About horsebackhistorian

Hi, I'm Miriam Bibby. Historian, archaeologist, journalist, editor, former university tutor and permanent horse keeper. Former editor of "Hoofprint" and "Ancient Egypt" magazines; former Egyptology tutor at Manchester University. I've also worked in heritage management and as a museum curator. I live in Scotland. I'm now focussing on my interests in horses and history and I hope you enjoy sharing them with me. In particular, I want to look at some of the lesser known characters, human and horse, who have contributed to our knowledge and experience. Would you like to know more? Do join my FB group, Horses (and other equids) in the ancient world" if you share similar interests. https://www.facebook.com/groups/219255094753915

The Best Breed of the North

Anastasija Ropa makes some very welcome comments on my chapter on the Galloway nag in “Horses in Premodern European Culture”.


Speculating on the origins of the Galloway horse is a process that is fraught with the issues besetting any contemporary breed enthusiast, since the whole concept of a “breed” is a very modern one and it probably did not cause medieval horse breeders any sleepless nights. A good horse was a good horse, valued for purpose rather than ancestry, and described by gait, or height, or even color or size, but principally by function.

Miriam Bibby, ‘The (Galloway) Horse and His Boy: Le Roman Des Aventures De Fregus and “The Best Breed in the North”?’

in The Horse in Premodern European Culture, ed. A. Ropa and T. Dawson

What do Fregus, Robert the Bruce, and Shakespeare’s Pistol have in common? These disparate individuals, who are either completely fictional (as Talbot’s characters) or partially fictionalized (Fregus is based on a an actual Scottish ruler, but was turned into the title…

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Galloways: a 16th century elite riding horse

It’s been a busy year for me, with a visit to the Leeds International Medieval Congress to present a paper (and meet with other equine history researchers). I’ve a couple of chapters and papers in press too. Here’s the early fruits of my Galloway research for the PhD, published on Academia. Lots of very interesting material emerging about our famed northern Gallowa’, and lots more to come! https://www.academia.edu/39801280/From_North_to_South_the_Galloway_Nag_as_an_Elite_Gift_in_the_16_th_Century

#ShelfieSunday: Kingdom of the Workhorse

Here’s a review of one of my favourite books about working horses, written for the Equine History Collective.


Kingdom of the Workhorse by A.J.Dampier
Countryside Publications, 1987
ISBN 0 86157 226 2

Review by Miriam Bibby

   This splendid account of the lives of working horses in and around the city of Manchester at its 19th century zenith, when it was the “workshop of the world”, home to the greatest manufactories in Britain, is one of my favorite books.

   A.J. (Tony) Dampier was from north west England and knew his subject both from his own research and from contact with the horsemen of the region from the middle of the 20th century until his sad death in 2011. It’s therefore largely, though not exclusively, based on local history and oral traditions. Arguably it’s the type of history of which we need more, because all too often the stories of working people and animals are not recorded and then they simply disappear. Frequently the only histories we…

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In search of Tishy Gallowa

I’m on a quest.

Back in the 1920s, a racehorse called Tishy hit the news for coming last in the Cesarewitch in two consecutive years, 1921 and 1922.

She was a success for sporting artist Tom Webster in the Daily Mail, though, because he began to do a series of cartoons based on Tishy and her alleged unusual action, which made him the highest paid cartoonist on Fleet Street for a while.

He also created an animated cartoon, said to be the first fully animated cartoon to be produced in Britain.

Here’s a clip of the 1921 race, with a possibly trotting Tishy at the back


You can read more about Tom Webster here: https://www.cartoons.ac.uk/cartoonist-biographies/w-x/TomWebster.html

There are also lots of Tishy cartoons on the same site: https://archive.cartoons.ac.uk/GetMultimedia.ashx?db=Catalog&type=default&fname=TW3717.jpg

And this reel contains some Tishy animation, about 10 minutes 30 seconds in:  http://www.britishpathe.com/video/flashbacks-reel-2-reel-2-is-old-reels-3-4-combined/query/TRAINING+RACE+HORSE

My quest is this: when I was growing up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, my mother told me that there had been a cartoon called “Tishy Gallowa” in the newspapers in the north east. This isn’t surprising, since the term “Gallowa'” was (and still is) a general term for a horse in north east England, and it derives from the old Galloway breed/type of horse that were the running horses who formed a major part of the foundation stock of the Thoroughbred.

I assumed, therefore, that “Tishy Gallowa” had been a syndicated north eastern version of the famous cartoon.

