I've become a big fan of fellow PhelpsSports.com columnist, Fred Glueckstein. His column deals with horses and history, two of my favorite things. While I'm still pretty much in equestrian kindergarten, I majored in history and still enjoy looking back and seeing what everyone was up to way back when. While a lot of human history isn't particularly pleasant, most of it is interesting, especially when you include horses.
Fred does a great job at making it all come alive and he always seems to find the most colorful characters of both species to write about. I especially like it when he tells us about people like Winston Churchill or Stonewall Jackson or Charles V. You know, the larger-than-life war leader types.
Oddly, the kind of names larger-than-life war leader types picked for their horses didn't always correspond to their riders' personas. Sitting Bull, the great leader of the Lakota Sioux, had a horse named "Blackie." For Finnish Field Marshall Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the "Father of Modern Finland," we have "Kitty." George Washington chimed in with a horse named "Ellen Edenberg."
Recently, Fred did a column on Washington, who was well known for his skill as an equestrian. I grew up thinking George Washington as a kind of admirable, but dull historical figure. This is due to Gilbert Stuart's famous portrait of Washington, the one that's on the U.S. dollar bill. Sorry, but in that portrait, Washington looks more like a fussy old grandmother than the Father of Anything.
Of course, there was nothing grandmotherly about George Washington. He was a force to be reckoned with, a leader of men and who was not afraid to break things when the situation called for it. He was tall and carried himself in a manner that commanded respect the instant he walked into the room. He was never more impressive than while on horseback.
Horses and colorful leaders just seemed to go together. I love stuff like Jacques-Louis David's treatment of Napoleon crossing the Alps. With storm clouds and mountain peaks setting the background, the magnificent white charger rears as the First Counsel points upward, as if to say that's my destiny, that's where I'm going. Of course, this would have been right on the money had Bonaparte's finger been pointing to a God-forsaken, heavily guarded prison island in the South Atlantic.
As glorious and heroic as the painting is - and I do love it - it's hardly accurate. Napoleon was one of the most brilliant military minds in history, but his talent for manipulating all forms of media to his own benefit was even more impressive. It is widely accepted by historians that Napoleon did not cross the Alps on a horse, but rather he was led across whilst on a mule. Thusly:
Not that there is anything wrong with mules. I think they're great. They just don't give you the same dynamic flair as a great stallion with flailing legs.
No one owns history, so if Napoleon can play with it, so can I. Here's my rendering:
Famous horses do not have to be large. Confederate General Stonewall Jackson's horse, Little Sorrell, was barely 15 hands. Little Sorrell carried Jackson through several battles, most of which were won by the South.
Jackson was certainly a colorful figure, but there is some controversy over whether the General was an eccentric genius or just plain eccentric. His campaign in the Shenandoah Valley was one of the most bizarre episodes in the American Civil War. In 48 days, he marched his heavily outnumbered army over 640 miles, hither and yon across the Valley. These audacious and rapid movements kept the opposing Union commanders completely off balance and like a whack-a-mole, they could never really be sure where Jackson was going to pop up next.
I've always accepted the traditional view that Jackson's Valley Campaign was sheer military genius. And I still prefer to think that. However, after taking riding lessons and having several horses take me around the arena wherever they darn well please, the possibility has occurred to me that perhaps Little Sorrell actually led the campaign and Jackson just didn't know how to ride any better than I do.
I enjoy enhancing my riding lessons with Great Leader on Horse daydreams. Of all the wonderful combos history has to offer, I prefer Frederick the Great on Conde entering Berlin after beating the Austrians, the Russians, the French and the odds. There's nothing like a glorious and powerfully dignified slow trot across the center of the arena, chin in the air, back straight, reins held low, surveying the adoring masses. Turn and do it again… until….
"Hey, Bonaparte! I said I wanted you to pick up a canter…"
Wrong guy. But at least she got the right idea.