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Fit For A King

British Museum/The Bridgeman Library

Benin, brass plaque, probably 16th century, the Oba returning triumphant from the Igala war

Horses are rare in some parts of Africa--in damp, tropical climates, they are often done in by disease. But the West African grasslands just south of the Sahara Desert are horse country. Around 1,000 years ago, powerful empires arose in this region. Their rulers traveled on horseback and commanded large armies with thundering cavalry.

Though these empires have faded, West African leaders still keep horses as tokens of status and authority. On formal occasions, many rulers dress their horses in lavish trappings and display their wealth as they ride.

Mossi Horsemen

Wide stretches of the country now known as Burkina Faso were once ruled by the Mossi, a West African people with a long tradition of horsemanship. According to legend, their empire was founded by a prince named Widiraogo, meaning "stallion," who arrived on a horse and conquered the land with his cavalry. Centuries ago, the Mossi battled their enemies on horseback. In the 1800s, they enriched their empire by breeding horses and trading them for cotton cloth, metal goods, and slaves.

AP/Wide World Photos

Horsemen charge to show their riding skills during the Durbar festival in Kano, Nigeria

Riding High

Finely dressed Hausa and Fulani horsemen fight mock battles during a 2004 festival honoring of the emir of Kano, a Muslim ruler in northern Nigeria. The tradition dates back to a time when the emir was protected by cavalry, and regiments had to demonstrate their skills on command.

Ceremonial Horse Gear

During a celebration, a Mossi ruler might parade through the streets on a horse decked with luxurious trappings. The design of this bridle and bit may have been borrowed from the desert region of Mali, north of traditional Mossi lands.

Horse Collar With Amulets

A Mossi necklace in the exhibition was made to adorn and protect a ruler's horse. The square pendants may hold pages inscribed with prayers or lines from the Koran.

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