With the early years of our reigning sovereign’s period the long story
of the horse’s progress through history may be deemed to have come
practically to an end.
We have seen how the very early races of Asia, of Africa, and of
Europe were enabled to spread their power, and were assisted in
protecting themselves against the onslaughts of their numerous
enemies, by possessing many horses upon which they could depend
implicitly in the hour of strife.
The Egyptians, Medes, Persians, Syrians, Scythians, Libyans,
Carthaginians, Macedonians, Numidians—all owed their series of
successes in a great measure to the fact that they owned horses when
their antagonists either had none at all, or else only a few, and
those of an indifferent stamp.
Thus through the whole course of history the influence of the horse
can be traced.
Rome, until after the conquest of Gaul, was deemed a weak nation in
some respects, and when we study the history of Rome at about that
period we find the weakness to have been in a measure attributable to
Rome’s shortage of horses during the greater part of that long spell.
* * * * *
Coming to what has been termed the Arabian period, history proves
beyond all doubt that the spread of Islam was due partly to the
Arabians having at about that time become possessors of many horses.
Indeed had the Franks not owned a great number of exceptionally fine
horses by about the beginning of the sixth century A.D., who can say
that the Saracens would not, after the year 732 A.D., have vanquished
the larger portion of Western Europe?
Again, what chance of victory would the Normans have had at Hastings
had Harold’s forces been mounted on horseback? For when we remember
the valiant way that Harold and his men fought it is easy to believe
that the Normans would have been completely routed had they too been
fighting on foot and not on horseback, in which case the entire
history of this country would very likely have been different.
* * * * *
In the Middle Ages we find the horse playing if possible a more
important part in the making of history than it had done in the
previous centuries, for what would have become of England’s power, and
her prestige, had she been deprived of those great war horses and the
almost invulnerable men-at-arms who bestrode them?
England’s might spread steadily while the strength and size of her
horses went on increasing, and while the weight of the armour worn by
horses and men grew gradually heavier and heavier.
The limit in weight of armour would appear to have been reached when a
horse became compelled to carry a man and armour that weighed together
between thirty and three and thirty stone.
It was soon after this limit had been arrived at that the era of the
new and armourless cavalry-man mounted on a light and active horse set
Coming to more recent years, what would Marlborough or any other of
the great and successful military leaders have done had they been
deprived of even a portion of their cavalry?
With the outbreak of the Boer War the wise-acres shook their heads,
declaring that in such a country as South Africa the mounted soldier
must prove useless; that the “punitive expedition,” as the campaign
was termed when first war was declared, would be conducted almost
solely by infantry; while reasons innumerable were advanced to prove
the “accuracy” of such wild forecasts.
And now when we look back upon it all we see that the war would most
likely still be dragging its way along had only infantry been employed.
* * * * *
To-day it seems likely, indeed almost certain, that the horse’s
influence upon the world’s progress—influence that we have traced back
into the dim ages—has actually come to a close.
Evidence that this is so is observable on every side. The discovery of
the strength of steam left the horse still in power, so to speak, for
the locomotive engine drove only coach horses out of existence.
The utility of the electrically driven motor, and of the motor driven
by petrol power, has been proved to be almost ubiquitous, and the
rapidity with which the motor has already ousted horses in almost
every direction is little short of phenomenal.
For the ultra-conservative little body of the community to maintain
that this is not so because it hates to speak or think of
automobiles comes near to being grotesque. We are confronted by hard
facts that cannot be avoided, and whether we like them or not they
nevertheless must force us to realise what is happening.
[Illustration: FLYING DUTCHMAN. FOALED 1846
_From a life-size painting by Herring_]
Shall I be charged with indulging a flight of imagination if I venture
to declare that, before three decades more have passed, the horse will
have become so completely dethroned that it will be with us only for
racing purposes and to assist us in the artificial chase?
If about the year 2030 some student of past history shall come upon
these lines I trust that he will quote them with appropriate comment.
* * * * *
Horses famous in history other than that of the Turf occur but
rarely in the records of the last century or so. Lord Cardigan had a
chestnut thoroughbred that carried him unscathed through the memorable
Balaclava Charge, but there does not appear to be any story of
interest attaching to the animal—it had two white stockings and its
name was Ronald.
