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

By yon bonny brays…Donkey Heaven in the Borders

Not just about horses: The Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells in the Borders opened its doors to the public for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

Not just about horses: The Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells in the Borders opened its doors to the public for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

There were donkeys, donkeys everywhere, and also camelids, pigs, goats, chickens and a pony or two, when The Scottish Borders Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells opened its gates for the Borders Festival of the Horse earlier this year. A good thing too; because donkeys deserve their moment in the sun just as much as horses. They’ve played as important a role in human history, although it might have been frequently overshadowed by their larger and faster cousins. In fact, as I was watching the donkeys watch the humans watching them, I knew that I was going to go home afterwards and ransack the bookshelves in search of donkey related material.

Humans owe a lot to me and my ancestors, you know!

Humans owe a lot to me and my ancestors.

If you were to travel back in time to the end of the last ice age, wherever you went in the northern hemisphere, including America, you’d find equids of one kind or another – horses, zebras or wild asses – roaming free in enormous numbers. Cross from north America into South America, and you’d find horses there too. They have only been hunted to extinction by humans in those two continents since the end of the ice age. It’s perhaps only 8,000 or 9,000 years since the last truly wild indigenous horse in America fell to a hunter’s spear.

At the end of the ice age, various types of wild ass were found across north Africa and parts of Asia (such as Equus africanus in Africa and Arabia, and Equus hemionus and Equus kiang, both onagers, in Asia). The ass extended its range as far as Nubia and Somalia in east Africa, both of which have – or rather had – their own wild versions. After the ice age, as far as humans were concerned, equids of all kinds meant one thing and one thing only – food on the hoof. Masses of skeletal evidence bear witness to this; and so it could be argued that asses, along with other equids, played a part in the inexorable rise of humans long before they were put into service.

Donkeys were domesticated and in the service of man long before horses. This image from an Egyptian 5th dynasty tomb shows a man seated in an unusual carrying chair placed across the back of two donkeys. Image after John Gardiner Wilkinson from Patrick Houlihan's monograph on instances of humour in riding scenes from ancient Egypt, published by Gottinger Miszellen.

Donkeys were domesticated and in the service of man long before horses. This image from an Egyptian 5th dynasty tomb shows a man seated in an unusual carrying chair placed across the back of two donkeys. Image after John Gardiner Wilkinson from Patrick Houlihan’s monograph on instances of humour in riding scenes from ancient Egypt, published by Gottinger Miszellen.

In fact, for various reasons discussed by Juliette Clutton-Brock, Mary Littauer and Joost Crouwel amongst others, equids were domesticated relatively late in human history. The first animals used for drawing vehicles were bovid – ox-type animals – not equid. When – and where – equids were first domesticated is a contentious point amongst researchers, but the strongest claim for the domestication of the horse is Kazakhstan about 7,000 years ago. This appears to have been for meat, milk and skins, and the concept of riding or driving them came much, much later. What we do know is that Mesopotamian cultures such as the Sumerians started to breed onagers and domesticated donkeys together to produce a larger, stronger and more trainable alternative to bovid draught to use in their massive battle cars around 2,800 BCE. Prior to this, they would certainly have used donkeys as pack animals. Donkeys appear in this role in the tombs of Egyptian officials just a little later in time, from the 5th dynasty onwards (about 2,400 BCE). However, Egypt, or rather Nubia, was almost certainly the first place to domesticate the wild ass.

Sadly, it’s around this date that a recurrent theme in the history of the donkey also emerges. In the tomb of the official Ti at Saqqara, for instance, one man is shown in a scene shouting at a group of donkeys that he is going to “beat you on the bum!” Bullying, threats and beatings have all too often been the patient donkey’s lot in life. Let’s not underestimate the importance of the donkey to the emerging Egyptian pyramid-economy, either; one tomb from the period lists a herd of 2,300 donkeys amongst the owner’s – ahem – assets. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Donkeys still play an important part in the Egyptian economy today. In fact, the history of the donkey and its relationship with humans is important – and clearly one of those neglected areas of  which we need periodic reminders.

One of the earliest images of the people the ancient Egyptians called "rulers of foreign lands", and which historians generally call "The Hyksos" arriving in Egypt, from a tomb at Beni Hassan. Whilst the Hyksos have come to be associated with the arrival of the horse in Egypt, this is only partly true; the horse is particularly associated with one dynasty of the Hyksos AFTER they arrived in Egypt. Most, although not all, equid burials in the delta region of Egypt are of donkeys, which played and still play a vital part in many economies, ancient and modern.

One of the earliest images of the people the ancient Egyptians called “rulers of foreign lands”, and which historians generally call “The Hyksos” arriving in Egypt, from a tomb at Beni Hassan.  The idea that the Hyksos brought the horse to Egypt is only a partial truth. It’s associated with a particular Hyksos dynasty AFTER they arrived in Egypt. Most equid burials in the delta of Egypt from that date are of donkeys which have played a vital role in many economies, ancient and modern.

People have come to associate the Hyksos, often described as “invaders” of Egypt, with the arrival of the horse there. In fact, the horse only came to be associated with a particular dynasty of the Hyksos once they were established in Egypt; and the earliest images of the “Hyksos” in Egypt, from Beni Hassan, show a group of people looking very much like economic migrants arriving with – a donkey.

Whereas the horse is frequently described as “noble”, “spirited”, “powerful” and so on, the donkey has always had to make do with more humble epithets – of which “humble” is used most often. Humble, stubborn, lowly, lazy – the donkey, like the mule, has tended to attract negativity from those who view the horse as obviously superior. But donkeys can often do what horses can’t – and they can do much of what horses do, more cheaply and with less fuss. Encountering a donkey, such as those at the sanctuary, reveals them to be creatures with immense patience and affection; and, strangely given the nature of their interactions with humans over the millennia, they have great curiosity in us and what we do. Stubbornness and difficulty in most equids is a consequence of the need to assert their strong sense of self-preservation.

I'm all ears!

I’m all ears!

The word “ass” betrays its Latin origins – asinus.  Where does the word donkey, in use from the 18th century onwards, come from? Anthony Dent, in his book “Donkey: the Story of the Ass from East to West” speculates that it’s from the Flemish “donnekijn”, meaning “a small, dun-coloured animal”; the same language probably gave us “monkey”, as used for the capuchin ape, from the Flemish “monnekin” or little monk. Originally, donkey would have been pronounced in the same way as monkey – dunkey. In ancient Egypt, however, just as the cat took its name from the noise it made – “miu” – donkeys were called something like “ee-aas”, as they still are in France, to which every child can still relate. Hee-haw, ee-aw, hi-han; unmistakeably the sound of the donkey.  And Doris Rybot suggests in her book “My Kingdom for a Donkey” that “moke”, for a donkey, might be from the Dymoke family crest, which sports a pair of donkey ears. It’s not entirely clear which came first, though – the donkey-moke or the Dy-moke. In Northumberland, Durham and parts of the Borders they are known as cuddies, after Saint Cuthbert. They get a passing defamatory reference – are you surprised? – in the Geordie anthem “Blaydon Races”, in which 19th century bookmaker Coffee Johnnie is accused of stealing white donkeys to make a hat from their skins: “Coffee Johnnie had a white hat on – they yelled ‘Wha’ stole the cuddy?'” This was a notorious trade, as the remark suggests. In other parts of Britain the question “Who stole the donkey?” would inevitably receive the reply “The man with the white hat.”

