The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot

Tracing man's relationship with horses - from their early domestication to their breeding as racehorses - this exhibition showcases items from the Museum's own collections and beyond, as well as some loaned by the Queen herself. What results is a bracing gallop through time, albeit one which leaves the viewer chomping at the bit for more. 

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In contrast to several of the other large museums in London, the British Museum chose an oblique way of celebrating Her Majesty the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, by staging a major exhibition devoted to one of the Queen's private passions – horses. 

The domestication of the horse over 5,000 years ago on the steppes of southern Russia was revolutionary. Part one of the The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot details this extraordinary early history through some well-preserved and restored items from the Middle East, including the Standard of Ur (c. 2500 BC), a wooden object inlaid with panels of lapis lazuli and shell depicting 'war' and 'peace'. It represents the clumsy, pre-horse world of ass-drawn chariots. That horse-drawn vehicles were far faster could be evinced from several neo-Assyrian and Assyrian limestone reliefs demonstrating vividly the speed at which horses pulled chariots in battle and in the royal pastime of hunting. A video projection helpfully placed next to one such panel shows the fluid, graceful gait of horses that the carvings are unable to portray.

The horse's rapid rise to status symbol is evident from the surrounding displays of highly elaborate, Middle Eastern objects, from tiny cylindrical seals engraved with images of man, horse and hunt to horse tack. A model chariot made entirely of gold from the Persian Oxus Treasure, one of the British Museum's most important metalwork collections, confirmed the horse's revered status by the time of the Achaemenid empire (c. 550–330 BC).

The Horse then jumps to the Islamic world of the seventh century AD onwards. The grace of horsepower is demonstrated, as much as its practical use, through some exquisite Mughal miniatures and a simple Persian painting (dating from 1550 AD) of three galloping horses, which perfectly capture their elegance. From there, the exhibition takes a different turn with an interactive display, drawings and figurines concentrating on the selective breeding of horses to develop the Arabian, famed to this day for its speed and endurance.

It was this stage of the exhibition that was, for me, the most interesting, and yet also the most difficult leap (in terms of subject-matter, if not in time) to process. All of a sudden, the exhibition leaps to the eighteenth-century importation into England of just three stallions - the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk - which were bred with native mares to produce the Thoroughbred, and to whom the bloodlines of most modern-day Thoroughbreds might be traced. George Stubbs's finely detailed anatomical drawings provide an insight into the sinuous musculature of this new breed, and enabled me, as a horserider, to understand its particularly smooth and long stride. The many paintings of Thoroughbreds - including, of course, Stubbs's comical painting Lady Laetitia Lade (1793), in which Lady Lade sits atop a rearing horse, her clothing and facial expression curiously uncrumpled - sat a little incongruously among a display of diaries and pictures from the Arabian travels of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and his wife, Lady Anne, and their subsequently establishing a stud in England in order to preserve the purebred Arabian horse.

In the final room, several items loaned by the Queen and normally kept only in private display lay testament to her love for and deep knowledge of horseracing. Again, the exhibition's focus narrows, in that the photographs and models of horses are here of specific greats, such as Persimmon (winner of the 1896 Epsom Derby, and bred by the then Prince of Wales) and Free Agent (one of the Queen's own racehorses). This was perhaps the least academic of the exhibition rooms: several items, such as a Victorian season ticket for Royal Ascot and a cabinet containing the Queen's scarlet and purple racing silks, provided an injection of colour, but beyond that there was little knowledge to soak up.

This is an extremely interesting exhibition - who knew that firing a 'parting shot' was a corruption of the phrase 'Parthian shot', a reference to Parthian horseriders apparently retreating from battle, but firing arrows backwards in the enemy's direction? - with a clear overall direction, though I felt it had some gaps in time and subject-matter. Its fascinating story left me wondering how the Thoroughbred came to dominate horseracing across the world; only a video demonstrated other forms of horsemanship. One small room seemed to contain miscellaneous items, including horse armour, an Afghan horse blanket and Ahmed Moustafa's striking, calligraphic painting, composed of Islamic poetry shaped into a horse and rider, but they nevertheless served an informative purpose. The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot is a breakneck race through time and, since it does not assume prior knowledge of the beast, should be of great interest to horseriders and non-horseriders alike. 