I have tried to trace the origin of the superstitious belief that
the possession of a horseshoe must bring luck, but without any very
satisfactory result. The superstition reached its height apparently
towards the middle of the eighteenth century, or a little later, and
by the middle of the nineteenth it was steadily dying out.
A horseshoe nailed to a house door was in the first instance supposed
to keep away witches, a belief which gradually developed into the
supposition that the possession of the shoe would in some way bring
good fortune to the owner. According to several writers, most of the
houses in the west end of London at one time had a horseshoe on the
threshold, and it is said that in the year 1813 no less than seventeen
shoes nailed to doors were to be seen in Monmouth Street alone.
Also it is asserted that as late as the year 1855 seven horseshoes
remained nailed to different doors in that street alone.
* * * * *
In his interesting book, “Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates,” Mr Blunt
has something to say upon the subject of the treatment of horses by
The Bedouin, it seems, as a rule does not use either bit or bridle,
but controls his horse by means of a halter to which a thin chain is
attached that passes round the nose.
Apparently stirrups are unknown to the Bedouin, while in place of a
saddle he uses a stout pad made of cotton which he binds on to the
horse’s back with the help of a surcingle.
Among the many interesting statements in this book is one to the
effect that the Bedouin cannot ascertain a horse’s age by examining
the teeth, and that he has no knowledge of the trick so often resorted
to by unprincipled European horse dealers of making false marks on
Many Chinamen, on the other hand, claim to be able to tell a horse’s
age from its teeth up to the age of thirty-two.
A point omitted by Mr Blunt is that the Bedouin being, so to speak,
born a horseman, is unable to understand how any race of men can exist
that cannot ride. Were we to be told that a race of men exist who
have never learnt to walk we should be about as much surprised as the
Our leading authorities upon the history of the thoroughbred are
unanimous in asserting that until about a century and a half ago the
thoroughbred was unknown in America.
Yet among the famous descendants of the first thoroughbreds imported
into the United States we find horses of world-wide renown, such
animals, for instance, as Iroquois and Foxhall. These two horses are
especially worthy of mention, inasmuch as they achieved success that
came near to being phenomenal.
How remarkable the development of the thoroughbred has been in our
own country may be gathered from our knowledge that whereas the fee
charge for the services of Herod at stud was but ten guineas, and
for Touchstone only sixty guineas, to-day the fee for the use of a
“fashionable” stallion is frequently from 500 to 600 guineas.
The Committee of the House of Lords that met in the year 1873 to
discuss the question of horse breeding did much to encourage the
rearing of the very best stock obtainable. The famous race horse,
Common, by Isonomy out of Thistle, bred in 1888, made his first
appearance as a three-year-old and won for Lord Arlington and Sir
Frederick Johnson—his joint owners—the Two Thousand, the Derby and
the Leger, a performance that at once places him in one of the most
important niches of fame in the latter part of the last century.
Another of the “immortals” who won the three great races is
Gladiateur, a name that recalls to mind a host of thoroughbreds
whose fame will be handed down to posterity—Blue Gown, Blair Athol,
Harkaway, Ormonde, St Gatien, Robert the Devil, Hermit, Persimmon,
Flying Fox, Donovan—the names come tumbling into one’s thoughts pell
mell; but as the triumphs of these and many other giants of the turf
of comparatively modern times have been described in detail again
and again in the many volumes devoted to the thoroughbred and his
history, they need not be repeated here.
Yet it is worthy of mention that though some few years ago the famous
thoroughbred sires in this country included 260 direct descendants
of Eclipse, and sixty direct descendants of the Byerley Turk, they
included only thirty-six direct descendants of the greatly glorified
* * * * *
I believe I am right in saying that the cream-white horses which,
until comparatively a recent date, were used by the king on state
occasions, are directly descended from the celebrated white horses
formerly in the royal stables at Hanover.
Allusion to these animals recalls to mind a method of controlling
horses that is said to be in vogue still in parts of Austria, where it
is spoken of as “the Balassiren” of horses, and that in reality is a
method of mesmerising horses before shoeing them.
According to Obersteimer, whose words are quoted in Hudson’s “Psychic
Phenomena,” the process takes its name from a cavalry officer named
Balassa, who was the first to introduce or to attempt it.
