Mystic Mantle of the Horse
This is a version of a lecture presented to the Temenos Academy, 5 March 2012.
To travel on horseback over a long distance, by which I mean anything over a thousand miles, connects us with ancient memory. It connects us to our surroundings in a way no other form of travel can. At once it shrinks a landscape - the way of the horse is not the way of the road. On the other hand it expands it - the world is a big place by hoof. A horse exposes us to it, directly. Every frisson in the air is felt: its funny little currents, wafts and vapours. Every aroma scented. All sounds are heard, birdsong, cicadas ring in the head. The essence of a place is felt long before arrival. The horse’s instinctive reaction to his surroundings stretches our minds. We, like him, become ultra-sensitive. Shapes in the twilight take on phantasmal form created by the horse. He veers away, snorting, ears pricked, watching, every sinew taut. He is a creature of fancy, a being of flight; we do not fight him, we believe him, keep away from this menace in the dark. We shy from monsters he sees hiding beneath stumps, apparitions lurking behind trees.
Our relationship with our travelling companion is not only heightened but distils too.
Our fellow voyager becomes more than our friend, more than our transport; more, much more. He becomes not only our physical ally but our spiritual mentor, our touchstone with the elusive agents of nature. Unfettered by stable, by frontier or by fence, he is doing what lies in the depths of his heart - to go beyond the horizon as his ancestors have always done, and to be there by dusk. It was, after all, he and his ancestors who took us there so swiftly in the first place. You can toss away your astrolabe, hurl away your compass, set a course by the sun and stars and he will stick to it. Years ago, setting out on a bearing of 270 degrees north, the horse had it within the day and remained upon it, provided I, foolishly, did not interfere. Eight and a half months later we arrived at the predestined spot.
Any long journey with a horse is a deal: we provide for him: he does what he’s asked. The rest is heart. It’s to do with love, actually, that and a lot of respect. And something so deep it will pitch you to silence. For a long time. To a reflection, which seizes the soul.
He reveals a world so different, so changed from our own, it’s as if you have penetrated another dimension, seen through his eyes, heard with his ears, felt with his senses. Between you and him, a communion develops: a psychic dependency. He and you become one, alone with the earth and the stars: your aims are simple.
Today you will skirt the horizon. And tomorrow. And the next day. And when you wake at sunrise, he’s on his feet long before you and will have comprehended that which you have planned, he has already got it. He got it when you first met him. He saw you coming. He read you before you read him. Somehow, if you know horses, you are aware of his peculiar ability to perceive you to your core. Our level of communion lies at a scratch compared with his. Maeterlinck proposed horses were connected to ‘the abyss where the eternal verities hold sway’.[The Unknown Guest, trans. Alexander Teixeira de Mattos (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1914), p. 349] I have not one reason to doubt him.
On horseback we experience the world in the unprotected raw. We cross countries on tiny paths, ride across mountains, ford rivers and streams, we are not bound by any path. We see beetles scurrying beneath the hooves, mice and snakes slip through the grass, lizards and birds linger close by, wild boar and wolves run through the woods, we become alarmed by elemental energies, sense peculiar atmospheres, are rained upon, are smarted by wind, are roasted in the heat of the sun.
His senses are acute: more acute than our own. His ears prick at sounds we cannot hear, his nostrils widen at scents we do not know, his eyes see far more and much further than our own. We are upon the back of a master of life. His world is wider than ours, he has always had the ability to go further than we. Or so it was. You can forget the wheel as man’s finest discovery. It pales into insignificance set beside the moment when man first sat on a horse. Legs beat wheels. Wheels cannot go where legs nimbly pass. Wheels are lost in water: horses swim. Not every gorge has a bridge. Get on your bike on the Kaçkar Mountains and I’ll be in Trabzon before you.
If it were not for horses we would not have computers. We would never have even thought of flying to the stars. Horses completely re-wired our thinking. Lightning reaction, speed and distance triggered man’s perception of the narrow world he had, until that moment, inhabited. Man was contained within the limits of his immediate environment, bound by the shortness of his reach upon any diurnal basis. The horse set him free. Fired his mind. The horse, fundamentally, and abruptly, sharpened his wits.
