Bucket List of the World’s Best Horse Museums

Horse museums are big players in the field of specialist museums. Given the cultural significance of the horse-human relationship and its long history, it is no surprise that particularly influential equestrian traditions, such as the French and the Austrian/Spanish ‘High’ schools of equitation, have been registered on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2011 and 2015 respectively.

Horse tourism is becoming increasingly broad-based and diverse, with museums around the world devoted to the horse, to individual breeds and horse sports, and to traditional horse cultures. It is a means of preserving collective equestrian traditions by bringing these to life for contemporary audiences.

Horse museums provide the opportunity of absorbing knowledge about horses and riding cultures, both historically and up to the present day.

A good horse museum will offer two-fold experiential strategies, one aimed at the horse specialist community through training and ridden displays, and another at the larger community via engaging and entertaining tourism offers and/or object displays presented ‘interactively’, or ‘hands-on’, such as racing museums where visitors can practice racing from the back of a mechanical horse.

Some horse museums go further, rounding off the visitor experience by allowing contact with living horses. With these kinds of horse museums, the ‘experiential’ part of the interpretation is the fleshing out the archival, historical elements of the display through closeness to real, actual horses. Enter the notion of the ‘living’ museum.

Research and visitor feedback has shown that everyone wants to see, hear, touch and smell real horses. So, to stand out from the competition and provide a world class visitor experience, the ‘living’ aspect is central to a successful horse museum.

Horse museums can be found around the world, but they tend to be specifically located in high horse population areas that have had long and rich cultural horse traditions; for example, the warmblood breeding areas of Verden and Munster both have museums devoted to the horse in Germany regarding history, work, and sport.

The Lipizzaner studs of Slovenia host the Lipizzaner Museum Lipikum, and the Irish Horse Museum, featuring the skeleton of the great ‘Arkle’ is in County Kildare in the grounds of the Irish National Stud at Tully.

The Appaloosa Museum, on Nez Percé territory in Idaho, and the racing museums have found their rightful sites at Flemington, Melbourne and Newmarket in Suffolk, England.

Probably the most fitting geographic location for a horse-focused museum is on the ancient steppes of Asia Minor, where scientists now believe the horse was first domesticated 6-10,000 years ago.

The National Museum of Mongolia is a trove. Nearly everything related to Mongolian history and culture has some connection to the horse. Saddles, bits, bridles, art, ceremonial garb, most of which match nearly exactly to items still in common use with nomadic herders.

In addition to their locations on sites of horse breeding, some of the great ‘living’ museums of horse history in Europe and beyond, have evolved or become extensions from famous riding schools, such as the Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre of Jerez de la Frontera in Spain, the Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre of Lisbon in Portugal and the Museum of the Bückeburger Hofreitschule where the link with the actual horsemanship is an invaluable means of ‘heritagising’ Academic riding while at the same time ensuring its continuity.

Top horse museums offer, to varying degrees, a ‘living’ component whether that be costumed equestrian displays and performances, the chance to get up close to various different breeds of horse in accessible stables, horse riding experiences, or something as simple as observing working horses at rest through a transparent wall, such as the one between the internal spaces of the Household Cavalry Museum London, and the stables.

The following accounts are by no means inclusive but rather, have been based on two of my favourite horse museums, the Living Museum of the Horse in the Domaine de Chantilly, France, and the Household Cavalry Museum in London.

This is followed by an additional list recommended by members of various equine research groups. Their thoughtful answers, and the broad geographic spread, has resulted in a wide range of choices for when we can dust off our passports again!

Domaine de Chantilly

Les Grandes Écuries (the Great Stables) in Chantilly, France, were built by the architect Jean Aubert for Louis-Henri de Bourbon, the 7th Prince of Condé between 1719 and 1735. They are a veritable horses’ palace, a ‘temple to the glory of horses’.

The Great Stables are also unique since Louis-Henri thought he would be embodied as a horse after his death and wanted stables suitable to his rank!

Under a massive dome flanked by three immense wings (one for the stables, one for the carriages, and one for the museum), two of which face Chantilly Racecourse, the museum houses thirty-one horses, ponies and donkeys of various breeds on display to visitors.

A doorway halfway down the stable block leads to the museum wing. Thirty-one massive rooms of themed displays with exhibits comprising over 1,200 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and ceramics.

The collection covers three main themes: the history of the domestication of horses, the different races of horses in the world and the evolution of tack over the centuries.

 

Top-notch presentation and curation, beautiful clean contemporary displays and curatorial practice, excellent signage, lighting, and consistent categorisation of objects into ‘themes’ means visitors can choose to focus on particular interests.

The Great Stables are also the home of a famous ‘equestrian theatre’; a troupe of a dozen riders directed by Sophie Bienamé, daughter of museum founder Yves, and they perform jaw-dropping spectacles and shows on a seasonal basis.

On most days, however, it is possible to catch a more informal mid-morning training session or dressage display, and to find out more about some of the unusual breeds of horse they train.

