The coming of Mahomet, who announced himself prophet about the year
611 A.D., marks an epoch in the history of nations, and it serves also
as a landmark, if one may express it so, in the horse’s progress in
its bearing upon the world’s history.
At intervals throughout the Koran, which Mahomet compiled probably
about 610, we come upon direct allusions to the horse in the part it
played at that time in the growth of what must be termed civilisation.
Probably Mahomet realised more fully than any of his contemporaries
how indispensable to the human race the horse had by this time become,
for in one passage in the Koran he puts a strange utterance into
the mouth of the Almighty, whom he represents as apostrophising the
horse, telling it that it shall be “for man a source of happiness and
wealth,” adding, “thy back shall be a seat of honour, and thy belly
of riches, and every grain of barley given to thee shall purchase
indulgence for the sinner,” while in another place he declares that
“every grain of barley given to a horse is entered by God in the
Register of Good Works.”
He describes in an interesting way the horse of the Archangel Gabriel,
to which the name Haizum was given, also Dhuldul, the peerless steed
of his son-in-law, Ali, and his own milk-white mule, Fadda. All this
is the more remarkable when we bear in mind that in the centuries that
preceded Mahomet’s birth the Arab race was practically a nonentity
in so far as the continual struggles for supremacy in Egypt and in
Western Asia were concerned, when the great Assyrian, Babylonian,
Egyptian, Persian, Median, Roman and Macedonian tribes fought with
such dogged determination and proved each in turn more or less
Yet it is more than likely—some of our leading historians pronounce
positively upon this point—that if in the years just before Mahomet’s
birth the tribes had not become possessed of a staunch race of horses,
and devoted much time to perfecting themselves in horsemanship in the
true meaning of the term, Islam would have remained unchanged instead
of almost revolutionising the world in the way it did.
Small wonder, therefore, that Mahomet was enthusiastic—unduly
enthusiastic many even among his disciples maintained him to be—in
striving to promote among his own people a fondness for horses.
Undoubtedly it was owing to this that when at last Mahomet died some
of the best-bred steeds in existence were to be found among the horses
in the region of Nejd.
In Mahomet’s era it was that stirrups first came to be used regularly
by both cavalry and what were termed “private horsemen”—the latter we
should to-day call civilians. True stirrups most likely were invented
and introduced by the Teutonic people of the Lower Rhine and the
region adjoining, for we know there was no Latin or Greek term for a
stirrup, and as the Teutonic tribes were large men of heavy build they
naturally would be much more likely to feel the need of assistance
when mounting than would men of small stature, light and agile, who
must have been able to vault on to their horses without difficulty.
The English term “stirrup” probably is a contraction of the early
English “stige-rap,” a word that comes from “stigan,” to mount, and
“rap,” rope—in short, a mounting-rope. In the eighth century A.D. the
Angles were using saddle horses in large numbers, according to the
Venerable Bede, some of whose writings, however, are said not to bear
the impress of strict veracity. Yet it is probable that he speaks
of what he knew when he tells us that about the year 631 A.D. “the
English first began to saddle horses,” while many of the horsemen who
opposed the incursion of the hordes of Romans are known beyond dispute
to have been mounted on saddled horses.
Mention of the mare, Alborak, called also Borak, must be made—though
only a mythical animal—as she was said to have carried Mahomet from
earth into the seventh heaven. “She was milk-white,” we are told,
like Fadda, the mule, with “the wings of an eagle and a human face
with a horse’s cheeks,” while “every pace she took was equal to the
farthest range of human sight.” In Arabic the word means literally
Procopius, who wrote in the sixth century A.D., is looked upon
generally as a dependable authority, and probably upon most occasions
he wrote the truth. Yet he would seem to have made one or two rather
grave misstatements when speaking of the horse in its relation to the
history of his time.
In an interesting way he describes certain stirring scenes in the war
between the Angli who had settled in Britain and the Varni—the Werini
of the “Leges Barbarorum”—whose region lay chiefly east of the Rhine.
The direct cause of this war was the positive refusal of the king of
the Varni to marry an Anglian princess to whom he had been affianced
for a considerable time.
“These islanders,” wrote Procopius, referring to the Angli, “are the
most valiant of all the barbarians with whom we are acquainted, and
they fight on foot. For not only do they not know how to ride, but
it is their lot not even to know what a horse is like, since in this
island they do not see a horse, even in a picture, for this animal
seems never to have existed in Britain. But if at any time it should
happen that some of them, either on an embassy, or for some other
reason, should be living with Romans or Franks, or with anyone else
that hath horses, and it should there be necessary for them to ride on
horseback, they are unable to mount, but other men have to help them
up and set them on their horses’ backs; and again, when they wish to
dismount, they have to be lifted, and set down on the ground. Neither
are the Varni horsemen, but they too are all infantry. Such then are
Clearly he misstated facts in this instance, for it is beyond dispute
that horses were known in Britain at the time to which he refers. For
the rest the description may be considered more or less accurate.