The history of the horse is the history of civilisation itself. The horse has had a revolutionary impact on ancient civilisations and this major exhibition explores the influence of horses in Middle Eastern history, from their domestication around 3,500 BC to the present day. Britain’s long equestrian tradition is examined from the introduction of the Arabian breed in the 18th century to present day sporting events such as Royal Ascot and the Olympic Games.

Important loans from the British Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Royal Armouries, as well as rare material from Saudi Arabia, will be seen alongside objects from the British Museum’s exceptional collection, including famous pieces such as the Standard of Ur and Achaemenid Persian reliefs. Supported by the Board of Trustees of the Saudi Equestrian Fund, the Layan Cultural Foundation and Juddmonte Farms. In association with the Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities.

The domestication of the horse more than 5,000 years ago dramatically changed human history. Domestication is thought to have first happened on the steppes of South Russia with horses being introduced into the Middle East around 2,300BC. Before this introduction, asses and donkeys were used for transport, predominantly as harness animals pulling cumbersome but technologically advanced vehicles - as seen on objects found at the Royal Cemetery of Ur -but gradually horses became the means of faster transportation for these early societies. The exhibition includes one of the earliest known depictions of a horse and rider: a terracotta mould found in Mesopotamia (Iraq) dating to around 2,000 – 1,800 BC. Horses became a vital component in warfare and hunting, as reflected in the art of ancient Assyria, where elaborate and ornate horse trappings and ornaments were developed reflecting the prestige and status of horse, charioteer and rider. Riding became an essential part of society during the Achaemenid period (5th -4th century BC), a cylinder seal of Darius, dating to 522 – 486 BC shows the king hunting lions in a chariot, and famously, the Achaemenid’s introduced ‘post horses’ which were used to deliver messages on the royal road. The horsemen of the Parthian Empire (3rd century BC – 3rd century AD) were celebrated by Roman authors for the ‘Parthian shot’, in which an apparently retreating rider would shoot arrows backwards whilst on horseback. The renown of Parthian horsemen is shown in their representation on terracotta plaques and bronze belt buckles in the British Museum collection.

Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Mughal miniature paintings, ceramics and manuscripts all attest to the growing importance of the horse in the Islamic world from the 7th century AD. Exquisite Mughal miniatures depict princes with their valued Middle Eastern steeds, horses that were famed for their speed and spirit. A magnificent Furusiyya manuscript, dating to the 14th century AD, on loan from the British Library, is a beautifully illustrated manual of horsemanship, including information on proper care for the horse, advanced riding techniques, expert weapon handling, manoeuvres and elaborate parade formations.

The horse has a long history on the Arabian Peninsula, becoming an important cultural phenomenon and a noted part of the traditional Bedouin way of life. The ‘Arabian horse’ was developed through selective breeding, and with features including a distinctive head profile and high tail carriage, the Arabian is one of the most familiar horse breeds in the world. The exhibition includes ‘Gigapan’ panorama photography of rock art which show horses in scenes of various dates from sites in Saudi Arabia, as well as loans of objects from Qaryat al-Fau which include wall paintings and figurines.

The importance of fine horses in the Middle East is explored through the fascinating Abbas Pasha manuscript (dating to the 19th century and on loan from the King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riadyh). This document is the primary source of information about the lineage of the purebred Arabian horses acquired by Abbas Pasha (the viceroy of Egypt) throughout the Middle East. The story of the Arabian breed of horse is examined in parallel to that of Wilfrid Scawan Blunt (1840-1922), poet and agitator, and Lady Anne Blunt (1837-1917), the granddaughter of Lord Byron. The Blunts travelled widely in the Middle East and established a celebrated stud for purebred Arabians, which was crucial for the survival of the Arabian breed, at Crabbet Park in Sussex, and another outside Cairo in Egypt. Horses, including Arabians had long been imported from the Middle East to Britain, but from the 17th century, three Arabian stallions in particular were introduced, which, bred with native mares, produced the Thoroughbred breed, now the foundation of modern racing; some 95% of all modern Thoroughbreds are descended from these three horses. Paintings and prints, trophies and memorabilia explore their remarkable success and their influence on sport and society, from early race meetings through to modern equestrian events.

Faissal Ibn Abdullah Ibn Muhammad Al-Saud, Minister of Education and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Saudi Equestrian Fund said "It is well known that the horse has played a crucial role in the development of civilization, and that a close bond exists between horses and men. I am very pleased that it has been possible to support this exhibition in London which gives us an opportunity to look at different aspects of the history of the Arabian horse and the context from which it emerged."

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