History on Horseback

There are various technical terms used to describe someone who is interested in the archaeology and history of the horse and its relationship with humans. One of these is “hippologist”, which, now I come to think of it, sounds pretty cool really: “Hey man, I’m a hippologist, can you dig it?” Another is the definitely more formal “equestrian historian”, which is OK, although it sounds a bit like the sort of thing a deb would say (historical note: “deb”, in the UK, was mid 20th century shorthand for a “d├ębutante“, a young upper class woman who was launched on the world via a d├ębutante ball or coming-out party. I can’t believe how quaint that sounds now). Also, the term “equestrian” is not comprehensive. It describes activities and status relating to riding horses, and not to all the other activities that go on in horse and human interactions, such as driving, or ploughing, or playing, or just observing and learning about each other. That quickly brings us to the heart of the subject. Horses don’t “do” history or archaeology, do they? It’s a pretty one sided view of the matter and arguably that’s what it’s always been, horses doing stuff that humans want them to do, whether they wanted to be involved or not.

And yet…time and again there are hints that it’s more than that, even in the midst of battle and bloodshed; that even the most tyrannical of rulers attempts to have some understanding and relationship with his horse, that he appreciates its intrinsic value and nature, that, in short, the horse has cast its magic over another human, whatever his or her qualities. There is a sense of the benign, of compassion, of understanding. “If only they could talk,” people say. If they could, perhaps very often we could not bear to hear what they have observed and experienced over the centuries, but a mirror would be held up to our behaviour that we could not ignore.

There is magic at the heart of the relationship between horses and humans. There is magic and nobility and also frustration. Now, in the 21st century, perhaps we are only just beginning to understand and appreciate what horses have done for us, how they have contributed and can contribute to our own existence. In his book “In the Days of the Comet” H.G. Wells described a world changed forever by the arrival of a mysterious comet: “For the horse was already very swiftly reaping the benefit of the Change. Hardly anywhere was the inhumanity of horse traction to be found after the first year of the new epoch, everywhere lugging and dragging and straining was done by machines, and the horse had become a beautiful instrument for the pleasure and carriage of youth.” He describes riding “both in the saddle and, what is finer, naked and barebacked”.I think he would appreciate the fact that a hundred years later there is a term used by some horsemen and women, “Barebacked and Bridleless”, abbreviated to BBL; and that horse communicator Carolyn Resnick has produced a book and DVD, both entitled “Naked Liberty”. http://www.carolynresnickblog.com/products/naked-liberty-book/

There is scarcely a society on earth that has not been touched by the horse in some way and horses have stepped onto every continent, including Antarctica. In this blog, I want to examine and celebrate what history and archaeology can tell us about what horses have done for us; and why in the 21st century, we still need them in our lives. This blog is called “History on Horseback” in an echo of the line from Ronald Duncan’s poem “In Praise of the Horse”: “England’s past has been borne on his back. All our history is in his industry. We are his heirs; he is our inheritance.” This is not just true for the English, or the British, but for cultures and societies right across the globe who have adopted the horse, usually adapting their own way of life as a result. I hope to explore and celebrate these too. And rather than call myself a hippologist or an equestrian historian, I’ve decided to call myself a horseback historian; one who loves horses and history and exploring landscapes and the world on horseback, or in the company of horses, or through the eye of a horse.

The header at the top of this page, of the White Horse of Uffington, has been kindly provided by Vale of White Horse District Council – a truly evocative name. The image reminds us that however much we learn through scientific investigation, there will always be that tiny kernel of magic and the unknown that will keep us wanting to know more.

I hope that you enjoy this blog! Please note that, other than quotes which are clearly marked as such, all material on this site is copyright Miriam Bibby.

Miriam Bibby

Horseback Historian