On the morning I was there, I listened to Cristina Garcia-Rios talk from the saddle of her Menorquin horse ‘Nectar’ about dressage, and about the background of this rare Spanish breed, known for its exceptional ability to balance on the hind legs. Alongside her, Caroline Vitry and ‘Zagalo’ performed some key high school movements including the Spanish Walk and ‘reverence’ or bow.

After hours in the cool dark rooms of the museum, coming out into the sunlight to the live dressage display in the courtyard arena, I experienced a wonderfully seamless transition between the cultural artefacts of dressage in the collection – the saddles, bridles, bits and equitation manuals – and their living practice.

This experience is pervaded by a sense of ‘living history’, on-going training and riding practices presented in a broad-based manner that is attractive for horse afficionados as well as non-horse people. The Museum aims to engage all age groups and, what it does exceptionally well, is to combine horse tourism with the preservation of certain riding traditions.

United Kingdom

The Household Cavalry Museum in central London has been the home of the Household Cavalry and its two senior regiments, the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals, for 350 years.

Through a large glass screen between the museum and the stables, visitors can watch the troopers attending to their horses in the working stables of the Queen’s Life Guard.

On the day I was there, the equine residents, big, black or dark bay Irish Draught crosses, were sleeping and eating, and their riders were dressed down in khaki overalls, rather than the resplendent mounted guard duty uniform of domed silver helmet with a long plume of horse hair hanging from the top.

When on duty, they carry swords and wear a cuirasse or metal chest armour, over a red or blue tunic (depending if they’re Life Guards or Blues and Royals), white buckskin breeches, white gauntlets and long black ‘jack’ boots.

At the ‘trying on’ area in the museum, I donned the helmets, gloves and cuirasse and was barely able to breathe, let alone ride a skittish troop horse through the wet streets of London, an experience that gave me a deeper insight into the strengths, both mental and physical, required of the Household Cavalry.

The Museum takes up one wing of the elegant eighteenth century domed-roof stables, and has a dazzling collection of art, objects, historic saddlery and uniforms from the history of the Guards.

For me, the most poignant was the ‘Wellington Leg’; a full length prosthetic developed for Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge, who commanded the British cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo.

Sophisticated for its time, it featured an artificial tendon made from kangaroo sinew that, when activated, lifted the toe to avoid tripping on cobble stones. The leg also locked into specially designed stirrups to allow Paget to ride.

Museums educate, entertain and inspire. They provide spaces for social interaction and reflection. And they make valuable contributions to their local communities.

Horse museums like any other, can sometimes unthinkingly ‘write’ their historical narrative from the point of view of the victor, or the dominant culture.

Museums that focus on non-Western horse cultures need to be particularly aware of the stories they are telling, and to ensure they are inclusive.

The Appaloosa for example, a breed developed by the Nez Percé Indians, has a history that cannot be picked apart from the displacement of Native American culture and the pressing need to represent those cultures as they are, living and present, not merely the vestiges of a mythologised past.

Similarly, museum presentations of the Arabian horse are intertwined with Western projections about the ‘exotic Orient’ and need also to tread carefully to ensure representations are fair and accurate.

Not only do horse museums have a responsibility to address issues of globalism, they also need to pivot around the changing needs of audiences.

 

The use of technology to enhance visitor experiences has had positive and far-reaching effects engaging audiences, especially the young, who enjoy downloading apps for further information on exhibits, who will hop on a mechanical racehorse or watch, entranced, a film of the Kentucky Derby in 3D.

But above all, audiences want to engage with ‘the real thing’ – the horses themselves. It’s no easy ask in these straightened times.

“The challenge”, says Sylvine Pickel-Chevalier, “is for horse museums to succeed in combining conservation with adaptation to the perceived needs and wants of a constantly evolving society.”

Horse Museum Bucket List

FRANCE

The Musée de la Cavalerie in Saumur presents magnificent public performances by the Cadre Noir of ‘high school’ movements by riders in their black caps and black-collared jackets; and especially braided manes and tails for the bay, mainly Selle Francais, horses. The centre, at Saumur, not only houses a cavalry, and its museum, but also functions as a National Riding Centre. https://www.musee-cavalerie.fr/

The Equestrian Stables at Versailles is the home now of the National Equestrian Academy as well as of equine theatre director Bartabas who has been offering horse-based repertory theatre, or what he calls ‘equestrian ballet’ in the indoor arena space. As well as seeing ridden performances, you can also visit the Gallery of Coaches in the Great Stables and the Sculptures and Mouldings gallery in the Small Stables. http://bartabas.fr

BELGIUM

HIPPO.WAR focuses on the role of the horse during the First World War. Photos, films and audio clips along with countless authentic artefacts, an interactive quiz and even a replica horse hospital feature in the collection. http://www.hippowar.memorial/en

