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

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.

Punches, rarefying, gals and the Horseman’s Word: views on our working horse past

If there is one characteristic shared by all farms which have steadfastly used heavy horses come what may, it is a sense of timelessness. They look, smell and sound like farms should look, smell and sound and are far removed from the proliferating agricultural factories where the nose is assaulted by the latest wonder chemical and the ears ring with the incessant whine of machinery” – Barry Cockcroft, Princes of the Plough, 1978

Lately I’ve been reading a trinity of books on related topics. It’s a trinity, rather than a trilogy, because they are all by different writers and each one is very different, but what they have in common is that they are about working horses. The three of them have meshed together strangely well. I’ve read them with a real pang of nostalgia for a past that is only just within my experience and my memory.

A cast of equine thousands

I’ve owned the first book, Kingdom of the Workhorse by A.J. (Tony) Dampier, for a long time. It was a while since I’d read it last and I suddenly realised what a true gem it is. It was privately published and is clearly a labour of love that grew out of Dampier’s immense knowledge of the subject of working horses in north west England.

Ailse o' Fussers and one of the last of the pack animals

It’s a history, true; but it’s also a story with a heart: a cast of characters, equine and human, beginning with Ailse O’Fussers and her team of lime-carrying “gals”. You can hear the snort of humour as Dampier explains that “gal” does not mean girl, as some have assumed, but is short for “Galloway”. It’s an evocative word for those who know about this gallant northern breed, or type, of horse, the Galloway and the important role it played in our history. That’s something to which I will definitely be returning.

Until the 1940s, horses were still present in every aspect of daily life in Manchester. Vanners delivered bread and milk; dignified plume-clad funeral horses bore the dead through the streets to the cemetery; council-owned horse-drawn carts took away rubbish to the dump; and of course there were mounted police and horse-drawn fire brigade vehicles. Cities were still geared for horses and it showed in many ways, from metal-edged curbs on the pavements to the drinking troughs and fountains where the animals and their drivers could find fresh water. How quickly that changed.

“The declaration of war in 1939 caused something of a mini-boom in horse trade as petrol became rationed, but the end was in sight,” writes Dampier. “And when it came it was as swift as it was merciless. 1947 was the year of the equine holocaust.” He quotes an estimate from Keith Chivers’ book, The Shire Horse of at least 100,000 slaughtered in 1947 and the same number the following year: “…it is pretty safe to say that 40 per cent of these were under three years of age.”

Punches and “Rarefying”

These were dreadful times for those who had spent their working lives with horses, but Dampier also shows the other side of the years of the “Kingdom of the Horse”; the casual violence to both man and beast, the exploitation, the poverty and swindling. He describes, for instance, a fight between the notorious “Bullet” Hathaway, horse dealer, and a butcher who felt he’d been cheated: “The fight started at 12 noon prompt, at the Flat Iron Market Place. Bets were taken, lookouts posted (for the bobbies) and referees appointed….[the butcher] took ‘Bullet’s’ blows for 27 rounds before he collapsed in a green field on the Saddleworth Road, 12 1/2 miles, as the crow flies, from where they started…”

Dampier also describes, in a section relating to horse whisperers, the arrival in 1857 of the famous horse tamer, John Solomon Rarey from the USA. At Bell’s Equestrian Palace in Manchester, Rarey gave his demonstration of “Raryfying” a horse when he struggled with a notorious stallion, named Hue and Cry. The Manchester Guardian reported: “Mr Rarey had a terrible, nay severe fight with an Entire horse, who smashed straps, rode over grooms, bit at the spectators and, in fact, proved a demon for an hour – tact conquered brute force and Mr Rarey delivered a speech from his back.”

And the reference to horse whispering brings me on to the next book in the trinity I’ve been reading, but before moving on I must mention this:

The last of Manchester’s working horses went up for sale in 1962 at Ardwick. Dampier recalls that all nine horses for sale that day were bought by Jimmy Sommerville O.B.E. of the Blue Cross Society and Arthur Thompson of the Humane Education Society and sent to good working homes. (They would almost certainly have been bought by the knackermen, otherwise.) And the author relates that one of those horses, Major, who was too old for regular work, went to Dampier’s own home to enjoy a well-earned retirement.

Tony Dampier, your book is a classic on the working horse and I salute you for that and for your kindness to Major. These things will not be forgotten if I can do anything about it.

The second book I’ve been reading would almost certainly be rejected from an academic reading list, more’s the pity. The Society of the Horseman’s Grip and Word, published by the Society of Esoteric Endeavour, is quirky, delightful and informative. It’s also an important piece of social history that really puts into perspective just how much life has genuinely changed in the past fifty years (always a subject for debate) and what we have lost.

“The bonny plooman laddie”

The Society of the Horseman’s Word flourished in 19th century Scotland and continued into the 20th century. Its membership was drawn, in the main, from those who followed the “ploo” (the plough) although it did also extend to others in the horsemen’s fraternity, such as farriers. Secretive and mysterious, it was feared and mocked in equal measure, but very little was known about the true nature of its activities until the 20th century – and possibly the publication of this book. And perhaps even now – who knows? – there might be a few secrets remaining.

The key to the Society I would say, does lie in the word “fraternal”. Part trades union, part Masonic-style ritual, part initiation ceremony for new apprentices to the “ploo”, its knowledge was concealed in word play, pranks, symbolism and a particular mythology drawn from ancient sources specifically for the members. This potent combination – and the way it was administered – would ensure loyalty and continuity in the ranks of the horsemen. Of course, securing good pay in return for specialist knowledge and experience was part of the reason for its existence, but it was more than that. The skills of the ploughmen were greatly admired and they were often imbued with a princely, even magical aura, for who could live without the corn they grew? As one of the songs in “The Society of the Horseman’s Word” says:

“The tailor he cries out wi’ haste
I pray of this don’t make a jest;
Oh I can make coat, trews and vest
Far better than a ploughman.
Oh tailor, ye may mak’ braw clothes,
But where’s the meal for to be brose?
Ye might close up baith mouth and nose,
If it were not for the ploughmen.

Success the ploughmen’s wages crown;
Let ploughmen’s wages ne’er come down,
And plenty in Scotland aye abound,
By the labour o’ the ploughmen.
For the very King that wears the crown,
And the brethren o’ the sacred gown,
And Dukes and Lords of high renown,
Depend upon the ploughmen.”

It was only in the 1950s that the last members of the Society began to open up, as recounted in the book. One member, Jimmy MacBeath, talked to the well-known folklorist and collector of traditional songs, Alan Lomax. He explained that one of the members of the society wanted a horse to refuse to move: “…they did something tae the collar, it was not tae the horse that they did something, it was something tae the collar they did.” Rubbing something with a particular scent onto the collar would cause the horse to freeze to the spot.

