Korean Horses: Galloping across Space and Time

Jeju National Museum

In 2014 Jeju was designated as the nation's first special zone for the support of the horse industry. In celebration of this occasion, Jeju National Museum has prepared an exhibition that is expected to deepen viewers’ understanding of horse-related culture and history in Korea, emphasize Jeju’s identity as the home of Korean horses, and contribute to fostering the horse industry by promoting the conservation of horses and providing value in terms of the practical use of horses. Over 490 objects related to Korean horses are included here in the nation’s first large-scale show on this theme.

This show is the first of its kind in Korea to display as many as 80 paintings featuring horses. The works belong to a range of genres including documentary painting recording the state funeral of the king or a royal marriage, and literati painting from Joseon Dynasty scholar painters. For this exhibition, a number of documents will be opened to the public for the first time. In addition, the accompanying catalogue is expected to help readers deepen their understanding of the horse-related culture of Jeju through the list of historical documents and terminology regarding the horses of Jeju.

Ancient Bronze Objects Demonstrating the Power of the Owners

Extant examples of horse-shaped or horse-related relics date back to around the 1st century BCE.

A bronze horse-shaped belt buckle and Korean-style bronze daggers with hilts ornamented with fairly realistic images of horses demonstrate influence from the Bronze Age culture of Central and North Asia, but other objects excavated alongside those relics follow the style of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). This indicates that cultures of varied civilizations were introduced simultaneously to the Korean Peninsula. Horse-related bronze objects or those made in the shape of a horse, including bronze horses, horse-shaped belt buckles and components from horse-drawn carriages, were used to demonstrate the power of their owners, and hence were likely possessed by only an extremely limited number of individuals holding high social status.

Ancient Harness

Horse harnesses were designed to control the animals more efficiently. On the Korean Peninsula, harnesses appeared at some point prior to the Common Era, and the development of full horse tack was completed between the fourth and the fifth centuries, during the Three Kingdoms Period. Each component of horse tack serves one of the three main purposes of control, safety or decoration. Splendid harness decorated with gold or silver was designed to demonstrate the dignity of the owner of a tomb, expressing a wish for the glorious life of the deceased to continue in the afterlife.

Horse-shaped Clay Vessels and Figurines

During the Three Kingdoms Period, clay vessels or figures were buried in tombs after the completion of the funeral rites, out of a desire for peaceful rest for the soul of the deceased. Horse-shaped vessel was a favorite subject among such burial goods, since the horse was believed to ascend to heaven transporting the soul of the departed. Horse-shaped clay vessels or figurines are assumed to have been created as sacrificial offerings to divinities.

Horse-shaped clay vessels and figurines featuring realistic harness and outfits offer important materials for the research into the harness and costume of the time.

State Management of Horses

National system for breeding and managing horses had already been established by the Three Kingdoms Period on the Korean Peninsula. During the Goryeo Dynasty, the government operated state-run farms and established government authorities which assumed responsibility for the management and breeding of horses. In addition, Goryeo kings encouraged the breeding of horses by holding ancestral rites praying for good health and long life of horses. During the Joseon Dynasty, the horse represented state power. The government published and applied maps of horse farms in the nation and made efforts to secure quality horses, by appointing horse doctors to take charge of the breeding and medical treatment of horses. This period witnessed the publication of veterinary books for horses and the completion of traditional Korean veterinary medicine.

The Horse in State Events

The horse served not merely as a means of transportation, but as a representation of the authority and divinity of the state and/or the ruler. In the Joseon Dynasty, the horse fulfilled a range of purposes in state or royal ceremonies. In royal processions, it demonstrated the authority and dignity of the king. It was used in joyous events like anniversary celebrations related to the elderly of the royal family or a royal marriage. In funeral processions to the tombs of deceased kings or queens, people longed for the horse to carry the souls of the departed safely to heaven. Throughout the Joseon Dynasty, the horse not only served practical purposes; it was an essential symbol in state and royal ceremonies.

Primary Contributor to Victory in War

From ancient times, the horse has proved an essential resource in time of war. Cavalrymen fighting from horseback played a major role in battles, efficiently piercing enemy lines by means of their great mobility. Through constant struggles against cavalrly-centered nomadic forces from Central and North Asia, traditional Korean cavalry developed as the backbone of the military forces. Until the advent of firearms and more swift and mobile modern arms, the cavalry proved the most powerful force in war.

The Horse as Everyday Companion

The joys and sorrows shared by people and their horses are well reflected in the genre and documentary paintings of the Joseon Dynasty. Paintings depicting the highlights of human life feature men on horseback leaving home to join the government or to marry. In marriage, a white horse carrying the bridegroom was believed to be an auspicious token, which suggests that the horse was not simply considered a mere domestic animal, but was imbued with symbolic meaning. While the horse was the ideal means of transportation in everyday life, it also took a leading role in the agriculture, commerce and industry of the Joseon Dynasty.

The horse as the subject of painting

The horse served as an important subject for many traditional paintings and sculptures due to its speed. In particular, the horse represented power in ancient warfare where victory depended on the mobility of the horse. Therefore, the horse was often associated in visual art with power, and paintings featuring the horse as a main subject were often related with the themes of entering government service. Painting depicting a group of horses stood for a time of peace or symbolized freedom and human happiness.

The Horse in Folk Religion

The horse is one of the animals most associated with human beings. This animal is the seventh (午) of the twelve animal signs of the Chinese Zodiac. The belief in the twelve zodiac animals was consolidated in many fields of traditional culture, including astrology, calendar and religion. The belief in the divinity of the horse led to a reverence of the horse as the village deity in some parts of the country, and generated a range of traditional seasonal customs.

Jeju: The Home of the Horse in Korea

Jeju enjoys an excellent natural environment for breeding horses. High-quality horses were raised in Jeju from the early Goryeo Dynasty, and Tamna Horse Farm was established by the Yuan Dynasty government on the island in 1276 (the second year of King Chungnyeol’s reign). Though this process, technology and terminology related to horse breeding were introduced to Goryeo from Mongolia, and Mongolian names for horses survived through the Joseon Dynasty and remain in use today. During the Joseon Dynasty, ten state-run horse farms operated on the shoulders of Halla Mountain and supplied horses to the government. Private horse farms were also developed on the island. Equipped with the latest technology, these private farms supplied horses for the kings.

Teuri, Herders of Jeju

Teuri is the Jeju dialect version of mokja, a term coined by King Gongmin (r. 1351-1374) in 1367 to refer to herders responsible for taking care of horses. The term “mokja” originated with the Mongolian specialists dispatched by the Yuan Dynasty to ensure the control of state-run horse farms in Jeju. Herders were required to prepare forage for feeding horses and present the meat or skins of horses or oxen to the government. The descendants of herders known as teuri survived in Jeju into the 1970s. Such people took care of neighborhood horses and assumed responsibility for horse-related affairs in agriculture. However, teuri gradually disappeared with the mechanization of agriculture.

Credits: Story

Curated by — Kim seong myeong, Lee aer yung, Oh Yeon sook 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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