The Columns

“The Horse in Virginia” is First Extensive Illustrated History

— by on March 26th, 2010

Virginians have always had a special relationship with their horses, from the first colony in Jamestown, when horses became food during the “starving time” of 1609-1610, to the present day, with Virginia’s profusion of Olympic equestrians.

A new volume by Julie A. Campbell, associate director of communications and public affairs at Washington and Lee University, provides the first comprehensive narrative of that special relationship, beautifully illustrated throughout by paintings, photographs, historical advertisements and artifacts. It also comes with endnotes, a bibliography and an index.

“The Horse in Virginia: An Illustrated History,” published this month by the University of Virginia Press, includes material about two horses with special ties to Lexington. W&L is the resting place of the bones of Traveller, Robert E. Lee’s famous gray steed. Next door at Virginia Military Institute reside the buried bones as well as the displayed and stuffed hide of Little Sorrel, the favorite horse of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

“There’s something special about Virginia horses and our relationship with them,” said Campbell. “For example, many of our equine-related traditions come from our roots in England, where horses were a very important part of British culture-especially with sports like foxhunting and steeplechasing. The colonists carried that attitude with them to America.”

Horses were an intricate part of everyday life in Virginia for a long time. While the place of the horse in Virginia society would change over the course of 400 years, Campbell shows how the special bond between Virginians and their horses has remained constant.

During her extensive research, Campbell found that while the Revolutionary War and Civil War had significant impacts on Virginia’s horses, it was after World War II that horse culture really changed. People left the countryside for the city, mechanization set in, and “many farmers sent their draft horses to slaughter to become food for dogs and even humans,” said Campbell.

She found the shift after the war especially interesting, because horses then became more important as family pets and athletes. One of the most famous of the sporting horses was the famous Triple Crown champion Secretariat. He, too, has a connection with W&L, as he was owned by alumnus Christopher Chenery, class of 1914. The colors of his jockey’s silks were the same blue and white as those of Chenery’s alma mater. “We have some of his racing silks in Doremus Gymnasium,” said Campbell.

Another famous Virginia horse is Misty of Chincoteague, who Campbell learned was raised in Illinois, not Virginia, by her original owner, Marguerite Henry, author of the well-known children’s books about the Chincoteague ponies. “I was surprised but not disappointed, since the novel is accurate in its fond depiction of the Chincoteague horses and culture.”

Anyone with a love of horses, history or Virginia will find plenty to enjoy in this book. And anyone with a connection to W&L will find material not only about Lee and Traveller, but also a section on George Washington, a quintessential Virginia horseman.

The author will be signing copies of the book at W&L on May 1 during Reunion Weekend.