The real secrets

Scent, body language, confidence and genuine care and respect for the horse – those were and are, the secrets of the true horseman and woman. Changing technology meant that whatever closely guarded secrets the Society had kept and that had served them so well, by the 1950s and 60s had seemingly lost their value because it appeared so certain that the day of the workhorse was over.

The full text of an interesting article from 1920, written by a police officer, John Ord, is also given in the book. Here is a quote from it: “A ‘Horseman’ who fulfils his obligation will never wilfully ill-treat a horse. On the other hand, I have known a member of the society to appropriate some of his master’s corn to feed his team when he thought the animals were not receiving sufficient nourishment…In many cases the food supplied to the farm servants was of the very poorest quality, but if the skim milk and oatmeal cakes were fairly good a complaint was seldom made.”

In other words, along with the ribaldry and bawdiness, indeed obscenity, of some of the Horsemen’s rituals, there was a consciousness of what was just for man and horse. What was right for one, was right for the other.

The last horsemen?

The last book in my current reading “trinity” is The Last Horsemen: a year at Sillywrea, Britain’s only horse-powered farm by Charles Bowden. I found this book by chance in my local farmers’ shop, hesitated briefly and then bought it; and so another treasure has landed on the bookcase.

This is the story of Northumbrian horsemen and ploughmen, the farming families the Dodds and the Wises. When the tractor was making its apparently inexorable march over the land in the middle of the 20th century, they simply didn’t stop using horses. And they still haven’t stopped.

At Sillywrea (“Quiet Corner”) Farm, the endless cycle of the agriculture year turns around the horses as it it did a century and more ago. Most of the equipment dates from the heyday of the working horse, a testament to its construction and to the maintenance that the family has provided. At Sillywrea the circle has not been broken by the roar of the tractor engine or the massive combine harvester. Mucking out is a manual activity as is removing stones from the field to avoid damage to the ploughshare.

Sillywrea then and now: a timeless scene

Those northern favourites, the Clydesdale horses, carry out a range of tasks on the farm, not just ploughing. Grass-cutting, hay turning, harrowing and “scrubbing” (breaking up the ground); drilling seed and carting muck; hauling out timber and drawing a roller across the fields. Days out for the family tend to be confined to farm and livestock sales, a change being as good as a rest. Sillywrea is a magnificently traditional mixed farm with livestock, grassland and arable and there are very few of those left on a small to medium scale. Throughout the year (2001) we follow not only the fortunes of the family, but also those of the young horse Sandy as he is introduced into the work team.

Lest this sound too lyrical, and it is an evocative book, there’s plenty of information about the sheer hard work and constant effort required to work a farm with horses. There have been family tragedies and great losses over the years. Consistently though, the horses have been there; and somehow, with them, through them and by them, storms have been weathered.

Tom Forster (now deceased), ploughman, horseman and friend of the family, began as a labourer and ended as head horseman on a famous estate. When he said, of some of his early employments: “Like damned slaves, that’s what we were. Damned slaves. Some farmers treated their dogs better than their men,” he was speaking from bitter experience. Some horsemen may have found better treatment when they left their horses for machines. But they also knew what they’d lost. The slow, regular pace of farming with horses, the work that could not be rushed or pushed, the sense of pride and nobility in their knowledge of horses had gone: but not at Sillywrea.

Working horses: the future?

Who better to comment on the possible future of the working horse than John Dodd of Sillywrea Farm? In 2001 these were his thoughts: “‘We’re too far down the road of mechanisation,’ he says. ‘I can’t really see horses coming back. We’ve reached the point of no return.'”

Periodically, people do talk about the return of the working horse – but mostly, that’s what it seems to be, talk. I remember, years ago, writing a magazine article about Sue Day, a horsewoman who has spent most of her life working with horses in various capacities, including farm work with traditional horse-drawn equipment. At the time she recalled “People used to say I’d be worth a fortune when the oil ran out. It didn’t run out!” For Sue and others like her, it’s not about making a fortune.

A similar theme ran through Barry Cockcroft’s famous 1970s book, Princes of the Plough. The tag line was: The Return of the Heavy Horse. Geoff Morton, Yorkshire horseman, commented: “Everyone thinks that I did make a deliberate choice to use horses instead of tractors, but I looked at it from the other side. I’ve always felt that the question ‘why horses instead of tractors’ was really the wrong one. Horses have always seemed the proper thing, the logical thing to me, so I think the right question should be ‘why tractors instead of horses.'”

There seems to be a yearning for a less frantic way of life but, as a professor visiting Sillywrea points out, no-one is really prepared to give up what oil has given us, the cars, the televisions, the holidays, the cheap clothes, the cheap food; and there’s no doubt of the demanding nature of keeping horses, whether for work or leisure. And, would we want to go back to the days when horses were often little better than slaves, rather than working partners, themselves?

James Howard Kunstler, who argues in his book The Long Emergency that the age of oil is coming to an end, thinks that we will have to return to horsepower, and perhaps sooner than we like: “The American scene further into the twenty-first century will have to include more working animals…Obviously relations between humans and working animals can range from respectful and loving to careless and cruel, and social norms of decent behavior towards them will have to be reestablished. We are likely, however, to find ourselves living in a world in which this kind of cruelty is more visible.”

This blog has proved to be a long journey, but without quite so many turns, perhaps, as are made by the horse in the furrow and the horse on the land. There follow the details of the three books I’ve been reading and not a web site in view! If you only have the time or the inclination to read one, might I suggest you choose “The Last Horsemen”, remembering that it is about life today, not in the past? I hope you enjoy it.

And finally; I am a woman on a mission! Do you know of any farms using horse power to perform at least some of their tasks in the UK? Are they still using original horse drawn farm equipment? How difficult is it to find new machinery? And what happens outside the UK? Let me and others know by posting a response to this blog. I’d love to hear from you.

The Last Horsemen: A year at Sillywrea, Britain’s only horse-powered farm by Charles Bowden, pb published 2011 by Andre Deutsch. ISBN 978-0-233-00323-8

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

The Society of the Horseman’s Grip and Word, published by the Society of Esoteric Endeavour, ISBN 978-0-95637-130-0

Princes of the Plough, Barry Cockcroft hb 1978, Dent ISBN 0-460-04320 x

Pulling Punches: A Traditional Farming Year by Paul Heiney, Methuen 1988 ISBN 0-413-17010-1

Robert Burns, horseman

On the 25th January, all over the world people celebrate the life and work of Scotland’s famous poet, Robert Burns. Over 200 years after his death in his 37th year, Burns has a mighty and devoted following. At Burns Night suppers, whisky will be drunk and the “Great Chieftain o’ the puddin’-race”, the haggis, will be addressed and subsequently devoured. There will be more toasts, recitation and songs. Poet, exciseman, lover of the lassies and drinking with his cronies, ploughman, toast of Edinburgh, politician, social commentator, creator of scurrilous jibes, observer of nature and animals, mocker of the haughty, collector and writer of songs; this goes a small way towards describing Robert Burns. Every aspect of his life is still open to dispute and discussion.

