For someone who loves horses, Russia is a fascinating place to be. First of all, horses in Russia do not say “neigh.” As I learned in class yesterday, Russian horses say “ee-go-go.” Really?
Speaking of things that make a lot of incomprehensible noise, perennially shirtless, perennial vote-winner Vladimir Putin also likes to appear in photographs with horses. I can just see his publicist trying to convince him to soften his image: “Vladimir, everyone love little pony. I find one for you and you give sugar cube; opposition crumbles.”
Prowess on horseback was highly valued in the Russian empire, given the necessity for traveling long distances in harsh conditions. The Cossacks (a Slavic culture that inhabited southern Russia and present-day Ukraine) were well-known for their equestrian skills. Buffalo Bill Cody even invited Cossacks (some of whom were actually Georgian) to join the “Congress of Roughriders of the World,” the highlight of his International Wild West Show. Today, Cossack-style trick riding is still performed for entertainment at festivals, circuses, and carnivals.
One of the most iconic images of St. Petersburg is the equestrian statue of Peter the Great by Falconet, colloquially known as “The Bronze Horseman,” in reference to Pushkin’s 1833 narrative poem. This work struck a resonant chord in the Russian apocalyptic mentality with its central image of a flood descending on Saint Petersburg without any hope of salvation.Drawing on his own memories of the flood in 1824, Pushkin transforms the Peter and his bronze stallion into an ambiguous symbol of imperial majesty and inhuman power.
The clerk Eugene, in whose final delirium the statue comes to life, became the model for the suffering little man of subsequent Russian fiction, pursued by natural and historical forces beyond his comprehension, let alone control. The imposing memorial to Peter thus became an enduring symbol of both the majestic power and impersonal coldness of the new “Western” capital.
The image of the horse looms large in traditional Russian lore and imagination as well. One well-known story is that of “the Little Humpbacked Horse,” a fairytale about how a peasant’s magical long-eared horse helps him to capture mythical beasts and eventually become Tsar of Russia.
Then there’s the troika (тройка), or three-horse sleigh developed in the 17th century. This traditional form of transportation is still a common scene found in folk art, like Palekh boxes. The troika’s origin is rooted in the expanse of the country and the necessity of overcoming long and difficult paths at great speed. The troika is unique in its arrangement of the horses: three abreast. A troika can travel up to 50mph when it gets going, which was an extraordinary land speed for any vehicle in the pre-automobile era
The center horse moves in an extended trot between the wooden shafts under the duga (the central wooden arch that keeps the collar from pushing too hard to the horses’ shoulders), while the horses on either side gallop smoothly with outward bent heads, led by the coachman with only a single rein each.
This arrangement was practical not only in terms of speed, but in that a side horse could be more easily released from the sleigh should it be attacked by wolves, a periodic occurrence when driving through desolate woods.
One of the most famous passages in Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls” uses the troika as a metaphor for Russia itself, and one that still has some resonance today:
“Rus, are you not similar in your headlong motion to one of those nimble troikas that none can overtake? The flying road turns into smoke under you, bridges thunder and pass, all fall back and is left behind!… And what does this awesome motion mean? What is the passing strange steeds! Has the whirlwind a home in your manes?… Rus, whither are you speeding to? Answer me. No answer. The middle bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquy; the roaring air is torn to pieces and becomes wind; all things on earth fly by and other nations and states gaze askance as they step aside and give her the right of way.”
But perhaps the most interesting horse-related thing I have come across while here is the Nevzorov Haute Ecole. I first learned about it while waiting in a bookstore to meet one of my friends, and a book about horse cruelty caught my eye. But it wasn’t about horse cruelty as I usually hear about it–mustang round-ups, slaughter, PMU confinement, or neglectful owners. Instead it was about the cruelties of equestrian sports, which admittedly are many. This was the last thing I expected in Russia, as criticism of equestrian sports (aside from thoroughbred racing) is rare even in America, and humane treatment of animals does not have a long history in the world’s biggest mainstream fur-wearing nation. I was actually really impressed.
In about a decade of working with horses in all different kinds of stables, I’ve come to realization that in general, elite show horses are subjected to much worse treatment than horses that are neglected and left out in a paddock. They may be shiny and muscular, but they usually suffer from long periods of unnatural isolation in their stalls, have sore jaws and mouths from harsh metal bits, develop neck and back problems from hours of training in hyper-flexed positions, have their ears stuffed with cotton to prevent distractions during performance, are fed and injected with painkillers so they can continue to compete even when injured or worn out, and tend to turn to neurotic habits as a means of coping with hours of confined boredom punctuated by periods of intense stress and over-stimulation.
Many show riders are spoiled, selfish, and childish (if not actual spoiled, selfish children), who treat their horse as a vehicle on which to show off and exert their control, rather than as an animal with a unique psychology and individual personality. I was surprised that all this was being recognized by a Russian equestrian academy, and I wrote down the name to look it up.
The academy was established by Alexander Nevzorov, a gifted horse trainer (“whisperer,” as people are wont to say). If you run a Google Image or Youtube search of him, you can see him performing complex dressage and trick riding maneuvers without a saddle, bridle, or any other kind of aid. Although his reputation as a rider is still widespread, according to his website, Mr. Nevzorov has recently become enlightened and now firmly believes that all riding is detrimental to a horse’s health. He and his wife, Lydia, have since started a pseudo-scientific, cult-like program to eradicate riding (especially equestrian sport) and bring out some kind of golden age of understanding between man and horse.
Nevzorov recently produced a strange, completely unfocused film known as “The Horse: Crucified and Risen,” and if you read the site, it’s clear that the Nevzorovs view horses about on the same level as Jesus: by their creed, a horse should never be punished, and actually never be made to do anything it doesn’t “consent” to do.
Isn’t there some kind of middle ground here? Is all riding necessarily “parasitizing on physical abilities of another living being,” as Nevzorov says on his bio page? Isn’t it unreasonable to think that human-horse relationships can exist on totally equal terms, with neither ever misunderstanding or irritating the other? I mean, unless you ride your horse, isn’t that basically just like owning the largest, most expensive, and most inconvenient dog possible?
It is possible to enroll in and live at the Nevzorov Academy, upon which you presumably begin life as some kind of monk-novice and make a cult-oath never to ride your horse again. Instead, Nevzorov has embarked on a project to teach horses Latin. I shit you not.
Only in Russia, folks. Only in Russia.