In a moment, he could reach the horse-orizon and be back within the same day. A distance greater than he had covered before. A unity was forged. A kind of magic. I defy anyone to travel a long way on a horse and not be profoundly moved by the experience: the horse transports you not only physically but metaphysically. Our horizon is short: four legs take us further, beyond our sight. An enveloping shroud will overcome you. You will be touched. It is not camaraderie. It is not friendship. It is not reliance. It runs at a deeper, far more intense level. You will find yourself gazing at your horse after another long day’s ride. Watch him crop the grass, eat his feed, watch him yawn, stretch, shake, listen, sniff the air martially. He is always alert, even on the calmest of nights. Then you will know you are in the company of something, some creation so attached to the earth and yet so far beyond your own sensibilities that his magnificence becomes fully apparent. In that moment, you perceive some ancient thing, some mystical thing: his scent wafts over you, a sweet scent: here is an old, old friend who elides the gap between you and the cosmos. You will feel it in exactly the same way as our ancestors must have done; otherwise no myths, no sacrificial burials, no stories, no statues of horses would ever have been raised, and the world is full of them.
It is little wonder that the knights of the Grail set out upon their quest; for what would they be without their horses? Without their horses, their mystique would not exist. Their romance would be utterly lost. It goes of course far beyond mystique: a knight is, by definition, a mounted warrior; and this is reflected in the word for ‘knight’ in most languages even if not in English (thus French chevalier, German Ritter). In English, this can be seen in the word ‘chivalry’ – which, whatever about all of the connotations that it has accumulated, goes back ultimately to cheval. Chivalry denotes more than posture: it is guardianship of the Right: Grace, a Principle, Honour, a Standard, a Code. Demarcated by the presence of the horse, a conjoined infallible sense of justice, an inviolate, Mystical Cause. Conquest of evil, a clarion call to purity, nobility of purpose, still created to this day, as we all know, and a thing we wish for in those who hold or attain such a venerable, ancient title. Skill at arms on horseback made it possible. A metaphor for the Right, the Worthy, the Good we trust.
The horse stands as sentinel to the destiny of mankind. Upon his bones mankind has left his trail. Other animals have shared this role: elephants, camels, donkeys, mules. I do not deny them: they have played their vital part, and all are glorious creatures. But this place has never been held so consistently, in such a variety of disciplines, as by the horse.
|The first images we have of the mounted horseman were cut in rock in Gobustan, Azerbaijan, 12,000 years ago.|
Similar carvings of the same date have been found in the Tien Shan. The first cave paintings of horses are dated at 25,000 years old in France. That our ancestors did not cut them in stone or paint them on a rock 20,000 years ago does not mean they did not ride them. The stone was broken, the paint faded. How many smudged watercolours from childhood does everyone keep?
The trick is not to forget the retreating polar ice-caps. Hardy horses of the tundra colonized the greening world.
Take a look at the cave paintings of horses in Lascaux, remember the timescale, and compare them with the Yakut ponies of northern Siberia or even a Shetland today: they closely resemble, to my mind, the same diminutive, hardy type.
Early European man - if I may call him that - would not have domesticated or climbed aboard a big horse. A warming world and abundant grasses gave the horse height and frame over the decades, and it would have taken decades, not centuries, to achieve this. As an equine nutritionist, I have seen what good feed does to a horse in a remarkably short space of time. Equally, I have seen what happens where feed is short: the next generation retreats into a smaller scale. But then, 20,000 years ago - and I have not a shred of evidence to prove it - from a straight practical point of view, I wonder whether man would not have been more likely to have collared a little horse. Look at those paintings and you’ll see a pot- bellied, short-legged creature, not a stylised horse: a real one, one the artist saw every day, resembling the Yakut or even a Shetland. And the mystery unravels; the tale becomes easy to spot.
|The hardy horses of Yakutia, located in northern Siberia, are not noted for their size, yet routinely survive winters which expose them to minus forty degree temperatures.|
If you sit for a length of time near any herd of the wildest of animals - provided they don’t kill you first - if you sit and be still, their curiosity will draw them to you. Less so these days, as the micro-minded shoot them. But if you sit quietly near a herd of Konik (Polish wild horses) - who are not big - they will come to you. They will draw closer and closer. It is not hard to see how man first domesticated them, how man first befriended and then rode them; and so the drama unfolded. In his book The Centaur Legacy Bjarke Rink puts it neatly. Quoting Bronowski, who wrote in The Ascent of Man that ‘suddenly man and plant unite their lives in a genetic fairy tale’, Rink adds:
Well, if the betrothal of man to the beetroot, or to any other plant for that matter, is like a fairy tale, the sensory-motor connection of homo sapiens and equus caballus is the greatest epic in human history. [Bjarke Rink, The Centaur Legacy: How Equine Speed and Human Intelligence Shaped the Course of History (Glasgow KY: Long Riders’ Guild Press, 2004), p. 23.]