Of one thing I’m certain, though: Robert Burns was a horseman.

“His grey mare, Meg”

Horses are the subjects of several of his poems and they were a significant part of his life. To take Tam o’Shanter as a starting point for this theme, where would the poem be without Tam’s grey mare Maggie? The poem opens with Tam enjoying an evening’s drinking in Ayr, whilst the weather worsens

The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle..

It’s time he left for home, but the company is good and so are the ales. Tam will drink along with anyone, the miller, his bosom buddy Souter (Cobbler) Johnnie, or the blacksmith, with whom on market days he matches a drink for every shoe:

That every naig was ca’d a shoe on,
The smith and thee gat roaring fou on.

But, finally, reluctantly, Tam has to leave. He goes out into a night of violent storm:

Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg–
A better never lifted leg–
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire;
Despisin’ wind and rain and fire.

When they pass Alloway Church, Maggie, like her rider, is astonished to see blazing lights and hear the sounds of a riotous party going on:

But Maggie stood, right sair astonish’d,
Till, by the heel and hand admonish’d,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight…

"But Maggie stood, right sair astonish'd, Till, by the heel and hand admonish'd, She ventured forward on the light; And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight..." Tam and Maggie as imagined by Abraham Cooper

The church is full of witches and warlocks having a dance. “Nae cotillion brent-new frae France,” comments Burns dryly, “But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels, put life and mettle in their heels.” When the witches strip down to their shifts, both Tam and the Devil (Deil), who is of course presiding over events, are most impressed by one of them, young Nannie. That’s Tam’s undoing. Full of whisky courage, he bawls out “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” as she dances about in a very short shift indeed.

Remember Tam’s mare!

Luckily, his mare Maggie has some sense (and witches aside, the incidence of people getting home safely because of the intelligence of their horses is a regular theme in fact as well as in fiction and poetry). She takes off as though hell is at her heels, which it is, very shortly afterwards:

So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi’ mony an eldritch skriech and hollo.

"For Nannie, far before the rest, Hard upon noble Maggie prest"; as imagined by John Joseph Barker

Maggie and Tam are running for their lives towards a stream, which they both know no witch will cross. And with a last desperate bound, Maggie is just carrying her master to safety when the witch Nannie grabs at her tail and:

For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle –
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain gray tail;
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump..

So, suggests Burns, the next time you’re distracted by whisky, ale or short shifts: “Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear – Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.

Burns was lauded in his own lifetime but financially he was constantly struggling. When working as an exciseman, for instance, he wrote to a close friend:

I know not how the word exciseman, or still more opprobrious, gauger, will sound in your ears. I too have seen the day when my auditory nerves would have felt very delicately on this subject; but a wife and children are things which have a wonderful power in blunting these kind of sensations. Fifty pounds a year for life, and a provision for widows and orphans, you will allow is no bad settlement for a poet.

Poor jaded Pegasus

It was whilst working as an exciseman that Burns rode many a mile throughout south west Scotland, finding himself in the middle of a cold winter at remote Wanlockhead with his horse in need of calkins to improve the grip on the frosty road. When the local smith would not come out to shoe Burns’ horse, which was his favourite, Pegasus, Burns hastily penned a poem to be presented to a local worthy who arranged to have the work done. The use of classical imagery is of course quite usual, but it’s possible there’s some deeper message in it:

With Pegasus upon a day
Apollo, weary flying,
(Thro’ frosty hills the journey lay)
On foot the way was plying.

Poor, slipshod, giddy Pegasus
Was, but a sorry walker,
To Vulcan then Apollo gaes,
To get a frosty calker.

Obliging Vulcan fell to wark,
Threw by his coat and bonnet;
And did Sol’s business in a crack,
Sol pay’d him with a sonnet.

Ye Vulcan’s Sons of Wanlockhead,
Pity my sad disaster;
My Pegasus is poorly shod,
I’ll pay you like my Master.

One another occasion, Burns and Pegasus were settled at “the only tolerable inn”, Bailie Whigham’s in Sanquhar whilst a “grim evening and howling wind were ushering in a night of snow and drift,” as Burns wrote to a friend. In this letter it’s clear how much he relates to the horse as a comrade, not just a convenience for carrying out his work:

My horse and I were much both fatigued by the labors of the day, and just as my friend the Bailie and I were bidding defiance over a smoking bowl, in wheels the funeral pageantry of the late great Mrs Oswald and poor I am forced to brave all the horrors of the tempestuous night, and jade my horse, my young favorite horse, whom I had just christened Pegasus, twelve miles further on, through the wildest moors and hills of Ayrshire, to New Cumnock…

Burns penned a bitter ode to the unpopular old woman whose corpse had caused him leave the comfortable inn and to “jade” his horse.

The Ploughman Poet

Much capital was – and is – made of Burns as the “Ploughman Poet”. For many, this conjures up the classic image of the ploughman with his team, working the land steadily with, perhaps a flock of birds following on behind feasting on the worms turned up by the ploughshare. The reality was rather different.

Firstly, the literati of Edinburgh (and beyond) were fond of creating romantic images around creative talents coming from a rural background – as with James Hogg, “The Ettrick Shepherd”. Hogg was a shepherd and Burns was a ploughman, but the use of these terms as a convenient marketing tag has to be separated from the reality of the sheer hard labour involved. During Burns’ lifetime, there were major developments taking place in both agricultural equipment and methods. Scotland was at the forefront of these changes and the new two-horse plough was – apologies – cutting edge technology.

Whilst some Mediaeval and Renaissance images, particularly from Europe, show ploughs being drawn by a pair of horses, this still wasn’t the norm in Britain. Ploughing using the “primitive plough” was mostly done by oxen – this continued in some very rural parts late into the 19th century – and it took four or more oxen, sometimes augmented by horses, to drag the plough through the earth. Sometimes four horses would be used instead of oxen. It was also a communal effort, requiring a family or a ploughman and several labourers. Stones and weeds had to be cleared as it went along and it usually took two men at least to manage the plough, one to hold the hilts, or stilts (handles) and the other to apply weight so it cut through the ground. Someone had to lead or goad the team as well.