However, although I’ve contacted many of the cartoon archives, I’ve drawn a complete blank. No syndication, apparently, and no-one else recalls Tishy Gallowa.

Anyone else recall their parents or grandparents in the north east talking about Tishy Gallowa?

Two hundredweight a galloway: ponies in the Weardale lead industry

Mind your heads! (Unless you are a pony)

Wearing borrowed Wellingtons and hard hats, our group is sloshing along in single file up a narrow channel down which a stream is flowing. The water is quite deep in places and the only lighting comes from the round metal torches we carry, which are powered by battery packs slung at hip level. Every now and then there’s a “clunk” as someone’s helmet hits a low section of roof.

Our guide reminds us that he did say that would happen.

“But just look at the construction of the tunnel,” he enthuses, quite rightly. Torch beams flash up onto the roof. It’s a remarkable feat of drystone engineering  which leads right into the heart of the mine at Killhope, Co. Durham, which is hosting an event in celebration of the ponies – the famed galloways – who worked in the lead industry in Weardale, Britain’s biggest lead mining area in the 19th century. We are wading in the steps of the equines who worked underground in the Park Level Mine. This tunnel and its donkey-shoe-shaped entrance were designed with ponies in mind – and that’s why even the smallest adult amongst us – that would probably be me, then – frequently has to duck even lower.

Ponies in boots

The entrance to the mine bearing a fitting resemblance to a horse, or possibly donkey, shoe.

The entrance to the mine bearing a fitting resemblance to a horse, or possibly donkey, shoe.

As we entered the door, a phrase from Tolkien ran through my mind – “in Moria, in Khazad-dum”. After walking up the tunnel for what seems like an age, this is replaced by “where Alph, the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea…” It’s definitely more Khazad-dum than Kublai Khan, though, and this is giving our group a vivid impression of what it must have been like for the ponies, men and lads who were employed in the industry, starting at 4d. a day for the youngest. That’s fourpence in pre-decimal currency, or approximately 2 pence at today’s rates – slightly less, in fact.

Dales pony Westwick Paddy and Kevin Owens at the entrance to the mine.

Dales pony Westwick Paddy and Kevin Owens at the entrance to the mine.

The galloways, it transpires, were better off in terms of working conditions than the men. The miners wore only wooden clogs and felt hats; the galloways had leather boots to protect their feet from the flow in wet levels and leather blankets to save their backs from the drip, drip of acidic water from the roofs of the tunnels. An average day’s work down the mine would involve 15 turns – that is, trips in and out to fetch the distinctively narrow tubs for carrying out the ore, possibly up to three at a time. Each pony would usually perform two to five of those turns.

The underground roads set with rails for the tubs were originally levels through which water flowed freely. They were later called the horse levels, the areas to which the horses and tubs had access, rumbling along rails that were at first made of oak but latterly of iron. The miners worked away in side tunnels, often above the heads of the galloways, for in the Killhope mine the lead ore was frequently extracted by working upwards, rather than downwards or horizontally along the seams.

Prized Galloways

Unlike the ponies who worked in the later deep shaft coal mines, galloways involved in the lead industry lived above ground and the stables they used can be seen at Killhope along with the blacksmith’s shop that provided a range of vital tools and services to the mine. Local tenancy agreements included the provision of ponies and the majority of them were provided by farmers from further down the dale, along with supplying their own labour in the mine. The activity of both men and galloways was controlled by the famous local merchant family, the Blacketts, who later became the Beaumonts. Tenant farmers were limited as to how many animals they could keep – so many sheep or so many cows, or an even more limited number of galloways – this was called the stint. Ponies were capable of providing useful labour for the lead mines and so they were valuable and valued.

Charlie Parker of the Roandale Dales Pony Stud with Roandale Rock (Rocky).

Charlie Parker of the Roandale Dales Pony Stud with Roandale Rock (Rocky).

On the whole, the galloways working underground were better off than their fellows who carried the lead ore over the hills to the Allen smelters or the refined lead onwards to the staithes at Blaydon. The ponies in the mines needed to be literally bomb-proof – there were frequent explosions as the miners fired the rock to blast out the useful ore – as well as coping with the rest of the working conditions. Walking steadily along in the dark, in flowing water, drawing clattering tubs of ore, clearly required equines with special qualities. A galloway who possessed those qualities was prized and cherished. (It’s worth pointing out here that pit ponies who had spent a life working underground in similar conditions could, and sometimes did, live into a ripe and healthy old age.)

