Image: National Geographic
“In the wild, the white Camargue horses are found only on the wetlands and salt marshes of southeastern France. They are thought to be descended from prehistoric horses that lived during the Paleolithic period more than 17,000 years ago. Throughout history, this ancient breed is believed to have been crossed with several other breeds—particularly Arabian horses. This genetic combination permits these brawny animals to withstand the region’s bleak, cold winters and intensely hot summers. They are so strong it is said they are able to canter through mud up to their bellies!”
Clint, or “Aces High” is a champion jumper owned by Gearoid Mulligan of County Longford, Ireland.
The horse portrait is done in soft graphite, the background is charcoal, on 80lb Strathmore paper. This is the original photo – I had the pleasure of meeting Clint and watching him in action during my recent stay in Ireland. When I took this shot of him, he was on his way to star in a St. Patrick’s Day parade. He’s a handsome, regal-looking fellow, but don’t let his appearance fool you; he was a complete ham!
Belonging to an artistic family with unusual social and political views gave Rosa a huge advantage in pursuing her talents. Her father, an accomplished artist himself, quickly recognized the independent streak in the tempestuous young student that brought her formal education to an impasse. He used art as an outlet for her creative energy and curiosity, and trained her at home, since women were not admitted to formal art training.
Raymond Bonheur supervised the art training of all four of his children as each developed their own interests and careers. Eventually their home studio developed into a family business, with several members cooperating at once on a commission.
Rosa honed her artistic skills by copying the great paintings of the Louvre, and studying animal anatomy at farmyards, slaughterhouses and veterinary schools – in short hair and men’s clothes, to boot. This was unthinkable for a girl of that time. But the knowledge acquired by first-hand observation resulted in the fine detail and realistic accuracy of her animal portraits, and also led to her noted accomplishments in the field of sculpture.
In 1841, at the age of 19, Rosa had the first of many exhibitions at the Paris Salon, winning numerous awards that led to her first state commission, the well-known Plowing in the Nivernais.
The Horse Fair, which she exhibited at the Salon in 1853, is considered her career masterpiece. Measuring 8 feet by 16 feet, the huge work is more a mural than a painting.
Last month I did a post about Frank Hopkins, the inspiration behind the movie Hidalgo, and the long-standing scuffle over the questionable evolution of his legend and lore. For all practical purposes, I’m treating the movie as a fictional work – and while I’m no Roger Ebert, I have a few thoughts on the historical side of the film and some interesting aspects of the production.
First, some remarks on the way the movie approaches the Native theme. For a moment let’s overlook the casting of a Danish actor (Viggo Mortensen) in the main role; this may mesh well with the cowboy image, but was probably not the best or most obvious choice to represent a Lakota trying to pass for white. That aside, Mortensen does play a very compelling role (and more on his real-life horsemanship below). His character, as an army scout, has to deal with the trauma of (unknowningly) carrying the disarmament order to the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee where he sees the escalation into a vicious massacre that destroys many of his own relations. (Image: University of Illinois)
One noteworthy point is how closely the film portrays the scene following the massacre – you can immediately recognize it from the actual photographs of the event, and you can tell that great care was taken to reconstruct the horrible scene.
Supposedly, it was this bracing scene that first sold Mortensen on the role. There is nothing romanticized about this event, or about the Wild West shows that Hopkins later joins as he tries to run from his past. While the real Hopkins never actually worked with “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Annie Oakley, his fictional counterpart gives the audience a glimpse of the degrading situation that the glamorous Western sideshows really were for their Indian stars. The “cowboys vs. Indians shoot em’ up” that used to be celebrated in old-time Westerns justly seems ludicrous and shameful as ignorant, bigoted audiences boo the Lakota chiefs who bear the farce with quiet dignity.
As the most famous of the Western tours, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show helped introduce this twisted image to the world and set the stage for media portrayals of Indians for the next century. The irony was that Cody was himself sympathetic to the injustices against Native Americans, as well as a supporter of conservation efforts for Western icons such as the bison and the mustang. But he often found his intentions stifled by political and financial pressure – an angle that is well presented in Hidalgo.