All that changed when James Small designed a new type of plough in the second half of the 18th century. That, along with the development of the Clydesdale in Scotland and the Shire in England, resulted in a revolution in ploughing that would lead to the heavy horse becoming the centre of farming life – but that’s a whole story on its own. What Burns understood by ploughing was the old form, not the new that was coming into being. Alistair Moffat, in his excellent book The Borders, writes:

The most famous ploughman who ever lived, Robert Burns, owned a copy of James Small’s treatise, but he never made use of it. Working alone in an outbye field with only his horses for company was not a prospect Burns ever relished. For him, the body warmth, the crack and the shared experience was a necessary part of the hard, hard work of farming.”

The life of a ploughman

As I was a-wand’ring ae morning in spring,
I heard a young ploughman sae sweetly to sing;
And as he was singin’, thir words he did say,—
There’s nae life like the ploughman’s in the month o’ sweet May.

The lav’rock in the morning she’ll rise frae her nest,
And mount i’ the air wi’ the dew on her breast,
And wi’ the merry ploughman she’ll whistle and sing,
And at night she’ll return to her nest back again.

Robert BurnsThe Ploughman’s Life

Salutations to old mare Maggie

For me the best example of Burns as a horseman comes from a lesser known poem, The Auld Farmer’s New-Year Morning Salutation to His Auld Mare Maggie, on Giving Her the Accustomed Ripp of Corn to Hansel in the New Year. A “hansel” is a payment, a gift, or hand grip, often used in betrothal. Here it’s an agreement between the old farmer and his mare, now very old. As he gives her a New Year gift of corn, he reminisces about their lives together, how he inherited her from his father twenty-nine years earlier. Her coat is now white with age but he remembers her when she was young and beautifully dappled:

Tho’ now thou’s dowie, stiff, an’ crazy,
An’ thy auld hide as white’s a daisy, I’ve seen thee dappl’t, sleek and glaizie,
A bonny gray…

His mare brought home his young bride on her back:

That day ye pranc’d wi’ muckle pride,
When ye bure hame my bonnie bride:
An’ sweet an’ gracefu’ she did ride,
Wi’ maiden air!

And Maggie has born him ten foals, some of which are in his plough team whilst others he has sold. In the poem, all his past, all his life is read in her and through her like a book. They have grown old together. Finally he assures her that she will always have a place with him and even of his last bundle of corn, she’d always have a portion, a “heapit stimpart” a generous quarter of a peck:

And think na, my auld, trusty servan’,
That now perhaps thou’s less deservin,
An’ thy auld days may end in starvin,
For my last fow,
A heapit stimpart,
I’ll reserve ane Laid by for you.

He promises to tether her out on a grassy ridge where she can “nobly rax her leather” – stretch her old body out – and rest. “Flit”, which has amongst its meanings “to tether” can also mean to die, to pass over. The sense, the feeling, that I draw from this is that even in death her body will be nobly buried, not cast aside. If you want to read the whole poem, try the Gutenberg Project where you will find the complete version and, indeed, all Burns’ works. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18500/18500-h/18500-h.htm

So, as you celebrate Burns Night remember Robert Burns the horseman too. Here’s to you, Rabbie! Cheers!

Seeing how they run: horses in early photography and film

Being a historian – and that is anyone with an interest in history – is like being a time traveller. It’s possible to go anywhere you’d like to go in the past and still be back in time for tea. Then you can go off on another journey, to the same place or a different one; and even the same place can be a new destination if you read a number of different interpretations of the past. It’s astonishing how much diversity there is in historical writing and interesting to see how specialist historians choose to focus on different aspects of people, places and activities.

One thing recurs, though; and that is, just how ubiquitous horses, ponies and mules  were before the arrival of the train and the car. That’s obviously the major theme of historyonhorseback, but even I am surprised sometimes when I stumble on an unexpected connection to the horse in an area that I hadn’t previously considered researching.

The start of this journey was a feature in Amateur Photographer, written by David Clark, about the man who formulated the first photographic process: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.

The oldest photograph in existence – includes a horse!

I had never heard of this man but then I’d never claim to be an expert on the history of photography. I certainly knew about Eadweard Muybridge and his contribution to photography and film and the role horses had played in that – which I’ll discuss shortly. But Niépce? Who was he? As I turned the page, an image of a man leading a horse caught my eye. I read the caption: “Niépce’s image of an engraving, depicting a man leading a horse, made in 1825…”

The oldest photograph still in existence: an image of a 17th engraving of horse and man

Yes, that’s right – the earliest photograph still in existence is of a man leading a horse. The reproduction of the engraving, in the pages of AP, showed a warm yellowy-pink background with a faded looking image of horse and man. The man is looking anxiously up at the horse and is holding it tightly on a lead rope with his hand close to its jaw, whilst the horse shows its anxiety by throwing its head up and opening its mouth. Its back is tense and the hindlegs almost crouched in appearance. It looks as though it is jibbing, refusing to go on, possibly even about to rear up. The man is barefoot and gives the impression of being one of the many who hung about inns and houses in the hope of holding someone’s horse for them in return for a tip. He looks as though he’s taken on more than he expected here. Or is he leading up the horse at a horse fair? Or stealing it?

Equestrians will also note that one of the bare feet of the man is very close to the hoof of the horse. Has he perhaps been trodden on, yelped and surprised the horse? It’s a scenario that most of us will have experienced at some point, though not with bare feet, perhaps.

It isn’t a photograph of  a real horse of course, it’s an image of an image, a 17th century engraving. It would be years before photography was capable of capturing motion successfully and so there would never have been any question of Niépce trying out his new invention on a moving animal. This is one of the earliest photographic images ever made and in retrospect perhaps it’s not surprising and also quite touching that it should include a horse.

A golden generation

Joseph Niépce was a remarkable character.  Born in Chalon-sur-Saone in France in 1765, he later adopted the name Nicéphore after a Byzantine bishop and saint, Nicephorus. Niépce was one of a remarkable generation; the revolutionary and post-revolutionary Napoleonic generation that produced so many original scientific thinkers whose legacy still touches our lives on a daily basis, although we may not always be conscious of it.

Niépce began his experiments in producing fixed images using the existing technology of the camera obscura. It was quite usual to trace the images cast by this interesting invention, but Niépce wanted to find a way to fix the images in some sort of permanent medium in a way that didn’t involve tracing. He experimented with silver nitrate but struggled to produce something that didn’t fade until he did further experiments with bitumen and lavender oil.