They talk about me behind my back, you know.

They talk about me behind my back, you know.

The donkey appears in many legends, reaching his finest hour in Christian belief with the Nativity and the humbleness – humility again – of the ox and ass. A donkey is supposed to have carried the holy family into Egypt. Also, there’s the arrival in Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, with Jesus riding on a donkey, although it’s not actually entirely clear in all English versions that a donkey – as distinct from a horse – was intended. However, that, in Christian tradition, is why many donkeys have a cross formed from a dorsal stripe and lines going down over their shoulders. Scientifically, however, it’s likely that it simply indicates their descent from the Nubian wild ass which has similar markings, suggesting that upper Egypt is the likeliest place for the earliest domestication of asses. Darker strands run through the mythology of the donkey, with a possible association with the Egyptian god Set, or Sutekh, and his link to the forces of chaos. Anthony Dent mentions the use of the donkey as an anti-Christian and anti-Jewish symbol in graffiti from Roman contexts. And of course, there’s G.K. Chesterton’s famous poem “The Donkey” with its cutting description of the donkey as “the devil’s walking parody on all four-footed things”: “When fishes flew and forests walked/and figs grew upon thorn/one moment when the moon was blood/then surely I was born.” Then there’s Midas, with the ears of an ass; not to mention infamous Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In fact, the more you examine the history of the donkey, the more you find projections of human fears and foibles onto this unsuspecting animal.

Open wide and say ee-aah. Donkey feet and teeth, like those of horses,  need regular treatment.

Open wide and say ee-aah. Donkey feet and teeth, like those of horses, need regular treatment.

Mini-moke...miniature Mediterranean donkey Basil.

Mini-moke…miniature Mediterranean donkey Basil.

The sanctuary at St Boswells is also called Donkey Heaven, and it’s easy to see why. Beautiful, sheltered paddocks offer a safe haven away from those human fears and foibles. Sadly, abuse and neglect still play a part in donkey rescue, but that’s not the whole story.  When people buy a donkey they might simply find they’ve taken on more than they realised; or as they age or their needs change, the responsibility becomes too much for them. Keeping a donkey is no less expensive or time-consuming than keeping a horse or pony. They need time, attention, footcare, dentistry and veterinary treatment as required. During the course of the day, we are educated in the grooming and coat care required for a donkey as well as watching the sanctuary vets at work on an elderly donkey’s teeth. With over 70 donkeys currently in the sanctuary, there’s a lot of teeth and feet to look after.  Donkeys are affectionate and need companionship and specialised winter care, too, as unlike that of the horse, the ancestor of the domesticated donkey did not come from a continental climate zone with extremes of cold and heat. Whilst they have adapted to other climates, their bodies were originally intended to cope with hot, dry conditions.

To find out more about the Scottish Borders Donkey Sanctuary, visit http://www.donkeyheaven.org/ and for more information about donkeys in general, http://www.donkeybreedsociety.co.uk/

Donkey heaven.

Donkey heaven.


Timbah! Forestry offers working horses room for growth

It's no teddy bear's picnic down in the woods; it's a working day for Caitlin Erskine and her pony Angel.

It’s no teddy bear’s picnic down in the woods; it’s a working day for Caitlin Erskine and her pony Angel.

It’s a gloomy and slightly wet day in the Borders, but the new leaves and grass are glowing with an intensity that is only seen in spring. Despite the weather, people and trailers are gathering in a small car park over the road from the impressive new visitor centre at Abbotsford, the former home of Sir Walter Scott. We’re here for a demonstration of horse logging, organised by the British Horse Loggers for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

There goes one fast pony!

There goes one fast pony!

Timber extraction by horses is an unusual phenomenon: a growth area for working horses offering opportunities for new businesses. Forestry is an important activity throughout the Borders, and on both sides of the border. Mostly it’s carried out by extremely large machinery. Areas are clear-felled by harvesters and the timber stacked by forwarders. It’s then transported for various industrial and commercial uses and the ground is picked clean of the remnants (the brash) and eventually replanted. This works well for quick-growing conifers but when it comes to sensitive or protected areas of forest, horses can’t be beaten, as both Iain Laidlaw of the Forestry Commission and Robert Gray, the Woodland Manager for Abbotsford agree.

“Modern horse logging is often a viable option for timber harvesting. Rising fuel costs for mechanised transport are helping to make bio-fuelled horses even more competitive,” says Iain. Robert agrees, commenting that “We are keen to try horses rather than machines for timber harvesting on what is a fairly sensitive site. Whilst it may be slightly more expensive than the most efficient modern machines, we think it would be worth paying a premium to minimise disturbance, for example around streams, footpaths and roadside verges. We are aiming to make the woods more attractive by selectively thinning out some of the trees and we hope to make a small profit from the sale of timber to a local sawmill.”

Only the second time out in the woods for Katie but she's soon in the swing of it.

Only the second time out in the woods for Katie but she’s soon in the swing of it.

Nor is a mighty heavy horse necessarily required. All the horses working today are 15 hh or under. Scout, a blue roan coloured horse owned by Danny McNeil, is 22 and about to retire. Danny’s new mare, 9 year old Katie, is just learning the ropes. “It’s only her second time in the woods,” explains Danny. He goes on to tell us that she was nervous and inexperienced when he acquired her. She’s clearly a little uncertain at the start, but by the end of the afternoon has settled into the working routine and even looks as though she’s enjoying herself.  Danny is involved in conventional forestry using large harvesters as well as using horses so he can provide a range of  flexible options suited to individual needs.

Caitlin and Angel carry down timber quickly and efficiently for her father Rab to stack.

Caitlin and Angel carry down timber quickly and efficiently for her father Rab to stack.

Caitlin Erskine is moving logs of trimmed timber quickly and efficiently into place with her pony Angel, whilst her father Rab stacks it neatly. Angel is just 14.2 hh and she is fast. It’s pretty hard to get an action shot of her as she nips competently through the leaves and under the boughs of trees. All the horses in use today wear open bridles. It might seem logical to provide some cover for their eyes against the whipping branches, but in fact it makes more sense to give the horses the freedom to make their own judgements once they’ve learned the ropes. It’s not a job where horses can be micromanaged all the time. They need to work as part of a team.

Caitlin and Angel have really grown up together since the mare joined the family when they were both quite young. Angel is a good all-rounder, her owner advises me, having tried a bit of everything from cross-country to dressage before starting in forestry work two years ago. Caitlin has nothing but praise for the good reliable type of cob that Angel represents, especially having also had experience of high-maintenance thoroughbreds.

Julian Philipson, treasurer of the British Horse Loggers Association, is quick to comment when I tell him I’m doing a piece for my web site on the event.

Not the past, but part of the future of forestry: logging with horses is perfect for sensitive sites.

Not the past, but part of the future of forestry: logging with horses is perfect for sensitive sites.

“History on Horseback? We don’t want any of that history and heritage stuff,” he warns me sternly. “This is about what’s happening NOW and the economic contribution that horses can make in the future. And horses work alongside the most modern forestry equipment.”