I’d be remiss not to mention the uncanny match in casting him: good job, don’t you think?
To its credit, Hidalgo lacks many of the pervasive stereotypes that plague movies about Indians. The Lakota people portrayed in the film aren’t over-spiritualized, mystical tribal folks (the “medicine man” syndrome) or mindless “warrior types.” The main character has to deal with reconciling his two opposite identities (which was something very real to many Indians at the turn of the 20th century) and he is able to do so after an immersive experience in an outside culture that tests his physical and emotional limits and helps him realize his own strengths and sense of purpose.
There is a part in the movie where the daughter of the sheik (who spends his leisure reading Western dime novels) talks to Hopkins about North America’s counterpart horse culture, the Plains Indians. She asks him, “Have you seen their vanishing kind?” and he replies, “I am their vanishing kind,” confiding in her about his Lakota heritage. They compare their predicaments: hers as a free-spirited woman restricted by cultural convention, and his as a half-Lakota trying to pass for white in an Anglo-dominated society.
Yes, they used the “V-word” outright. But in their context, it makes sense, considering where she was getting her information, and the prevailing ideas of the time. While the “vanishing race” philosophy is largely a political mythology that developed in the European psyche, the future must have been uncertain for the Lakota and other Native peoples of that time. As we know today, the Lakota were not vanishing – but their way of life was. And it very well must have appeared that way to someone caught between the two worlds, witness to the horrors of the Wounded Knee massacre, and facing the extermination of the horses that were part of their cultural lifeline.
In the movie, after Hopkins and his mustang prove their mettle in the Arabian race, he uses the winnings to save Indian mustangs who had been rounded up and marked for slaughter. The systematic destruction of mustangs and Indian ponies was indeed rampant during that time. In the spirit of General Sheridan’s manifesto “Every buffalo killed is an Indian dead,” the killing of mustangs was tantamount to killing buffalo in the eyes of those bent on destroying Native culture in the West. Armed confrontations between Indians and the army were often followed up with mass-executions of the Indians’ ponies, as in the Battle of the Washita River where Custer oversaw the killing of over 800 Cheyenne ponies.
The film’s main gist is that, as horse enthusiasts everywhere can affirm, the love of a good horse transcends times and cultures. I think the real irony is that for all the Western romance conjured up around this legendary horseman Hopkins, it’s the actors in the movie (both human and equine) that give it its real-life substance. Watching Viggo Mortensen with a horse on screen is nothing short of pure bliss. His prowess on horseback is such that during filming he took on riding segments that even the stuntmen turned down, including the bareback race final. And when you see the chemistry between horse and rider, you can understand why the actor was so captivated with his co-star that he actually bought the horse when production was over. (This is not the first time he’s done it, either; he also bought his starring rides from Lord of the Rings after bonding with them on set.) There are a number of great interviews telling how amazing it was to work with the paint stallion (named “TJ”) and his main stunt double, Oscar, on the film set.
“I had no intention of buying a horse off of this movie. But with T.J. he was…I don’t know, I just got to really, really like him. He’s got such a unique, strong personality. He’s a small horse, but very intelligent, very quick learner, for a stallion very relaxed on the set. He wasn’t afraid or worried about the lights, camera, or anything. He was totally calm…
It was not just Mortensen’s real-life love of horses that attracted him to the role. With a long-standing interest in Lakota culture, Mortensen spent time learning the Lakota language from elders on Pine Ridge prior to filming. He points to this pivotal period in US history where national identity evolved at the expense of massive cultural destruction.
In Hidalgo, this story is shown from the point of view of the underdog – a single person who rises above the distortions of prejudice and becomes a hero by defeating his own demons, and disproving those who disdain his horse’s (and by extension his own) mixed heritage. “Any ordeal for a time clears and purifies your vision of yourself and how you fit in or don’t fit into the world. Ordeals are what make sense of life for you and teach you things. Those are the kinds of movies, at least as an audience member, that I’m drawn to,” he said in an interview.
