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The horses we ad­mire link rid­ers and non-rid­ers alike to some­thing elu­sive and el­e­men­tal in the modern world.

EQUUS - - Equus - By El­iza McGraw

Let us now praise fa­mous horses

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.

Trav­eller Sgt. Reck­less Amer­i­can Pharoah

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