It is interesting to note in this connection that whereas in the tombs
of the Anglo-Saxons the shield and the weapons of the buried warrior
are usually discovered, bits and harness are found in these tombs in
rare instances only. On the other hand in the Scandinavian barrows
in Scotland the bones of men and horses mixed have been discovered
* * * * *
Perhaps the first historical allusion to horse racing, as we
understand it now, and to “running” horses, as race horses continued
to be called for many centuries afterwards, is the one that occurs in
the ninth century A.D., when Hugh, the founder of the royal house of
Capet, in France, made a present of running horses to King Athelstan
in the hope that in return the king might allow him to wed his sister,
Hengist and Horsa are said by some historians to have displayed
interest in horse racing, but the statement is not based upon
indisputable evidence, any more than the assertion that because
Hengist and Horsa are alleged by one historian at least to have given
the order that forms of horses should be cut upon the chalk hills of
Berkshire therefore all the Saxon banners must have borne as a device
a white horse.
The white horse at Wantage other historians declare to have been cut
in commemoration of Alfred’s great victory over the Danes at the
battle of Æscendun or Ashtreehill, during the reign of his brother,
Ethelred I. Its length is 374 feet, and even at a distance of nearly
fifteen miles it is distinctly visible in clear weather. This recalls
to mind the device of the House of Hanover—a white horse galloping;
and of the House of Savoy—a white horse rampant.
Mention must here be made of the immortal Roland and his equally
famous horse, Veillantiff, though owing to the pair have figured so
largely in romance the actual truth about them can be traced only with
We may take it for granted, however, that Roland was the son of Milo,
Duke of Aiglant; that he was Count of Mans and Knight of Blaives;
and that his mother was Bertha, the sister of Charlemagne. Orlando
is the name by which he is known in Italian romance; Vegliantino the
name of his horse; and he figures prominently in Theroulde’s “Chanson
de Roland,” in the romance, “Chroniq de Turpin,” and of course in
Ariosto’s epic of Mad Roland and Boiardo’s “Orlando in Love.” He was
said to be eight feet tall and to have “an open countenance which
invited confidence and inspired respect,” also to have been “brave,
loyal and simple-minded.”
The story of his slaying at Fronsac, in single combat, the Saracen
tyrant and giant, Angoulaffre, as described in “Croquemitaine,”
naturally is fiction. He desired, it was said, by way of reward to
marry Aude, the fair daughter of Sir Gerard and Lady Guibourg, but
Roland was slain at Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees during the return
march from Saragossa, while in command of the rear-guard, being caught
“together with the flower of the French chivalry” in an ambuscade and
massacred to a man. Aude is said to have died of grief upon hearing
Roland’s horse, Veillantiff, must have been an incomparable charger
and more intelligent than even his master, for it is related that
whenever Roland was hard pressed Veillantiff obtained knowledge of the
fact in some mysterious way and at once carried Roland out of danger
so far as he was able.
Equally intelligent in this respect was the charger named Orelia,
owned by Roderick, the last of the Goths. According to Southey this
horse too was renowned for its shape and speed. Indeed Southey based
the story of his famous epic upon the historical record of the defeat
of Roderick in 711 A.D., at the battle of Guadalete, near Xeres de la
Frontera. Roderick, the thirty-fourth and last of the old Visigothic
kings, himself attributed his victories in a great measure to the
courage of his horses, and apparently he was proud of all his horses
for we read that he “bitterly bemoaned the death of any one of them.”
Another remarkable and famous steed was Trebizond, the grey charger
of Admiral Guarinos, one of the French knights taken prisoner at
Alfana, the clever mare mentioned in Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso” as
belonging to Gradasso, King of Sericana, whom Ariosto describes as
“the bravest of the Pagan knights,” has many legends attached to it.
Thus upon occasions Gradasso who, though famous as a knight, was an
unconscionable bully, would treat Alfana with grotesque kindness, at
other times beating it unmercifully; and when, with 100,000 vassals in
his train, “all discrowned kings”(!) who never addressed him except
upon their knees, he went to war against Charlemagne, the mare,
Alfana, played a prominent part.
* * * * *
Though in these pages but few allusions have been made to the horses
of mythology, modern interest in mythological history being at a very
low ebb, the mysterious eight-legged grey steed of Odin, chief god
of Scandinavia, must not be passed unnoticed. His name was Sleipnir,
and inasmuch as he could travel over earth and ocean he was deemed
to be typical of the wind that blows over land and water from eight
principal and far-distant points.
According to Beowulf—composed probably in the eighth century—the
Scandinavians set great value upon their steeds, especially upon
their dun-coloured horses, their apple-dun horses and their white
horses. Therefore it seems almost odd that the early Norse settlers in
Iceland should have indulged as largely as they undoubtedly did in the
brutal “sport” of horse fighting, a form of amusement that to this day
is in vogue in parts of Siam.
The saga of Burnt Njal, with its scene laid in the tenth century,
refers repeatedly to incidents in which the horse plays a chief part.
The description of the mighty encounter between the horse of Starkad
and the horse of Gunnar of Lithend is peculiarly disagreeable, but as
it gives us probably a very accurate idea of the way in which these
horse battles were arranged and carried out, it is worth quoting
almost in full.
Starkad, we are told, had “a good horse of chestnut hue, and it was
thought that no horse was his match in fight.” The horse that Gunnar
of Lithend decided to pit against it was a brown. It is practically
upon the result of this fight that the famous tragedy turns.