“Quite right too,” I respond. “I’m all in favour of that – it’s not just about what horses have done for us, it’s what they can do for us – what we can do together.”

“That’s all right then,” he says, going on to explain the finer details of the specialist harness in use today. “You see the collars? They are made to an Amish design and much of the rest is Swedish in origin. Can you see the wooden peg there? That will provide a quick release if the horse gets into trouble or falls down in the woods.”

Open bridles, Amish collars and Swedish harness; a typical mix for a logging horse.

Open bridles, Amish collars and Swedish harness; a typical mix for a logging horse.

I observe the collars closely, as they are unlike anything I’ve seen before. The Amish are members of a chiefly north American religious and social community which has never moved beyond horse traction. This unbroken tradition, and their adherence to traditional pre-mechanised farming methods, clothing and so on, is seen as odd by many but is in fact an invaluable resource and example for those who wish to return to equine power. Sweden is another source for experience, knowledge and equipment in this field.

DSCF3311Gratifyingly, there’s a good turnout today despite the weather, and, perhaps amongst the visitors watching the horses at work under the dripping leaves, there’ll be someone who will seriously consider horse logging as a business option. The British Horse Loggers organisation is not just an industry support group; under the patronage of Prince Charles, it’s also a charitable organisation via its trust which has been set up to encourage and assist in training “new growth” for the future. It’s important that apprentices learn to do the job the right way and have a good understanding of health and safety principles. As well as working with timber, horses can be used very effectively in bracken and weed control as well as many other areas of general transport in forestry.

Most horse loggers are private contractors although some are on semi-permanent contracts to major landowners and estates. “It is the ultimate low impact extraction system and out performs all other small scale systems including quad bikes and mini forwarders,” maintain the British Horse Loggers. “Horse logging allows for a highly selective silvicultural management of our woodlands resulting in a quality of woodland management and care that cannot be equalled by any other system.”

And, of course, there’s always public interest and appeal in watching horses at work. The PR aspects though, are definitely secondary to the practical and economic ones; and it’s encouraging and exciting to think that this is one area where working horses might genuinely make a major return.

To find out more about forestry work using horses, contact The British Horseloggers via their web sites, http://www.britishhorseloggers.org or http://www.britishhorseloggerscharitabletrust.org

To discuss forestry requirements in Borders region and northern England, visit the Erskine’s web site http://www.homestead-horselogging-company.co.uk or telephone Danny MacNeil on 01830 520457 & 07774 616576.

The Ancient and Royal Order of Poop and Scoop

For research purposes, I’ve recently found myself reading a number of non-fiction books about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her “Sweet Robin”, with whom she carried on a long and flirtatious relationship. They had known each other most of their lives and had both been incarcerated in the Tower of London at the same time whilst young. They each had a parent who had died as a traitor under the blow of the headsman’s axe. Their support for each other through the stress and trauma of their early lives undoubtedly contributed to the length, and indeed success, of their unconventional friendship, or love affair – however you want to view it.

Dudley was Elizabeth’s Master of the Horse; and the interesting thing about that is how few historians comment on the significance of it. Biographers are happy to discuss whether the relationship between the two of them was sexual; whether or not they were complicit in the death of Dudley’s wife; whether or not a certain portrait depicts Elizabeth and Leicester apparently doing the “Volta”, which looks like an early version of the jive. Whoever they are, the man has his hand on an intimate part of the woman’s anatomy as he throws her into the air and the woman doesn’t look in the least offended. Far from it.

Being Master of the Horse to a monarch means taking on a historically powerful role along with the title. When the ancient kings of Egypt, their courtiers and military leaders adopted the use of the horse and chariot, there was not only a requirement for a “Master of the Horse”, but also a pre-eminence and importance conveyed by the title to its holders. One of the best known of these was Ay, Master of the Horse at the court of King Akhenaten. Sadly, no manual of responsibilities or training, horse care and management has yet been found in ancient Egypt, although we can reconstruct a certain amount of knowledge from one or two remaining stable block foundations and other archaeological remains, from chariotry and equipment, mainly from Tutankhamun’s tomb, and from some royal inscriptions, particularly those of Amenhotep II and Ramesses II.

What we don’t know is how much of the ancient role required a hands on approach. It seems unlikely to have simply been a status title. Some knowledge of horse care and management would be required, but possibly that wasn’t the key skill in acquiring the title. The author of the most ancient treatise on horse training, the Mitannian Kikkuli, was neither royal nor a courtier. He was a practical trainer recruited to impart his knowledge to what author and hippologist Anthony Dent calls, with his usual forthrightness, “the thickear squadron-leaders of the Hittite Chariotry Corps.” From the beginning of the relationship between horses and humans, horses have conveyed status to those who could understand their natures and make use of them for display, in warfare and in hunting. Mostly, though, the trainers and grooms could probably only bask in reflective glory as they watched the cream of their various national elites claim the horsemanship credits. King Amenhotep II of Egypt claimed that he was given the best horses from his father’s stable and that he understood their nature and behaviour better than anyone else; Ramesses II said that after the Battle of Kadesh he would visit his stables every day to feed his horses, Victory-in-Thebes and Mut-is-Content, with his own hands, so valiantly had they performed on the battlefield. Thanks to him – and the unseen, unacknowledged army of trainers, handlers, veterinary specialists, water and fodder carrying grooms and underlings, of course. Many of the grooms appear to have been Nubians and it’s highly likely that Nubia had its own extremely knowledgeable horse culture before that of Egypt. They were specialists, specially recruited for the job; but most of the status-bearing roles went to Egyptians.

And so, through the ages, from the wily old courtier Ay, through the dashing Duke of Buckingham in the reign of James VI/I, right up to modern times, rulers and their Masters of the Horse go together like a – well, like a horse and chariot. Or two horses and a chariot. So, what do you think Elizabeth and Robert talked about when they got together? Did they share sweet flirtatious nothings or discuss the Spanish situation or laugh over a scandalous poem about the court? Of course they didn’t! They talked about HORSES, for goodness’ sake. And where there are horses, one thing predominates, the most significant and difficult part of horse-keeping. A stable of 200 horses produces a LOT of muck. It is either a useful by-product or a damn problem. If you can’t manage muck, you can’t manage a stable. A modern day riding stable near the Giza pyramids took its muck out to the desert for years, resulting in interesting stratigraphy that archaeologists have come to call the “HSS layer”. One of the “s’s” stands for “sand”. You can guess the rest. Meanwhile, back in Elizabethan England…


“Yes, my liege, my most adorable Gloriana, what is it?”

“Grey Tilbury refused his breakfast this morning! Even though I offered it to him with my own fair hands! Robin, what is amiss with him? Is it colic, think ye?”

“Nay, most supreme monarch, it is simply the fresh spring grass. That is the only thing that tempteth him…”

“Oh. Have a care, Robin, that he overindulgeth not. For the pony gout is a terrible scourge. Why, only yesterday I was reading in the “Proclamation of Ye Oddfellows of Ye Noble Horse” that – ”

“Fear not, Ma’am, for I will restrict him to but a few hours in the forenoon.”

“Two hours, Robin! But two hours, for according to the Proclamation…”

“Aye, Ma’am. As Your Majesty wills. And, if you would care to cast the Royal gaze upon this?”