Under the circumstances it is interesting to read that among the early
Egyptians there were men who could, or who professed to be able to,
obtain complete control over horses and other animals by the exercise
solely of will power, and that such men were sometimes called in upon
occasions when a horse had to be bound.
It therefore seems possible that some at least of the horses
sacrificed in the ages before Christ may first have been dazed, if not
rendered unconscious, with the aid of some such agency as hypnotism.
* * * * *
Though the Derby and the Oaks were not inaugurated until the last
quarter of the eighteenth century—when, as Lord Rosebery tells us, “a
roystering party at a country house founded two races and named them
gratefully after their host and his house”—horse racing has now for
many years been popular in nearly every civilised country, while in
some of the uncivilised countries it has long been included among the
favourite pastimes of the people.
Thus Mr C. W. Campbell, H. M. Consul at Wuchow before 1904, mentions
in the report of a journey that he made through Mongolia that the
Mongols are extremely fond of racing. He adds, however, that the
practice of betting upon horse races was almost unknown there at the
time he wrote, and goes on to say that in the Chahar country an ounce
or two of silver—worth at most from two shillings to half-a-crown—was
in some instances the only prize offered, though plenty of the races
were run over a ten-mile course!
According to Mr Campbell, the Derby of Mongolia is held near Urga,
under the direct patronage of the Bogdo. The course is thirty miles in
length, and much of it rough steppe, and “the winners are presented
to the Bogdo, who maintains them for the rest of their lives in
The jockeys are the smallest boys able to ride the distance. “A
saddle or seat aid in any form is not allowed. The jockeys simply
roll up their loose cotton trousers as high as they can, clutch the
pony’s ribs with their bare legs, and all carry long whips. The
bridles—single snaffles with rawhide reins—have each a round disc of
burnished silver attached to the headband.”
* * * * *
What will happen in the future when the horse shall have become
practically extinct in the civilised countries? The question is
exercising the minds of many as these lines are being written. There
are some who cling still to the belief that the horse’s day is not
over, indeed that it never will be over, but unfortunately they are
visionaries able to believe that which they so ardently wish.
For as Mr W. Phillpotts Williams, the energetic founder of the Brood
Mare Society, pointed out in June last (1908), the idea suggested
recently of giving to farmers in this country a bonus for the
possession of young horses suitable for artillery mounts would never
have the effect of keeping horses in this country. All it would do,
as he says, would be to collect the horses at the English tax-payers’
expense for the foreigner to buy. The horses would be kept by the
English farmer through the risky years of youth, only to be bought,
when matured and fit, by the buyers for the foreign armies.
Give a farmer £5 a year. The foreigner has only to add £5 to the
horse’s value, and away it will go. What is needed, as Mr Williams
truly remarks—and none knows better the existing condition of affairs
in this respect at the present time—is drastic action at the ports for
horses bred under such a grant, while in any and every scheme that may
be tried all the government-bred stock ought to be ear-marked and kept
strictly in the country.
One of the Belgian officers who visited England officially some months
ago incidentally mentioned that the Belgian government has dealers
in Ireland who are commissioned to send over to the Belgian army a
large supply of horses annually. “Practically all our army horses are
Irish,” he said. From this statement we may well assume that it would
be possible to breed at a profit, in Ireland, a very large number of
horses annually. Probably no country in the world is better suited
than Ireland for horse breeding. Yet the shrinkage in the reserve
of horses in Great Britain continues practically unchecked, and,
according to statistics, a month or two ago one of the largest of the
omnibus companies in London was selling off its horses at the rate of
a hundred or so a a week!
As a natural result of all this, the demand for oats has recently
fallen by more than twenty per cent. The Board of Agriculture believes
that the retention of colts is all that matters, while the Royal
Commission, to judge from their annual report, apparently labour under
the mistaken impression that the supply of thoroughbred sires must
solve the difficulty of keeping up the supply of horses.
Without in the least wishing to be pessimistic, therefore, one must
look facts in the face, and, looking them in the face, one cannot do
otherwise than admit regretfully enough that the long and glorious
career of the horse in its direct and indirect bearing upon the
development of the world and the progress of civilisation has at last
come somewhat abruptly to a close.