“And now men ride to the horse fight,” we read, “and a very great
crowd was gathered together. Gunnar and his friends were there, and
Starkad and his sons…. Gunnar was in a red kirtle, and had about
his loins a broad belt, and a riding rod in his hand. Then the horses
ran at one another, and bit each other long, so that there was no
need for anyone to touch them, and that was the greatest sport! Then
Thorgeir and Kol made up their minds that they would push their horse
forward just as the horses rushed together, and see if Gunnar would
fall before him.
“Now the horses ran at one another again, and both Thorgeir and Kol
ran alongside their horse’s flank. Gunnar pushed his horse against
them, and what happened in a trice was this, that Thorgeir and his
brother fell flat down on their backs, and their horse atop of them!”
Soon after this the horse battle developed into a serious encounter
between the partisans of the respective animals, with the result that
Gunnar’s horse had an eye gouged out by Thorgeir. In the library at
Reykjavik a very interesting picture representing a horse battle of
this kind is still to be seen.
* * * * *
We have now seen how, from the very earliest time until the eve of
the Norman Conquest, the horse played a prominent part in the world’s
history. More than any other animal it had helped, either directly or
indirectly, to bring about great victories, to develop and strengthen
the courage of nations, to mould the character of men, and to add in
several ways to life’s pleasure.
That the horse should have been almost worshipped by the very
tribes who offered up living horses as sacrifices to their gods has
been pronounced paradoxical by some writers; yet there was nothing
inconsistent about this, for in all times when sacrifices have been
common those offering sacrifice have given what they most cherished or
What is remarkable is the fact that, of all animals known to have
existed in the different countries and in the different regions of
those countries to which reference has been made, the horse stands
alone as man’s direct assistant, one might say ally; and, in addition,
the horse is the one animal with a history traceable through the early
centuries, owing to the almost unbroken line of references made to it
in the story of the human race and progress towards civilisation.
How far advanced the world would have been at the time of the
Conqueror’s landing, how far advanced it would be to-day, had the
horse not played so prominent a part in its development, none can say.
There can be no doubt, however, but that the human race would have
advanced far more slowly had the employment of horses been withheld.
Of mythical horses that have “existed,” the name is legion. To deal
at length with these strange creatures would need a volume half as
large as this is. I have mentioned that few save scholars to-day take
interest in mythology, so I shall refer only to some half-a-dozen of
the many horses of fable and of mythology whose names are household
Pegasus, the winged horse of Apollo and the Muses, is perhaps the best
known by repute. The name of course is Greek, and means, more or less,
“one born near the ocean,” and according to the famous fable Perseus
rode Pegasus when rescuing Andromeda.
Frequently in history we find a ship alluded to as “Perseus’ flying
horse.” Thus in the story of the destruction of Troy, “Perseus
conquered the head of Medusa, and did make Pegase, the most swift
ship, which he always calls Perseus’ flying horse,” while Shakespeare
in _Troilus and Cressida_ speaks of “The strong-ribbed bark through
liquid mountains cut … like Perseus’ horse.”
How Perseus beheaded Medusa, chief of the Gorgons, and how everyone
who afterwards looked at the head with its hair turned into snakes by
the jealous goddess Minerva was then and there transformed into stone
is too well known to need repetition at length here.
Selene, the moon goddess, usually represented in a chariot drawn by
fiery white horses—to some extent this is inconsistent, seeing that
from time almost immemorial white horses have notoriously been the
least fiery of any—must be mentioned, for the famous cast or model
of Selene’s horse shown in the British Museum indicates clearly
the stamp of animal that was most highly prized about that period.
According to Greek mythology, Selene was in love with the setting sun,
Endymion, and bore him fifty daughters in addition to those she bore
the god Zeus.
Achilles’ remarkable steed, Xanthos, was, we are told, “human to all
intents.” When “severely spoken to” by its master because on the
battlefield it had deserted Patroclos, the horse first “looked about
him sadly,” and then, according to the “Iliad,” it told Achilles with
a reproachful expression in its eyes that he too would soon be dead,
for that this was “the inexorable decree of destiny”—a prophecy that
Achilles owned also the wonderful horse, Balios, which first of all
Neptune had given to Peleus. The sire of Balios, like the sire of
Xanthos, was the West Wind, its dam the harpy, Swift Foot.
According to Virgil the famous horse of Greek mythology, Cyllaros,
belonged to Pollux, and was named after Cylla, in Troas. Ovid, however
affirms that it belonged to Castor, for in his “Metamorphose” he
says, when speaking of Cyllaros, that “He, O Castor, was a courser
worthy thee … coal-black his colour, but like jet it shone: His legs
and flowing tail were white alone.” Then, Adrastos was saved at the
siege of Thebes by a horse famous for its speed and given to him by
Hercules. Its name was Arion, and Neptune was said to have caused
it to rise out of the earth, using his trident as a magic wand. The
name is Greek for “martial,” hence the signification, “war horse,”
given to it in this instance. We read that “its right feet were those
of a human creature,” “it spoke with a human voice,” and “ran with
Perhaps one of the most notorious horses of Persian mythology is
Reksh, a steed that belonged to Rustam, the Persian Hercules, son of
Zal, and Prince of Sedjistan. Rustam became famous chiefly on account
of his great battle with the white dragon, Asdeev. The description
of Rustam’s deadly encounter with his son, Sohrab—it ended in the
latter’s death—is described in Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Sohrab and
Rustam” in very fine language.