When man first mounted a horse he changed the destiny of mankind, as Rink says; but the day he hunted on horseback he fundamentally changed his perception. When man discovered how to make a bow and arrow and combined this with hunting on horseback, he commanded a change in his destiny, which propelled him to thoughts that went far, far ahead of what had been even dreamed of before. He laid down the essence of conquest. Of ownership, of empire. Of flying to the moon. It marked a whole new manner of thinking: you need to think quickly to stay on a horse darting through scrub. The horse’s heightened sensitivities to his surroundings, which greatly exceeded that of his rider, added another dimension. Man’s imagination must have led him to supposition of a supernatural influence. The horse’s primary senses were more acute, his reactions faster. He was in touch with another power: intuition.
|The symbiotic blending of human intellect and equine speed connected to create a superior being — the legendary centaur!|
Man fashioned a unity with another, bigger, more insightful, powerful being who, for some incomprehensible reason, did what he was bidden; and so the myth began.
The horse was a creation of the Mother Earth, goddess, divinity, inexplicable, at her mercy. Much later, the Greeks revealed their comprehension of the origins of the horse; but early man would have looked upon him as the supercharged velocipede of his earthbound, elemental entities. And if this makes no sense to those who do not know what an elemental entity is, I suggest they take a long hike on a horse and he will show you exactly what they are. I’ll hazard a clumsy explanation: when I was twenty-four year old, in 1973, there was a bookshop in Portobello owned by Lord Francis Thurlow. It’s gone now. At the time it contained an astonishing selection of the most extraordinary literature. I walked in and, browsing through the bewildering selection, was unable to hit upon the one I sought. The owner asked what I was looking for, and I said that I wanted a book on nature spirits: the elementals. Removing his spectacles, he advised me, in a stern, fatherly way, that I would be better advised to walk out onto the motorway at night in a blindfold than to pursue such a quest. I left empty-handed. Instead I submitted to the arcane, to the intuition of horses.
People venerate horses. Watch the end of any horse race and spot the reaction. The horse is centre of attention. It is he who gets the patting, though his jockey might get a few too; but it’s the horse, not the jockey that ran the race. Certainly the jockey was there, urging him on, but it was the hooves of the horse and his speed that won the day. And what happens when that horse wins another race and another? Soon he will have shot up in the stakes and everyone will be talking about him. Listen to what the Roman poet Martial had to say on the subject in the first century AD:
I, Martial, known to the nations, known to the peoples for my verses of eleven feet and eleven syllables, and my wit, abundant but not over-bold (why do you all envy me?), am no better known than Andraemon the horse. [Martial, Epigrams X.9; trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Martial: Epigrams, 3 vols (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), ii.333.]
Lest anyone assume we have the monopoly on racehorse celebrities, Andraemon beat Frankel, top horse of 2013, by a couple of thousand years, and was every bit as valuable, if not more so.
The race-following fraternity revere a great racehorse, little girls worship their ponies with the same avidity; in either event, something is going on at a deeper level. Neither the little girl nor the trainer will ever forget either Merrylegs or Frankel for the rest of their lives. These beings, these ponies, horses, their essence, linger in the mind: more, they linger in the collective mind, the image of the moment lives on. The woolly onager is with us still. He may have changed shape. He may be more refined. He may do many different things exercised under many different disciplines that his half-wild forebear would have torn from one end of the steppe to the other to avoid. From the instant our bellowing ancestor burst into his rock-strewn domain with a gazelle in hand while handling a half-wild bronco, through the line of blood he left, he has delivered the story of the horse and the immutable union that that horse created with humankind for thousands of years. With him, he brought all his emotional baggage, his hang-ups and moods and appetite and - fascination. With fascination came legend, and with legend came the myth, and through the myth whispered the mystery.
