By Juliana Adelman
When I was in high school there was nothing more powerful or desirable than the licensed driver with their own set of wheels. The most cherished phrase in the suburban American teenage vocabulary: ‘My dad said I can have the car tonight’. A car is freedom. This understanding recently brought me to a somewhat surprising identification with one of my sources and his horse.
JCK, as I will call him, was a lucky young man. He came from a wealthy Dublin family with a stable of four-footed vehicles at their command. JCK, an angsty student moping about town, often did his rounds on the back of a mare called Flora or a gelding called No Go. Sometimes he chased women, sometimes he rode aimlessly into the countryside and less often he did errands for his parents.
I was struck, although I suppose I should not have been surprised, at the power that the horse gave JCK. He was free to do as he pleased and he had the means to do it. This was in striking contrast to his sister who did not ride alone but was always drawn in the family carriage. JCK’s horseback jaunts were the ultimate in male power and freedom. So far so similar.
Yet JCK was dependent not on a machine but a living breathing animal. The animal had to be fed, its shoes changed, it ailments attended to. And occasionally the animal threw him into the mud. Surely this made his experience of adolescent freedom somehow different from the kid with the car on Saturday night. Ok, you say, a car needs gas and tuning and an accident can throw you into the mud. All very true. And yet, a car is not a companion. JCK offers occasional hints that his horse was something more than a four-legged car. No Go and Flora are praised in his diary when their performance is particularly good. Even the fact that he is careful to record which horse he takes out indicates that he does not see them as interchangeable. Nonetheless, there are clearly relatively low limits to JCK’s consideration of his horse as another living being. As the recent historiography of the horse has suggested, they were regarded as ‘living machines’ (see McShane and Tarr). Fuel in and power out.
Still, I find the ‘living machine’ analogy a bit unsatisfactory. It explains much about human-horse relations during the nineteenth century, including a general callousness towards the disposal of horses past their best. But how did it feel to derive your freedom from the control and subjugation of another living thing? Surely it is different to controlling a mechanical engine?
I don’t think I have an answer, but there are certainly a lot of suggestions to be found among the equitation literature of the time. Writing nearly 50 years after JCK recorded his diaries, Mrs. Fannie Power O’Donoghue addressed the growing audience of female riders. ‘A coward will never make a horsewoman,’ Fanny advised, ‘If you are a coward, your horse will soon find it out, and will laugh at you; for horses can and do laugh…’ (Ladies on Horseback, 1896, p. 33). A good rider was constantly exercising the superiority of their mind over that of their horse. A good rider did not just accept their horse as a machine and expect it to behave that way. Instead, a good rider actively turned their horse into a machine by mastering it.