In this respect, the new twist on the cowboy hero is a welcome change. “You see the cowboy archetype in samurai culture, in Lakota/Native American culture, in the Maori indigenous culture of New Zealand—it’s universal… A lot of things that are expanded on or added to it are metaphor, helpful in highlighting certain values and certain ideas. I think that’s the purpose that myth serves… Our identity as a nation is largely based on myth, on storytelling, making up stories, exaggerating the accomplishments of extraordinary individuals.”
This is very true, as in the case of Buffalo Bill – one of America’s Western legends – whose inflated exploits run a close second to that of the controversial Frank Hopkins. And yet, being the national symbol that he is, he has never been the object of so much hostile debate.
The real-life Hopkins made spurious claims of performing with the great Wild West Show; and when you think of him working alongside the Arabian show horses in Ringling’s circus, you can easily envision him being captivated with this looming Western icon, perhaps imagining a more glamorous career for himself. Then the idea begins germinating in his mind of the ultimate face-off between the exotic Arabian and the mustang, and once the idea is loose it becomes a canvas for the aspirations of so many others – i.e., a myth.
So, watch Hidalgo for the stunning horse flesh, and the incredible scenery. Then make your own call about how myths take shape, and legends – like the desert dunes – loom large, only to churn inwards and outwards again, changing with the forces around them.
Above: The starting lineup of Hidalgo and his Arabian competitors (plus one Andalusian).
(Thanks to Mediawood.net for a huge stock of screenshots.)
IGN Movies: The Lord of the Rings & Hidalgo star discusses horses, learning new languages, photography, and more
One of my favorite horse portraits. From Wallcoo.net
The first time I saw a glimpse of Disney-Touchstone’s 2004 Hidalgo, the thing that stopped me in my tracks was the gorgeous paint pony that gives the film its name. Since I’m hard to displease with a movie about horses – and since, as I later learned, the film has a strong Native theme – I made it a point to see the whole thing.
Hidalgo is a quasi-historical production about Frank Hopkins, a Wild West rider who takes his mustang on a treacherous race through the Arabian desert. At face value, it’s fun and attractive and more of a family flick than a plausible historical epic. But once you’ve seen it (and the epilogue explaining that the whole thing was a true story) your first thought is to find out more about this amazing guy who used his outstanding feats on horseback as a catalyst for one of the greatest efforts of wild mustang preservation.
Aside from the mustang outreach, the film’s other attraction was its roots in Plains Indian culture. Hopkins isn’t just a cowboy; he’s a born-and raised Lakota struggling to come to terms with his mixed white heritage, serving as an army scout and finding himself involved in the fateful events at Wounded Knee. By movie’s end he is able to reconcile his purpose in life by embracing his Indian heritage and working to preserve the horse lifestyle.
It’s obvious to any objective viewer that the story line is a little far-fetched, slightly on the feel-good side of reality. The reinvented cowboy figure sanctified by his Indian heritage, making it more politically correct for a modern audience; damsels in distress (an Arabian princess, no less); a journey of self-discovery and redemption, and the impossible victory of the underdog in a typical Disney-ish fashion.
Add to this the faux pas of having a half-Lakota portrayed by a blond Nordic (you probably already know my feelings about Indians played by non-Indians), and some really deplorable geography (Damascus is nowhere near the sea, and a 3,000 mile race would take a rider far out of the range of the film’s setting). But that’s my more abrasive approach. You’d really have to see it to get that it really works. It’s good in a genuine, almost-but-not-really-believable sort of way.
The Hopkins Controversy
But back to my investigation. Unbeknownst to me, the movie had already stirred up a long-standing, long-winded debate about this marvelous legend of a man, Frank Hopkins. “Camp A” lauded Hopkins’s accomplishments as a champion endurance racer, and his landmark efforts of preserving the mustang and traditional Lakota knowledge of horsemanship. “Camp B” called him a hopeless huckster, and Hidalgo merely the cheap and devious sequel to his colossal fraud. Some of these even purport that he may never have ridden a horse in his life, and the whole legend was the pipe dream of a thwarted wannabe cowboy. Oddly enough, this time, the cry of stretched or embellished facts was not aimed directly at Hollywood.