And if, or if not, the first ridden onager might have received a rapture of recognition for his fleet-footedness and co-operation in the running-down of quarry, in time his descendants would have done, and have. In time, not only have they received a pat for their pains but they have become immortalized through stone, art, verse, bronze, music and most certainly in story. The piebald horse Sharatz of Kralyevitch Marko, king of Serbia, waits in his underworld cave for the moment to emerge and save his people. A number of horses slumbering in caves await their call to arms. The white horses of the Valkyries - the beautiful flax-haired women on beautiful flax-maned horses whose mission it is to choose the slain in battle for their place in Valhalla - pick their way through the ghosts of heroes. The Uffington White Horse is perhaps a zoomorphic representation of Epona cut in the grass half a century before Caesar arrived.
For me, Epona is based on a real person: her representations appear down-to-earth. Surrounded by horses, she sits among them, handing them bread. It’s a domestic touch: horses to her were to be thought of in a sensitive way, not merely as vehicles for the use or abuse of man. For her, they had feelings similar to our own. Because she was unique, putting right those horses that had ‘gone wrong’, her name spread. People traded across the centuries. Seas were crossed. Ideas passed. Epona travelled. I envisage her as a kind of early, barefoot vet. Becoming a legend in her own lifetime, the rest was down to gossip. If she couldn’t reach you, you made an image of her and conjured her up by natural, sympathetic magic: talismans, carvings. You put her on the wall and from there, she’d protect your horses from all ills for all time.
|Epona was a protector of horses. She was often depicted seated on a throne, as seen in this Roman sculpture, flanked by the horses whom she guards.|
In the Revelation of St. John the Beloved, when heaven was opened to his gaze he saw the glorified Christ mounted on a white horse, the symbol of conquest: ‘Behold a white horse: and He that sat on him had a bow: and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering and to conquer’ (Revelation 6:2).
The horse absorbs our historical past and has become part of its fabric as man’s divinely inspired ally. Flames pour from his nostrils, sparks fly off his hooves (which they do: shod hooves spark on stone in the dark). German troops claimed they saw clouds of celestial horses above the British line at Mons. Horses are absolutely bound up with leadership: Joan of Arc on her white horse, Napoleon on Marengo, Wellington on Copenhagen.
Horses have been painted in places where they were never recorded in the original text.
In Caravaggio’s two paintings of the conversion of St. Paul, the horse stands above the smitten saint. No such allusion to horses appears in the Biblical account. The horse was put there for a reason: a symbolic, mystical reason. Paul was thrown. He was thrown spiritually. The image of the horse shows something else: he was thrown physically, and to be thrown by a horse denotes a degree of ineptitude. The man had lost charge. The horse, the natural world as it were, had not just rejected him but hurled him, shamefaced to the floor. Now he has to eat humble pie. Many interpretations have been put upon this, but if you handle horses you know what it means at once. Caravaggio, and those before him who depicted Paul in this way, lived at a time when the good handling of horses was regarded as supreme. Lack of competence denoted downright folly.
In the Basilica Superiore in Assisi, there hang many great paintings. I saw them last twenty-six years ago. I remember one vividly. I counted the horses in it. There are fourteen. I was puzzled by this number for a long time. Having now done the numerology, I think I know why. Artists are careful. Of course there are fourteen horses in the painting, there could be no more, no less - it’s about unity - The Trinity. Four minus one is three. Look at the numbers. Perhaps I dream too much, see more than was meant. Somehow, I doubt it: artists are careful. I gave myself a wallop for not spotting it straightaway. Another riddle, another mystical, equine enigma.