GERMANY

The Deutsches Pferdemuseum, in Verden, (the German Horse Museum) is a must see. It features life-like to-scale models of early horses from Eohippus onwards. Must do; have a look through the ‘pferde optiks’; spectacle lenses that let you see the world like a horse does. https://www.dpm-verden.info/en

The Westfälisches Pferdemuseum, Münster, presents the horse’s natural and cultural history. Features a life-size model of the ‘perfect horse’; as well as an eerie ‘horse in slices’ display where visitors can learn about the uniqueness of the horse’s anatomy. Special focus on breeding and sport horses in Westphalia. https://www.pferdemuseum.de/en

SCANDINAVIA

The Historical Museum in Lund, Sweden features a permanent exhibition about Iron Age horse culture. https://www.historiskamuseet.lu.se

UNITED KINGDOM

The National Racing Museum, Newmarket, is a fabulous horse tourist experience, family friendly, with lots of interactive displays. There’s a chance to meet some ex-racehorses as it is also the base for RoR (re-training of racehorses). https://www.nhrm.co.uk/

The Museum of the Horse, Tuxford. A small private museum in Newark, is absolutely essential viewing if it’s side-saddles and historic tack you’re interested in. https://www.sallymitchell.com/museum

PORTUGAL

Museum of Carriages, Lisbon. The museum has one of the finest collections of historical carriages in the world, and it is one of the most visited museums of the city. http://museudoscoches.gov.pt/pt/

The Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre (Portuguese School of Equestrian Art) is a Portuguese institution dedicated to the preservation of the equestrian arts in the Portuguese tradition. It is one of the “Big Four” most prestigious classical riding academies in the world. https://www.parquesdesintra.pt/en/parks-monuments/portuguese-school-of-equestrian-art/

CZECH REPUBLIC

At Czesky Krumlov Castle in South Bohemia, Czechia, they have a great small museum of Baroque saddlery, harness and carriages which is amazing, and located in the original royal stables. https://castle.ckrumlov.cz/docs/en/atr3.xml#nabid52568

JAPAN

The Equine Museum of Japan has permanent and temporary exhibitions that introduce visitors to horse-related history, folklore, arts, artefacts, and sports. https://www.bajibunka.jrao.ne.jp/en/equinemuseumofjapan.html

AUSTRALIA

The Australian Racing Museum, Flemington Victoria. Full of treasures, you can look up bloodlines, explore the Hall of Fame, and find out more about racing within Australian history. https://www.racingvictoria.com.au/the-sport/racing/australian-racing-museum

UNITED STATES

The International Museum of the Horse in Kentucky Horse Park has a permanent display on the natural and cultural history of the horse, temporary exhibitions and a huge archive with librarians and curators who are able to help students completing higher degree research in equine topics. It also has many ‘live’ hands-on opportunities for interaction, including trail rides, Parade of Breeds displays, horse drawn trolleys, a Hall of Champions, living horse barns, ‘Big Barns’ for draft breeds, and police horses. http://imh.org/

The National Sporting Library and Museum, in Middleburg, Virginia is one of America’s foremost specialist library-museums. It’s dedicated to preserving, promoting and sharing the literature, art and culture of equestrian, angling and field sports. Current exhibition ‘A Horse of Course; the equine image in art’. http://nationalsporting.org/

The Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs features a remarkable 360-degree film called “The Greatest Race” film as well as having the first electric starting gate. https://www.derbymuseum.org/Exhibits

The Appaloosa Museum and Heritage Centre, Moscow Idaho has a ‘living’ appaloosa nearby, ‘Dusty’ who loves a cuddle. Has a broad collection of indigenous horse artefacts as well as a Nez Perce native garden. http://www.appaloosamuseum.com/

The American Quarter Horse Museum and Hall of Fame, Amarillo Texas. https://www.aqha.com/visit

MIDDLE EAST

The Horse Museum Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is next to the Camel museum, which gives an idea of the equal importance of these two species. www.dubaihistoric.ae

 

Image Captions:

IMAGE 1: The National Coach Museum – Royal Horse Riding Arena, Lisbon. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

IMAGE2 : Les Grandes Écuries, Domaine de Chantilly. Image www.shutterstock.com.

IMAGE 3: 19th century Carousel horse, Musée Vivant du Cheval. Image courtesy the author.

IMAGES 4 & 5: Visitors can experience a seamless transition between historical and ‘live’ exhibits. Images source: www.shutterstock.com

IMAGE 6: Nectar and Zagalo at the dressage demonstration, inner courtyard arena, Les Grandes Écuries. Image courtesy the author.

IMAGE 7: A member of the Household Cavalry, holding watch over the Horse Guards on Whitehall. Image source: www.shutterstock.com.

IMAGE 8: The author dressing the part in a Blues and Royals helmet. Image courtesy Dr Georgina Downey.

IMAGE 9: The prosthetic leg of Earl of Uxbridge, Household Cavalry Museum, London. Image courtesy Dr Georgina Downey.