His first known successes date from the late 18th century although these images deteriorated quickly and nothing remains of them. I do find it fascinating to think that if he had succeeded at this early date, we might have had photographs of Napoleon’s 1798 expedition to Egypt and the “savants” who took part in the world’s first multi-disciplinary scientific investigation. This date also marks the start of the study of ancient Egypt as a separate discipline which is also known as Egyptology. And there is, perhaps, a curious link to Egypt, or at least to the ancient world, in the name Niépce gave his process, which was “Heliography”, or “sun writing”, in recognition of the need for light exposure to produce the image. Helios is of course the name of  a sun deity – often visualised as driving a chariot through the sky – and the ancient Egyptians had numerous forms and expressions for worshipping the manifestations of their own sun god.

In contrast to Niépce, the life of Eadweard Muybridge is generally better known and more widely documented. His life began and ended in Kingston-on-Thames in the UK, but in between those events, it was one hell of a hair-raising ride.

An old mystery resolved

Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830 and so into a world where photography was recently established, growing and evolving. He moved to the USA where he changed his name several times. A stagecoach accident caused him to return to the UK for a while and it was here that he studied photography.  On recovery, he returned to America and worked as a successful photographer, using the name “Helios” for his business and the signature on his prints.

It’s hard to tell how long the discussion about animal motion had been going on. It might have been for centuries. Certainly in the ancient world it was standard practice, when producing images of galloping animals such as horses, to show them in a strange pose called “the flying gallop”: the front and back legs are stretched out somewhat like those of a rocking horse. This strange and inaccurate portrayal persisted right up until the 19th century, arguably reaching its height in the 17th century AD. Attempts to show other paces were slightly more successful, although in some of the ancient images of walking horses, the horses’ feet appear to be stuck to the floor; not one hoof is raised although the legs are bent as though in motion. The correct leg sequence of each of the paces of a horse was strangely hard to portray although it could clearly be felt by any equestrian. And it was the new invention of photography that would finally resolve some very ancient issues regarding movement.

In 1877, Muybridge became involved in the debate when the Californian Governor, Stanford, argued that when a horse was trotting, a two-beat pace where the legs are on the diagonal (that is, the foreleg and hindleg on the same side are alternately together and apart) there was a moment of suspension when all four legs were off the ground. Previously, this had been impossible to prove one way or another.

A horse in the air: but not in the flying gallop (Source: Wikipedia.)

Muybridge managed to get a single photographic shot showing that there was indeed a moment of suspension and this led on to further investigations. He ingeniously came up with ways of recording a sequence of movements, firstly by using threads that triggered photographic shots as the horse broke through each one; these could then be copied and turned rapidly in sequence on a machine called the zoopraxiscope, to recreate the impression of movement. Then, secondly, he developed a more reliable clockwork version to replace the thread process. He was able to demonstrate that in gallop, there is also a point when all four legs are off the ground; this occurs when the legs are drawn together at their closest and the idea of the flying gallop was finally dispelled, in horses at least, although the debate was still alive and well in the 1930s with regard to other animals. The sequence, of one of Stanford’s horses, entitled: “Sally Gardner at a gallop” is still breathtaking to watch.

Fortune’s wheel

It would seem as though Muybridge was destined for fame as the founding father of cinematography with these very early versions of movies; and indeed, he did have a successful career as a lecturer and creator of moving and sequential images. His publication “Animal Location”, with photographic sequences of both human and animal subjects in motion, is still a useful reference for artists, amongst others.

However, as with Niépce, who also had personal and financial issues to drain him, Muybridge’s personal and professional life collapsed into ruin. Eventually he fell into dispute and litigation with Stanford – and lost – but prior to that there was a far greater scandal and tragedy. Muybridge’s wife was having an affair  with an army major, Harry Larkyns and in 1874 Muybridge approached him, spoke briefly to him and then shot him dead. Muybridge was acquitted on the basis of “justifiable homicide” rather than insanity as a result of his earlier head injury, a legal decision that does seem somewhat extraordinary nearly 150 years later.

Niépce and Muybridge; two totally diverse pioneers whose contributions to photography and, in the case of Muybridge, cinematography, are outstanding.  And where those pioneers were, so too were horses.

Amateur Photographer, 24 – 31 December 2011, Icons of Photography: View from the Window at Le Gras pp 50 – 52. Feature by David Clark.

Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 56, No 2 June 1936, pp 178 – 188, Two Notes on the Flying Gallop by William F. Edgerton.

For more about Muybridge: http://www.archives.upenn.edu/primdocs/upt/upt50/upt50m993/upt50m993.html

For more about Niepce, there is a museum devoted to his work: www.niepce.com

Welcome Christmas, welcome the Grey Mare!

Given the long association between equids and humans, it’s not surprising that festivals and rituals involving horses can be found right across the world. One of the most interesting, and possibly of great antiquity, is the Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd, or grey mare. It’s also known as Y Fari Lwyd. Although this tradition, like many British and indeed European customs, fell into disuse in the 20th century, it has been revived and is now firmly re-established in parts of Wales.

The modern Mari Lwyd, complete with baubles for eyes. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mari_Lwyd

The Mari is particularly associated with midwinter. The specially prepared and dressed skull of a horse is carried around from door to door (or pub to pub) and at each house the person who carries the Mari, disguised under a sheet, has to sing rhymes to obtain access. In Wales, with its strong Bardic tradition, there’s great skill and wit in constructing complex and entertaining rhymes. The inhabitants of the building must sing back to the Mari, using their own wit and skill to construct replies; and so the ritual becomes a contest of knowledge and ability.

Almost invariably the Mari Lwyd wins. After all, this tradition is very much like that of first-footing in Scotland and the north east of England: the Mari Lwyd and her followers are honoured guests who bring good luck with them.

Share the cake, tap the barrel!

There are various songs that are particularly associated with the Mari Lwyd and as with many ancient, probably pre-Christian, ceremonies, it wasn’t long before the Church decided to stamp it with its own brand by adding a Mari Lwyd carol to the proceedings. You can find the words and a recording of it here: http://www.omniglot.com/songs/bcc/marilwyd.php and there’s another associated song here, at the Museum of Wales: http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/1555/?id=2 mari lwyd folk song national museum of wales

If you’ve gone to bed too early
In a vengeful spirit,
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly

The large, sweet cake
With all kinds of spices:
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
This Christmas–tide.

O, tap the barrel
And let it flow freely;
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
This Christmas–tide.