Long before Caravaggio’s horses had been portrayed symbolically, horses have been united with the gods, have drawn their chariots, have been the vehicles of Emperors and Kings. Priests declared them to be of such significance that they were to be sacrificed to at the portals of worlds beyond. They bear the riders of the Apocalypse, join conquerors in their tombs, haunt their sacred places. They worked for man, battled with man, played his games and, through their own presence, have brought with them high symbolism: they became synonymous with state. Massed ceremony on horseback lifts any occasion from the tawdry to the magnificent. The tank-bound regiments of today are of cavalry origin. The Scots Greys charged in their tanks in the first Gulf War, as they had on horses at Waterloo, and all of them horsemen, to this day, albeit amalgamated to another name.
|The Royal Scot’s Greys charged against Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Waterloo in June, 1815.|
Man has capitalized upon the horse’s counterpoise. When compared to the horse, upon his own two feet, man lacks stature. One leader looks very much like another, on his feet, walking through the crowd. A horse bears him aloft, above the mob. A horse is more than its beauty: more than its speed, more than its strength - it’s the something else, the other thing which man can intuitively see that the horse possesses; something which he lacks and yet, by being with him, distils as an essence into his own. The horse bears spiritual significance, even when recreated in another form.
For the shaman, for example, the terrifying himori haunts the forests. This, a trunk of a long dead tree, stands upon its broken limbs: one branch aloft, upon which is hooked the skull of a horse; while on its back is another figure made of branches, for its head the skull of a deer, its body with arms outstretched and swathed in rags, twitching in a forest breeze. To stumble upon an himori without due obeisance is to pay with your life: they are truly terrifying creatures, with real power. Wind horses.
For the dreamer, for the insightful, the horse holds the code to the universe. All you all have to do is climb on board and you, too, can fly with the gods or the demons, if you dare.
If you are found unworthy the horse will discover you. His wisdom is like the wisdom of God, he prefers no man. He is, as Ben Jonson has it, ready ‘to throw a prince as soon as his groom.’ He is the arch leveller. It is this feat of natural judgement that has caused him to be regarded in the way he is. No one ever really owns a horse. A horse does not give himself away as a dog might. The man or woman who claims a relationship to be a two-way ticket needs to think harder. A horse has yet to be seen to weep at the demise of his owner, yet many an owner will weep at the demise of their horse - all mythology aside. The horse remains inscrutable. He can be trained, schooled, taught to obey, has been whipped to obedience, hard-bitted and tortured as many people still do right across the world, but man will not have his heart. And despite what many have claimed through all manner of horse whispering, joining-up or bonding, the horse quietly eats his hay, attendant upon the next treat. If the doting owner puts a foot wrong, he or she is on the floor, along with the prince and St. Paul, eating humble pie.
This is his mystique: that he remains, still, a creature of his will. His own will. It is possible to beat a horse into submission but this is the act of fools: a horse’s trust has to be won.
Real mastery is impossible, says Virgil, without the understanding that springs from profound sympathy. Then and only then does mastery begin, if that’s what it is. More likely it is not mastery, it is an agreement, no less, no more. Man does this, the horse does that. One breach of this contract and the whole must be rewritten, and only then upon the horse’s terms, if at all. Antoine de Pluvinel, writing at the time of Galileo, states: ‘we shall take great care not to annoy the horse and spoil his friendly charm, for it is like the scent of a blossom – once lost it will never return’.[Antoine de Pluvinel, L’Instruction du Roy, en l’exercice de monter a cheval (Paris, 1629), p. 29. This rare book can now be consulted online: http://archive.org/details/LinstructionDuRoyEnLexerciceDeMonterCheval.] Or as W. C. Fields said: ‘Horse-sense is a thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.’ And Salinger: ‘I’d rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.’
Alongside their impeccable acuity comes their capacity to endure. The horse does what he is asked to do, mostly, even being complicit in his own death - regard the slaughter horse trade as the horses file up, waiting to be executed and form part of the beef burger, unannounced to the duped consumer.
The nature of their wisdom is called to account. Is this wisdom? Or sheer, blind faith, touching in its trust? He is loyal, yet he is like a child, blind in his belief. What more admirable companion for the ultimate man of honour, knight of the Round Table? His quest is a spiritual one, a mystical one: unity with the godhead. This mystical bond of the mounted knight led him to crusade, to seek the Holy of Holies, to venture upon the divine quest, which is the bedrock of our mythology. Such a bond is about comradeship between two different species, one of nature the other of man, knotted together by the unflinching loyalty of the horse, by his presence and steadfastness. A trinity: man, horse and united spirit. St. George was not sitting on a horse when he conquered the dragon of evil to no purpose.
