There’s no tethering the National Sporting Library’s stacks of equestrian tomes
By Larry Tritten / Photography by Sonya Weaver
My most salient memory of the National Sporting Library in Middleburg is of the bronze sculpture of a war-weary Civil War horse in the library’s courtyard. This is not the customary type of equestrian statue, with the horse depicted as powerful and imposing. It purposely shows an animal that is exhausted, half-starved and standing with a back hoof bent, and honors the 1,500,000 horses and mules that lost their lives in the Civil War. The sculpture, by Tessa Pullan, is based on a painting she saw of a horse in a snowstorm, which is no doubt why the sculpture struck a subliminal nerve of memory the moment I saw it.
I grew up in a mom-and-pop tavern in the backwoods of Northern Idaho. In those days there was a local painter, Joe Breckenridge, who was a sort of cross between Frederic Remington and Cezanne, and my dad paid him to paint Western scenery on our walls. Watching him work, I was reminded of the brush in Disney movies that would throw paint on a canvas for a fully formed scene to spontaneously appear. Using a brush, or even an old sock, Joe would make the scenery magically materialize in moments. But he did take a little more time and care in painting on one of the booth tables, at my request, a packhorse in a snowstorm, a horse that looked as worn down as Pullan’s Civil War horse.
The plaque under the sculpture reads: “In memory of the one and one half million horses and mules of the Confederate and Union armies that were killed, were wounded or died from disease in the Civil War. Many perished within 20 miles of Middleburg in the Battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville in June of 1863.”
There is a second copy of the three-quarter-sized sculpture at the US Cavalry Museum in Fort Riley, Kan., both commissioned by Paul Mellon, and a third copy was made to be placed at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. The story of the detailed research and artistry involved in the creation of these horses deserves a separate article; in any case, the memorial at the National Sporting Library is an apt introduction to a library that houses more than 15,000 volumes on horse and field sports, one of the largest collections of equestrian material in the world.
On the roof, above the three gables of the stone and wood building that resembles an English country inn, there sits a weather vane with a figure, not of a rooster, but of a stylized horse in profile with flowing mane and tail. If there’s something to know about horses or turf and field sports, it’s almost certainly searchable in the library’s collection of 13,000 books, periodicals, photographs, films and manuscripts. Paintings and sculptures by famous sporting artists set an appropriate ambience for the 15,000-square-foot building.
The library was founded in 1954 by George L. Ohrstrom Sr., president of the Orange County Hunt, and Alexander Mackay-Smith MFH, editor of The Chronicle of the Horse. Ohrstrom passed away in 1955, but his son, George L. Ohrstrom Jr., has been the library’s guiding force and chairman of its board for nearly half a century.
There is a daunting amount of material in the library’s seven distinct collections: Horsemanship, Steeplechase, Thoroughbred, Shooting, Foxhunting, Sporting Art and Angling.
Those who come to the library to pursue piscatorial interests are certainly outnumbered by those interested in the quadrupeds, but the Angling Collection is not to be taken lightly. Its treasures include a copy of Richard Tracey’s “Vox Piscis” (1627) and several first editions of Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler” (1653), which is the third most frequently reprinted book in the English language after the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. The books range from historical texts on fly-fishing to numerous volumes representing the proliferation of fishing literature that began to appear in the early 20th century.
The books and magazines in which horses figure are so many and varied that giving an adequate summary is an impossible task.
From archaic texts to the illustrated volumes on the art shelves, the library’s collection constitutes a mother lode of information and is irresistible to researchers.
The Steeplechase Collection includes American serials, books and racing calendars dating from the 18th century to today and materials that chronicle the history of the sport in the United States since its beginning in 1824.
The Horsemanship Collection has books ranging from editions of Antoine de Pluvinel’s “L’Instruction du Roy en L’Exercise de Monter a Cheval” (1623) and the Duke of Newcastle’s “Methode et Invention Nouvelle de Dresser Les Chvaux” (1657) to hundreds of years of books on every detailed aspect of dressage and jumping disciplines, Western and saddle horse riding, endurance, vaulting and therapeutic riding.
In the Foxhunting Collection, where most of the books have red bindings in deference to the color of the coats of the huntsmen, the history of the sport, especially in the United States, is chronicled by both nonfiction and fiction books as well as magazines, letters and original manuscripts. Among the latter is a manuscript by Theodore Roosevelt, titled “Foxhunting on Long Island.”
In the library’s Thoroughbred Collection, the sport’s history from its beginnings in England and Ireland to its evolution in America is chronicled in more than 500 historical and contemporary books on racing, training, handicapping, pedigree references, race charts and biographies of horses, owners and jockeys.
Hunting all over the world is the subject of the materials in the Shooting Collection. Contemporary shooting books abound in the collection, which also has a separate section for books about big-game hunting in India and Africa and contains such rare items as a copy of the privately printed “Ten Days on the Plains” by Gen. Henry Eugene Davies, an account of an expedition made in 1871 by Gen. Philip Sheridan and some of the country’s richest businessmen, led by Buffalo Bill Cody.
Finally, the Sporting Art Collection is highlighted by books about British and American sporting art from the 18th century to today, with horses keeping a high profile in titles like Sally Mitchell’s “The Dictionary of British Equestrian Artists” (1985) and “Portraits of the Winning Horses of the Great St. Leger Stakes” (1824).
This summary only scratches the surface, as the collection is constantly expanding. Some recent acquisitions have been an early 17th-century Italian manuscript on horsemanship by Valerio Piccardini and several rare 16th- and 17th-century equestrian books from the estate of Capt. Vladimir Littauer. Chances are that if there is a proverbial horse of a different color, it can be found here.