“What is it?”

“It is the proposed arms for the collectors of dung from ye royal paddocks. A crossed shovel and broom argent, over bucket or, from which steam is rising, with the motto “ordure et endure” on field vert…”

Queen (clapping hands with joy): “Just the job, Robin! Just the job.”

From Skyros to Scottish skies

Last spring, I met some unusual and really delightful ponies. I’d read about them in one of the local papers in south west Scotland and was curious to find out more. They certainly looked right at home in the Scottish Borders, in the fields belonging to vet Sheilagh Brown where they live. However, their ancestors were used to the much hotter and drier, although equally challenging, environment on the Greek island of Skyros.  I discovered that the Skyros ponies I went to see have a long and interesting history.

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Affectionate and curious, the Skyros ponies seek out the company of humans

The origins of the Skyrians and how they came to be associated with the island are lost in the mists of time, but they are certainly ancient. They are one of the breeds included in Elwyn Hartley-Edwards’ “Standard Guide to Horse and Pony Breeds” in which he mentions that parallels have been drawn with the horses of the Parthenon. The small horses on the famous frieze are clearly tough, fiery little animals. Looking at Sheilagh’s Skyros ponies, it seemed to me that there were certainly similarities; but the most striking thing about the Skyrians was their fineness. Their legs were clean and straight, their feet strong, dark and hard and the quality of their limbs would have graced any ridden show pony. I could also see similarities with the Caspian type of pony (or small horse).

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A soft grey coat, which grows very quickly in winter, is typical of the ponies.

They are typically grey in colour, a rather warm-coloured grey with rose or dun tones. True dun is also frequently seen, and also a rich dark brown and a red bay, often with mealy muzzles. The breed description mentions a tendency to cow hocks but that wasn’t obvious in most of the ponies. In profile, their noses are straight and distinctive without any trace of concavity. They have broad foreheads and calm, curious eyes. From the start, they showed an interest in our arrival but they were neither pushy nor alarmed.

“That is one of the most noticeable things about the Skyros ponies,” explained Sheilagh as her gelding Danila (Danny) gave her an affectionate nuzzle. “They are very curious about humans and actively seek them out.  They are known for this sociability on the island.”

I soon learned that they are exceptionally docile and relaxed. The mares in particular realised very quickly that we were harmless and carried on grazing whilst one foal came right up to investigate us. Just as Sheilagh’s gelding Danila had done, the foal put his nose up towards Sheilagh in friendly enquiry. I was rapidly gaining the impression that the Skyrians bond quickly and their temperaments struck me as being ideal for ponies for small children.

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Looking right at home in the Scottish Borders – a Skyros foal and his mummy

Although the very early history of the Skyros ponies may prove difficult to discover, their more recent history is much better known. They were used for centuries in an unusual agricultural role. For most of the year they lived freely on the island, being brought in only during harvest when they were harnessed up to three or four together and used for threshing the corn. They would receive additional feed during the winter to help them survive. As in other places, when mechanisation took over, the ponies ceased to have a function and their future became very uncertain. As tourism began to flourish in the 1970s, various options, including racing, were attempted to ensure the continuity of the ponies of Skyros. However, as the 20th century drew to a close, it was clear that they were endangered and serious action would be required if they were to survive.

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The foals are affectionate and curious, their dams calm and trusting.

And that is where the connection with Scottish Borders region comes in. Steps were taken on Skyros and on the Greek mainland to ensure the survival of the ponies and in 2005 five animals – three fillies and two colts – were brought over to Scotland by veterinary surgeon Alec Copeland who had a long-standing personal and professional interest in the Skyrians and other endangered ancient types such as the Exmoor pony. By 2010, when the Skyros ponies came into the care of Sheilagh so that Alec could concentrate on some of the other endangered breeds, their numbers had grown to 14. A further eight foals were born in Scotland in 2011. In 2012 there were another four births, but one foal sadly died. Two surviving colt foals are those featured in the photographs accompanying this blog.

I wondered how the ponies coped with the Scottish winter. The season can be harsh in their homeland too, of course, but the recent bitter winters with deep, long-lasting snow that we’ve seen in the UK have been exceptional even for Britain.

“They do grow a thick coat,” said Sheilagh (and the remnants were still visible when I went to see them in May last year). “They also need a lot of supplementary feeding in the winter. I’ve found that Dodson and Horrell stud cubes provide the best all round nutritional support for them.”

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This colt foal shows the mealy muzzle that some of the Skyros ponies have

Sheilagh advised me that the Skyros ponies have been the subject of several scientific papers and were believed to be entirely separate from the seven known breeds of the Greek mainland. It has been concluded that they are phenotypically unique, and of course equids that have lived for centuries – possibly even millennia – literally in isolation on an island provide a very rich subject for investigation. However, funding that was provided for a time by the Greek government in order to support this endangered breed is now no longer available and the few projects, such as the Silva Project, that were attempting to ensure its survival now have to be self-sustaining.

These are uncertain times for all horses and ponies and in parts of Britain there is a serious equine welfare crisis. Sheilagh is aware that the horses and ponies with the best chance of survival will be those for which there is a genuine requirement. Clearly these unusual and little-known ponies don’t fit into any of the standard classes of use in the UK. There are no showing classes for them and their size at maturity (around 11 hands) means they are only suitable as ridden ponies for small, lightweight children. However, their outstandingly amiable natures are a real plus and I am sure they would make excellent, sensible driving ponies. There is one equine growth area where they are proving to excel, too: that is in the emerging field of equine assisted therapy and riding therapy. Shortly after my visit, Danny was off to his new home and his new role with an organisation called Festina Lente in Ireland. I wish Sheilagh, Danny, and the rest of the Skyros ponies all the best for the future.

Miriam Bibby

Harvey, Nero, Mr Allan Thomson and friends

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The ploughman (Mr Allan Thomson) and his commentator!

Pale golden stubble gleams under a blue November sky. A man is following two horses as they draw a plough steadily up the gentle slope of a hill towards a line of trees, sharp-cut and leafless on the horizon. Rooks and a gull or two pick insects from the black earth turned over by the ploughshare. This apparently timeless scene could be seen right across the British Isles from Domesday until the 1930s. Then, came the great change. Within a decade, the majority of horses had been replaced by tractors and the skills accrued over centuries by the teams who worked the land began to be forgotten.

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A classic scene; harrowing the land with a pair of workhorses

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Setting up the plough ready for that all important first cut…

The ploughman and his horses would once have worked silently and in isolation in this landscape, moving back and forth steadily and slowly in march with the seasons. Today, though, he is accompanied by a lively and informative commentary coming over a speaker system to an enthusiastic crowd who are watching him at work. It’s the 17th of November 2012 and we’ve come from all over Scotland to observe, learn and perhaps apply some of the knowledge and skills that are on display here at this Working Horse Day organised by the British Horse Society (BHS Scotland).

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Straight as a die…

What’s encouraging about this event is that it has not arisen from a nostalgic desire to revisit the past. It’s been organised because a substantial number of people have requested it. They want to learn about working horses because they are considering using them on smallholdings, market gardens and farms. They see a future for the working horse, not just a past.