Over the tops to the smelter

The pack galloways, loaded up with 2 cwt (hundredweight) of ore each (that’s 101 kg), were not led but picked their own way across the tops. They wore muzzles to stop them grazing along the way – a standard with all pack horses, for the trains could be twenty to thirty strong with just one or two men to accompany them. If the horses or ponies were stopping too frequently to graze, shipments and deliveries would never be made on time. However, the lead mining ponies’ muzzles had a more important function in preventing them from eating grass contaminated by lead.

There were other hazards, too. More than one galloway ended in the mire as a result of wandering too far from safe tracks en route to the smelters. The tracks across the fells went by various names: the Carriers’ Way, the Black Way and the Broad Way. Later, as road improvements meant that more efficient transportion of the lead in horse-drawn loads was possible, the first roads in the area were all determined by the lead industry. Finally, chugging their way up the valley a little too late to save the declining lead mines, came the railway’s iron horses linking Newcastle-upon-Tyne with Hexham – and beyond.

“The packhorses…were kept by the farmers in the neighbourhood, often to the number of twenty or thirty. Mules were also sometimes used. The animals were provided with a sort of angular wooden saddle, which had raised pieces of wood affixed, back and front, with holes in them, through which chains were passed, in order to secure the timber when it was being carried to the mines. They also wore leathern muzzles to prevent them from stopping to crop the herbage by the wayside. The driver of the string of “galloways” frequently bestrode a donkey, kept for that purpose. The same Galloway always led the way, and was called the raker.” G. Dickinson, “Allendale and Whitfield”, 1884.

The stables at Killhope.

The stables at Killhope.

Lead mining transformed the landscape and in its early stages it was an industry as dependent on horses as on manpower. Water, too, which was diverted from the tops of hills right along the dale and channelled into a series of reservoirs to provide energy for the mighty waterwheel at Killhope. Occasionally dams were deliberately breached to create a rush of water that would create a “hush” – a man-made valley within which the lead ore was exposed and accessible. Lead was one of the most useful commodities of the time and it is still a requirement in many industries today, most notably the production of lead batteries.


Dales pony Westwick Paddy, whose galloway ancestors may well have worked at Park Level Mine, Killhope.

During the 1840s, when lead extraction in Weardale was at its peak, there were perhaps 1500 galloways involved in the different stages of the industry. Although not called Dales ponies at this point, they were indeed the ponies of the dales of north east England: Tynedale, Weardale, Teesdale, Allendale and also the neighbouring eastern dales of Westmorland and those of the West Riding of Yorkshire. Teasing out the differences between the Fell ponies of Cumberland and Westmorland – now Cumbria – and the Dales ponies at around the time of the establishment of the first stud book in 1898 was difficult. It was only with the establishment of a separate Dales pony stud book in 1916 – the event that is being celebrated at Killhope today – that the recognition of a particular type relating to the remote upland areas of the region came about.

1861. April 27. Died at Cleugh Head, Mary Stobbart, aged 64 years. She had for many years travelled the roads with her two horses and carts, carrying ore from the lead mines to Allen smelt mill, and lead from the mill to Haydon Bridge, and doing all the work of an ordinary cartman. When on one of her journeys to Haydon Bridge, one of her horses ran away while she sat on the limbers, from which she unfortunately fell, the cart passing over her, and she received injuries which resulted in her death shortly afterwards. – G. Dickinson, “Allendale and Whitfield”, 1884.

Galloway, Dales and Fell

It’s worth pointing out that whilst standardisation of many breeds and the establishment of stud books took place in the 19th century and early 20th, there was – and still is – room for differing types within each breed, which is necessary if breeds are to survive and flourish. Like many other famed northern breeds of horse – the Cleveland Bay comes to mind – Dales ponies were bred with a purpose and that purpose was similar in both cases – an all-round equine that was capable of taking on a range of functions from farm work to participating in social activities such as hunting and showing.

The Dales pony’s only rival in the mid-twentieth century was the little grey Ferguson tractor, but that was sufficient: by the 1950s Dales ponies were in serious decline. Extinction was prevented by the rise of leisure riding from the 1960s onwards. Today the breed is doing better, but is still a vastly underrated northern British achievement that is now mostly kept by a relatively small number of aficionados. A shame; because as well as being hardy and easy to keep, both Fell and Dales are so charismatic and human-focussed, intelligent and versatile, that those who share their lives with them know their value is above rubies. The legacy of the Galloway horse ancestry of both is recognised in the terms “Dales galloway” and “Fell galloway” which are current. In addition, the eye-catching Dales trot is inherited from the famed roadsters and trotters of the 19th century.

