Our resident historian Lorraine Jackson is back this week with a new, delightfully macabre column about horses and taxidermy.
Horse Nation: if my writing seems a bit morbid at times, blame my husband, who is watching the Walking Deadin the next room. My coping mechanism is to distract myself with writing, but looming zombie noises seem to be infiltrating my groove. Ergo, famous horses in history… who happen to be dead, stuffed and permanently mounted in a museum. Cheers!
Arguably the most famous (and most famously stuffed) of Wild West Stars was Roy Roger’s Trigger. After Trigger died at 33 in 1965, Roy had him mounted in his iconic rearing pose. The most famous stallion of TV and the silver screen took up residence, along with Roy’s dog Bullet and Dale Evans’ horse Buttermilk, in the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans museum in Branson, Missouri until 2009, when the museum was forced to close because of mounting debt and dwindling visitors. The entire Roy Rogers collection was auctioned, and Trigger sold for an astonishing price of $266,500 to rural America’s cable darling, RFD-TV. After the purchase, RFD-TV announced its plans to tour Trigger and then have him permanently displayed in the station’s Omaha headquarters (along with Bullet.)
But Trigger was far from the first famous friend to be “mounted.” One of the earliest historic horses to be preserved was the leggy gray stud of Napoleon Bonaparte, named Le Vizir. The gray was likely a purebred Arabian, who was a gift of the Ottoman Empire Sultan Mahmud II. Napolean’s beloved Le Vizir would go on to outlive his owner by 8 years, and when he died in 1829, someone had the foresight to preserve him as a piece of history. Taxidermy was newly popular at the time but still a new art in the 1830s, which explains why Le Vizir looks rather like a giraffe. He is now on display at the Musee d’Armee de l’Hotel des Invalides in Paris.
In contrast, one of the most extraordinarily mounted and preserved horses is Australia’s racing gem, Phar Lap. The likeness is absolutely uncanny of the depression era champion, and worth the trip if you happen to be visiting Boyd Martin’s homeland. New Zealand-bred Phar Lap won the Melbourne Stakes, and only three days later the Melbourne Cup in 1930, a welcome “zero to hero” story during the global depression. He also won two Cox Plates, and then was brought to Mexico where he won the Agua Caliente Stakes, among others. Sadly, the thoroughbred stallion died abruptly at the age of eight, and there is speculation that he was poisoned by American mobsters to prevent big losses by illegal bookies. But his owners were determined to make Phar Lap, the hope and light of Australia’s depression, a beacon in death as he was in life. His heart, which was anatomically extraordinary, was donated to the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra for research and display, his skeleton to the New Zealand National Museum, and his mounted hide to the Museum Victoria in Melbourne.
This macabre collection would not be complete without one of America’s most heroic and solemn historic symbols, Comanche. The gelded mustang, rounded up around 1868 and sold to the U.S. Cavalry for $90, was known by legend as the sole survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn. He was the preferred horse of Captain Myles Keogh of the 7th Cavalry, and when he was discovered on the battlefield of what is today known as the largest and most devastating armed engagement between American Indians and the U.S. Military, Comanche had four shrapnel wounds in the shoulder, and bullet wounds through one hoof and both hind legs.After in the initial rescue and a year of tedious recovery, Comanche went on to serve for many more years as a symbolic representative of the U.S. Cavalry, until his death in 1890. At that time, he was given full military honors, and he too was donated and mounted. As Colonel Samuel Sturgis put it when issuing Comanche’s commendation, “Wounded and scarred as he is, his very existence speaks in terms more eloquent than words, of the desperate struggle against overwhelming numbers of the hopeless conflict and the heroic manner in which all went down on that fatal day.” The gelding is on display at the University of Kansas in a humidity-controlled glass case for perpetuity.
Other famous mounted horses include 1870s American race horse Lexington, Civil War General Philip Sheridan’s Winchester (renamed for his victorious ride in the battle of Winchester), Civil War Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s Little Sorrel, and while the horse itself is not famous, “Mean Girls” Actress Amanda Seyfried who is a self-proclaimed taxidermy enthusiast owns a mounted miniature horse named Antoine.
If this story inspires you to either begin a world wide trek to see the other kind of mounted horse, or, if it just inspires you to go hug your living horse, I will consider my work here a success.