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Horse Talk


By R.Jay Gangewere



At Powdermill Nature Reserve, a scientific symposium

ends with a  horse show



What could be better for horse lovers than enjoying a beautiful October in the horse country of the Laurel Highlands, sleeping at night in log cabins in the woods, or in rooms provided by generous country hosts, and during the day focusing on a shared passion: the ancient relationship between horses and people? 


And then concluding with a horse show featuring the ancient breeds of Arabian horses, the Icelandic horses ridden by the Vikings, the Friesian  horses ridden by medieval knights, magnificent Percherons, Belgians, as well as race horses, bullfighter's horses, western Quarter horses, Mounted Police horses, polo ponies, foxhunting horses (with hounds), miniature horses, and a mammoth donkey.


It doesn't get any better than this if you are an international expert on the history of horses and humans. This is the way it was at the Horses & Humans Symposium: The Evolution of Human--Equine Relations, at Powdermill Nature Reserve, from October 17 - 21, 2000.  Some thirty scientists in equine history came from all over the world to the museum's nature center 50miles east of Pittsburgh to learn about each other's research, and do such things as ask colleagues for feral (wild) horse teeth to study and inspect primitive horse bridles.


The hippologists, as these scientists are known, came from  the U.S.A., Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Russia, and Armenia.  They represented such diverse disciplines as veterinary science, paleontology, archaeology, and history, with professional homes in universities, and organizations such as the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads, the Institute for Ancient Equestrian Studies, and the Archaeological Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.  The last conference on horses in human history--much more specialized in focus-- was held in Germany fifteen years ago. The Powdermill conference was generously interdisciplinary, because Carnegie Museum of Natural History's associate curator of anthropology, Sandra Olsen,  wanted it that way.  She is an expert on the ancient horse culture on the steppes in Kazakhstan, and the editor of Horses through Time, published by Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 1996.


In 21st century America, it is easy to forget that the horse made a greater impact on human society than any other animal.  More than other ridden animals such as elephants, donkeys, yaks, or camels, the horse was the basis for the concept of rapid transit.  Horses expanded the human range of travel and increased communication among diverse cultures.  Some ancient societies worshipped  horses, and even sacrificed them in religious rituals.  Horsepower changed agriculture, and helped define trade routes.  For thousands of years horses were a military advantage to people who adopted them in their way of life, or who used them as cavalry.


In urban communities horses influenced the design of city streets, and the way food and supplies were transported.  Horses were a factor in developing urban sanitation policies, in creating public entertainment and sports events, and in instituting new organizations such as the American Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). According to conference member Clay McShane of Northeastern University, in 19th century America huge herds of horses existed in our cities (120,000 of them in Manhattan alone).  


Until the last 100 years, most people's lives had an obvious connection to Equus caballus--the common horse.  Americans still talk comfortably about horseplay, horsing around, beating a dead horse, working like a horse, horse sense, a horse of a different color, putting the cart before the horse, big enough to choke a horse, getting off a high horse, a dark horse candidate, getting a leg up, looking a gift horse in the mouth, tilting at windmills, and we admire behavior that derives from the French word for horse, cheval: chivalry.


At the conference every scientist had a specialty.  One of the most distinguished, Dr. Erzebet Jerem from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, an archaeologist, spoke of sites of Celtic animal sacrifices in eastern and central Europe.   Two Russian colleagues, Ludmilla Koryakova of Ural State University, and Pavel A. Kosintsev of the Institute of Ecology at Ekaterinburg, presented evidence of wild and domestic horses in the forest steppes of Eurasia as far back as 3,000 years B.C.   R. Dale Guthries of the Institute of Arctic Biology explained why horses were so commonly drawn or sculpted in Paleolithic art 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.  Lynne S. Bell, a paleontologist from the Natural History Museum in London, used chemistry and ecology to explain the composition of the enamel in ancient horse teeth--which sheds light on the seasonal migration of horses used by past nomads in Eurasia.  Carnegie Museum's Dr. Sandra Olsen presented the evidence for early horse domestication in Eurasia.  There were many more presentations and the research will be published as a festschrift in honor of the famous expert on horses, Mary Littauer.


Like so many fields of research, hippology has entered a new scientific era with techniques such as DNA analysis, computerized data, refined techniques of environmental study, and a new sharing of information between researchers in the West and those of the former Soviet Union.  While English is often a common language at such international meetings, at least one Russian expert at Powdermill required a translator.  Much of the early research in the domestication of the horse comes from evidence found in Russia and Eurasia.  The ancestor of the modern horse, the Przewalski horse, is named after the Russian scientist who first traced the domestication of horses on the Russian Steppes.


