The Horse at the Museum of Civilization

If I make it to Ottawa anytime before the end of 2010, one visit I won’t miss is to the Canadian Museum of Civilization for their newly installed The Horse exhibition, which premiered May 28.

The must-see exhibition follows the evolutionary path of the horse, both before and after it was domesticated by humans 6,000 years ago. In that time, we have developed more than 200 breeds whose size, shape, strength and disposition make them suited to specific activities.

But long before that, in fact some 10 million years ago, there were ancient horse breeds roaming the Great Plains, a good number of them are portrayed in this gorgeous diorama, including a small three-toed Nanippus and a herd of Dinohippus. (Pronounced just like it’s spelled for those of you who are wondering!)

The Horse showcases fossils and skeletons, prehistoric cave art and contemporary sculpture including this amazing piece by Saskatchewan artist Joe Fafard. I was fortunate enough to catch a view of this sculpture at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary a number of years ago and I can attest it is incredibly awe-inspiring up-close and life-size. Fafard’s spectacular horses give us an exhilarating sense of speed and grace moving over the land. They capture the spirit of a creature that makes the human heart beat faster and makes us long to run with it.

Also featured are ancient toys such as this horse doll which originated from the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Florida.

Or, this toy brass horse with a soldier riding on top from India. Simply magnificent isn’t it?

I wouldn’t miss this vintage photo – the original of the world renowned series of photos where the gallop was first dissected. In fact, pioneering British photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) was the first person to freeze the movement of a running horse in a series of still photographs. He set up rows of cameras that snapped pictures as the horse moved past. In the gait known as the gallop, all four feet leave the ground, but not when the legs are outstretched, as you might expect. Instead, the horse leaves the ground as its hind legs swing closest to the front legs, as this photo shows (second row).

Here’s an incredible piece of history I knew nothing about, entitled Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron. In 1918, to stop the rapid advance of a German force at Moreuil Wood near Amiens, Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew led a charge of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. They won the battle that day, but half the squadron was killed, including Flowerdew (who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross), and 800 horses.

Then there’s this amazing terra-cotta horse.

In the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, village potters create horse figures as offerings to Aiyanar and other local gods, who are said to patrol village borders and protect people from harm. Many village shrines contain hundreds of these votive horses, just imagine, some standing more than five metres (16 feet) tall. This horse is trimmed with garlands, like the stone horses in grand Indian temples. The face on its chest is Yalli, a spirit that protects Aiyanar.

My last piece of horse history eye candy for you today is this life-size German horse armour which includes: the chanfron, which covered the horse’s head and carried the rider’s family crest or coat of arms; the crinet, which protected the horse’s neck and was made of overlapping plates so the horse could move its head; the crupper, which shielded the horse’s hindquarters; the saddle, which kept the rider’s waist safe from lances, spears and arrows; and the peytral, which was worn over the horse’s chest and raised or flared outward to provide freedom of movement for the its legs.

Luckily we don’t have to worry about catching last minute trains, planes or buses to take in this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. We have a bit of time as The Horse will be presented until January 2, 2011. Remember, it’s at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, in Gatineau, Quebec.

~ with media files from the Canadian Museum of Civilization