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The Horse Museum of Chantilly, France

Created in 1982 by initiative of Yves Bineaimé, the horse museum, located next to the castle of Chantilly, is known for its incredible collection around the subject of equestrian arts and culture. It is not by accident that it has been called “the capital of horse”, and now it is increasing its capacities under the presidency of Aga Khan. Its’ rich collections are exposed in 15 rooms of the Grand Stables featuring exceptional collections around the equestrian civilizations, different breeds, the domestication of a horse, the history of hunting and war, sports and leisure. Here, the horse is studied under different facets all along with the history of humanity and ethnography of arts.

It was born as a result of collaboration with the anthropologist Jean-Pierre Digard with the target of showcasing the equestrian world from an aesthetic perspective. The exponents are organized in a vivid manner using the filming medium, sound and modern technologies, so the ancient manuscripts are available digitally page by page. More than 200 art pieces are exposed to visitors.

Most of paintings, sculptures, gravures, drawings, posters, manuscripts, carpets, equestrian equipment and historical objects are coming from the private collection of Bienaiméfamily. Others are coming from the museum of Condé de Chantilly and presented for the first time to the large audience. Some private philanthropists have completed the exhibition with important donations.

The museums dedicated to horses are rare in Europe. The museum in Chantilly is a unique space, highlighting the relationship between the creature and the man. No other animal has ever been linked to the social, economic and political life of humans at all eras and ages.

It all starts with the historical journey when the horse has been domesticated. Curiously, it happened initially for the alimentary needs around 4000 b.c. . The man would ride the horse only 2 000 years later, first in order to restrain and control it. And only after some time, in order to use its strength and speed. First tools were invented between 1 000 and 500 b.c. for the control of the horse. At the beginning the riders were riding bareback or simply sitting on carpets, which were provided with strap and armature. Nevertheless, the will to improve the direction of the horse and the sitting of the rider led to the development of harnessing and to its evolution. The bit appears first, then the saddle and rapidly after the stirrups. Spurs are later added to the latter. Mankind also wants its horse to have more comfort and the improvement of horseshoes contributes to that.

Then the saddle would be born. It came from China a little bit before our era, already with straps, long before the stirrups introduced in Europe from 9thcentury by Arabs after the conquest of Persia. The comfort of horses is not forgotten. The first iron horse clogs were manufactured in Byzantium around the 6thcentury, and 300 years later in Europe replacing laced sandals of Roman Empire.

These harnessing tools move from country to country through conquests. Local innovations and changes also contribute to the long and rich history of equestrian harnessing. This is why, the saddle, a Chinese invention, evolves through to Persian conquests to the West. Stirrups, imported to the American continent, set up as symbol of power and became luxury objects.

Mankind rapidly looked for ways to take advantage of the horse’s strength in order to carry heavy loads. The wheel loader was created around 3 500 B.C. For centuries the horse would be used to transport, to carry, to help functioning the agriculture engines, chariots… Using the horsepower would need new equipment, so new systems of coupling were developed. An important collection of fixed and adjustable horse collars is presented at the museum, as well as a unique 1857 Sicilian cart made of sculptured wood. The tradition of painting carts appeared in Sicily in the 19thcentury. Red carts often have decorations with war scenes. On this one, the decoration refers to Italian and Sicilian history (the plunder of Mantova, the history of Roger of Sicily, etc.)

Perceived as a weakness in some civilizations of riders, comfort can go hand in hand with appearances. Ostentation in harnessing allows the rider to stage its status. Luxury is used to make this power public. Luxury is used to make this power public. Expensive textiles (tapestries, silks) can be saddle carpets, which only a few can afford.

The soldier, becoming a rider, gains in power and agility. Richly harnessed, he triumphs thanks to his horse. This is why, the horse is systematically associated to military victories and is generally considered a symbol of power. From then on, the education of nobility cannot be complete without a perfect mastery of the art of riding.

Its strength, power, resistance and determination made from a horse a true ally to a soldier on battlefields. Ideal for long travels such as conquests campaigns, the horse is a key asset on the battlefield. In medieval Europe, the heavy cavalry charges the enemy and counts on its power. The importation of light cavalry characterized by short repetitive charges in order to exhaust the enemy, comes from Muslim riders. This offensive technique revolutionized the use of horses in combat.

We can also note a beautiful collection of soldiers of lead dated the 19thcentury and featuring Napoleon, his generals and certain regiments of his army. The subject is also illustrated by few paintings.

For a long time the horse was indispensable for hunting. It has been actively practiced in the forest of Chantilly since the Middle Age. The collection presented at the museum speaks about its aspects of the history of the domain by illustrating the heritage of hunting in paintings, bronze sculptures of the 19thcentury, photography and art pieces. Having an opportunity to hunt the boars and the deer, the aristocrats and the nobles have been always privileged. Meantime the ordinary people were settled for such prey as birds and rabbits only.

Synonymous with power and victory, the horse adds to the theatrics of power. The rider is represented on his steed. Placed up high, he gains power and authority. It is in that context that the horse becomes essential in the representation of monarchs and rulers. The prestige of the horse in civil society is illustrated by portraits of kings and court personalities on horseback, coming from both Western and Eastern civilizations.

The horse is also associated with leisure and amusement such as dressage, circus, sport and competitions. Invented around 4000 years ago, most probably in Iran, the Polo remains one of the most popular equestrian sports. The horse races are also rich in history, taking its start 1500 b.c. in Babylon, Syria and Egypt, long before the cart races in Rome and antic Greece. The exhibition at the museum highlights the modern aspect of horse races, which begun in Chantilly in the 19thcentury.

Special part of the collection is dedicated to the representation of a horse in art. The first traces of the ancient expression of love to a horse are dated to 35 000 years ago. The representations of animals in prehistoric era are dominant and horses compose 1/3 of all iconography. It remains the main inspirational creature for painters, sculptors, craftsmen, including in some parts of the world where horses were not present.

In the Arab world representation of a horse is rare and has been often banned. The scenes of hunting and battles are often portrayed in Mongol and Persian manuscripts. In China the horse is often pictured within an allegorical dimension. It represents the power, the prestige of a ruler and the prosperity of a country. The anatomic realism was not necessary.

The horse museum of Chantilly is a significant attempt to develop and protect the equestrian traditions. It is a place where the history is preserved and shared, not only through the fixed objects and digital mediums exhibited in its rooms, but also through the life performances and shows. The Domain of Chantilly owns an equestrian theater offering 3 shows yearly and daily dressage performances for the visitors. The fully functioning, stable welcomes divers horse breeds and train professional riders.

At the beginning of the 19thcentury, the passion for horse racing arrives to France where Chantilly occupies a place of choice. While coming back from a hunt, Duke of Aumale and his friends decided to challenge themselves. This informal race started in front of the Great stables led them to discover the quality of the Chantilly ground. The very next year, the first race is organized on what would become one of the most prestigious race courses in France.

Among the three principal categories of race (flat, steeple-chase, hurdles and trotters), only flat races take place in Chantilly.

The hippodrome welcomes the races, known not only in France, but also renowned worldwide. The renewed in 2012 track hosts competitions the whole year long. Today, 45 flat races take place in Chantilly. The “Prix du Jockey Club” and “Prix de Diane,” followed by epic competition of elegance and hats attracting yearly at least 70 000 visitors.

And if you are visiting the city of Chantilly, do not hesitate renting a horse for a ride within its domain for the sake of feeling a true privilege of being in the center of equestrian capital.

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