* * * * *
But even these few references to horses of mythology may be pronounced
dull reading in this prosaic age, so for the present I will leave the
subject and come down to earth once more. It is interesting to learn
that the Arab race, apparently from the time when it first began to
breed horses, was wont to trace the pedigrees of its horses through
the dams and not through the sires, in the same way that in ancient
days this people traced its own lineage. The reason the Arabs did so
remains to this day a moot point, though it would seem almost certain
that in common with the Veneti they believed the selection of the dam
to be of more vital importance than the selection of the stallion in
order to secure good stock.
Indeed even now there are races who hold this view, and to confirm
their opinion they quote Aristotle, who also maintained that pedigrees
ought by rights to be traced through the female line. Nor are they at
all peculiar, for some of the foremost among modern breeders of horses
hold that in almost every case the qualities of the dam descend more
directly than do those of the sire.
We have now come to what may be termed the second period of the horse
in history—the period that begins with William the Conqueror’s reign
and ends with the Stuart Period. From very early centuries down to the
coming of Christ, and from the coming of Christ down to the Norman
invasion, all the records bearing directly upon the horse in its
relation to the world’s progress are necessarily open to criticism,
for almost all historical records of that period have to be accepted
with some reserve.
It may be said, indeed, that no two historians prior to the Conquest
can be found who agree in detail one with the other, while some there
are whose statements are almost diametrically opposed. In compiling
these pages, therefore, I have tried to use discretion.
* * * * *
Apparently an impression is prevalent amongst historians that the
horses of the centuries before the Conquest, and therefore presumably
also the horses of the period that preceded the birth of Christ, lived
longer than those of later times.
What can have given rise to this idea it is hard to say, and that
the belief most likely is fallacious we are led to infer from the
statements of those early writers who state definitely the ages at
which their favourite chargers died.
Yet at least two of our modern historians assert that the horses of
the early Greeks and Romans lived to the age of thirty-five or more,
upon an average.
That such misstatement should continue to be handed down is very
regrettable; while equally to be deprecated is the habit common more
especially among the younger school of French historians of applying
the principles of the higher criticism in cases where such criticism
_ipso facto_ cannot hold good, the result being that conclusions are
arrived at which in many instances are wholly false.
To take a single case in point—rather a well-known Continental
antiquary mentions in his historical essays that during the period
approximately between the coming of Christ and the reign of William
the Conqueror horses practically the world over “went out of use more
By “the world over” he means, of course, as much of the world as was
known in those days, but the statement is none the less incorrect,
and it seems clear that he must have come to this false conclusion
through inferring that because in certain regions the designs upon the
ancient monuments, and in some instances the figures upon the coinage,
represent a horse, or horses and chariots, the monuments and coins of
a later date show only an unmounted warrior.
The true reason of this, however, probably is that the later monuments
were erected, and the later coins struck, at a period when neither
famous battles were being fought nor great contests of skill decided.
Students of history well know, indeed, that the monarchs as well
as the great chiefs and leaders in the early centuries before the
Conquest, and to some extent in the centuries after it, almost
invariably commemorated upon their monuments, coins and parchments
such events as happened to be of importance at the moment, or, as we
should say to-day, of passing interest only.
Indeed, as I have endeavoured to show, one of the most noticeable
features about the horse in its relation to history is the manner in
which it gradually influenced the development of the various nations.
The early Libyan horses were famous for what must be described
as their gentleness and their intelligence, characteristics which
apparently marked some of the Libyan races.
The horses of Europe, on the other hand, were vicious in various ways,
and less tractable, but also they were less timid than the Libyan
It is curious to read, then, that the European races that owned these
horses had several characteristics in common. In addition it is well
known that in the _mêlée_ of a battle the horses of the contending
armies quite commonly bit savagely one at another, and some of the
early writers whose utterances can be relied upon maintain that even
in the thick of the fight such horses but rarely bit or savaged horses
other than the enemy’s, and the enemy themselves.
Another point worth noting is that though often in the early ages
horses were immolated, yet deliberate cruelty to a horse upon other
occasions was almost universally condemned by law. No precautions,
however, were taken for the prevention of cruelty to any other sort of
This is, in itself, significant, for it can hardly be supposed that
unnecessary cruelty to horses was condemned from the standpoint of the
humanitarian. Probably it was the horse’s usefulness to mankind that
served to guard him against ill-usage, and, as we shall see presently,
it was this same usefulness that protected him from ill-treatment in
centuries long after the Conquest.
Indeed there are parts of the world where to this day horses are well
treated because to ill-use them is deemed unwise policy. Thus in no
part of the Western States of America have I ever seen a horse flogged
unmercifully, and upon several occasions when attention has been drawn
to this the reply has been practically the same: “If we served them
badly we should get less work out of them,” an observation that some
Englishmen, plenty of Frenchmen, and very many Italians, who have to
do with horses, might with advantage bear in mind.
* * * * *
The physical strength of horses in the very early centuries must have
been prodigious. If the details we have of the way in which the early
war chariots were constructed are accurate, then at least three of our
twentieth-century horses would be needed to accomplish the work, one
might almost say perform the feats, that a pair of horses could do
twelve or thirteen centuries ago.
