The horse has changed humans' relationship with nature, with other humans, with travel and with war. And now it is about to change the school year.
The Horse, a major new show organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, will open Oct. 22 at the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Get those field-trip permission slips ready.
"We are excited that this will be our first blockbuster-level exhibition while schools are in session," said Bill Cooke, director of the museum. "I have no doubt that both teachers and their students will love The Horse."
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There are fossils, dioramas, models and artifacts from around the world, including 15th-century German horse armor, a Japanese samurai saddle and Native American horse accoutrements. There also is a life-size (but not alive) horse that shows how the pulmonary and digestive systems work.
Those school papers will practically write themselves.
The interactive horse digestion system (which is based on a real horse named Oberon who works on the New York stage) is a big hit with the kids. "Particularly the final results," Cooke said. "Everybody claps. Parents turn red."
Cooke saw the exhibition when it opened in New York in May 2008 and said it has a different feel from the previous major shows, including the exhibitions from China and Great Britain that the Lexington museum has hosted before.
"It's very educational but not as academic. It's just fun," Cooke said. "But you wind up learning something anyway."
The co-curator of the exhibition, Sandra Olsen, head of the anthropology section at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, said the world would be far different without horses.
"We used them for haulage, for transportation, for sport," she said. "They played important roles in religious symbolism and status."
Then there's agriculture and trade. "They helped spread metallurgy and languages," Olsen said. "But the biggest impact they had was through warfare. Beginning with chariot warfare about 2000 B.C. and cavalry around 800 B.C., they changed geopolitics in a way that's probably impossible for us to imagine."
Even as late as the 19th and 20th centuries, horses were being used as "animated" machines, she said. "Long after the combustion engine, horses were still being used in cities," she said.
Much of the exhibition is devoted to the myriad ways that humans shaped horses and horses shaped humans. But perhaps the most touching moment comes at the end, she said, in a piece on the role that horses play today as therapy animals, helping autistic and mentally handicapped riders open up to the world.
John Nicholson, director of the Kentucky Horse Park, said the exhibition is a perfect fit for Kentucky. Kids can learn how the inside of a horse works, then they can go outside the museum and watch the real thing.
"This amazing and most beautiful of creatures has never lost its ability to look for the good — and bring out the best — in mankind as a partner, teammate and friend. That's why we never lose our fascination with them, and why we are so excited to have this exhibition coming to our park."
To make it affordable for schools to bring in busloads, the museum has two ticket prices. Admission to The Horse will be included in park admission, or there is a special "museums only" ticket that includes the entire International Museum of the Horse, the Al Marah Arabian Horse Galleries and the American Saddlebred Museum.
The Horse will open Oct. 22 and continue through April 6.