There are several Youtube videos of the Mari Lwyd ceremonies. Here’s one, that gives a flavour: 2008 Mari lwyd celebration http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZu8lcuEUMY

“Old Ball” and his master, the Lord of Misrule

In Robert Neill’s famous novel about witchcraft in 17th century Lancashire, Mist over Pendle, Margery, a young woman from London, goes to stay with a relative in “the north country”. At Christmas, they travel to another relative’s house to celebrate the 12 days. The celebrations are led by the “Lord of Misrule” and Margery is told that when his horse “Old Ball” comes in, then she must hold on tight to the old horse’s tail:

 “Then, cavorting through the doorway, neighing, kicking, and jumping clear from the floor, came the monstrous image of a horse. The stamping and cheering rose to madness, with shrieks and whistles and bangings of mugs. Margery took one look at Old Ball and then swayed helplessly against her neighbour, hurting her ribs with laughter. Old Ball was a huge horse’s head, crazily done in wood and canvas; the round bottoms of wine-bottles formed his eyes, and his teeth were painted wooden pegs; below, two stout sticks took the weight and pretended to be his front legs; a great sheet of canvas made his body, and concealed the man who was his hind legs and who worked his tail and jaws; for both moved. There was a great tail of red-bound rope, which flapped wildly; and there was a lower jaw which moved creakingly up and down; and from out of this mouth there stuck a great iron ladle, gaily hung with ribbons.”

The crazy creature walks around the room, his jaws opening and closing as he demands money from each member of the party. The money is put into the ladle to begin with and it disappears with a clang. Then people begin to throw coins and the merriment increases as the Lord of Misrule scampers about gathering up the money.

A wild and whirling romp

“Then the climax came. The musicians who had played for the dancing suddenly struck up again, and Old Ball went stamping around the room to the thump of a marching tune. The staid and portly moved hurriedly aside, and the rest rushed wildly at the tail of red-wrapped rope; as many as could get a grip hung fiercely to it and the rest hung as fiercely to them; and soon three-quarters of the company were solemnly tramping a circle in tow of that crazy horse…The solemn tramp became a jogging trot; the trot became an unsteady run; and soon there was a wild and whirling romp, till the man in the canvas horse stumbled and fell headlong. His followers sprawled on top of him, and their followers fell across them in a wild hooting chaos while the music ended abruptly in a screech of discord.” – Robert Neill, Mist over Pendle

Was Old Ball a version of “Old Baal”, as some have suggested, giving not only pre-Christian but possibly middle eastern origins?

The Mari Lwyd is sometimes viewed as part of a wider tradition of hobby horses, not only in Britain but across Europe and beyond, but they all vary greatly suggesting multiple origins for the traditions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobby_horse There’s also a page about the Mari Lwyd specifically: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mari_Lwyd

A bit more about the Mari can be found at http://www.llgc.org.uk/blog/?p=313  National Library of Wales and there’s a Flickr group for sharing images: http://www.flickr.com/groups/944820@N20/

Nommo and the ancestors

Whilst I was preparing this page, I received a link from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, relating to the Dogon people  of Mari, in Africa, who have their own special midwinter festival relating to a  horse who is the primordial being Nommo in equine form. This tradition, whilst very different from that of the Mari, is very appropriate for this blog as it is linked so closely to the Winter Solstice. This is from the Met site:

“Holding the eight original human ancestors and everything they needed for life on earth, the ark was guided by Nommo, the primordial being who created order within the universe. When the ark settled on the ground, Nommo transformed himself into a horse and transported the eight ancestors across the earth to water, where the ark floated like a boat.In this example, the horse’s head is fitted with a bridle, representing Nommo’s transformation into equine form, while the eight original ancestors are portrayed in two groups of four on the sides of the vessel.”

Read more about it and see the ritual vessel here:  http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/50004812

Let’s give the Old Grey Mare the last word: there is a saying, now disused, “The grey mare is the better horse.” In other words, the female in the partnership always outdoes the male. But is it true? Well, only the grey mare knows – and she’s not saying.


The other “Warhorse”: Captain’s Story

The recent US launch of the Spielberg film “Warhorse”, based on the hugely successful musical, based in turn on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, reminded me of the first warhorse whose story moved me to tears. It was in that most famous of equine stories, Black Beauty, and when I re-read it recently I found it had lost none of its impact. Anna Sewell wrote her story with intent: she wanted to bring the plight of working horses into public awareness and reduce the mindless cruelty she witnessed all about her, from the fastening up of carriage horses’ heads with the “bearing rein” to the endless beatings and maltreatment of worn out cab horses in London.

The warhorse in question is Captain was once a “dark, dappled iron grey, and considered very handsome” but at the time of the story, like all ageing grey horses, his coat had turned to white. He tells his story to Black Beauty, his harness mate with whom he now draws a cab through the London streets.

“Lifted off our legs”

Captain, known then as Bayard, was a cavalry horse shipped out, with hundreds of others, to serve in the Crimean War; if the term “served” can be justifiably used, because of course in Captain’s case, there was no choice. In order to get the horses onto the ship, canvas slings were placed round their bellies and they were swung into the hold. The practice of transporting horses by sea or water was a very ancient one; the Egyptians of the New Kingdom had successfully transported horses up and down the Nile.  There is a fascinating image from the tomb of one of the relatives of Ramesses II showing two horses being carried in a kind of stable on board the deck of a barge under tow. The impression given is that the horses are looking around in surprise as the river flows slowly past.

Journal of the Crimean

However, for Captain and the other horses that were to serve in the Crimea, crowded conditions and rough seas awaited them on their journey and many died en route.The fact that the horses permitted themselves to be lifted by sling is a measure of the bond they had developed with humans, through the close relationship between cavalryman and horse. A horse that cannot steady itself and stand on its feet is a horse that is vulnerable in the extreme.

Although the horses could not record the horrors of the journey – and how they can have coped with seasickness and the instability of standing on decking, both traumatic circumstances for horses – we do get some idea from the Journal of the Crimean War written by Lord George Paget. This details the truly horrific conditions and refers to at least two horses becoming crazed with “a sort of mad staggers”. The only treatment they received for this was to have water flung over their heads. Those horses that died in transit were simply dumped overboard.

“But what of the fighting?”

Sewell’s book is significant because throughout it we have the horse’s eye view of human activity, whether from the perspective of a relatively well-kept riding horse belonging to the aristocracy, a pony thrashed by an apprentice, a maltreated mare who fights back against human injustice or an old warhorse veteran now ending his days pulling a cab on the streets of London. Captain gives us the truth of what happened, rather than the official view. And it moves us to tears more than any human description.

“But what of the fighting?” asks Beauty, “was that not worse than anything else?”