|Many cultures have myths regarding the heroic deeds of mounted heroes. One of the most celebrated legends recounts the adventures of the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, including Sir Gawain, who rode a horse named Ceingalad during his quest for the Holy Grail|
Truth, honour are the hallmarks of the gentle, perfect knight and his staunchest steed. The knight becomes a figure of romance with his charge, his horse, to deliver him safely to his goal. The horse, like the godhead, suffers in silence not from his own volition, but in answer to the faulty reasoning of man, his folly and his pride. Yet what prouder creature ever stepped the face of the earth? Even when caparisoned in the trappings of state, of dash and ceremony, he remains earthbound, never getting above himself - a lesson man has seldom learned, barring the saintly few. Inherent equipoise. When the most powerful, strapping stallion rears and tosses his head, standing high above all others, somehow he retains that equipoise, and retains it with dignity, never out of place, never overstated. Listen to what Herman Melville saw:
Among all the sights of the docks, the noble truck-horses are not the least striking to a stranger. They are large and powerful brutes, with such sleek and glossy coats, that they look as if brushed and put on by a valet every morning. They march with a slow and stately step, lifting their ponderous hoofs like royal Siam elephants. Thou shalt not lay stripes upon these Roman citizens; for their docility is such, they are guided without rein or lash; they go or come, halt or march on, at a whisper. So grave, dignified, gentlemanly, and courteous did these fine truck-horses look - so full of calm intelligence and sagacity, that often I endeavoured to get into conversation with them, as they stood in contemplative attitudes while their loads were preparing. But all I could get from them was the mere recognition of a friendly neigh; though I would stake much upon it that, could I have spoken in their language, I would have derived from them a good deal of valuable information touching the docks, where they passed the whole of their dignified lives. [Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), pp 271-2.]
And therein lies the nub of his mystique: he has naturally and in assuredness what we struggle, and fail, to attain. Nobility radiates from him and from him man seeks reflected glory. So he sits on him, above him. Little does he know it is not him we are looking at, not him we admire. We can see through him for all his posturing. But we cannot see through the horse.
Unicorns, hippogriffs, centaurs, winged horses, sea horses, demon horses, angel horses, fairy horses, familiar horses, corn horses, sun horses, wind-horses, sacrificial horses, sacred horses, funerary horses, horses of creation, horses of the Apocalypse, rocking horses, saw-horses, hobby-horses, clothes horses, dark horses, horses of another colour, horse-sense, spectral horses, ghost horses. They have not only embedded themselves in our language and stalk us by day - stalking-horses; they haunt us when we sleep - night-mares. And if the etymology of that last word lies in dispute, there is reason. In the nineteenth century, English coaches were seldom drawn by mares during the day - they were too fractious. But by night, a wily landlord - horses were owned by coaching inns - would harness a string of mares to the traces, and off the team would set into the darkness. A horse’s vision is different from ours: they see the world in another way yet equally charged with similar senses. What then, in the darkness, when these hormonally-charged, four-footed, head-tossing, wild-eyed ladies gallop, dashing along the black turnpike from The Angel to The George, a distance of rock, trees, scrub, Hecate at every crossroads, plunging into the wilderness at whinnying, full bolt? Small wonder so many travellers swore never to take a coach through the darkness. Havoc reigned - reined - with the night-mares. Small wonder they hover in our psyche, let alone the highwaymen, riding mares - Black Bess - whose abrupt appearance and equally abrupt disappearance lent the hours of darkness an added an equi-born, nocturnal terror.
|Neptune’s Horses are one of the many examples of equine mythology which reoccurs throughout history|
Mythology, event, story, legend have invested the spirit of the horse with a well-founded aura of mystique, insofar as we are able to comprehend it. Horses side with no one, yet are our faithful friend. At one moment they draw the dazzling chariot of Apollo across the sky, and the next they plunge in the bowels of the earth and steal away Spring. Today the thunder-hearted daughters of Rolls Royce that hurtle us through the skies are measured in horsepower, a salute to them. Horses have a well-deserved right to be counted as the forebears of power on land as equally they do through the ether, since a galloping horse spends more time in the air than he does on the ground. And all from a drop of Medusa’s blood, children of Neptune as they too thunder, white-maned upon our shores.
