Horses were domesticated approximately 6,000 years ago – once their speed and power were harnessed, the world was transformed. From pulling wheeled carts, chariots and wagons to their use in herding, agriculture, communication, industry, trade and war, the increased mobility horses provided has played a key role in history.
Here are some notable horses behind some leading historical figures.
1. Alexander the Great – Bucephalus
Bucephalus was Alexander the Great’s favourite stallion, described as a beast of a horse with a massive head, black coat and large white star on his brow.
Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch wrote that Alexander won the horse after making a bet with his father, King Philip II. A horse dealer had offered Bucephalus to Philip for a high price, but as he was seen as un-tamable, he wasn’t interested. Alexander took a chance on the horse, offering to pay if he failed. Alexander realised the horse had been frightened by its shadow, and was able to subdue and tame Bucephalus.
Bucephalus accompanied Alexander through many battles, and became known for his courage and stamina, riding in completely undaunted. When Bucephalus died from injuries sustained at the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326BC, Alexander founded the city of Bucephala on the spot where he died in his memory.
2. Roman Emperor Caligula – Incitatus
Incitatus was Roman Emperor Caligula’s favourite horse. According to ancient historian Suetonius, Caligula loved Incitatus so much that he gave him a marble stable, an ivory manger and a jewelled collar. Incitatus allegedly ‘invited’ dignitaries to dine with him in a house with servants. Suetonius even claimed Caligula planned to make Incitatus a consul – the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic.
(Historian Cassius Dio recorded that servants fed Incitatus oats mixed with gold flakes, and that Caligula made Incitatus a priest).
The accuracy of these stories is questionable, as writers discredited previous emperors due to political influences or seeking additional readers. Some suggest Caligula’s treatment of Incitatus was a prank, intended to ridicule and insult the senate. While Caligula was certainly fond of Incitatus, it’s unlikely Incitatus was actually made a consul.
3. Napoleon Bonaparte – Marengo
Marengo belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, named after the Battle of Marengo between France and Austria, during which he had carried Napoleon to safety.
Although small at 14.1 hands (57 inches, 145 cm), Marengo was seen as reliable, steady, and courageous, and was capable of riding up to 80 miles in 5 hours. He also carried Napoleon from Paris to Moscow in 1812 – a 3,500-mile trip.
Marengo was wounded eight times having accompanied Napoleon during many battles, including Austerlitz and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. During Waterloo, he was captured by English nobleman William Petre and sold to Lieutenant-Colonel Angerstein of the Grenadier Guards. He died aged 38, and his skeleton is on display at the National Army Museum, London.
4. The Duke of Wellington – Copenhagen
Copenhagen was born in 1808, of mixed Thoroughbred and Arabian heritage. Named after the British victory at the Second Battle of Copenhagen, he’d briefly been a race horse before being sent to Spain and then sold to Lord Wellesly, the Duke of Wellington in 1813.
Copenhagen became the Duke’s favourite horse, having accompanied him on his hazardous ride to Wavre to liaise with Marshall Blücher. Most famously he accompanied the Duke during the Battle of Waterloo where Napoleon was defeated, carrying the Duke for 17 hours straight. Copenhagen continued to be Wellington’s main horse during the occupation of France and the horse he rode in ceremonial events after the Battle of Waterloo.
After this, he was retired and died in 1836 – allegedly from over-indulging in sweet treats, but more likely from old age. The Duke oversaw Copenhagen’s burial but when asked by a museum to donate Copenhagen’s skeleton for display alongside Napoleon’s Marengo, he refused, pretending not to know the burial site.
5. Simón Bolívar – Palomo
Palomo accompanied Simón Bolívar, known as the ‘Liberator of Latin America’, during most of his campaigns. Palomo was white-grey and tall with a long tail, and been gifted to Bolívar ahead of the Battle of Boyacá in 1819.
Allegedly, when Bolívar approached the town of Santa Rosa in 1814 (on his way to Tunja) his exhausted horse refused to move any further. He asked a guide to take the horse and lead him into town. The guide didn’t know who Bolívar was, but told Bolívar about his wife Casilda’s dreams, including one where she gave a new-born colt to a famous general as a gift. When due to leave, Bolívar asked the guide to tell his wife to keep the horse for him.
On his return to New Grenada five years later, he received Casilda’s horse while fighting in the Battle of Vargas Swamp, and stopped off on his way back to Venezuela to visit Casilda to thank her.
Palomo died after a gruelling march after Bolívar lent him to one of his officers.
6. General Robert E. Lee – Traveller
Traveller was a grey American Saddlebreed, and the favourite stallion of General Lee, a Confederate Army Commander in the American Civil War. He was 16 hands (64 inches, 163 cm), and renowned for his speed, strength and courage in combat.
Traveller was difficult to frighten and had great stamina. However, at the Second Battle of Bull Run in Viriginia, while Lee dismounted, Traveller became frightened from enemy movement and plunged, pulling Lee down on a stump which broke his hands.
After the Civil War, Traveller went with Lee to Washington College in Virginia, where admirers would pluck souvenir hairs from his tail. Traveller was buried near Lee, and the campus stable where he lived traditionally stands with its doors open to allow his spirit to wander freely.
7. Ulysses S. Grant – Cincinnati
Before becoming president, Grant served as the commanding general who led the Union armies to victory in the American Civil War. He was an avid horse lover, having rode bareback and trained horses since childhood.
Grant rode ten large and powerful horses throughout the civil war, but his favourite was Cincinnati, a bay horse, 17.2 hands (178 cm) high, and the son of Lexington – considered then to be the fastest thoroughbred in America. Grant considered Cincinnati “the finest horse I have ever seen”, only allowing two other people to ever ride Cincinnati – one being Abraham Lincoln.
Grant refused an offer of $10,000 for Cincinnati, and when he became president, three of his horses including Cincinnati were brought to the White House stables. Cincinatti died in 1878. Nearly all depictions of Grant on horseback in paintings, drawings and statues are astride Cincinnati.
8. Sitting Bull – Rico
In 1885, Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West circus as a performer. Bill Cody presented Sitting Bull with a horse called Rico when he left, which had been trained to dance and fall to the floor when hearing gun shots.
It’s said that when Sitting Bull was assassinated outside his cabin in December 1890, Rico danced and fell to the ground. Those watching believed it was a sign that an Indian Messiah was coming. Chief Arvol Looking-Horse from the Lakota tribe believes “it was the horse taking the bullets”.