Even as late in the world’s history as the period of Julius Cæsar the
staying power of some of the war horses in Britain was amazing. Men
who have been in action in our own times will tell you that a wounded
horse gives in at once, that he seems to have no heart. Yet in Julius
Cæsar’s time, and in earlier epochs, an arrow or a javelin wound, if
not too severe, apparently had the effect of setting a war horse upon
his mettle rather than of causing him to give in.
Can the horse’s temperament, then, have changed within the last ten
centuries? Is he a less courageous animal than he was? Is he more
highly strung, less intelligent, less strong physically, and of a
weaker constitution? Such problems have to do with the history of
the horse rather than with the horse in history, and, so far as I am
aware, they have not as yet been solved.
The beginning of William the Conqueror’s reign marks a turning-point
in the story of the horse’s influence upon the British nation, also,
incidentally, in the general development of the horse.
Roger de Bellesne, Earl of Shrewsbury, who is said to have been an
accomplished horseman—as fine horsemanship was understood in those
days—obtained leave of the king to import from Spain a number of
stallions of great value.
These stallions, indeed, were said at the time to be “the best
procurable in Spain,” and we are told that when King William beheld
them he displayed great delight, at the same time “expressing his
approval in a very forcible way.”
The king himself apparently was not a finished horseman; yet he had
a strong liking for horses, possibly in the same way that “he loved
the great deer of the forests as though he had been their father”(!)
Most likely he was too heavily built a man to make a graceful rider,
though it is said that upon the arrival of Lord Shrewsbury’s stallions
he went on horseback to inspect them, and, as we know, towards the end
of the sixteenth or the beginning of the seventeenth century the poet
Drayton praised very highly the progeny of these same horses.
Naturally this importation of valuable stallions greatly improved the
breed of horses in Britain, and from the time of the Conquest onward
the improvement was distinctly noticeable.
* * * * *
Though some historians tell us that the Anglo-Saxons rode on
horseback, others maintain that they did not ride. There can be no
doubt, however, that they did not fight on horseback. The well-known
scene on Bayeux tapestry that represents the battle of Hastings shows
us Harold fighting on foot when the arrow strikes him in the eye.
A comparatively modern historian has tried to disprove the popular
story of the Normans shooting their shafts high into the air so
that in their descent these shafts might pierce the heads of the
enemy, but the old narrative is still believed by the great body of
King William’s warriors were, of course, almost all mounted—of that
there cannot be a doubt. Had they not been the Saxons would most
likely have won the day, even though the enemy was clad in mail. Also
it should be remembered that the cavalry brought over by King William
was practically of the stamp that some three centuries earlier had
resisted very firmly the Moslem attack at Poictiers. The chargers
were of the same stock, and therefore it may with truth be said that
the famous Norman Conquest and the great and important events that
followed it in the history of this country were directly due to the
simple fact that the Normans possessed war horses and knew thoroughly
how to manage them.
Of precisely what stamp the Normans’ chargers were that were imported
at this time cannot be said for certain. Without doubt, however, they
were tall and heavily built animals, for the armed men they had to
carry were all of very great weight.
For ten, or possibly twelve centuries a breed of great horses had been
multiplying largely in the northern and western regions of Europe, so
the inference is that the cavalry of the Normans must have been of
Also the saddles they are represented as wearing were extremely
massive and presumably of great weight. Those shown on the Bayeux
tapestry have a deep curve which must have made them difficult to
fall out of, and we are told by Giraldus that saddles almost exactly
similar, and provided with stirrups, were in use in Ireland a century
or so later. The riders at that time wore high boots, prick spurs, and
[Illustration: BAYEUX TAPESTRY SUPPOSED TO REPRESENT THE BATTLE OF
* * * * *
A monk of Canterbury, William Stephanides, writing early in the
reign of Henry II., alludes to various kinds of horses used in Great
Britain, and among these there undoubtedly were some of the stamp that
the Normans imported.
“Without one of the London city gates,” he tells us, “is a certain
smooth field”—no doubt the site known to-day as Smithfield—“and every
Friday there is a brave sight of gallant horses to be sold. Many
come from the city to buy or look on—to wit, earls, barons, knights
and citizens. There are to be found here managed or war horses
(_dextrarii_), of elegant shape, full of fire and giving every proof
of a generous and noble temper; likewise cart horses, horses fitted
for the dray, or the plough, or the chariot.”
From other sources we are able to gather that at this time there must
have been many war horses in England, and that they were for the most
part animals of great size and strength. Consequently the cavalry of
the period were extremely unwieldy. On the other hand we know that
the rest of the horses distributed throughout the country were but
little bigger than cobs, and we read that though attempts were made
to mount men-at-arms on some of them all such attempts had soon to be
abandoned, the horses being “oppressed by the weight of the armour and
the heavy accoutrements.”
Probably this was the reason such strenuous efforts were presently
made by the various reigning monarchs, and by the parliaments that
were in power between the reign of Henry II. and the reign of
Elizabeth, to breed bigger and heavier horses, “great horses” as they
came to be called, and are often termed still.
Some of the Latin records of the Mediæval age contain interesting
allusions to these great horses, _dextrarii_ and _magni equi_ they
were called. The horses of this stamp do not appear to have been very
intelligent animals, but their physical strength was colossal, and
in selecting them particular attention was paid to their power of
endurance, or, as we call it to-day, their staying power.
