By Larry Tritten
My most salient memory of the National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Virginia 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 statute, with the horse depicted as powerful and imposing, but purposely shows an animal that is exhausted, half-starved, and standing with a back hoof bent. A plaque below 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 twenty miles of Middleberg in the battles of Aldie, Middleberg, and Upperville in June of 1863.”
There is a second copy of the three quarter sized sculpture at the US Calvary Museum in Fr. Riley, Kansas, both of these commissioned by Paul Mellon, and a third copy was made to be placed at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.
On the roof, above the three gables of the stone and wood Library building, which resembles an English country inn, there is a weather vane with a figure not of a rooster but a stylized horse in profile with flowing mane and tail. If there’s something you want to know about horses or turf and field sports, you’ll almost certainly be able to find it in the Library’s collection of 13,000 books, periodicals, photographs, films, and manuscripts. Appropriate ambience in the 15,000 square foot building is provided by paintings and sculptures by famous sporting artists.
The Library was founded in 1954 by George L. Ohrstrom Sr., president of the Orange Country 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 guiding force and Chairman of the Board for nearly half a century.
There is a daunting amount of material in the Library’s seven distinct collections – the Horsemanship Collection, the Steeple Collection, the Thoroughbred Collection, the Shooting Collection, the Foxhunting Collection, the Sporting Art Collection, and the Angling Collection.
Those who come to the library to pursue piscatorial interests are, to be sure, 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 reprinted book in the English language after the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. The books range on historical texts such as fly fishing, to numerous volumes representing the proliferation of fishing literature that began to appear in the early twentieth century.
The movie Seabiscuit, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001) created a resurgence of popular interest in thoroughbred racing, which began in America in 1665 when Colonial Governor Richard Nicolls established the first race course 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.
The Library 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 Littaner, and they have initiated a Fellowship to have scholars and academicians research from their rare books. Chances are that everything there is to know about horses can be discovered at the National Sporting Library, and if there is a proverbial horse of a different color, it can be found here.