Captain replies: “I, with my noble master, went into many actions together without a wound; and though I saw horses shot down with bullets, pierced through with lances, and gashed with fearful sabre cuts; though we left them dead on the field, or dying in the agony of their wounds, I don’t think I feared for myself. My master’s cheery voice, as he encouraged his men, made me feel as if he and I could not be killed.”

He continues, “I had cantered over ground slippery with blood, and frequently had to turn aside to avoid trampling on wounded man or horse, but, until one dreadful day, I never felt terror…”

“C’est de la folie!”

The terrible day is, of course, the fateful day of the Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the British light cavalry, consisting of units of Dragoons, Lancers, Hussars and the famous Scots Greys, rode into a charge that ended in them being massacred under gun and cannon fire from three sides. “Someone,” said Tennyson in his famous poem, “had blundered.” This tense understatement has become a byword for incompetence and miscommunication at the highest level. An estimated 500 horses were killed or subsequently destroyed, usually by army farriers who provided the veterinary services to the cavalry at that time.

“C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre,” General Bosquet is reported to have said, but the truth was clear in his other comment – “It’s madness.”

Captain’s story

Let Captain speak for the horses. After talking of the intimate kindness shared with his master just before the charge, he says, “I cannot tell all that happened on that day, but I will tell of the last charge that we made together: it was across a valley right in front of the enemy’s cannon…From the right, from the left, from the front, the shot and shell poured in upon us. Many a brave man went down, many a horse fell, flinging his rider to the earth; many a horse without a rider ran wildly out of the ranks: then, terrified at being alone with no hand to guide him, came pressing in amongst his old companions, to gallop with them to the charge…

“My master, my dear master, was cheering on his comrades with his right arm raised on high, when one of the balls whizzing close to my head, struck him. I felt him stagger with the shock, though he uttered no cry; I tried to check my speed, but the sword dropped from his right hand, the rein fell loose from the left, and sinking backwards from the saddle he fell to the earth; the other riders swept past us, and by the force of their charge I was driven from the spot where he fell…

“I wanted to keep my place by his side, and not leave him…but it was in vain…

“Some of the horses had been so badly wounded that they could scarcely move from the loss of blood; other noble creatures were trying on three legs to rise on their forefeet, when their hind legs had been shattered by shot. Their groans were piteous to hear, and the beseeching look in their eyes as those who escaped passed by, and left them to their fate, I shall never forget…”

Captain was one of the fortunate horses who survived the charge and was returned to England, “but the greater part of the noble, willing creatures that went out that morning, never came back!”

“Do you know what they fought about?”

Captain and Beauty discuss the reasons for the war. Beauty has heard – although one senses that he is just using this to draw out Captain’s views – people talking about war “as if it was a very fine thing.”

Captain considers that “I should think they never saw it. No doubt it is very fine…when it is just exercise, parade and sham-fight…but when thousands of good brave men and horses are killed, or crippled for life, it has a very different look.”

Beauty wants to know whether Captain knew what the fighting was all about.

Captain’s reply is a brilliant example of Sewell’s capacity to put an innocent and trusting statement into the mouth of a horse, and at the same time produce a biting and satirical comment on the folly of humans: ‘No,’ he said, ‘that is more than a horse can understand, but the enemy must have been awfully wicked people, if it was right to go all that way over the sea on purpose to kill them.’

A current exhibition related to the “Warhorse” book and movie is being held at the National Army Museum: http://www.nam.ac.uk/microsites/war-horse/; there’s also some excellent information available at the site of Will Hutchison, author of a novel about the Crimean War:  http://willhutchison.com/blog/2010/01/10/horses-in-the-crimean-war/; there’s  information about the very limited veterinary treatment horses received in this campaign at http://www.ams-museum.org.uk/museum/ravc-history/; the famous charge itself is described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charge_of_the_Light_Brigade;

Feuding, fighting and twenty-two pound tumours: the lives of the “Doctors on Horseback”

“Dysentery has been more deadly than all the cavalry charges of history.” – James Thomas Flexner

“‘Now, John,’ he said, ‘ride for your life – that is, for your mistress’ life; there is a not a moment to lose. Give this note to Dr. White; give your horse a rest at the inn, and be back as soon as you can.'” – Anna Sewell, Black Beauty

“Dear Cecil: I recently acquired a satellite dish and have become a shameless junkie of old westerns. In half of these B movies of plains life, it seems there is always a woman giving birth. After they give her the obligatory wooden spoon to bite on, someone always yells to boil some water. What’s with the water?” Question from Ryan Bailey to Cecil Adams. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1109/when-a-woman-gives-birth-in-westerns-why-do-they-always-boil-water

“…Then a rider appeared over the crest of the slope. He was so tall that his legs almost touched the ground.

‘You’re Dr. McDowell?’

The newcomer nodded. In the gap between his coonskin cap and his fur collar nothing was visible but tiny, brilliant eyes and a huge nose blue with cold…” James Thomas Flexner,  A Backwoods Galahad in Doctors on Horseback

It began, as so many projects do, with an old book. This one was Doctors on Horseback, by James Thomas Flexner and it was published in the late 1930s. The book was a series of brief biographies of the founding fathers of medicine in the USA, some of whom also played prominent roles in politics in parallel with their medical careers. “The early doctors of America fought on two frontiers,” wrote Flexner, “riding the wilderness of a new continent, they explored the mysteries of the human body.”

Bloody litigation

And they fought on other fronts; with each other, with their patients and with their critics. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), a committed, almost evangelical supporter of blood-letting, fell into litigation with William Cobbett (the author of “Rural Rides” and many other social and political essays), when Cobbett suggested that the blood-letting favoured by Rush killed more patients than it cured. Rush was successful, winning 500 dollars in compensation and Cobbett, who had sailed to the USA as an escape from revolutionary France, left the country and returned to England.

Another famous physician, John Morgan (1735-1789), became director-general of hospitals under the American revolutionary army. His duties were onerous and he loaded himself up with more and more responsibility: “At last some more doctors arrived. Morgan did not even take a day’s holiday; driven by that abnormal energy which pulls men through impossible crises, he galloped to Fort Lee to ask General Greene about supplies for the Hackensack Hospital.”

And fell into long-standing dispute with a former classmate, William Shippen, who, according to Flexner, had been politicking behind the scenes in Philadelphia whilst Morgan was galloping about as a serving doctor on the battlefields as well as building hospitals and collecting and storing drugs and other materials for the wounded. Shippen was destined for success and honours whilst Morgan, who was destined to play the role of scapegoat in the mismanagement of medical matters, was dismissed from his post.