According to Olsen, some of the most important moments at the conference occurred around the fire or while sharing popcorn at the roundtable one night.  While discussing their main topic, horse domestication, they made progress  towards standardizing methods of research worldwide, and began plans for a website to track the latest progress in the field.


It was the unique intermingling of science and the love of animals that made this conference unique.  In order to make the symposium successful, Olsen sought the help of horse lovers and museum supporters in the Ligonier Valley and Pittsburgh--people pleased not only with the scientific topic, but interested in showing off Ligonier Valley as a delightful place to keep horses.  The enthusiastic support and work from the Rolling Rock Hunt Pony Club and members of the Rolling Rock Hunt made it possible to end the conference with a public pageant, the Celebration of the Horse, at the St. Claire Showgrounds.  WTAE-TV anchor Sally Wiggin, an avid equestrienne, narrated the demonstrations, the Parade of Breeds, and show jumping.  Thus, science blended with local interests, and everyone there understood the important connection between humans and horses.


At the stables during the horse show a horse owner was happy to bring out her horse so English scientist Gail Brownrigg could put a replica of a primitive bridle on it. Nearby a farmer from Somerset County, Larry Shelley, showed off his Texas-bred Catalonian donkey, "Jim-Jack," 12 years old and 16 hands high.  After working around horses and mules all his life, Shelley says simply, "I like to raise a good jack to sell to people who want to raise nice mules."


There was also Trooper Wade Crimbring of the Pennsylvania State Police, with his horse "H. Egon," a Hungarian warmblood representing "the heavenly horses" of cavalry tradition--quiet, friendly, loyal, emotionally attached to one person.  One weekend  H. Egon will have to be able to push physically through large crowds, while not succumbing to picket signs, shouting, whistles, tear gas, loud noises and lots of traffic. The next weekend, he may be at an anti-drug program at a school, or provide security at a fair, where kids and adults will surround him, talking, laughing, and petting him.  He must adjust to both situations.  The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania maintains about 30 horses, all donated, and stables them at Hershey near Harrisburg, where they can be trailered discretely to locations where crowd control might be needed. Crimbring says horses tend to quiet people--you don't make eye-contact with them the way you do with another human being and you have to respect their size.


Director Joe Merritt of Powdermill Nature Reserve has a theory about what makes a good scientific conference.  He believes smaller conferences where no more than about 60 people interact constantly in an isolated, beautiful setting are more satisfying than giant meetings like the one on ecology he recently attended in Salt Lake City, with 2000 other people.  Large conferences usually limit special topics to one or two sessions, and the mechanics of attending, interacting with one's peers, and transportation, can be draining.  He also favors interdisciplinary conferences, where people have a chance to discover related interests.


The conference connoisseur may well prefer an intimate retreat such as Powdermill Nature Reserve.  Although Powdermill is one of about 180 field stations in this country, it has special advantages for meetings. Not only can people live in small cabins on the grounds, they can also present programs at Nimick Nature Center, and share meals (and wash dishes) together at rustic Raven's Roost.  Participants are located just a few miles from Ligonier and if they have the time can visit nearby architectural treasures such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob.  All of the horse researchers were touched by the sincere kindness and hospitality shown to them by the local residents.  Without the financial support of the conference's patrons, key participants from Russia, Armenia, Hungary, and England would not have been able to participate.


Powdermill has developed a tradition of hosting small conferences. Since the 1970s, research at Carnegie Museum of Natural History has triggered conferences on African small mammals, shrews, the ecology of small mammals, tree squirrels, and now horses.  Merritt is an internationally recognized specialist in shrews, and hopes to bring the international shrew experts back to Powdermill in 2002. 


However infrequent, meetings like the Horses and Humans Symposium create connections that can last a lifetime.  And with email available to scientists throughout the world, one-time personal meetings easily ripen into long-term professional associations.  These scientists will are likely to stay in touch with each other, whether or not the symposium ever returns to Powdermill. 


But the Celebration of the Horse may come again to the area--as an event that horse lovers in southwestern Pennsylvania may want to repeat.  It could be a regular pleasure.  It could be like watching a Paso Fino--the smoothest riding horse in the world.  Developed in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico from horses brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus, the Paso Fino has an evenly spaced, four-speed lateral gait, natural from birth.  It's exciting to see the muscles rippling over its full body as its footfalls generate a staccato rhythm that the rider barely feels.  It's one of those things you just have to see demonstrated, as it was by an elegant stallion named "El Glatiador de Pleybeyo" at the Celebration of the Horse.




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