A fond, and very detailed, look at the 400-year history of the horse in this state.
The Horse in Virginia by Julie A. Campbell
Since the first British animals crossed the Atlantic in 1609, Virginia’s history has been intertwined with that of the horse. During the winter of 1610, those first horses literally sustained the Jamestown settlers who ate them, right down to their hides, so the colony could survive the “Starving Time.” More horses arrived the following year, and over time they thrived and multiplied until today, generations later, there are more than 170,000 horses, ponies and mules in the Commonwealth. But in all that time, no general history of the horse in Virginia has been written.
Enter Julie Campbell, Lexington resident and horse aficionado. Though she has never owned one, she has ridden horses most of her life and read everything she could find about the beautiful creatures. Now she’s taken an intriguingly thorough look at everything equine in The Horse in Virginia. In it, she offers a huge amount of historical detail—enough to satisfy the most persnickety equestrian—while also presenting basic information for amateurs, such as types of breeds and gaits, horse anatomy, veterinary care and the proper ways to measure a horse’s height and define its color patterns. Her stories form a timeline of Virginia’s history over the past 400 years, showing how the horse has evolved from a utilitarian creature relied upon for transportation and agriculture to one that is now primarily bred for pleasurable pursuits, such as riding, racing and showing.
But even those pleasurable pursuits have changed over time. Before harness racing, polo or dressage became popular, colonists engaged in activities that would shock the public today. As Campbell describes: “Particularly skilled or adventuresome riders participated in a dubious activity called gander-pulling, in which participants galloped toward a live goose that had been hung upside down from a tree branch and attempted to grab its greased neck and decapitate it.” (And who doesn’t like riding along with a bloody goose head in his hand?)
Mainly, though, colonists took up British sports and adapted them to the New World. In England, several racehorses would compete on an oval track, but colonists had to deal with dense forests and undeveloped land. “The most convenient track held only two horses and stretched just a quarter of a mile on a path through the woods or down a main street,” Campbell writes. This led breeders to develop a new type of horse, a small, muscular beast that was equally adept at sprinting and plowing fields. This new breed, the Quarter Horse, was bred and born in Virginia, but it is not the only breed that owes its existence to the state. All thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to three stallions that sired their offspring on Virginia soil.
Campbell also documents the bloodlines of important horses, the impact of key people on Virginia’s horse scene, and the rise and fall of various breeding farms and horse clubs. It’s a lot to digest, but scores of gorgeous photos and illustrations, and amusing anecdotes are woven throughout the text. “There were so many great stories that were easy to find,” says Campbell, “such as George Washington and what a great horseman he was, and how he broke the law to introduce mules to the United States. And then the whole story of Secretariat. I remember very vividly: I was a teenager watching the Triple Crown back in 1973, so it was fun to learn more about him. And I got to interview [Secretariat’s owner] Penny Chenery Tweedy, and that was a thrill to talk with her on the phone.”
In addition to the great Triple Crown champion Secretariat, we learn about other famous Virginia horses, such as Traveller—Robert E. Lee’s nervous horse that once skittishly reared in battle and saved them both as a cannonball shot underneath the animal while he pawed at the air—and famous riders, such as the U.S. three-day eventing team that won the bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics: all four competitors were not only Virginians, they also hailed from the same town, Middleburg.
One of the most endearing stories, though, is that of Misty. When Marguerite Henry witnessed Chincoteague’s pony penning in 1946, she fell in love with one of the foals, purchased it, and wrote a best-selling children’s novel titled Misty of Chincoteague, which was later made into a movie. While promoting her book, Henry brought the grown pony along. Misty was so affectionate, she would plant her forelegs on a stepstool and hold out a hoof to shake with people. “As good-natured and tame as Misty was,” Campbell writes, “Henry still had to play a small music box in Misty’s ear to keep the horse from kicking when a crowd of admirers drew too close.” Although Misty died in 1972, visitors to Chincoteague can still see the wild pony statue erected in her honor and her hoof prints memorialized in cement outside of the Roxy Theater.
These anecdotes and others make The Horse in Virginia an enjoyable if demanding read. We learn not only about the most notable horses but also about some lesser-known, quirky characters. Lady Wonder, for instance, was a Petersburg horse born in 1924 that could supposedly predict the future. Her owner built a typewriter-like device that Lady Wonder would press with her nose to spell out her answers—after visitors coughed up a dollar.
Campbell’s tone becomes bittersweet when her narrative moves into the modern era. “After World War II,” she says, “there was a whole mechanization of everything about the United States, and horses were just a casualty of that. Farmers turned to tractors to plow their fields and a lot of draft horses unfortunately went for slaughter, either made into dog food or sold as horse meat.”
But nothing like that could happen today: horses are treated like pets, athletes and even family members. They graze on small farms, roam grassy fields and gallop on racetracks. Yes, Virginia truly loves her horses.