“There was John Jackson who lived at Sparty Lea, and kept sometimes eight and sometimes ten ponies, and a mule which he called his “his devil” as it was hard to lead; but Jackson being a low, thick, and exceedingly strong man, used to hold the mule by main force while he threw the two bags of ore on to its back. When the weather was fair, Betty, his wife, had to go with him to catch the ponies while he was loading them. I have often seen her riding on the back of those ponies with a man’s weather-beat hat on her head. Jackson was not satisfied with his day’s work with the galloways, but went to pump water in the mines at night; and it has always been a saying that nobody beat the world with hard work in Allendale but Jackson.” B. Irwin, “Notes on Allendale”, 1880.

The contribution of these ponies to industrialisation and the economy should not be underestimated and must not be forgotten. Thanks to Killhope Mining Museum and the Dales Pony Society for a memorable and enlightening day. For further information on Killhope, visit http://www.killhope.org.uk/ and for information on Dales ponies, http://www.dalespony.org/ 

All text and images copyright Miriam A Bibby 2016

Forthcoming events to celebrate the historic contribution of horses

Heads up for two forthcoming events that will celebrate and honour diverse aspects of the contribution of the horse to human history.

The first is this weekend at Beamish Museum in Co. Durham, UK, where the theme of the popular annual Horses at Work event will this year be Horses at War. With over 50 horses and ponies attending in addition to the Museum’s own equines, there’ll be a range of vintage horse-drawn vehicles including ambulances for both equines and humans from WWI. There’s much more working horse activity taking place too. Check out the details on the web site here: http://www.beamish.org.uk/events/horses-at-work/

Hadrian’s Wall lies not so very far from Beamish Museum, but you’ll have to wait until 2017 for the spectacular exhibition “Hadrian and his Cavalry” which will include activities such as battle re-enactments at sites right along the Wall. Bill Griffiths, the head of programmes atTyne & Wear Archives & Museums is chair of the project steering group. He suggests that the armoured cavalry will be  “shiny and showy”, in the spirit of Hadrian’s cavalry, describing it as “bling”. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/apr/09/hadrians-wall-roman-cavalry

Plenty to look forward to if you’re a fan of history and the horse!

Horses, history and more…

As well as researching and writing about the history of the horse, I am a museum and heritage professional. I also offer editorial services to a select clientele.

Recently I’ve been working with talented artist and writer Leena Maria, whose stunning debut novel, “Nephilim Quest: Shadowhunter”, is storming up the young adult charts.

Leena is also a fellow WordPress blogger. Check out her site – you’ll find an interview with me there and also her thoughts and comments on the need for the right author-editor alchemy during the creative process.



Ninny-niawing, nip-necks, blorts and snorks

Despite the many new opportunities for storing and reading books electronically, there are still plenty of traditional bibliophiles about. I’m one of them. I’ve always had a lot of books, and I’ve always collected them, as far back as I can remember. Most are horse or history related. If there’s one question that annoys a bibliophile more than any other, it’s: “What a lot of books – have you read them all?”

I used to get asked this so often when I was a child that I developed a standard answer – “Yes, all except the Bible and the dictionary.” Well, I read all of the Bible for research purposes when I was working on an Egyptology database some years ago, so I can now tick that one off. And, in a way, I can also say I’ve read the dictionary, or at least one of the dictionaries, because that’s what I’ve done for this blog.

The dictionary in question is “The Scots Dialect Dictionary” compiled by Alexander Warrack MA, and a magnificent work it is too. A few years ago, I wrote about Robert Burns and his horses, and I decided it would be interesting to do a follow-up that would introduce some traditional Scottish words relating to horses. Many of these words are in Warrack’s dictionary, although some of them are sadly redundant now that there are no longer packmen and their “pownies”, and working horses have all but vanished from our cities and the land. Scots is such a magnificent language that I made many a happy detour along the way.

Shanks’s naggis

First of all, of course, you have to acquire a horse, otherwise you’ll be on Shanks’s pony, if you live in England, that’s to say on foot. But in Scotland, you’d be on Shanks’s nag, mare, naigie, naggis, noddy or pair. It’s more likely though, that you’d be on Tamson’s mear – Thomson’s mare.

So what kind of horse do you want? Obviously you don’t want one that’s sag-backit, or seg-backit, since it would have a sunken back, nor do you want one that’s suffering from cords, a disease of the muscles of the neck, or bats, the disease of the bot fly.

Perhaps you prefer a chastain (chestnut) or a grissel (grey), or one that’s snippy or snippet (has a white stripe on its face). It might be bausand (having white marks on its face and limbs) or a bawsie, which means it either has a white face or is old. Check out its boos (shoulders) and barrel (body), because you don’t want one that’s barrel-gird (its ribs are showing) or scrab (undergrown and scrawny).