However, called before an investigating committee, the records, notes and affadavits Morgan had amassed resulted in his vindication. He vowed to be avenged on Shippen.  He went to great extremes to achieve this, constantly demanding that Shippen attend hearings. Shippen complained that Morgan “…cited me to attend through the deepest snow this winter, which he first broke for 200 miles, and was once dug out of a snow hill, and was once froze to his saddle…”


Morgan, who was a founder of the American Philosophical Society, was fascinated by the unusual.  One curious case he cited was that of the “horse with a snake in its eye…not only possessed of mere life but endowed with a very brisk locomotive faculty”, viewing it as a possible example of spontaneous generation. He was sure that it was “a real reptile ‘which from the vivacity and briskness of its motion exceeds any worm and equals that of any kind of serpent I have ever seen.'”

Dr Ephraim McDowell, like Morgan, was a medical student in Edinburgh for a time. In the company of two fellow Kentuckians he began a showy carriage tour of the Highlands in 1793, but “the instant they admitted they were from Kentucky, all formality was thrown aside and the delighted Scots haled them out  on horseback or in a coach and exhibited them….as gentlemen from the extreme backwoods…”

It is as a pioneer of the ovariotomy that McDowell is best remembered. In December 1809 he went to the bedside of one Jane Todd Crawford who was apparently getting towards the end of a tough pregnancy but could not be induced to give birth. McDowell quickly recognised that in fact she had a tumour and that the prognosis was bad. Mrs Crawford agreed to ride the sixty miles to McDowell’s home to undergo a pioneering operation. “The operation would be similar to spaying, and animals recovered from being spayed.”

“Fifteen pounds of dirty, gelatinous substance”

As an aside, spaying of animals had been carried out for many centuries: mares included. Peter Edwards, in “Horse and Man in Early Modern England” cites the example of the “waif mare, Stagg” of Brandsby in the 17th century. However, although there had been a huge amount of discussion regarding the possibility of performing a similar operation on women who were suffering from ovarian tumours, or cysts, until the case of Jane Crawford none had been carried out. Abdominal surgery of any kind was extremely dangerous. Post-operative peritonitis was the biggest fear. However, after Jane Crawford agreed to the agonising ride of sixty miles, in the middle of winter, with her “huge tumour pressed against the pommel of the saddle” (Flexner), a successful operation was performed. “We took out fifteen pounds of a dirty, gelatinous looking substance. After which we cut through the fallopian tube, and extracted the sac, which weighed seven pounds and one half.”

Jane Crawford made an excellent recovery from the operation and lived for over thirty years more. The success of the operation was probably partly due to McDowell’s insistence on cleanliness. However, controversy surrounded McDowell’s techniques and even as she lay on the wooden “operating table,” people were calling for the operation to be ended. Some wanted to hang the doctor.  Afterwards, McDowell’s reputation as a butcher who slit open the stomachs of women would follow him around, despite the success of his technique.

Musty saddle-bags

Medical journals of the early 20th century had poems such as this, honouring the country doctor on horseback who seems to favour the travelling herbalist more than the university trained medical man :

When the whooping cough was ragin’
And the measles were around;
Then he’d mount his rhubarb pony
And go trotting out of town.
With his saddle skirts a-floppin’,
And his leggins all in rags,
And roots and herbs a-stuffin
Out his pussy saddle-bags;

And when mam was down with fever
And we thought that she would die,
That old fellow wouldn’t leave her,
And he never shut an eye.
But he set there like a pilot
For to keep her from the snags,
And he brought her through the riffles
With his musty saddle-bags.”

(Quoted in Medicine in Richmond 1900 – 1975  by Charles M. Caravati, M.D.)

Flexner tells us that Dr. Daniel Drake, of Cincinnati, carried in his saddle bags: “a few instruments and some stock remedies: Glauber’s salts, Dover’s powder, strong paragorics, vermifuges, blisters, Peruvian bark for fevers, dragon’s blood, gamboge, and nux vomica. The ordinary charge was twenty-five cents a mile, one-half being deducted if the horse was fed.”

The only pain killer that McDowell could give Jane Crawford was opium, in pill form. However, things were about to change, for by the time of Jane’s operation, Sir Humphrey Davey’s  suggestion that laughing gas (nitrous oxide) might have a place in surgery was already a decade old. His suggestion took a long time to catch on, though. It was primarily used as a novelty in medical schools where students got off their heads on it (“drunk on the gas”). And, as Flexner relates, “there set out over the land a little horde of chemical lecturers…who depended principally on demonstrations of the drunkenness produced by laughing gas.”

Ether sprees

Flexner describes the arrival of one of these “Lyceum lecturers” in Jefferson, Georgia, home to Dr. Crawford W. Long, in the winter of 1841: “we can visualise his long black beard that terrified the yokels flowing from beneath a broad-brimmed black hat of the type now worn only by Senators. As he rode in his brightly painted cart behind an under-fed nag, he could not have realised that he was making history…”

After watching the results of the lecturer inhaling some of the gas, according to Flexner some of Long’s friends clustered around and joined in. They enjoyed the sensation so much that they begged Long to make some gas for them so they could do it all over again. He was familiar with the use of ether for the same purposes and “ether sprees” became a regular activity. When the young women of the town heard about it and wanted to see what happened, Long saw his chance: “I’ll inhale some if you all promise not to hold me responsible for anything I may do.” Long then went round the room in an ether-fuelled version of “Postman’s knock”.

Eventually Long used the ether for medical purposes when he removed two small growths from a friend’s neck after the patient had inhaled the ether from a towel. He went on to perform more successful operations using the gas. Long made the cardinal error of medical (and academic) practice: he did not publish what he was doing. His seniors warned that it was only a matter of time before one of his patients died. Just as with other doctors, he was castigated and “changed from a hero into an object of terror.” Long had lost the edge and it was others who would take the claim for the use of early anaesthetics in surgery and dentistry.

Whether riding in the country, or in a carriage in town, doctors depended on the horse to do their rounds right into the 20th century. Many a paper was probably written in the minds of the riders and Dr. Masen Good of London translated “Lucretius”  whilst journeying between patients in his carriage (“The Story of Medicine”, Vernon Coleman). Nostradamus and Paracelsus, both 16th physicians whose careers and lives took different paths, must have relied on horses and mules as they travelled about. Without the equids used by all these doctors, how would patients have faired? And yet, as always, we know so little about those animals and what they thought or felt. We’ll leave the last word to Black Beauty, then:

“The doctor came out with his riding-whip.

‘You need not take that, sir,’ said John; ‘Black Beauty will go till he drops. Take care of him, sir, if you can; I should not like any harm to come to him.’

I will not tell you about our way back. The doctor was a heavier man than John, and not so good a rider; however, I did my very best.”

Anna Sewell, Black Beauty.