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Turning the plough…

Whilst Mr Allan Thomson and his son adjust the ploughshare ready for their team to begin, another pair of horses are drawing a harrow across the field. The day provides a glimpse into the immense range of specialised horse-drawn equipment that was available to the pre-1930s farmer. Ploughs and harrows are core implements of course, but there were many ingenious individual engineering companies producing seed distribution boxes, muck and fertiliser spreaders, mowers, cutters, reapers and hay-rakes. And, appropriately for a country whose national bard is the ploughman-poet Robert Burns, Scotland led the way in a farming revolution for nearly 150 years. Burns witnessed the start of this revolution, but in his day following the plough was still largely a communal affair, with several people required to lend their weight to a massive iron-edged wooden implement drawn by teams of four oxen, up to six horses, or a mixture of both. Some younger members of the family would be needed to pick up stones from the path of the plough, whilst others would crumble the larger clods of earth manually and everyone would help in the pulling up of tough weeds and grasses.

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In the heyday of the working horse, an immense range of equipment was available to the farmer. This long seed box is an example of the skill and ingenuity of the engineers of the period – and a tribute to the steadiness of the Clydesdale drawing it.

Iron was used sparingly in the production of the cutting parts of the plough until late 18th century developments resulted in the first entirely iron-framed plough, made by William Penny in 1800. It wasn’t just the expense and difficulty of the production of iron that had held back this development. There were superstitions about cutting the earth with metal and some believed that too much ironwork in a plough, other than the share, would poison the ground and affect the crops that were grown in it. Then, of course, there was the issue of keeping the ploughshare sharp.

Whilst Penny is credited with the production of the first entirely metal-framed plough, James Small, who preceeded him, was one of the most significant contributors to its development and is a major figure in the history of agriculture. Small, a Berwickshire man, devised a one-piece iron mouldboard and share that would create a much deeper slice and turn over the earth from the furrow onto the land beside it, which successfully suppressed the weeds and turned them into additional fertiliser. Crucially, this new design could be drawn by a pair of horses; at which point, also in the late 18th century, enter that legendary working breed, the Clydesdale. The image of the ploughman, his team and the ploughshare seemed indelibly impressed on the Scottish agricultural landscape. And the Clydesdale, that powerful, willing giant of the lowlands, not only worked the land, but was ubiquitous in the cities, delivering goods, drawing corporation and council vehicles, carrying items to the docks and railway stations for transport all over Scotland and “down south”.

It was not indelible, of course. The day of the working horse was drawing to an end in the 1930s and was virtually over by the 1950s. Certainly, one or two councils and larger companies – mainly breweries – held on to a pair or two, conscious of the eye-catching appeal of their magnificent turnouts – and, perhaps, conscious that there was an environmental aspect to it too. Horses could still hold their own in deliveries over short distances, but by the 1970s the sheer quantity of motorised vehicles on the roads made it dangerous and difficult for them to do so. Those were the years when we came closest to losing the working horse tradition altogether. The few members of the working horse breeds that survived seemed fated to a life as show-ring exhibits and little else.

“If it hadn’t been for the Co-operative – and Irish horse breeders,” says Mr Thomson, “there would have been no working horses at all.” At that time, he was involved in forestry work using horses and was finding it extremely difficult to find any suitable workhorses. Finding equipment was difficult too. “Things are a lot better now,” he continues. And, certainly, the day proves that there are some excellent working horses about, including those showing off their skills today. There are several fine Clydesdales present but a working horse can also be just a good ‘type’. For the work of the smallholding or garden centre, there’s no reason why a good working pony should not excel.

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Harvey – clearly a character – on the left and Nero on the right.

Harvey, one of the pair that Mr Thomson and his son are using today, is Irish-bred and started out as a trekking pony. He’s clearly a character and has taken well to his job as a plough horse. Mr Thomson explains that both he and his ploughing partner Nero are now in their early twenties and “we’re just getting them the way we want them.” This is, without a doubt, the greatest thing I have ever heard from a horseman. It takes time and patience to build the relationship, whether you are teaching a horse to draw a plough or perform in the Spanish Riding School, whose horses are also often in their prime in their teens and twenties. Be ready for the long haul, put in the effort and you’ll be rewarded with long term success. And treat your horses kindly, as partners, not slaves or machines. That was the message of the old horsemen, who believed they and their horses were one.

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Traditional hopper style feeder, useful for a variety of tasks on the land.

Allan Thomson gives us a quick overview of the harness, including the blinkerless bridles  – “I use open bridles, I prefer them” – and the plain, thin snaffles that are attached to them. Chains are used to link the collars to the swingle-type attachments in front of the plough and the thin ropes used for guiding are known as ‘lines’. A rope is laid on the ground to mark out that very important first cut and the pair are off. We watch as the cut opens neatly and earth turns over onto the land, as cleanly and impressively as slicing a well-baked loaf. As the plough swings round and returns, there is one horse in the furrow and one on the land. Mr Thomson explains that during the first world war, with man – and horse – power in short supply at home, the two-furrow plough, drawn by three horses but needing only one ploughman, became popular.

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The magnificent traditional chrome and leather harness, with its blue, white and red decoration, takes hundreds of hours to prepare.

On the rare occasions when farm horsemen had time off, their horses were still involved in their lives. Beautifully turned-out individuals and pairs of working horses were popular exhibits at agricultural shows and there was a great deal of rivalry in the show ring. Undoubtedly one of the most popular sights of the Working Horse Day is a magnificently turned out young Clydesdale, decked in traditional manner in chrome, blue, white and red.  He is wearing the high, pointed collar with gleaming chrome hames that is associated with Scottish tradition. The commentary explains that originally the intricate harness decoration was coloured blue and white for the Saltire of Scotland; and that red was added after the coronation of the current monarch. A crown is now one of the symbols included in the decoration. We learn that it takes hundreds of hours to complete the decoration on the harness and that there is now only one man in Scotland with the knowledge to do the complete turnout.

And this becomes the lasting legacy of the day, for some of us. Let us not let this working horse knowledge and experience disappear. It deserves not only to be remembered, but also to be practised. Let’s make sure that the working horse tradition continues, in the hope that in the future our horses can work alongside us as partners, in the methods of the best of the horsemen of the past – and present.

Horseback Historian would like to thank Mr Allan Thomson and friends (and horses) for sharing their knowledge and experience during the course of a very memorable day; and thank you to BHS Scotland for organising the event. I hope that there will be more.

Equine boom – and bust

When I was very young, I lived in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne in north east England. Newcastle lies at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall and it has a long and interesting history. It has always been an industrial – and industrious – place. In Tudor times, coal from Durham and Northumberland – a major national commodity – was shipped  from Newcastle to London. Newcastle flourished during the 19th and early 20th century; and like all major cities, part of the reason for its success was the labour provided by thousands of work horses.

Whenever we drove through one particular part of the city, there was an appalling stench.

“That’s the glue factory. It’s where they send all the horses when they die,” said my father, glancing across at me slightly anxiously. He knew I loved horses.

“That’s horrible!” I said. I think I was pragmatic about it, though; I understood that horses grew old and died and that something would have to be done with their remains.

The full significance of what he was saying did not really strike me for decades.

