As an archeologist who studies horse domestication, Sandra Olsen has studied horse artifacts all over the world, in one instance proving from a dig in Kazakhstan that horses had been domesticated as early as 3,600 B.C.
But even she was blown away by a recent trip to Saudi Arabia to see the petroglyphs— art made on rock— of Saudi Arabia that feature early Arabian horses: "I didn't understand how staggering it is there," said Olsen, a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
The rocks show the length of the relationship Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East have with Arabian horses — horses forged in sand and sun whose dainty looks belied their strength to survive the desert and great battles throughout history.
Special high-resolution photographs of those horse petroglyphs along with 408 other art and artifacts will explore that history in the Kentucky Horse Park's next mega-exhibit: A Gift from the Desert: The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse, which will run from May 29-Oct. 15.
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"There's never been anything like this; it's unique," said Olsen, who is co-curator of the show. "That's what makes it so exciting, bringing some of the most important objects from different parts of the world, from the earliest appearance of the horse right up to modern day time."
The earliest pieces include a Hittite horse and rider from 2000 B.C., and the Standard of Ur, a Sumerian box overlaid with mosaic of shell and stone depicting horses and chariots found in what is today Iraq. It is believed to have been made between 2600 and 2400 B.C. and is being lent by the British Museum. Twenty-eight people and institutions lent works for the show.
There will be numerous pieces from the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of the Middle East for hundreds of years, including jeweled swords, bridles and saddles. A special novelty item is the riding outfit — robes and dagger — worn by T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, on loan from All Souls College at Oxford. Paintings by European Orientalists, such as Eugene Delacroix and Vincenzo Marinelli will also be featured.
Co-curator Cynthia Culbertson, a writer, consultant and breeder of Arabians, said the exhibition clearly reflects an admiration for Arabian horses shown in different eras and cultures.
"I think it basically comes down to ... a combination of factors: their strength; the ability to survive on little food and water; they improved other breeds so much; their beauty, pride and nobility."
Several pieces, for example, come from Polish museums because Poland, with its proximity to the Ottoman Empire, became a prominent breeding ground for Arabians. Other cultures soon figured out Arabians were ideal for the cavalry; Napoleon became a fan whose famous grey Arabian stallion, Marengo, carried him through numerous battles and even survived the retreat from Moscow.
Two pieces that will interest the Lexington audience are paintings by renowned equine artist Edward Troye. He accompanied Scott County horseman A. Keene Richards to the Middle East twice, in 1853 and 1856. Richards was convinced that Thoroughbreds, although descended from Arabians, needed another infusion of that hardy blood. So he made two trips to the Middle East to buy Arabians from Bedouin tribes. They returned safely, and Richards began his breeding program. Unfortunately, Culbertson says, the results were mostly destroyed or lost during the Civil War.
Olsen thinks the exhibition is particularly unique because the components come from so many different museums and collections. "These works just don't travel very often," she said. "If people wanted to try to duplicate this experience, they would have to travel all over the world."
Coincidentally, another exhibition on the Arabian horse will be opening this spring. On June 12, the Horse Park Museum's new Al-Marah Arabian Horse Galleries, funded by the Purebred Arabian Trust, will open with a mostly interactive museum experience on the Arabian horse, focusing on its history in its native land, and in the United States.
A Gift From the Desert is being presented by the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation, which donated $1.83 million. That was a welcome sponsorship, said museum director Bill Cooke, because the museum wanted another huge exhibit to follow previous shows on the Chinese and British equine art, but they knew local funding would be scarce during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
"Once again, we got lucky," Cooke said.
A series of gala parties will be held just before the exhibit opens. The Museum and the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation will hold a party on May 27, hosting HH Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, the Saudi Minister of Education. Other members of the Saudi royal family may come as well. The next night, the Saudi delegation is holding its own party at the Horse Park's indoor arena.
"This will provide us with an opportunity to thank our generous benefactors," Cooke said.