American Museum of Natural History Opens Horse Exhibit

May 14, 2008 -- writer Nancy Jaffer gives you a sneak peek at a new horse exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History.
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May 14, 2008 -- writer Nancy Jaffer gives you a sneak peek at a new horse exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History.


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New York, N.Y., May 14, 2008 -- Even though many of you have spent a lot of time with horses over the years, you'll still learn new things about your favorite animal in an enjoyable way by taking in "The Horse," an exciting exhibition that opens May 17 at the American Museum of Natural History.

Before I went to the press preview, I was a little skeptical about finding any eye-openers in the display, considering that I have spent most of my life around horses, not to mention photographing and writing about them for a living. But this tour de force was designed to please and intrigue everyone, from neophytes to experts.

It worked! I was fascinated. You might be tempted to skip some of the attractions, such as the interactive breed chart, but it's fun to play with them, even if you know all this stuff. Speaking of playing, kids will really enjoy going through, whether they're wanna-be's or young show ring veterans. No matter how many ribbons they've won, I'll bet they've never seen anything like the fire engine that horses used to pull through the streets at a gallop, or the fabulously detailed Samurai saddle (pretty, but it looks very uncomfortable.)

I asked Ellen Futter, the museum's president, about the institution's goal in presenting the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 4.

Listen: Ellen Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History

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The exhibition draws you in with a dynamic close-up of a cantering horse; you hear his hoofbeats, see the ripples of his skin and practically breathe in the dust rising from the ground as he moves.

The next stop is one of the dioramas for which the museum is justifiably famous. Three prehistoric horses graze and browse in an ancient meadow, looking not too far removed from our current horses and ponies--though none of ours has three toes. Can you imagine what your farrier would charge for shoeing that?

But what fascinated me more than anything else in the exhibition was the imaginative video of a horse standing quietly and occasionally eating some hay. Doctored with animation so you can see his skeleton and digestive system, it takes you through the whole chewing, swallowing, etc. process. You watch manure being formed and excreted, giving you a better understanding of the process which, according to the exhibit, produces 45 pounds of manure a day.

Harry Borrelli, interactive designer for the museum, told me what it took to produce this video project.

Listen: Harry Borrelli, a senior interactive designer for the museum

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And let me add one thing to what he said: patience. This process and its result are such a big part of how modern museums do things. They are, in effect, the living dioramas of today. You find yourself being entertained as well as educated.

Other interactive features include a chart so you can measure yourself in hands, and a lever that measures your strength against one horse power (which equates to a draft horse lifting 330 pounds 100 feet in one minute). My rating was pitiful, 0.04. Ouch! I better pick up my weights again.

Oh, speaking of dioramas, I spoke with Dr. Sandra Olsen, the curator of anthropology at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History. She was standing in front of a depiction of a Kazakhstan dig she is involved with where the past of a horse-oriented civilization is being uncovered. Actually, it sounds as if the present civilization there is not too far removed from its past. The villagers now have motorized vehicles (though no TV yet) but their lives still revolve around the horses they use for everything (including, unfortunately, food). Mares' milk, rich in vitamins, is the drink of choice.

Domestication of horses began on the Eurasian steppes "because there weren't wild horses anywhere else," Sandra explained to me. Remember, while horses once ran wild in North America, there were none left until the Spanish conquistadors made their appearance and reintroduced them to the Western Hemisphere.

In the area where Sandra has been digging, prehistoric residents' main diet was horse, but "they began to realize instead of being hunters, chasing wild horses, it would make sense to domesticate them and keep them in villages. That's why we started looking in northern Kazakhstan" for the roots of horse-oriented culture.

Just don't plan on doing any research there in winter.

"The climate is very severe," Sandra explained. "Even today, the herders do not furnish their horse with fodder. They go out on the west Siberian plain, where it is minus 50 degrees in 50-60 mph winds. The horses scratch through the ice and eat the natural vegetation." I'm guessing a supplements salesperson wouldn't do very well there.

Eye-catchers throughout the exhibit include large items, such as a terra cotta horse from the south of India, where such pieces are used as offerings to the local gods.

Other exhibits I found particularly interesting were the brass headpiece with movable parts to keep flies away from carriage horses, and the "hipposandals" Romans strapped on their horses' hooves in lieu of shoes.

The Triple Crown trophy, an ancient severe-looking bit decorated with "magical animals" on each side and Pony Express saddle also are worth a look, as is the Mongolian fiddle with a carved horse head. (Did you know that until about 1,000 years ago, all stringed instruments were plucked? It was fashioning horse tail hair into a bow that gave them another dimension in sound.)

There are films too, including one focusing on the relationship between people and horses. The stars include New York City mounted policeman John Reilly taking his horse through Times Square. That rang a bell with me because last year I did a photo shoot with him amid the taxicabs, trucks, neon and swirling people there. It was amazing to see how he and his mount took it all in stride.

I talked with Ross MacPhee, curator of the division of vertebrate zoology, about the genesis of this exhibition among museum officials and trustees (hint: some of the latter are horse people).

Listen: Ross MacPhee, curator of the horse exhibition

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You'll walk out from the exhibition into a special horse-themed shop where everything from jewelry, scarves and ties to decorative items and stuffed animals is available at a wide range of prices.

So don't just take my word for it, go see the exhibit for yourself. There are a lot of added attractions opening day starting at noon, but the exhibit is available every day beginning at 10 a.m. through its closing in January, except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

After it wraps up in New York, the exhibition will travel to other institutions with which it collaborated on the project. It will be in Abu Dhabi Oct. 2009-Feb. 2010; the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau-Ottawa May-Sept. 2010; the Field Museum in Chicago Feb.-July 2011 and the San Diego Natural History Museum April-Sept. 2012.

Check back here May 30 for another kind of horse story when I send you my postcard from Devon.

Award-winning equestrian photojournalist Nancy Jaffer has covered seven Olympic Games as well as every World Equestrian Games ever held, 20 World Cup finals and major competitions across the U.S. Her columns and postcards appear regularly on

Fun Facts, Figures from the Exhibit

  • The invention of trousers is credited to the horse. The Greeks drove chariots wearing skirts, but eventually man on horseback would require something less chafing, hence riding breeches.
  • Genghis Khan's mounted army could survive for 10 days without food by eating and drinking the milk and blood of their horses.
  • The only truly wild horses live in Mongolia--the Przewalski.
  • Rhinoceroses and tapirs are the horse's closest living relatives outside of the horse family.
  • Men on horseback or in horse-drawn chariots were the ultimate weapons for over 3,000 years. More recently, in the Afghanistan war, some U.S. Special Forces rode horses where the terrain was rugged.
  • In the exhibit, there's a late 19th century ivory sculpture of a Japanese samurai on horseback, and a horse's gas mask from the early 20th century. Apparently, the gas mask only fit over the horse's nose because it was thought horses' eyes could tolerate the poisons better than humans!
  • In 1900, around 130,000 horses worked in Manhattan--more than 10 times the number of yellow cabs on the streets of New York City today. A typical city horse produced up to 45 pounds of manure and 2 gallons of urine a day!
  • The Sakha people of Siberia celebrated the summer solstice with a drink of fermented mare's milk. <#comment>
  • In India, village potters create giant horse figures as an offering to the god Aiyanar.