A world of horses

Horses were part of my life. There were always horses; ponies in the riding school whose customers trotted over Newcastle’s Town Moor, the city’s green lung; ponies on the beaches of the seaside resorts along the coast of Northumberland where we went at weekends; ponies tied up by travellers on patches of common land – the sweetest, most well-behaved ponies I have ever known – and, yes, even a few horses that still pulled vehicles around the city streets, mostly belonging to the “rag and bone men”, the urban recyclers of the mid-twentieth century. At that point, a few ponies were still in use in the mines of the north, Scotland and Wales. Even the shepherds on farms along the Border used horses or ponies, not quad bikes.

Our coal was brought for a time by horse and cart. The old horse, named Cassius (probably after the boxing legend rather than the character in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”), had a bad temper but still received an apple or some sugar from me. Whenever we went to a cafe, I would raid the sugar bowl for paper-wrapped sugar cubes, taking as many as I dared, because I knew there would always be another horse to feed. The story of the first time I’d been on a horse’s back – that of the milkman’s horse, Spot, when I was a toddler – had become family legend. As late as the 1970s people could still relate to Benny Hill’s ludicrous ditty about the showdown between Ernie the milkman “who drove the fastest milk-cart in the West” and his rival “Two-Ton Ted from Teddington” who drove the baker’s van. Horse-drawn in both cases, of course. Did you know it’s one of the favourite songs of both David Cameron and Earl Spencer, the brother of Princess Diana? They both included it in their “Desert Island Discs” selections. Bizarre but true; and it shows how deeply the tradition of the working horse is still embedded in the British psyche.

There were showjumpers on the telly and horses in westerns. There were books about ponies and gymkhanas – a world away from the one I lived in, but one I always envied and to which I aspired. There was televised racing from Sandown and Uttoxeter and elsewhere and I couldn’t understand why one horse called “Bar” seemed to be in every race until it was explained to me. There had always been horses. There always would be horses…

In fact, during the 1960s and 70s, there was serious, pessimistic talk about the forthcoming “extinction” of the horse. Those rag and bone men still jogging round the cities of Britain on their worn-out old carts, with their strangled, almost incomprehensible street cries “Raaaaa-aaa-booooone!” were just about all that remained of the working horse tradition. The desire of the young to escape the shackles of the past was encapsulated in the well-observed television comedy, “Steptoe and Son”. Aged dad Albert, with his fingerless gloves, junk-filled house, horse-drawn rag and bone cart and memories of World War I, symbolised everything that his aspirational son Harold wanted to escape – or even bury. However, Harold was fond of Hercules, the horse; and the references to him were always filled with warmth and humour. The scenes with Hercules were touching and sometimes moving.

I didn’t understand at the time, but my father had been telling me that the stink from the glue factory was the stench accompanying the last gasp of the working horse tradition; the betrayal of centuries, millennia in fact, of human dependence on equine power.

Horsemeat: by-product of technological change

When little Miss Combustion Engine, wiggling her sexy exhaust, walks onto the block with all her family – the juggernauts, the 4W-Ds, the vans, the limousines – humans can’t move fast enough to send their loyal horses to the knackers. Horses become an embarrassment, like an aged relative drooling dementedly in the attic. In  Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years, Dublin’s famous horse market at Smithfield was quickly moved out of the city centre. Horses are dirty and demanding. They are too slow. They aren’t powerful enough. They are expensive. They are dangerous and a nuisance. Logically it could be said that cars are also expensive, dirty, demanding, dangerous nuisances; and if you’re stuck in city traffic or a motorway jam it doesn’t really matter how fast or powerful your car is. And there’s many a farmer who is overwhelmed by the debts accrued from purchasing and maintaining tractors and other equipment. However, this isn’t about “logic”. It’s about “progress” and “convenience”.

The change from equine to motorised power (and the resulting collapse of established industries, to be replaced by new ones) provided an important example for the work of the economist Schumpeter, whose theory of “creative destruction” described the consequences of rapid and extensive technological change. Old industries collapse, but others arise from the ruins.

The most important aspect, for me, of the recent “scandal” over horsemeat in the UK came to light during investigations into the origins of the meat. It appears that the sudden influx of horsemeat on the market is due to horse-drawn vehicles being banned from main roads in Romania. In other words, it marks the the end of another working horse tradition, in this case in eastern Europe. When the tradition came to an end in the USA and UK, the carcasses of the slaughtered horses were used for pet food and the remnants were rendered – hence the glue factory.  Now, in a global economy, the end of the working horse means the production of a commodity – horsemeat “stuff” – that has the potential to end up anywhere.

I don’t eat meat but I’m not being smug about this. If you eat meat, I don’t see why eating horse is different from eating any other kind of meat. What I don’t understand is how unconcerned some people are about what they are eating; and that somewhere along the way, someone has lied. There is a difference between eating meat that has lived in the wild, or originated from well-documented sources which show the treatment, food and medicine that animal has received – and eating meat stuff that is just that – “stuff” – without knowing – or caring – what it really is or where it came from.

The equine boom…

The horse didn’t become extinct, of course. What saved the horse in several parts of the world was the rapid emergence of the predominantly female leisure rider. For some, aspiration didn’t consist of getting rid of a horse, but was expressed through acquiring one. The boom years of the leisure rider (in the UK) began in the 1960s and probably peaked in the 1980s, when women (and men) from many different backgrounds started to keep horses simply because they wanted horses in their lives. They weren’t necessarily wealthy. They didn’t necessarily come from families with a long tradition of equestrianism. They just had a bit of money and some leisure and they intended to spend both on horses and with horses. And boy, did it boom!

Equestrian clothing manufacturers, saddlers, rug makers, horse breeders, show and event organisers, horse trainers, riding schools, livery yards, magazines, specialist publishers and authors, societies, farriers; horse feed, hay and haylage producers; vets and veterinary products: all benefited from the boom. In the mid 1990s, it was estimated that the equestrian “industry” in the USA was worth 15 billion dollars annually.

I was part of the boom. I bought my first pony, became a journalist specialising in equestrian subjects and spent a lot of my time participating in, observing and commenting on the equestrian leisure boom. Some of its aspects were a bit silly, it seemed to me. I called it the “pink bucket” phenomenon, as a range of supposedly girly equestrian accessories hit the market. Horses hadn’t become extinct, but they had certainly changed. The working horse tradition had been largely, if not exclusively, a male world. Now, horses and ponies were mainly kept by women and girls. Along with the silly accessories and over-emphasis on performance in the showring, there were some good times and indeed some great times. And when all is said and done, it was mainly women who kept equestrian traditions alive and supported the “industry” through that time. Horses survived, thanks mainly to the money and energy of women. Also, to those who were dedicated to horses for other reasons, some horse breeders and working horse centres for instance.

…and bust

In 2013, the equine boom in the UK is clearly at an end. There is a welfare crisis as people desperately try to find homes for horses and ponies they can’t keep. For some, it’s a cost they can simply no longer afford. Others perhaps feel older and wiser after years of horse keeping and just want a change. They don’t want to spend their time and energy on horses any more but on something else instead. Riding schools are closing because of the costs; and, allegedly, because of the risk of hefty insurance claims and the restrictions of health and safety rulings. In Egypt, too, there’s an equine welfare crisis, for different reasons. The collapse of tourism after the Egyptian revolution means that many of the small businesses in Egypt depending on horses – particularly the ubiquitous tourist site carriage drivers – are in dire straits. In the 1960s, people were saying that the horse would be extinct by the year 2000. Did the equine boom simply delay it by another decade or so?