Scarcely an age has gone by in which a horse has not risen to meet it. The Emperor Caligula was declared by some to have made his horse Incitatus, Pontifex Maximus – the supreme position in the Roman priesthood, normally reserved for the emperor himself. He also made him Senator and would have made him Consul, holder of the highest office of Empire, had he not been assassinated first - Caligula that is, not the horse. In the eleventh century Babieca, the horse of El Cid, was buried in the cemetery of San Pedro de Cardeña monastery. When the crusader Sir Giles de Berkely died in 1294, the heart of his horse Lombard was buried beside him in Coberley Church, near Cirencester. The horse of Genghis Khan haunts an unmarked tomb in the sweep of the Steppe. Copenhagen, horse of the Iron Duke, is buried at his home in Stratford Sey. England, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Russia, Eurasia are littered with the graves of notable horses. Mancha and Gato, the two horses ridden by Aimé Tschiffely from Argentina to Washington (1925-1928), stand in the Museum of Transport in Buenos Aires; and there still languishes a statue of a horse in the jungles of South America, whose mystery is deep indeed.
|A monument was recently erected at Plaza Colon in Ayacucho, Argentina, which is dedicated to Long Rider Aimé Tschiffely, and his Criollo horses, Mancha and Gato.|
The horse has played many parts upon the human stage. He is a polymathic performer. Little eludes him. As work-horse he has won our hearts. As war-horse he has conquered the world. He is strong, he is fragile. He breaks easily, revealing a tender, delicate side, one which evokes our deepest sympathy. He shows astonishing courage and is cut down in a second. He’s admirable. He’s like us. He’s not like us. He bolsters us by his presence, by his companionship. The horse gives substance to the moment: everything is lifted: here is power, here is pomp, here is aura. What more arresting sight than a regiment of horses with their glittering riders, the sensation of the raw energy of nature harnessed? Not even elephants nor squadrons of camels can achieve this; they lack the dash, the panache, they lack that vital something that distinguishes the horse from any other animal.
The horse has been sacrificed, venerated, deified, he has slaved in the bowels of the earth. Some time ago, six grubby little Welsh ponies came up in a clanging metal hoist from deep underground in Tower Colliery, Rhondda. They emerged into the pouring rain in their eye-protecting helmets. They looked like creatures from a gone-wrong experiment, deposited from another planet, suddenly pitched into this slag-faced, puddled, tin-clad, slag-heaped world. For eight long years, condemned to hard labour, they had inhabited the lightless, airless dungeons, dragging their cargo of dollies of coal though sweating bodies, hewing the black rock that caused their upper world to flourish. And there they stood. Redundant. Blinking in the grey, lashing rain. Helmetted. For sale. Their bewildered innocence rang through the valleys like a peal of bells.
Horses have not only turned history on its head but have cut entirely new courses through it. They’ve brought relief, brought disaster, gathered for man his fortune and lost it in a trice. A horse, or a pony, is companion to the child at the same time as he is to the man. He gallops through our minds. Stand in the close company of a horse and be defied: something in his scent, in the air he breathes, in the way he moves, in the tininess of his touch cannot fail to move even the most arid of souls. Allow that soft nostril to whisper across your face and breathe the air he expires. The aroma of that breath brings to us something from a prehistoric past. We know it at once. Even those who have never been near a horse will instantly recognize it.
Some people claim they have an affinity for horses. The question is, do horses have an affinity for them? And here the genuine is revealed. It might happen that someone who has dealt with horses for years has never even bothered to seek the answer to this riddle, nor perhaps ever asked. Day by day they have handled horses and had little response and, invariably, they wind up with recalcitrant, difficult horses. But someone who has never been near a horse finds an instant rapport, and the locks tumble. Horses can perceive that which we cannot; they sense that which is beyond, their intelligence set upon strata that we cannot nor ever will comprehend, unless we become like them. Oh, that we shared half of that wisdom, we might begin to see; that we knew a quarter of that trust, we might even understand ourselves.
Music springs from them - listen to any Mozart and you will hear the beat of hooves as they walk in 4 beats, or trot in 2 beats; the canter and the gallop are in 3 time. Side by side with another horse their beats become more complex, yet still their hooves retain a rhythm. The music of most early composers must have been based upon that footfall. Some might contend that all western music springs from its cadence.