I was interested in what first provoked such a vociferous debate. It seems that if Hopkins were half the man he was claimed to be – and did half the things he was claimed to have had accomplished – he should literally be the most famous man on earth. Excuse my ignorance but I had never heard of him before I saw the movie. Apparently, the historical record is none too familiar with him either. A quick read of his biography and you can easily sympathize with Hidalgo’s detractors:
“As well as spurring his mustang to victory in (to be exact) 452 endurance races around the globe, Frank Hopkins also has an impressive list of other achievements. He claimed to be the most famous dispatch rider in the West, an associate of Buffalo Bill Cody and one of the “cowboys” from the Congress of Rough Riders of the World performing in Buffalo Bill’s internationally famed Wild West Show. He says he was Chief Crazy Horse’s protégé, put on a two-hour equestrian performance before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle and helped famed plainsman Buffalo Jones capture and tame the first buffalo.
Hopkins also said he served with the Pinkerton detective agency, was a secret agent of the US government during World War I, a guide in the Grand Canyon for big game hunters including novelist Zane Grey, and once charged up San Juan hill with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. All this, of course, was in addition to mentoring Billy the Kid.”
“Hidalgo: A Film or Flimflam?” by Peter Harrigan, Arab News
Please give me a break. Either he suffered from borderline personality disorder, senility, or the world’s worst midlife crisis – or someone was seriously messing with this man’s memoirs.
I am not about to get embroiled in the convoluted debate over whether Hopkins was the world’s greatest endurance racer, or which episodes of his exploits are plausible and which are merely spin; there’s far too much literature on the subject for me to add more (and almost nothing about the man is not in question, starting with his date of birth!) But the material points here are 1) what’s the best evidence for and against the legend of Frank Hopkins, and 2) what to make of Hidalgo the movie?
Supporters vs. skeptics (continue reading…)
PART 2: NEW WORLD, NEW HORSE
The Spanish horses brought to the Americas during the Age of Exploration represented the pinnacle of thousands of years’ worth of equine breeding from three continents. These large, hardy, spirited Iberian horses – like the Lusitano, Andalusian, and Barb – were the product of each successive civilization in the Iberian peninsula to leave its mark with a signature breed of horse.
Their illustrious ancestry traces through the region’s rugged native ponies; the prize horses introduced by the Romans; and desert stallions brought from North Africa by the Moors, which carried the bloodlines of still more distant Asian breeds like the Akhal Teke and the Arabian.
By the time they reached the Americas, the ancestors of the mustang had witnessed – and even participated in – the rise and fall of many of the world’s empires. Used as an instrument of conquest, it just as easily transformed into a weapon of revolt and an emblem of independence. It is altogether fitting that this remarkable shape-shifter became not only a potent spiritual symbol, but an emblem of the New World whose convoluted heritage it so closely mirrored.
After several generations of living in the wild in the American Southwest, natural selection took its course, and the horse underwent an almost miraculously change as genetic reversion transformed it into an ancient, yet wholly new form. Later, as their populations expanded, horses originating from Northern Europe – including draft horses from England, Germany and the Netherlands – escaped from the Atlantic colonies and contributed to the gene pool. The moniker “mustang,” from the Spanish “mustengo,” meaning feral, came to apply to the heterogeneous free-ranging herds that roamed the West in masses of thousands.
Remnants of the original Spanish stock, however, are believed to have continued to the present in isolated populations of so-called Kiger mustangs. They have been the subject of extensive DNA research in an attempt to shed more light on the genetic journey of these incredible animals.
In similar fashion, island populations of colonial horses still exist in remote locations, where many of their characteristic traits have been preserved. (Example: The “wild” Spanish Barbs of Abaco in the Bahamas, and the Chincoteague ponies of the Chesapeake.)