I don’t think the horse will disappear entirely. There will always be some people who will dedicate themselves to horses despite the costs in terms of time and money (and the emotional cost, too). They’ll take the odd looks and the critical or joking comments about horses being a waste of space, grit their teeth and carry on, because horses are what they do and horses are part of who they are. Sometimes they’ll wonder why the hell they’re doing it and then, on a bright day in summer, their horse will come cantering across the paddock towards them and they’ll remember.

A future?

Throughout my life, for as long as I can remember, people have been talking about the possible return of the working horse. That’s what it’s been mostly – talk; but not entirely. In the 1970s, television director and producer Barry Cockcroft made his famous documentary about Geoff Morton, one of the few remaining people in Britain to still use horses on the farm. A book, “Princes of the Plough” further chronicled Morton’s life and that of some of his contemporaries. It spoke optimistically about a future for working horses. A few councils and large commercial organisations used – and continue to use – working horses for deliveries; and to turn them out impeccably for shows. Sometimes this is because they are aware of the promotional opportunities horses provide, but in some cases the organisations simply never stopped using them. And there are others; the journalist Paul Heiney, having learned about working Suffolk Punches for a 1980s reality TV show, decided to buy some working horses of his own. Working horses are still used by the British Horse Logging Society. There are a few individuals, both men and women, still using horses in farming and in other businesses. Carriages for weddings are particularly in demand. Horses are used in television and film work – where would a Jane Austen series be without a carriage and pair? How would the “Lord of the Rings” movies managed without Shadowfax? Gimli walking along behind Gandalf making clippety-clop noises with some coconut shells, Monty Python style – that’s how; though I suppose CGI could fill the gap.

Ought there to be a major return to working horses, anyway? After all, when they did all the “lugging and dragging and straining”, to quote H.G. Wells, their lives were often nasty and short. I suppose I’m still pragmatic about this, because it seems to me that when humans don’t have a need for something, they don’t care much about it: therefore the best future for horses might be as working animals. And perhaps, there are reasons to be “cautiously optimistic” about this future, as I’ll discuss in the next blog. “Cautious optimism” seems to me to be better than boom and bust, anyway.

Miriam Bibby

Egyptian horses, chariots and bows: metaphors for control

Walk into any major Museum collection and Egyptian artefacts are easy to spot. We might say it has a strong brand!  We know that mummies, coffins, sarcophagi, pyramids and strange gods with animal heads atop human bodies are some of the items that instantly say “Egypt” to us. Plus, the curious sacred writing, the hieroglyphs, which may mislead us at first into thinking this is a pictorial script in which each picture represents an idea, concept or word.  (This is not the case.) Only after some time might an observer become aware that some of the imagery – the iconography – of the kings of Egypt includes horses and chariots – and bows. The best known king of Egypt, Tutankhamun, is represented several  times mounted on a chariot. His fabulous funerary treasure, now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, includes a large gold fan depicting on one side the young king hunting ostriches in the desert and, on the other, his return with the bodies of the birds he has skilfully shot with his bow. His two servants stagger along under the weight of the ostriches. Other vigorous and dramatic images on an inlaid box show the king and his chariot as an enormous, dominating presence relative to the other elements of the scene. On the lid, many different kinds of wild animals, including asses, are shown fleeing in front of him. On the sides, the superhero king overcomes his Nubian and Syrian enemies. Despite the pleading demeanor of these enemies, tiny under the bodies of the rearing horses, the king is about to crush them to death.

As far as we know, this imagery and these artefacts were made specifically for Tutankhamun’s burial in the Valley of the Kings. This shouldn’t be taken for granted, as it is certainly the case that items made for a particular royal individual often ended up in the burial of another relative. However, further investigation into the funerary artefacts of other Egyptian rulers reveals a decidedly repetitive element. Again and again the king, whichever king it is, appears in a pose generally known as ‘smiting the enemy’. He is mounted in his chariot with a bow, or occasionally a sword called the ‘khepesh’, overcoming his enemies who are never shown with any potency at all. Sometimes the ‘enemy’ is represented by wild animals or birds. Were all these kings truly superheroes who had rescued their land from its enemies? What is the significance of the overcoming of wild beasts?

‘Smiting the enemy’ is a piece of very ancient Egyptian iconography.  It is at least as old as the Egypt that emerged from the unification of two separate geographical entities (the Delta and the Nile Valley) in 3100 BCE.  It appears on an extremely important Egyptian artefact of very early date, the palette of King Narmer, who is shown lifting a macehead to crush the skull of an enemy who kneels defeated at his feet. Actual maceheads are known and they are important ritual and symbolic artefacts of great size, containing imagery that gives us tantalising glimpses into the foundation of the Egyptian state. Violence, or the threat of violence, is part of the maintenance of authority right from the start. The difference between the semi-legendary Narmer and Tutankhamun, who reigned nearly 2000 years later, is that Narmer is on foot, whilst Tutankhamun and the other rulers of the New Kingdom have horses and chariots; and tend to wield bows or swords rather than blunt instruments.

The innovative, creative ancient Egyptians, to whom we owe so much relating to the development of architecture, agriculture and medicine, amongst other human activities, did not play a part in the early development of chariotry. The origins and progress of chariotry technology across the ancient world is still a rich field for researchers. Two pioneering scholars in this field, Mary Littauer and Joust Crouwel, also produced an outstanding volume on the chariots of Tutankhamun. This is published by the Griffith Institute as part of a series on the artefacts from the tomb.  Several chariots, amazingly robust, delicate in appearance, and sheeted in gold, were included amongst the treasures in Tutankhamun’s tomb. They had been dismantled, like flat pack furniture, to take into the tomb, providing a marvellous investigative opportunity for the two researchers whose volume accordingly tells us a great deal about the construction of these vehicles. Prior to the middle of the second millennium BCE, the ancient Egyptians had no knowledge of the horse or chariot; wheeled vehicles played no significant part in their culture and the River Nile was the highway of the country, carrying goods and people from the Delta down to the Nubian border in the south and vice versa. Prior to 1650 BCE the horse was apparently not known in Egypt; it appears only once before this in a late Middle Dynasty tomb in the delta that is something of an anomaly. (The arrival of the horse in ancient Egypt, and who brought it, is a complex topic that is still the subject of discussion.) Along with the chariot, the earliest examples of which are to be found at Sintashta in Kazakhstan, came the compound bow, another weapon that we have come to associate particularly with steppe tribes in later periods. As these items of new technology were adopted by more ancient cultures, they were changed and adapted to suit the needs, forms and iconography of the culture.

The Egyptians (strictly speaking, the Theban dynasty who were buried in rich tombs in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor)  managed not only to acquire the practical skills relating to horse management and training but also to  embed the new technology into ancient iconography. They did this incredibly successfully.  Careful observation of one piece of significant art will show just how successful this was.

