Sometimes life has a way of humbling you. I fancy myself as being a sort of expert when it comes to horses. I mean, I’m not exactly a city slicker. So, when I came across a breed of horse from the 1880’s that I had never heard of before – – and that looked like something from a fairy tale – – I was left scratching my head. How in the Sam Hill had the Oregon Wonder horses eluded me up until a few weeks ago? Prior to reading up on this breed, I would have considered them to be as mythical as a unicorn . . . but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
However it happened that I had not heard of the Oregon Wonder horses, I feel it my duty to enlighten those who may not have heard of them either. Or, if you’re already a fan of this breed from the past, you can have the pleasure of feeling smug!
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Long Hair
What made the Oregon Wonder horses so wondrous? Let’s just say if the breed had a theme song, it would be “Hair,” from the musical of the same name. “Gimme a head with hair—long, beautiful hair. Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen…” Oh, yeah, the Oregon Wonder horses had enough hair to earn them the reputation of being the Rapunzels of the horse world. If anyone had ever put an Oregon Wonder horse in the top of a fairy-tale tower, a prince could have rescued it simply by climbing up its flowing mane or tail. One stallion had a tail that measured 17 feet long and a mane that measured in at 14 feet.
Tall Tails = Tall Tales
Legends say that the original Oregon Wonder horses had been captured from a wild herd that roamed freely through the mountains of Oregon. In reality, they appear to have been bred from draft horses. There may have been some Andalusian blood running through the breed, as well. But, let’s get one thing straight. Those were some seriously high maintenance ponies. It’s difficult to imagine that they were ever capable of running wild and free. It would have been like those pretty girls on “Survivor” who try to turn their team bandanas into an entire outfit. Some animals were just never intended to survive in the wild, any more than a dental hygienist from Akron should be expected catch a fish with her bare hands.
Domesticated Oregon Wonder horses slept with their tails and manes in braids to avoid waking up in knots. An unkempt Wonder horse would have looked like a My Little Pony that’s been wedged in the car seat alongside a pile of Cheerios. Therefore, I maintain that the breed was not simply discovered in the wild.
Sideshow Pony or the Mane Event?
The carnival sideshow business was HUGE in the 1880s. And, if you were fortunate, you would find an Oregon Wonder horse touring alongside the muscle men and bearded ladies. These horses drew in big crowds. As was common with sideshows, grand stories accompanied the attractions. That’s likely where the idea of a wild herd of horses with hair resembling Crystal Gayle’s originated.
Perhaps the most famous of the Oregon Wonder horses was Linus. He was known as the Sampson of horses. There was an entire sideshow schpiel surrounding Linus’ ancestry. The sideshow barkers said he been sired by the “Wild King of Oregon Wonder Horses,” who had his own harem of beautiful mares and adventures to rival those of any Western legend. As the story went, Linus’ dam was the exquisite “Oregon Queen.” Her capture led to Linus becoming the first Oregon Wonder horse born in captivity. The boring fact of the matter was that Linus’ dam was named Oregon Beauty and his sire was unknown. But, apparently Americans have long been suckers for a good story about royalty—even of the horse variety. Linus was ¾ Clydesdale, ¼ Percheron. And, from the looks of his photos, he was approximately 96% hair.
Linus was a star! He was bred in about 1884 and, by 1890 he was sold for $30,000 to the Eaton Brothers. The Eaton Brothers were shrewd promoters of the horse, and shrewd businessmen. They told tall tales about Linus’ rapid hair growth (as much as three inches per month) and the beauty regime for Linus (cold water wash with no tonics applied). Linus died in 1894, at the age of ten. But he didn’t die before siring Aurelius and Linus II, who followed in their father’s sideshow footsteps. Aurelius was a regular at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. Linus II appeared in prestigious venues in New York and also toured the UK, with exhibits in England, Scotland and Ireland.
In at least one case, a Wonder Horse was still considered an intriguing specimen, even after he died. Prince Imperial, a famous Oregon Wonder Horse who was credited with having the longest mane, was even taxidermied. Stuffed Prince Imperial continued to travel the sideshow circuit. I’m sorry, but I can’t help giggling a little when I imagine a bunch of barefoot kids showing up with their pennies to see a stuffed horse with long hair. When not on the road, Prince Imperial was displayed in his owner’s living room, which, in my opinion, is taking Western decorating too far! He remained in the family for years before changing hands a couple of times. Ultimately, Prince Imperial found a home as a permanent exhibit in Marion, Ohio, at the Heritage Hall.
Hair Yesterday, Gone Today
It was common for sideshow barkers to say that the Wonder Horses’ tails and manes became more luxurious with each passing generation. How then did the breed become extinct? No one really knows the answer to that. Perhaps it was an issue of the “long hair gene” dying out. However the end came for this curious breed, it is doubtful that it will make a reappearance. But no matter what happened, I hope you’re as delighted as I am to look at the old sepia photos of a remarkable breed, long gone.
Happy Trails, y’all!