How Horses Are at the Centre of Human History | History Hit

How Horses Are at the Centre of Human History

Tim Weinberg

15 May 2020

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Shakespeare, Richard III, Act 5 Scene 4

Thankfully, most situations don’t involve having to swap one’s kingdom for a horse.  But Richard III’s pathetic cry – uttered twice for added dramatic gravitas and resonance – demonstrates an often-overlooked aspect of the value of horses, and gives a strong indication of how they have so often been the deciding factor between life and death, victory or defeat.

From Tutankhamen riding his chariot into battle, through to the Mongols creating the largest land empire the world has ever known, history shows us that glory and great rewards belong to the mounted soldier.

14th century illustration of Mongol warriors pursuing enemies (Credit: Staatsbibliothek Berlin/Schacht).

Bucephalus to Black Bess

The most famous warhorse of antiquity has to be Alexander the Great’s favourite steed Bucephalus.  He had the rare honour of a city, Bucephala, being founded in his honour after his death in 326 BCE, following the Battle of the Hydaspes River.

A nod – and a wink? – must also go to Incitatus, the Emperor Caligula’s favourite, who may or may not have been made a senator (or anything else!)

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Horses are so important that we know Wellington rode Copenhagen at Waterloo, whereas Napoleon lavished attention on Marengo, which outlived ‘Old Boney’ by eight years.  Notable mention should also go to Comanche, the only documented survivor of Custer’s 7th Cavalry detachment at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

The ‘getaway horse’ was essential if you needed to make your escape.  Legendary highwayman Dick Turpin had a just as celebrated mount, Black Bess, who rode non-stop overnight, the 200 miles from London to York.  Reward came in the form of a fatal heart-attack as daybreak approached.

This story also features in the legend of ‘Swift Nick’ and first appears in a pamphlet sold on the day of Turpin’s execution, serving to illustrate its unreliability and the fact that the process of mythologising often begins even before a notorious hero’s death.

Wellington on Copenhagen, painted by Thomas Lawrence.

Horses across the world

In the vast pantheon of the Catholic Church’s list of Saints, it should come as no surprise that the horse is associated with more than one figure.  In the French-speaking world there is St. Eligius (late 6th century, France/Belgium).

On coming across an alarmed horse being shod, Eligius was able to remove the leg, shoe the foot and return it to aforementioned beast, now pacified (or more probably, terrified).

This rather fanciful event is supposedly the origin of the ‘Lucky Horseshoe’.  In the Spanish-speaking world, there is St. Martin of Tours (d. 397) – a definite minnow whose sole miracle was to restore some rent garments – who is most generally portrayed on horseback.

In American history and mythology, and so many other cultures over thousands of years, the horse has been the backbone.  The cowboy, the ultimate loner and symbol of rugged individualism, is nobody without his horse, often his only companion. Think Trigger, Silver, Champion, and Buttermilk names that have underpinned a thousand films and TV shows.

In Britain, where there is no cowboy tradition, horses are mainly found on farms or are for racing, which is one of the major tropes in Peaky Blinders, the BBC’s runaway hit about the Shelby crime family.

From backstreet bookies, through fixing races, to proud owners at Ascot, the horse is at the very heart of the Shelby’s empire.  We learn that the only thing that differentiates these levels of ‘The Sport of Kings’ is money, not some antiquated notions of class.

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A prestigious symbol?

While a dog walker’s messy animal is rightly chided, the horse is free to defecate anywhere and the peasant’s doff their caps and pick up after them.  Meanwhile, a whole generation of middle-aged girls (and boys), probably can still sing “White Horses” and hum the themes to Black Beauty and Follyfoot.

Quite simply, in the countryside, the horse still rules and their riders are perceived as ‘superior’, perhaps owing something to our Feudal tradition?

In a matter of a few short sentences we can speed from Brooklyn Supreme, supposedly the biggest horse ever, through Darley Arabian, Godolphin Arabian and Byerly Turk, stallions from which all Thoroughbreds are descended, to Prometea, born 28 May 2003, the first cloned horse and the first to be born from – and carried by – its cloning mother.

The Darley Arabian stallion painting by John Wootton.

In cultural history, a special mention should also go to Mister Ed (played by Bamboo Harvester), you will believe a horse could talk.  Strangely, the cartoon world featured few horses: Horace Horsecollar (Disney, 1929) and Quick Draw McGraw (Hanna-Barbera, 1959)

They are hardly Premiership material.  Perhaps the reason is that artists from Michelangelo to Picasso have all realised how hard the horse is to draw and used it as a symbol of their skills. (It was supposedly on seeing his 12 year old son Pablo’s drawing of a horse that Picasso senior quit his own artistic career).

There are also gifted horses, such as Clever Hans and Muhamed, who supposedly could solve cube roots.  As these horses’ skills are nearly always mathematical, it’s wise to approach accounts with a certain degree of cynicism – usually a trick, with human collusion.


A good illustration of a British QF 13 pounder field gun of the Royal Horse Artillery, towed by 6 horses. New York Tribune caption : “Going into action and hitting only the highest spots, British artillery speeding along in pursuit of the fleeing foe on the Western front.” Credit: New York Tribune / Commons.

While, for centuries, horses were the fastest things on earth – whose skills and strengths could be put to use by man – the development of artillery and bombs in warfare meant that horses were just there for the slaughter.

From Bucephalus, through the charge of the Light Brigade, to the estimated eight million horses that died in World War One, the age of the military superiority of horses soon faded. (In recent history, you might want to check out the illustrious careers of Reckless, Warrior and other recipients of the illustrious Dickin Medal for Bravery.)

But as the biggest of domesticated animals in the West, it seems unlikely the horse will at any time soon be replaced in our dreams and nightmares.

Tim Weinberg