At the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, the Breeds Barn hosts horse shows in which different breeds are paraded out and presented for the visitors. I had a chance to see one such presentation when I visited Lexington for the Agricultural History Society 2015 meeting.
I was struck by how the breeds are presented as belonging to specific countries based on the breed’s history and origin. The horses are each presented with a rider clothed to accentuate the horse’s homeland. Some of these were quite exaggerated with the English shire presented as a medieval knight’s war horse and the arabian in fancy embroidered silk. The horse park has, of course, not invented the connection between breed and place. The names of many horse breeds themselves emphasise their origins: Azteca, Friesian, American saddlebred, Tennessee walking horse, etc.
This idea of a horse breed belonging to a particular place extended beyond the discussion of their long-distant origins in the display experienced by the visitor. The stables where the horses were kept had flags hanging outside each stall to indicate where the horse called home. Norwegian flags marked the two stalls with the Norwegian fjord horse (called fjording in Norwegian). The plaque next to the stall gave a brief history of the horse, starting with it being found in Viking graves. Invoking Vikings is of course discursively powerful–although the fjord horse wasn’t in the show I saw, a colleague saw one the day before in which it was presented with a “Viking” rider. The text notes the fjord horses’ mild demeanour and use as farm workers in Norway, adding afterward that “Here in America, they are equally at home.” The reference to “home” struck me as ironic in this context in which so much was being made of the horses belonging to other places. These horses are after all living in Lexington and I would guess almost all of them were born in the US. Where really is home?
I think most of the breeds are depicted as belonging elsewhere in order to stress the “homegrown” breeds as patriotically American. At the end of the show, the American saddlebred carries out the American flag and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” plays on the speakers. The audience stands up. In this act, this particular breed and this particular flag are claimed as belonging in this particular place.
The experience of the Kentucky Horse Park reiterated to me how belongingness is place-based, often at the level of the modern nation-state. Political boundaries matter in the conceptualisation of an animal–where it came from and where it should be. In domesticated animals, whether that is horses, cows, sheep, or dogs, place and breed often go hand in hand. The animals become incorporated in the cultural heritage of the specific place which carries over into human understanding of where they should be. We think that breeds belong and horses have a home.