The image is of the king Amenhotep III, whose New Kingdom reign, for many, marks the zenith of Egyptian culture. It is a dual image, apparently a mirror image although the carved stela is incomplete, of the king competently driving his two horse chariot whilst also handling a bow and a whip. The triangular bow is of a type known from this period. Composite recurve bows were also known and it is more usual for them to be associated with chariotry. The king is upright and strong and looks straight ahead. Allowing some leeway for Egyptian artistic convention (which attempts to show as much of the body as possible, hence the torso facing the viewer whilst the king is obviously actually standing sideways), the straight line of his lower arm leading into the rein would prove very pleasing to a modern driving judge. This a good place to mention that many of these monarchs were extremely young when they came to the throne; by some estimates Amenhotep would be a pre-teen.  Chariot driving and the management of horse teams quickly became an indispensable part of princely education.

There is a fundamental harmony in the scene at first sight. The mirror image (and the two horse team) leads into the idea of duality, a balanced duality as the king faces both ways. In fact, although the stela can only offer us a two dimensional view, we can perhaps extend the vision to a multi dimensional 360 degree king who faces all ways at all times, always looking to the encircling horizon of his land. Without access to modern multimedia opportunities, the Egyptian state still managed to convey extremely complex ideas in stone and paint. Each kingly image is offered the Ankh symbol of life by the vulture goddess. The young king appears competent, confident, authoritative and far-sighted. This is quite deliberate.

Taking the theme of harmony further, if we draw an arc from the tip of the furthest royal plume on the far horse, over the top of the king’s head, to the centre of the sun disc supported by two cobras (a reference to the other ancient goddess of Egypt), a harmonious half circle, like half a sun disc, is created. Again we might even visualise a mirror image below the two upper images, creating a disc like circle suggestive of the whole of kingly authority through day and night, at all times, in all places; and a strong link to the solar disk itself, echoed again in the solar disks mounted at the end of the yoke between the horses and the also the disks on their bridles. Again and again we are reminded of the harmony of the circle, in the wheels, the frame of the chariot, the loop of the horses’ tails, the curve of their quarters and necks, the line of the sheets that they wear and even the musculature.  The harmonious line of the plumes pointing back leads us directly to the sun above the king and to the king himself, the representative of divine order on earth.

Duality can also lead to tension. In Egypt, this tension, it is argued, is, in fact,  “The source of political order and stability: the reconcilation of conflicting powers epitomized by the gods Horus [ ] and Seth [ ], in whose
reconciliation is subsumed the political divisions of Egypt” (Barrie Kemp, “Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation”, page 28, with reference to a an image in which Horus and Seth knot together the symbolic plants of the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt, the papyrus and the reed).

The image of Amenhotep III, however, does not speak of reconciliation. On the backs of the chariot horses are mounted bound Nubian captives, apparently seated two to a horse. They may be represented sitting sidesaddle but this again possibly relates to artistic convention at this time. The Nubians appear subdued and powerless; the plumes on their heads point straight up, unlike those of the horses which mark them out as being from the royal stables. In other words, the Nubians, unlike the horses are not linked to the king; there is no communication between them. The captives are a disharmonious element in the scene and two further figures stress this point: the Nubian apparently mounted at the front of the chariot just behind the jaunty backside of the horse and the strange, grotesque head apparently appearing from under the king’s feet. There may be further comparisons to be drawn in the highly groomed, bedecked horses with their apparently deliberately hogged manes and the wigs (or hairstyles) of the Nubian prisoners.

When giving talks, I have frequently described this image as “cruelly witty” and to the king, no doubt it was such an image. It manages to convey all sorts of complex ideas about authority over potential enemies both within the state and beyond its boundaries. I believe that a comparison is also to be drawn between the horses (willing subjects of the king) and the Nubians (representing chaotic elements to be overcome, just like the wild desert animals). It’s a stark choice: be as my horses, who live well and receive the best of care – or face the consequences. It’s also a coded message to the Egyptian gods that the king is fulfilling his role. The traditional enemies of Egypt were frequently referred to as “The Nine Bows”. The two most important foes were Asiatics from the north and Nubians from the south. The breaking of an enemy bow was a highly ritual act since bows, certainly by the New Kingdom, were complex and expensive weapons. (We may be reminded here of the much later practice of only interring parts of broken bows in the graves of horseback archers of the steppe, since any complete and functioning bows were far too valuable to include as grave goods.) The ancient Egyptians found many opportunities for portraying their enemies, on artefacts, lying under the king’s feet (on the base of sandals, for instance), or under his chariot wheels in a similarly debased and servile condition. In fact, in letters to Egyptian kings from lesser monarchs it’s usual for the “junior” king to use greetings such as “Great King, King of all countries, I fall at the feet of my Lord, my Sun, seven times and seven times”; and that is from rulers that are not enemies of Egypt, but diplomatic partners.

Some would see this image as part of this propaganda. It doesn’t necessarily represent realistic treatment of captives although the Egyptians constantly exerted their power over their Nubian neighbours (and the gold in their land). It’s certainly designed to make the Nubians appear foolish and clumsy. In fact, though, there’s plenty of evidence to show that the Nubians were extremely skilled in raising, training and using horses and many were in the employ of the royal stables. They were also fighters in the Egyptian army and some received lavish burials for their loyalty. Further to the south and later, Kush had a reputation second to none for its horsemanship and its rulers played a major role in later Egyptian history. They gave their horses rich burials marking their status and significance to Kush. This image of Amenhotep III is art with a purpose, as is all Egyptian art, however mysterious it may appear. Its function is to convey the power of the king and the superiority of Egypt. The reality is often very different.

Finally, we get a glimpse of  the king’s relationship to his horses; a complex one. Are they servants, slaves, courtiers or friends? Further investigation into other texts and images reveals a closer understanding to which we can better relate. However, for now, take one last look at the positions of the horses’ heads. If you have the opportunity, seek out some further Egyptian images and note that what holds them in that position is frequently a fixed rod running from the bridle to the yoke.  This is very reminiscent of some of the less enlightened modern methods of forcing the heads of horses into fixed positions and it is a pity that after several thousand years this is still sometimes considered to be appropriate behaviour.

A version of this first appeared in the equestrian journal “Tracking-up” (Winter 2008-2009.) This version is also available on www.archery-shop.co.uk

Image of Tutankhamun kindly provided by Patrick Houlihan.

For those who would like further reading on the topic of Egyptian bows and warfare, I recommend the following:

“Egyptian Warfare and Weapons” by Ian Shaw, Shire Publications, London 1991 ISBN 0 7478 0142 8

“Self Bows and Other Archery Tackle from the Tomb of Tut’ankhamun” by W. McLeod: Tut’ankhamun’s Tomb Series Vol. IV, gen. ed. J. Harris, Griffith Institute, Oxford 1982 ISBN 0 900 416 335

“Composite Bows from the Tomb of Tut’ankhamun” by W. McLeod: Tut’ankhamun’s Tomb series, gen. ed. J. Harris, Griffith Institute, Oxford, 1970.

“Chariots and Related Equipment from the Tomb of Tut’ankhamun”, Tut’ankhamun’s Tomb series, gen. ed. J. Harris, Griffith Institute, Oxford, 1985.

For a good general background to ancient Egyptian culture, “Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” by Barry J. Kemp (published by Routledge, ISBN 0 415 06346 9) and the “Oxford History of Ancient Egypt”, ed. Ian Shaw, published by Oxford University Press (ISBN 0 19 815034 2) are recommended.