The North Shore is horse country, as people discover when they drive through towns like Hamilton, Wenham or Ipswich, where horses can often be seen nibbling grass in paddocks.
But anyone who wants to understand how this local connection with horses developed should visit Wenham Museum, where a new exhibit on “Equestrian Histories” recently opened.
The show includes interactive elements, where people can try riding sidesaddle on a stationary platform or learn to braid a horse’s tail.
The museum also plans to offer programs that will take visitors to local properties, where they can get some firsthand appreciation for the practice of riding and caring for horses.
But more specifically, the exhibit’s displays focus on horse-related sports that have flourished on the North Shore over the last 150 years, primarily polo, fox hunting, eventing and carriage driving.
“Locally, I think that polo and fox hunting were among the first that came up here, starting in the 1890s, definitely the Gilded Age,” said Kristin Noon, the museum’s executive director.
The first, informal game of polo was held at the Myopia Hunt Club’s Gibney Field in Hamilton in 1887, according to a panel in the exhibit, and the club was one of five charter members when the U.S. Polo Association was founded in 1890.
Peter Gwinn, who handles marketing for Wenham Museum, said interest in the sport waned over time, but was revitalized by members of Myopia in the 1950s and 1960s.
“I grew up here, so I can remember as a boy, they were all about community, it wasn’t about wealth,” he said. “They used to have Wednesday night games where the whole town could go for free.”
Myopia members still lead a Thanksgiving day fox hunt that sets out from Appleton Farms in Ipswich, just as it did in the 19th century, and covers a 10-mile loop in two or three hours.
But ever since 1952, when a fox that was being chased hid out in the Hamilton Library, local hunters have stopped pursuing live quarry.
“They do what’s called a drag hunt, which means they don’t hunt an actual fox,” Noon said. “The folks that run the hunt, they create a scent, and they basically go out and lay it down through the forest, and the hounds are trained to follow this scent, and it’s a little bit different from the natural fox scent.”
The current hunt crosses through 380 properties on the North Shore, which is a main reason why the Essex County Trail Association was founded in 1982, “to negotiate access to trails and open lands in Hamilton, Wenham, Ipswich, Topsfield, Essex, West Newbury.”
The limitations on space have only increased since those days, and the equestrians who contributed to the development of “Equestrian Histories” are hoping it will raise awareness about the importance of preserving open space.
Eventing, a three-day event that combines dressage, cross-country and show jumping, also developed in response to the loss of open land.
“It had been popular in the UK, but really began to take off in the 1960s because everyone that was interested in fox hunting needed other things to do to keep themselves busy and their horses in shape, and they were interested in competition and interested in the sport, but didn’t necessarily have as much land to do it on,” Noon said.
Eventing has its roots in cavalry training, and requires a combination of discipline, endurance and physical dexterity that horses needed if they were to succeed in battle.
Dressage, which means "training" in French, consists of prescribed moves that horse and rider must perform.
Cross-country features a number of obstacles that horses must jump, in a course that covers several miles, and has more to do with speed and endurance than show jumping, where the emphasis is on precision and skill.
The first three-day eventing competition on the North Shore was held at Myopia in 1961, before the Ledyard Farm Horse Trials were established in Hamilton in 1973, which attracted worldwide attention.
“It attracted the best in the world to the three-day event, and to qualify and earn points and move on to Olympic selection,” Gwinn said.
Fifty thousand spectators saw the Ledyard Trials in 1975, according to the exhibit, which was attended by members of England’s royal family, while scenes from the movie “International Velvet” were filmed at the event in 1977.
“It became famous for the difficulty of the cross-country jumps,” Gwinn said. “One was named The Coffin: a little bit intimidating.”
Given the military roots of equestrian sports, it is appropriate that the exhibit devotes a section to four-star general George S. Patton Jr., who lived in Hamilton and got his start in the cavalry.
“He also rode here locally, even when he came back here as a colonel, and his family did and so did his son,” Gwinn said.
Patton played polo, and is quoted as saying that the virtue of the sport “as a military accomplishment rests on the following: it makes a man think fast while he is excited; it reduces his natural respect for his own safety — that is, makes him bold.”
There is also a military character to the uniforms and rituals of equestrian sports, and these are explored by several displays in the exhibit, too.
“There’s a lot of tradition and decorum — dress code, so to speak — that goes with a lot of these activities,” Noon said.
IF YOU GO
What: “Equestrian Histories” exhibit
When: Through Dec. 1
Where: Wenham Museum, 132 Main St., Wenham
How much: Admission $10 adults, $8 seniors (ages 65 and up) and children ages 1 to 16; babies under 1 free; exhibit included in admission price
More information: wenhammuseum.org, 978-468-2377