Apparently Henry II. and Richard I. were partial to chestnut and dark
brown stallions, but King John, and later Queen Elizabeth, preferred
black. Indeed we are told that in the beginning of his reign King
John vowed he would have his courtiers ride none but black horses,
and that the sums he had to pay to enable him to gratify so foolish
a fad—it may have been mere vanity—were quoted among the acts of
extravagance that later incensed his barons and led ultimately to
their making him sign Magna Charta.
As the size and strength of the war horses grew greater in all
countries, so did the weight and strength of the armour steadily
increase. Towards the end of the twelfth century the Norman hauberk
that for many years had proved effective, and that even the most
far-seeing of the warriors firmly believed could not be improved upon,
began to make way for the heavy chain mail—the most picturesque armour
ever adopted by any nation—which, when first introduced, was said to
render the warrior almost invulnerable.
But as time went on, and the strength of both men and horses further
increased, and the weapons of war became more deadly still, the
armour again underwent a change, so that about the beginning of the
fourteenth century we find the “perfect armour,” as it had come to be
called, being in its turn discarded in favour of the hideous plate
armour that less than a hundred years afterwards was adopted by
practically every “civilised” nation in Europe.
A monk of Canterbury, by name FitzStephen, who in the reign of
Henry II. was secretary to the famous Archbishop à Becket, refers
incidentally to some rather primitive horse races which took place
at Smithfield towards the end of the twelfth century, and in doing
so he quaintly tells us that “the jockeys, inspired with thoughts
of applause, and in the hope of victory, clap spurs to the willing
horses, brandish their whips, and cheer them with their cries!”
Reference is made to these races in several other of the early
documents, and though they are among the first horse races of which
descriptions have been handed down to us, it seems clear that they
attracted a great concourse of spectators and gave rise to much
reckless wagering. That the animals entered were all practically
untrained is made apparent.
King Richard I. is said to have been a good judge of a horse and to
have owned a number of swift-running steeds. Upon one or two occasions
he endeavoured to establish horse racing as a national pastime, but
the country was not yet ripe for it, and his attempts met with but
It is said that his courtiers strove to serve their royal master by
having recourse to threats in those districts where the introduction
of horse racing was opposed, but all to no purpose.
King John, upon ascending the throne, devoted much time to hunting
and similar sports, and valued good horses so greatly that in some
instances he insisted that the fines he was so fond of extorting
should be paid in horses instead of in money.
Then, following in the footsteps of William the Conqueror, he imported
a number of stallions, among them many of the Eastern breed, and on
the pastures in Kent where the town of Eltham and the village of
Mottingham now stand he established the famous stud from which so many
of the horses owned in after years by Queen Elizabeth were directly
Worthy of mention here is the coincidence that the early days of some
of the most celebrated thoroughbreds of recent times were spent in
the very paddocks where King John’s foals and imported horses were
disporting themselves some seven centuries earlier.
On the subject of the great horses of the Middle Ages it is
interesting to read that while British rulers were striving to
breed animals which would be both bigger and stronger than their
predecessors, the Persians in their country were endeavouring to breed
and rear horses on lines precisely similar, and with the same objects
How successful the attempts of the latter proved may be gathered from
the fact that, in the centuries that followed, the Persian horses
became renowned the world over for their immense strength, though the
animals of this particular breed never became famous for their speed.
Indeed the chief victories won by the Persians in their terrific
encounters with the Turks in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries
were due in a great measure to the superior size and strength of the
Persian war horses, though, of course, the fact that the Turks had
only their shields with which to protect themselves must have helped
the Persians materially.
Perhaps some of the most interesting and accurate representations of
the horses of about this period are those to be found in parts of
Ireland among the remains of Irish art. These remains, rather let us
call them relics, are almost matchless, and they represent horses
driven in chariots, and some mounted by riders.
Thus three horsemen in addition to two chariots with horses harnessed
are to be seen on the two panels of the plinth of the historic North
Cross at Clonmacnoise in King’s County. The wheels of these chariots
have eight spokes, and the relic is believed by the foremost of our
antiquaries to date back to the tenth century.
A panel almost similar, dating back approximately to the same period,
is to be seen on an upright cross in a street in the town of Kells, in
County Meath, and on this cross not only are horsemen shown, but in
addition a hunting scene is clearly depicted.
Relics such as these help to demonstrate that the interest taken in
horses by the people of Great Britain, just before and just after
the Conquest, was shared by the natives of Ireland, though not until
several centuries had elapsed did the Irish show signs of becoming the
thoroughly horse-loving nation that they are to-day.
It is true that from a very early period they were fond of most kinds
of outdoor pursuits that need daring in addition to the exercise of
skill upon the part of those anxious to become proficient at them.
Also it is true that the horse has from first to last had much to do
with the moulding of the Irish character.
The horse’s immediate bearing upon the history and progress of
Ireland begins, however, at a later date, and in the same manner the
importation of great horses, and the establishment of what must have
been the precursors of our modern stud farms, occur later in Ireland’s
history than in England’s.
* * * * *
With the accession of Henry III. we find upon the throne a king
keenly interested in all that had to do with horses, and devoted to
the chase as well as to “stirring contests between competing horses.”
