Most people asked to list some famous horses—besides American Pharoah—will probably come up with heroes and stars from other eras: Man o’ War, Seabiscuit, Mr. Ed or Secretariat.
Horsepeople would probably add a few horses to the list. Yet, hearing those familiar names, we are reminded of what horses can mean even to people who’ve never sat in a saddle.
After all, both in real terms and symbolically, horses helped build the nation, and their contributions are woven throughout our history. George Washington’s series of chargers—Blueskin, Nelson, Prescott, Jackson—showed off his horsemanship to awestruck soldiers. During the Civil War, Robert E. Lee’s Traveller and Ulysses S. Grant’s Cincinnati became beloved to the public. After World War I, New Yorkers were disappointed when Gen. John J. Pershing’s warhorse Kidron couldn’t clear quarantine in time for a victory celebration. (Pershing had to borrow a horse named Jeff. It wasn’t the same.)
As the country grew increasingly urban, horses receded from daily life. In the 1920s and 1930s, when Exterminator, Seabiscuit and War Admiral dominated the sports pages, many Americans still knew horses, even if they rarely had day-to-day contact with them anymore.
Today, however, most people simply don’t have firsthand experiences with horses. Instead, Americans are pet-mad, watching hours of Animal Planet reality shows called Too Cute or Bad Dog, but horses, for the most part, are considered different, expensive, rare. The American Horse Council estimates that there are 9.2 million horses in the United States today, while the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals counts between 70 to 80 million dogs.
Of course equestrian events of all sorts still abound around the country, but many Americans go a long time without even seeing a horse close up.
“Some things have been lost,” Clay McShane and Joel Tarr write in their landmark study of 19th century urban horses. The presence of horses was “a constant reminder of nature, even in cities, the most artificial of environments.”
In her book about the canine movie star Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean writes that, with animals people “experience little of the self-consciousness they might have when viewing other people—the ‘otherness’ of animals makes them easy to watch.” Horses—so big, lovely and graceful—are particularly easy to watch. In a time when many people live far removed from nature, horses offer something essential.
That’s why famous horses are important. Cheering on a horse like American Pharoah helps keep alive a deep but almost forgotten connection to horses. A generation or so ago, the same was true of Secretariat. Try to watch the film of “Big Red” winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes without some physical reaction like chills or tears. I still can’t, and I’ve seen it many, many times. After that race, turf writer William Nack wrote, “I bolted up the press box stairs with exultant shouts and there yielded a part of myself to that horse forever.” Millions of Americans felt the same way.
Famous horses carry us on rides we’ll never take in the modern world. Think of “Eighty-Dollar Champion” Snowman, Korean War stalwart Sergeant Reckless, Misty of Chincoteague. The horses we admire link us—riders and non-riders alike—to something elusive, elemental, and as natural as hoofbeats
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #472, January 2017.