There are few images so regal, so emblematic as a rider atop his steed. The fierce strength of the animal, the gallantry of the equestrian, the beauty of the beast. But horses are more than iconography. Countries were built on the backs of the equine. They plowed our fields, transported our loved ones, and connected communities. They were cars before cars, mail before email, analog before digital. They led us into battle and sped us to retreat. But when replaced by evolution, when technology and industry put them out to the pasture, the most prominent of the equids remained at the core of our society, celebrated and cherished, a symbol of strength and character, a religious archetype, and an important part of the fabric of our culture.
There’s something magical about horses. They are beauty, nostalgia, and grace in the form of an epic beast. Our oldest texts, our most ancient stories, are soaked in the lore of the equine. From the Bible to bedtime stories, horses are our heroes, our friends, our symbol of strength and epitome of comfort. Who hasn’t imagined themselves a cowboy astride a black beauty, a bride on a white stallion, august in our elegance. For many, the equine is more than fantasy, it is a lifestyle, one that has informed and enriched the culture, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Southern Ontario.
A recent count boasts that the horse industry contributes approximately $20 billion a year to the Canadian economy, supporting more than 150,000 jobs. The same study, commissioned by Equine Canada, estimates there are around one million horses in Canada. About a quarter of Canada’s horses reside in Ontario, and many of them in the Golden Horseshoe, the cultural and sentimental centre of the equine community. The region’s temperate climate, and pastoral setting are aesthetically and technically perfect for horses.
The horse was domesticated over 6000 years ago, and sport followed soon thereafter. Equestrian sport dates back to near the first time a horse was straddled. Racing, polo, fox hunting, rodeo, and employments of horses in sport too many to cite found their way into nearly every culture. Put a pin on a map and you will discover a unique history of equine indulgences. Though each is informed by the society in which it originated, they are bound by a common affection for and understanding of the beast, refined techniques that rely on communication between horse and rider.
That relationship between horse and rider is often fostered at an early age. Caledon’s Teen Ranch offers camps, courses, and programs for all types of riders, from neophytes to experts. From Western and English riding camps to Intensive Equestrian and Rodeo camps, since 1967 Teen Ranch has been cultivating rider confidence and skill, providing their students with a foundation for a lifetime with horses.
Equestrianism is not simply an evolution of affection for an animal, but the evolution of its role in our lives. Its cultural democracy is in contrast to its practical aristocracy. Fittingly, the equine is now a lifestyle, not simply a weekend activity for hobbyists, or an exercise in anachronism. Equestrianism is a culture of its own, one that is exclusive to its inhabitants but which reaches far beyond the stables. Paris runways are influenced by Ontarian paddocks—with haute école penetrating haute couture for as long as jodhpurs have comforted riders.
An outfitter like Baker’s Saddlery in Markham doesn’t just clothe the equestrian, but those who admire its aesthetic. At Baker’s, one of Canada’s premiere saddleries, one can accoutre themselves in Dada Sport from France: a fashion-forward line featuring breeches that can be worn on the paddock or promenade, Der Dau Field Boots, custom made field boots from New York made both for riding and fashion, or Arista Equestrian Wear, made entirely in Canada, and boasting both competition wear and everyday clothing. The lifestyle is as the beast—the embodiment of fantasy, the living essence of the monarchical. Its exclusivity is what breeds its culture.
But the influence of the equine is not reserved solely for frolic, fashion, fantasy, and sport. The vocabulary of equestrianism has informed literature and vernacular, art and artistry. From idioms to colloquialisms, allegory to parable, symbolism to science, the horse is a part of our everyday. Its diction is the apparatus of poets, a contrivance of novelists. From the first examples of parietal art to contemporary film, visual art has used found the horse a staple, a symbol, a representation that speaks to its cultural significance, universality, and secularism. We were not around the first time a song was sung, but it would not surprise us if the lyrics evoked the equine. An entire genre of music revels in the horse. The equestrian is more than sport or beast. It is a cultural signifier with few peers.
You can join the equine world by appropriating its style or becoming a rider, but to fully luxuriate in the culture is an experience unto itself. Horse racing is perhaps the most popular of the equine activities. The romance of the track, the pounding of hoof against dirt, crop to horse, lives changed by the length of nose. Ontario’s breeders have given the world some of its most celebrated and accomplished horses. The Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society of Ontario represents all the racehorse breeders in the province, a governing body of sorts. This September 1st they feature their marquee event, “The Annual Yearling Sale” a feature for horses under a year old that their breeders have brought to market. On its eve they host the “Salestakes Event”, an exclusive gala where they showcase graduate horses from their program who have raced competitively and won awards for their efforts.
But that setting is indicative of the exclusivity of equestrianism. The equine is not a lifestyle for the masses. It is reserved for those of an elite class, a special few who can indulge in what their luxury has found attainable. In the contrast between the culture of equestrianism and its lifestyle lies the beauty of it all. Its dissemination belongs to the masses, but its care is in the hands of the nobility. The dichotomy therein is what distinguishes it, what makes it a device of our fantasy, an imagination that represents what we could have if, what we would be if, what our lives would be should the universe grant us our dreams. That reverie can be visited upon, but its reality is reserved for a fortunate few.