For authentic particulars of the contests in which these “competing
horses” took part we may search the ancient records almost in vain.
Apparently the few race meetings organised were, to say the best we
can of them, not of great importance, not excepting those in which the
king and his nobles were directly interested. To afford opportunities
for wagering was, so far as one can gather, their principal _raison
d’être_, and such rules of racing as did exist most likely were almost
In this respect the king would seem not to have been much more
particular than his subjects, though, as already said, information
obtainable upon the subject is of the scantiest, and is at best
* * * * *
In the history of Henry III.’s reign there occurs what we may take
to be the first direct reference to “a village named Newmarket,” in
Cambridgeshire. As I have already pointed out, the tribe that dwelt
on Newmarket Heath in very early times and was known as the Iceni
apparently was interested in horses and to some extent bred horses,
so it is not astonishing to learn that in the thirteenth century the
people then living in Newmarket and the neighbourhood still carried on
the traditions of the Iceni, even to boasting openly that steeds bred
upon the Heath could not be rivalled for speed “the world over.”
This, most likely, was an empty boast, for what could a small
community, that presumably travelled but rarely, know at first hand of
horses bred even in far distant parts of England?
It is true that Simon de Montfort had a high opinion of the horses
bred at Newmarket, for he tells us so in a letter written a few years
before his death—he was killed at Evesham in 1265. Presumably he
rode in the hunting field some of his horses that had been reared at
Newmarket, for he was as keen about hunting as about soldiering.
Historians have described him as “the great patriotic baron of his
period,” a description that is accurate if we are to judge from his
acts. I believe I am right in saying that Simon de Montfort was the
first master of foxhounds of whom mention is made in British history,
but upon this point I am open to correction. Certainly he is the first
of whose life we have authentic details. On his great seal attached
to a deed dated 1259, and now in Paris among the royal archives, he
is shown galloping beside his hounds, urging them on, and blowing
his horn. He is said to have hunted largely in Leicestershire and
Warwickshire, and as he lived in the thirteenth century the seal
referred to forms most likely the first picture we have of a _bonâ
fide_ run with foxhounds.
In Blount’s “Ancient Tenures,” a volume that is extremely interesting
and in some respects amusing, we are told that “In the reign of
King Edward I. Walter Marescullus paid at the crucem lapideam six
horseshoes with nails for a certain building which he held of the king
_in capite_ opposite the stone cross.”
This recalls to mind that in the reign of Henry III., and even later,
horseshoes and horseshoe nails were frequently taken in lieu of rent.
Whether or no horseshoes were of exceptional value does not appear,
but we are led to suppose that they must have been from the fact that
in 1251 a farrier named Walter le Brun, who lived in the Strand, in
London, was granted a plot of land in the parish of St Clements “to
place there a forge, six horseshoes to be paid to the parish every
year for the privilege.”
In after years the same plot was granted to the Mayor and citizens of
London, who, it is said, still render six horseshoes to the Exchequer
According to the Statutes, 25, Edward I., c. 21; and 36, Edward III.
cc. 4, 5, the king could commandeer from his subjects as many horses
as he might need for his own service. By the nobles and barons this
was deemed a harsh measure, and frequently they rebelled against it.
Some of the more spirited even refused to acknowledge its validity,
with the result that a number were slain whilst attempting to retain
their horses by force; others were imprisoned; and a few were put to
death as rebels. Indeed at this period the theft of a horse ranked
second only to murder, and was punished as severely.
* * * * *
A horse upon whose history several more or less romantic stories and
poems have been based was the bay charger owned by King Edward I. that
Sir Eustace de Hecche rode in the battle of Falkirk in 1298. It had a
white stocking on its near hind leg, and according to one story its
sire and grandsire had each a white stocking almost exactly similar.
Some say that this charger—it had several names, apparently—was
killed in the battle, for it is known beyond dispute that many of the
chargers owned by knights, barons, valets and esquires were slain in
that great conflict.
Other reports, however, have it that Sir Eustace’s mount came through
the fight without a scratch. Sir Eustace was singularly attached to
this particular horse and is said to have refused offers of large sums
if he would sell it. He is also accredited with the remark that in
courage and intelligence his bay charger eclipsed all other war horses
he had ever owned.
Much of interest to do with horses has been narrated by a
distinguished writer who flourished towards the end of the thirteenth
and in the beginning of the fourteenth centuries—namely, Marco Polo.
His remarks about the superstitions that were prevalent in his time
are exceptionally instructive.
Writing of the city of Chandu which was founded by Kublai and that
gave the name to the river known now as Shangtu, Polo tells us to
remember that the Kaan owned an immense stud of white horses and
mares, some 10,000 in all, “and not one with a speck or blemish
visible.” The milk of these mares was reserved for the Kaan and his
family, “and they drank a great deal of it,” the rest being given to
some of the more distant relatives of the tribe.
Upon occasions, however, a tribe named Horiad was allowed to drink of
the milk of the mares, “the privilege being granted them,” as Polo
says, “by Chinghas Kaan on account of a certain victory they long ago
helped him to win.”
Elsewhere Polo describes what may be termed the etiquette it was
essential the traveller should observe who chanced to come upon the
herd of white mares when they were travelling.
