Historically, horses with long hair have been held in high regard. The most notable long-haired horse of antiquity was a Percheron named Prince Imperial. Originally, this horse was owned by Emperor Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III, the nephew of Napoleon, until he was purchased by Jacob Howser. Howser brought Prince Imperial to the United States with the intent of enhancing local horse gene pools. Known for possessing the world’s longest mane and forelock, Prince Imperial was a star at various American horse shows and fairs. After his passing in 1888, the horse was preserved by taxidermy, and the Howser family continued to showcase him in sideshows for many years.
Seeing the fame of Prince Imperial, and its commercial success in the sideshow business, more long-haired horses were bred for show. These equine beauties were major attractions at circuses, sideshows, and fairs, earning the title of ‘wonder horses’. They were given rather fanciful backstories. Perhaps, the most outrageous tale is associated with Linus, a name actually shared by three separate horses.
According to a contemporary promotional leaflet of the day, so the story goes …
“In the early history of Oregon traditions of a herd of magnificent wild horses that roamed at will over her mountains and valleys were told the settlers, and, like many other tales of like character, seemed beyond belief. It was said this herd was led by an enormous chestnut stallion, whose mane and tail were so abundant and of such length as to almost envelop the entire animal in a wealth of flowing hair. For years this” Wild King of Oregon Wonder Horses” roamed over the country, ever alert to stampede his followers and flee with almost the rapidity of the wind at the approach of a human being. So subtile was this wild leader of his race that it was only at rare intervals that the best hunters were able to even secure at a distance a glimpse of these marvelous equines. Frequent hunts were inaugurated by those who had heard of the surpassing beauty of these horses for the purpose of capturing them to be placed in subjection and used for improving the breeding of the settlers’ horses; but, though all the advantage that the intelligent hunter could command was brought to bear, added to which were large rewards for the capture of the magnificent leader, or some representative member of the herd, for years the intuitive cunning of this remarkably intelligent horse rendered his capture, or that of his followers, impossible, though for some unaccountable reason there was no apparent increase in the herd, which was later accounted for, as this wild king would brook no rival, and killed every male born to his equine harem.
Surrounded by his bevy of beautiful mares, who, like him, possessed in a marked degree the hirsute adornments that caused the settlers to seek their capture, this” uncrowned king” of the Pacific Slope continued to evade civilization until his demise, leaving sixteen beautiful mares to mourn their lifelong protector, but with apparently no means of perpetuating the race. Many, in fact most, of these mares were aged, for they, too, had followed the footsteps of their leader and fought among themselves for supremacy to such an extent that only such rivals as were imbued by nature with extraordinary powers of endurance were enabled to rear their female young; and possibly none would have survived but for the probable interference of the “wild old king,” who saw in this bitter war of extermination the loss of opportunity to surround himself with the choicest of equine beauty, and so in a few instances must have insisted on allowing some “to live. At all events, of the sixteen mares but one was ever captured that was possible to breed, and she possessed extraordinary powers for perpetuating the peculiarities of her race, for, as shown in the second, third and fourth descent, all the leading characteristics of this marvelous mare are not only found, but in each instance strengthened and increased by careful breeding, so that now the “Oregon Wonder Horses” have become in captivity what they were in their wild state, a distinct and beautiful breed, exhibiting to a high degree the intelligence that enabled them to retain their liberty for so many years while pursued and eagerly hunted by the most famed scouts, cowboys and hunters the great West could command.
The capture of “Oregon Queen,” the youngest surviving mare of the wild herd, was hailed with pleasure by those interested in improving the breeding of horses, both in Oregon and the entire Pacific Coast (for their fame was widespread), and when it became known that the “Queen” was to bear a foal by the old leader of the herd, offers of fabulously large amounts were made in advance of its birth for the offspring; but all were refused by Messrs. Rutherford, who had, by early purchase from the captors, secured the much-coveted prize.
In the early spring of 1870 “Oregon Queen” became the dam of “Oregon Beauty,” the first of the Wonder Horses born in captivity. This filly was treated with the utmost care, and soon developed into a marvel of beauty (hence her name); and when five years old, and after the birth of her first colt (Linus), was placed on exhibition, and proved one of the greatest drawing cards for fairs and museums ever known, until her death at Coney Island, where she was killed by lightning in the summer of 1887. Happily Linus, her son, who not only resembled his dam, but possessed even a greater development of tail and mane, was able to succeed her as one of the most attractive exhibition animals ever placed before the public
Linus was sold in 1890 to Messrs. Eaton Brothers, of Boston, for $30,000, and proved a splendid paying exhibition property for several years, so much so that $60,000 was refused for him by his owners, who retained possession of him until his death in 1894.
In the meantime, by careful and judicious breeding extending over a period of twenty-five years from the capture of the first mare, the Messrs. Rutherford have succeeded in establishing this breed of “Wonder Horses” on a secure foundation; and, though guarding with utmost jealousy all the progeny, they carefully continued their line of breeding until they possess to-day absolute control of a distinct breed of horses, the like of which has never been seen in all the world, nor will it ever be reproduced, since the wild origin is now extinct.
The” Wonder Horses” of Oregon are remarkable for the great growth of hair in mane and tail, which for length and thickness is not equaled in the world; and since these horses have been bred in captivity this growth of beautiful silken hair has increased with each generation, as will be seen from a comparison of the photographs contained herein. The wonderful endurance and intelligence of this breed of equines is at once apparent to anyone familiar with horses; and now that all trace of the wild nature has bowed to the gentle care and treatment meted out to these animals, they exhibit the utmost gentleness and court the attention of those who come near them. Another remarkable characteristic of this truly wonderful breed of horses is their color, all of them being rich chestnuts, which goes far to prove them a distinct breed, able, by reason of their thoroughbred origin, to perpetuate their blood from generation to generation.’ No doubt the “Oregon Wonder Horses” are the truest descendents of the first horses brought to America by Cortez, the conquerer of Mexico. Probably some’ escaped at that early period and established this breed hundreds of years ago remaining wild and uncaptured.
Linus II. is pronounced by eminent horsemen as the most perfect type of equine beauty in the world, and his proud bearing adds much to his natural grandeur, for he carries himself as a worthy successor of his wild old ancestor, the King of Oregon Wonder Horses, in whose place he now stands as leader of his race.”
The tale of the long-haired Oregon horses, with their wild origins (or at least the wild story of their origins) and extraordinary beauty, remains an interesting foot note to hair biology. It highlights the distinct allure of these majestic long haired beasts, with their magnificent manes and tails that captivated audiences nationwide. From Prince Imperial to the enigmatic Linus, these horses symbolize a unique chapter in the history of American sideshows, circuses, and fairs, where they earned their title as ‘Wonder Horses.’ They now stand as a testament to the importance of preserving and enhancing unique breeds, reminding us of the intriguing and enduring fascination humanity holds for these noble creatures and long hair.