Interestingly, North America does not lay claim to the only – or even the earliest – birthplace of the New World mustang. A century and a half before the Pueblo Revolt saw the release of America’s mustang ancestors into the wild, the Spanish founders of Buenos Aires imported 100 of Spain’s hardiest Andalusian stallions from Cadiz. Dozens of these were loosed into the wild during an Indian revolt in 1540 that left the city desolate for years. The rugged descendants of these animals are the “criollo horses” prized by gauchos for centuries for their unique agility and stamina in the rugged, arid terrain.
Like their North American counterparts, many of these horses bear an uncanny resemblance to their ancient wild ancestors; among mustang lineages, the distinction between the ancient and the modern become almost imperceptible.
Their bodies became smaller and stockier, their profiles more convex, their coats developed a dazzling diversity of patterns and colors combined with strange markings that harked back to their most primitive ancestors. The effects of man’s hand had combined with natural selection to ensure the survival of possibly the most resilient horse type ever seen.
Horse Show Central – Mustang facts & links to related horse breeds
PART 1: The Horse Emerges
The horse – second only to the dog – is possibly the most magical animal to capture the human imagination. It has enthralled artists ever since its first appearances in Paleolithic cave paintings. In its domesticated forms, as a laborer, a warrior, and a brother, it has had no parallel.
But its mystique is universal and goes far beyond its functional roles. As the mustang, or feral horse, it is a symbol of wild beauty and indomitable freedom – because in this persona it transcends the divide between the wild and the domesticated. In this state, the horse carries the heritage of both worlds, and a great deal more besides.
The American mustang conjures up a web of various symbols and emotions; for many it personifies the rugged spirit of the West, or the proud legacy of the Plains Indian. It’s an incredible irony of nature that the horses reintroduced into the Americas by the Spanish explorers were part of a diaspora returning to their original homeland after an absence of over 10,000 years.
The small hoofed mammals that gave rise to the first horses originated in prehistoric America. Small horses similar to the today’s true wild horses of the Asian steppes populated the North American grasslands up until late in the last Ice Age – an era that also witnessed the extinction of the mammoth, the sabre-toothed cats, and many other species.
The reason that horses disappeared from the Americas and not from the other continents to which it had spread is debated. There is strong evidence to suggest a massive comet that exploded over the Great Lakes region about that time was the culprit. The disaster devastated the continent and its aftermath created a bottleneck of plant, animal, and human populations, with the American horse likely being one of its casualties. The drastic climatic changes of a planet just leaving an ice age drastically reduced horse numbers across the board, but was not enough to extinguish the species completely.
In any case, it was to be millennia before the horse returned to the Americas – greatly changed in appearance, but still bearing deep within its DNA the genes of those early horse ancestors who first roamed American Plains.
In the words of the Native Americans – whose cultural memories preserved a remnant of the horse’s presence, and whose destinies became so closely intertwined – “The grass remembered them.”
For those who are interested, Texas A & M’s Center for the Study of the First Americans issues a quarterly publication called Mammoth Trumpet. The January 2008 edition covers the Clovis Impact theory in fascinating detail. (View the PDF)
The Talk Origins website’s “Horse history 101″ – a technical paper on the horse’s development and spread
The American Museum of Natural History has an excellent website for their exhibition on horses. It covers the development of the horse from prehistoric times & follows its involvement with humans through history. Lots of great reading, photos, videos, and interactives.
3 Ironies about the Horse in the Americas
Although horses originated in the New World, they were non-existent here until they were reintroduced by the Spanish explorers in the 16th century, during the conquest of the Americas.
The ancestors of the first mustangs are believed to be the horses driven from Spanish colonial settlements and scattered across the Southwest during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. When the Pueblo revolutionaries turned loose livestock – including horses – corralled in the Spanish settlements, they unwittingly unleashed a new era in Native American history, and a new chapter in the genetic history of the horse.
The Plains Indian nations so closely associated with the horse, such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Comanche, never laid eyes on it until a few centuries ago. Their world-renowned horse cultures developed during the 1700s, when they first began to utilize horsepower to adopt a nomadic lifestyle on the Great Plains.