“Be he the greatest lord in the land,” he tells us, “he must not
presume to pass until the mares have gone by, but must either tarry
where he is, or go half-a-day’s journey round, if need so be, so as
not to come nigh them, for they are to be treated with the greatest
Non-observance of this unwritten law brought grief in its train, the
punishments inflicted being as varied as they were horrible.
Furthermore, every year, on the 28th of August, “the lord set out from
the park,” upon which occasion none of the mares’ milk was drunk.
Instead it was collected in large-mouthed vessels kept expressly for
the purpose and the occasion, and after that it was “sprinkled over a
vast stretch of ground and in many different directions.”
This was done “on the injunction of the Idolaters and Idol-priests,”
who steadfastly maintained that if the milk were thus sprinkled once a
year “the Earth and the Air and the Gods shall have their share of it,
and the Spirits likewise that inhabit the Air and the Earth…. And
thus those beings will protect and bless the Kaan and his children,
and his wives, and his folk, and his gear, and his cattle, and his
horses, and his corn, and all that is his; and after this done the
Emperor is off and away.”
It is strange, also significant, that in almost every age allusion has
been made to the respect habitually paid to white horses, especially
pure white horses. From Homer we know that in his period, or towards
the latter part of the eighth century B.C., the Thracians, the
Illyrians and the people of Upper Europe spoke of white horses as
though they almost worshipped them as gods.
In those early times it was deemed criminal intentionally to wound a
white horse, while to kill one even by accident was thought to be but
little less blameworthy—save, of course, upon occasions when a white
horse was to be sacrificed to please the gods or to appease their
Some centuries later Herodotus virtually repeats what Homer has
already told us, and gives us to understand in addition that by that
time parts of Russia teemed with white horses, many of them of great
Whether towards the end of the third and the beginning of the
second centuries B.C. the Russians treated even white horses with
ordinary humanity would appear doubtful, though we know that Russians
entertained superstitious and grotesque beliefs concerning horses that
were either white or cream-coloured.
Finally, some seven centuries later, Marco Polo comes with his
remarkable narratives of the Tartars’ herds of white horses and their
strange beliefs concerning them. From other sources particulars may
be obtained of the barbarous practices these Tartars had recourse to
upon the occasions of their sacrificial ceremonies, particulars of too
revolting a nature to be given here.
And now again we find allusion to the Turf. Apparently Edward II.
disliked horse racing—such horse-racing as there was in his reign—and
all that appertained to it, for upon the feast of St George in the
year 1309 we find him interdicting “a tournament which was to be
held on Newmarket Heath”; an act that made him unpopular for the
moment, though when some years later he deliberately put a stop to
preparations in progress in connection with a similar tournament
nobody seemed much to mind.
That the people of England were none the less interested in horses
at about this time we may infer from the knowledge we have that John
Gyfford and William Twety had already issued their books upon horses
and hunting, books to be seen to this day among the manuscripts in the
Cottonian Collection, and that were, if one may express it so, widely
read when first written.
Strictly dissimilar were the views of Edward III. from those of his
predecessors where the subject of horses and the various forms of
sport in which the horse plays a prominent part were concerned. The
steps taken by Edward II. deliberately to foster general dislike of
certain branches of sport had not achieved the desired effect save
amongst his small circle of sycophants, and one of Edward III.’s first
acts upon succeeding him was to gather together a stud of the swiftest
running horses procurable.
This act it was that led the popular King of Navarre to select “two
swift-running horses of great beauty” from his stable and send them as
a present to Edward III.; a compliment which pleased Edward greatly
and that he quickly acknowledged.
In this reign, also in the reign of the succeeding monarch, Richard
II., Acts were passed which directly tended to encourage the breeding
and rearing of good horses. Indeed the sums spent by Edward III. in
connection with this must have been prodigious, for it is on record
that upon one occasion he purchased from the Count of Hainault alone
horses to the value of some 25,000 florins.
Many of the horses that he bought, however, came direct from the Low
Countries. Among the royal manors where he established large studs,
especially studs of war horses, were Woodstock, Waltham, Odiham, and
of course Windsor, a proportion of the expense of inaugurating and
supporting these stud farms being defrayed by the sheriffs, according
to royal command.
Yet, in spite of all this, the supply of horses obtainable was not
equal to the demand when the great war with France broke out. At the
battle of Crecy, in 1346, only a proportion of the army of Edward III.
and the Black Prince had horses, though we know that almost on the eve
of the campaign considerable sums were spent upon the purchase of
horses from the King of Gascony and from several large owners.
This seems stranger still when we remember that the English army at
Crecy was limited to some 36,000 men only, whereas King Philip’s
forces numbered over 130,000.
Crecy, indeed, is one of the few historical battles in which the army
that was the best mounted did not win the day; but then all historians
admit that the bowmen the English brought into the field upon that
occasion were probably among the best disciplined and the most expert
that had ever before been seen in action.
On the other hand the horses of the opposing forces were not of the
best. Many had hardly been trained at all to arms, and many more had
been commandeered and hurried into the field almost at the eleventh
hour. Some historians hold that Philip’s army would have fared better
had there been fewer men-at-arms in the fighting line, and it is
possible that upon this single occasion if the army had had fewer
horses it might have achieved success.