mincher. “So in the museum we tell the history of the Morgan horse and of the early nationhood era.”
Half of the museum features exhibits---with artifacts, paintings and sculptures---about the breed. On the other side of the museum is a rotating show featuring horse-related modern art. The museum also participates in a monthly arts walk, during which artists display horse-related works.
“About 80 percent of the people who come in are not horsepeople,” says Mincher. “One of our missions is to educate the public about the Morgan horse. People often come in and say, ‘[Marguerite Henry’s] Justin Morgan Had a Horse is my favorite book.’” For information, go to www.morganhorse.com/museum.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF RACING AND HALL OF FAME
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NEW YORK
Adjacent to the historic Saratoga Race Course, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame has an extensive collection of fine art and sculpture along with Eclipse-award-winning photography, all celebrating Thoroughbred horses and the sport of racing. Multiple galleries trace the history of racing in America since colonial times, and a Racing Day Gallery offers a look at the world of contemporary racing.
Collection highlights include Exterminator’s four Saratoga Cup trophies, Count Fleet’s Triple Crown trophies and in the courtyard a bronze sculpture of Secretariat by John Skeaping. The Hall of Fame is lined with jockey silks and bronze plaques honoring each inductee, and in the “Ready to Ride!” racing simulator, visitors can try out their own race-riding skills. For more information, go to www.racingmuseum.org.
NATIONAL SPORTING LIBRARY AND MUSEUM
Founded as a research library dedicated to equestrian sports such as foxhunting and polo as well as angling, shooting and other field sports, the National Sporting Library and Museum now also features an art museum with more than 800 pieces including paintings, sculpture, drawings and other decorative works from the 17th century to the present. Both the library and museum are open to the public.
“We see hundreds of visitors each year who enjoy sitting in our cozy rooms reading family favorites by Marguerite Henry, Walter Farley and C. W. Anderson,” says librarian John Connolly. “In the F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room, we have books that chronicle the history of horse care and riding, and an essay manuscript by Theodore Roosevelt, written and signed by him.” For more information, go to nationalsporting.org.
NATIONAL STEEPLECHASE MUSEUM
CAMDEN, SOUTH CAROLINA
Located on the grounds of Springdale Race Course---home of the Carolina Cup---the National Steeplechase Museum is dedicated to introducing people to the jump races, through videos, memorabilia, trophies, photographs and other interactive exhibits. One exhibit pays tribute to Marion duPont Scott, who deeded the 600 acres that is home to the museum and the race course to the state of South Carolina. Scott owned Battleship, the son of Man o’ War who won England’s Grand National in 1938. Out front stands a life-size bronze statue of Lonesome Glory, five-time winner of the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Steeplechase Horse.
The museum sits near the training grounds, and visitors can sit on the back terrace to watch the horses. “Some people are dragged in here because their kids ride,” says executive museum director Catherine French, “and nine out of 10 leave asking, ‘When’s the next race?’” For more information, go to www.steeplechasemuseum.org.
PONY EXPRESS NATIONAL MUSEUM
ST. JOSEPH, MISSOURI
The Pony Express National Museum stands on the site of the original Pikes Peak Stables, a 200-stall livery, where on April 3, 1860, the first rider of the Pony Express departed on the 2,000-mile journey to Sacramento, California. Today, the brick structure (which dates to 1888) houses vintage stalls, a tack room and harness shop, plus many other displays to educate visitors about this unique mail service, which lasted for 19 months, until the first transcontinental telegraph was completed.
Visitors can examine a four-pocket mailbag called a mochila, stamp their own envelopes like those carried by the Express, and visit a replica relay station, where riders changed horses along the route. Most of the displays are kid-friendly; younger visitors can explore a period play kitchen and a discovery area where they can dress in period clothes. “Nothing here says ‘Don’t touch,’ except the fragile horses that date back to 1880,” says director Cindy Daffron. “So even the wagon---they can go up a set of steps and look.” For more information, go to ponyexpress.org.
PRO RODEO HALL OF FAME
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO
“We are the only museum in the world that is dedicated just to the sport of professional rodeo,” says director Kent Sturman of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. “There are other Western or cowboy museums, but we are the only one that’s 100 percent rodeo. Pretty much all of our exhibits are themed in equine sports.”
The museum offers a number of galleries, including Heritage Hall, with saddles, ropes, boots, clothing and other gear that show the evolution of rodeo since its roots in the Old West, and the Hall of Champions, which honors top performers in each event, including notable horses---such as Gills Bay Boy, better known as “Scamper,” the barrel racing horse who won 10 world championships between 1984 and 1993.
In the Outdoor Garden Exhibit, visitors can meet retired bucking horses and attend Wild West shows and rodeo events at the Priefert Arena between May and October. For more information, go to www.prorodeohalloffame.com.
The Wheeler Museum, located within the headquarters of the United States Hunter Jumper Association at the Kentucky Horse Park, is dedicated to preserving the history of hunter/jumpers and show jumping. The museum is in transition, says Megan Lacey, founding director and managing director of communications. Currently, the major exhibit is a history of heritage horse shows, but a planned future exhibit will highlight the sport of show jumping.
“The show jumping focus will feature artifacts from the Show Jumping Hall of Fame,” says Lacey. The display will include a Hermes saddle used by Bill Steinkraus and a jump used on course in the Los Angeles Olympics. The museum is also adding more interactive components to teach people about show jumping. For more information, go to ushja.org/wheelermuseum
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #466, July 2016.