In a Russian legend, a ferocious Glass Horse savagely guards the Soul of the World. In another he is the familiar of a demon. In the east he is both physical companion and spiritual guide. In literature he plays many roles. He is the palfrey of the Wife of Bath. Churchill exhorts us to believe there is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse; Jonathan Swift tells us of a parliament of horses far finer than any government that the world has ever known. In Spain, Don Quixote’s Rocinante leaves a hole in our hearts. In America, we learn of General Robert E. Lee’s love and admiration for his horse, Traveller. There are so many, books would be filled with their names alone.
And why is this? What is it about them that draws us to them? Is it something in their willingness to do our bidding when they are so powerful they could overcome us at a stroke? Is it their beauty? Their disposition? Or do we see in them virtues which we can never attain ourselves? Horses are a matriarchal society, the mare rules. Perhaps when our ancestor first captured himself a horse, it was a mare. Without a doubt, he would have long studied the great herds of horses that were abundant at the time. Years before that man first sat on that horse, he would have known a great deal about her; he could not have done so otherwise.
Jonathan Swift’s story of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels is a brilliant exposition of the understanding of horses. Swift perceives within them an open-hearted honesty which he recognized that many people, particularly politicians, knew nothing of at all. He might well have inspired Anna Sewell to write Black Beauty. Perhaps he had seen something which others had not: that in their use, horses reflected the human condition – all this written at a time when England was regarded as the heaven of women and the hell of horses. What was played out against or with horses, from fine stabling to high breeding, from the drudgery of the shaggy-footed garries of Ireland to the wildly expensive imports of the haughty horses of the east, was a facsimile of all Swift saw about him. The comparison is obvious; the inequality, blatant. His lasting legacy was a desire to find a fairer world, without corruption, ruled by a horse, whose innate sense of integrity far outstrips our own.
“Gulliver’s Travels” describes how the English traveller journeys to the land of the Houyhnhnms, an equine race devoted to logic and reason, who speak concisely, act honourably and abide by fair laws.
So the myth strengthens: the horse’s story is woven though association, through drama, legend, bound with heroic act. Is he a god come to spy on men? Yet he breaks, like a reed. A single fly can lay him down, brutality destroys his spirit.
The four horses of St. Mark’s, who once stood above the racecourse in Constantinople, know what it’s like to have sailed in a Roman galley. And there they stand today, sublime. [The horses on the portal of St. Mark's are replicas; the real ones are inside in the Loggia Cavalli.] Very probably they gazed down earlier upon the Circus Maximus in Rome, though no one writes about it. Wouldn’t it be fun to interview them? But horses are horses and, in their inscrutability, keep their secret. And no secrets are said to be as binding as those told between a horse and his rider.
Do they love us? Can we plumb their mystery? Are we allowed to presume some kind of affinity for them? Do we even suppose a right to think they should? When Penelope Chetwode completed her journey around the holy places of southern Spain on her borrowed mare Marquesa, she released her back to her pastures. She wrote about it in a lovely book, Two Middle Aged Ladies in Andalusia. [First published by John Murray, London, in 1963, who reprinted it in 2002 with an introduction by Candida Lycett-Green. The book has been reissued by Eland Publishing (2012).] The bond she felt she had established with her mare became a source of sadness as she watched her wander away with a swish of her tail and never once looked back. It was as if, to her, it had all meant nothing. Such is the riddle of horses, their enigma. At the same time they are with you, and they are not. Which begs the question: do they think at all? Or perhaps better asked: do they process thought, as we do? Or is it, for them, that the answer is implicit in the question? That, perhaps, is their mystique. That, their mantle.
This article was first published in The Temenos Academy Review 16 (2013) 184-200, and appears here courtesy of the Temenos Academy, an educational charity which aims to offer education in philosophy and the arts in the light of the sacred traditions of East and West. The Academy is dedicated to the acknowledgement of Divinity, the love of wisdom, and openness to spiritual vision. Renowned poets, writers, academics and philosophers all participate in this unique group, whose patron is His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales.
The article is a version of a lecture which Jeremy, a Founding Member of the Long Riders Guild, was invited to present to the Temenos Academy on the spiritual aspects of equine travel.
Besides the works referred to in the course of this essay, the reader will find much of interest in M. Oldfield Howey, The Horse in Myth and Magic (London: William Rider & Son, 1923); also at www.thelongridersguild.com.