Next, you go to the smiddy (smithy) to see the burnewin or brookie-face (the smith) and his chapper (the man who wields the hammer). If he’s good, you might pay him in smiddy boll, a payment of grain, but if he’s no good, you’d call him a smith-body quite contemptuously.

What noise does your horse make? He might sneer, which is a special type of snort as he chucks mucous from his nose all over you when he’s a bit snotty. In that case, he’s probably suffering from a gerse-cold. Or he might sneg,  which is a neigh or a snort. In that case, he’s a snegger, which is just another name for a horse. He can blort, too, another snorty noise. Or snork, which means he’s afraid – a snork is the snort of a fearful horse.

At the horse-tailor

You get your saddle-gear (tack) from a horse-tailor (saddler), where you’ll find bridle renzies (reins), britchin, and braichums (horse collars). If you want a collar made of straw, it’s a bass. You can buy selles, too, that’s your standard saddle, and a saddle-tae-side or saddle-tae-sidlins for riding side-legs (side-saddle).

As you might expect from a country that gave the world many leading agricultural developments, including the Clydesdale horse, there are lots of Scottish words relating to ploughing, with very specific terms relating to the position of horses themselves within a plough team. The “fur-beast” or “fur-horse” is the horse that walks in the furrow. The “fittie-lan'” is the near side horse of the last pair in a plough, which walks on the unploughed land,. And the “fur-ahin” is the hindmost right hand horse in a plough. On Orkney, however, where four-abreast plough teams were traditional, the “fur-scam” was the second horse from the right hand.

A “hanbeast” was a  horse a ploughman guided by the left hand, the “hand-afore” the forehorse on the left hand, and the “hand-ahin” the last horse on the left hand. Most ploughing items, like the horses, were distinguished by whether they were on the furrow side or the land side, with a “fur-side” being the iron plate in a plough for turning over the furrow, while the “fur-sin” was the cord to which the hook of a plough was attached.

Ploughmen, pleughmen or pleuchmen had several helpers, one of whom was the gundyman who used a long pole fastened to the plough beam to aid the ploughman by pushing off or up to him as required. The gadboy or gadman goaded the horses along. It was tough team work.

Hap! Hie-wo! Heck!

Potentially, the most confusing linguistic element came in verbally directing the horses, and this varied from district to district and undoubtedly from farmtoun to farmtoun. To move or turn to the left, “heck”, “heik”, “hie-here”, “come-ather”, “come-ether”, “hie-woe”, “maader”, “maether”, “hy” and “hie-wo” (the last, also, confusingly, could mean turn right) were used.

To go or turn right, “hup”, “hap”, “haap”, and “re” were used, along with several more. “Shug” was what you might use to bring your horses to your hand.

.In the stable, you’d feed your horse a mash of oats (what else, in Scotland!) and that would be his “bait”, fed to him or her in a bait-troch (trough). If it was the last meal of the day it would be the horse-supperin’, the horse’s evening meal. There’d be a fusschle, or small untidy bundle of hay, stuffed into the haik, the hay rack, taken from the hodlack, or hay rick.

In the days of the packmen, pedlars or pack-merchants, pack loads were “packalds” and they carried wallets, or puddills. Definitely not to be confused with the “peckmen”, who smuggled spirits in a special vessel similar to a peck measure. The “anker” was a liquid measure of four gallons used by the smugglers because that was a good load for a pony. Masses of clouds were often called “packies” after packmen, presumably because of the way they arrived suddenly in a group, and a particular type of cumulus cloud often visible in otherwise fine weather along the north east coast came to be called “Coldingham Packmen.”

Ca’ for the midwife

There are so many other horse-related words and phrases in this rich, rich language that it’s impossible to share them all. However, I will share a few of my favourites. “Ninny-niawing” is whinnying, and “nip-necks” is the scratching of one another’s necks that horses love to do. If you need to get somewhere at top speed, you ride at a “midwife-gallop”, which speaks for itself. A “meldrop” is foam or moisture dripping from the mouth or bit. “Sonk-pocks” were bags carried on the back of an ass in which a tinker family stowed all their bits and pieces, including, sometimes, children. “Shoe-the-auld-mare” was a dangerous game in which acrobatics were performed on a beam slung between two ropes.

And finally, the best, the very best of all. A horse with swollen pasterns was said to be “haggis-fitted” – it had its feet swelled up like a haggis.