Sparky the Pit Pony’s Days in the Sun

The last working horses at a colliery in Britain retired – astonishingly – in 1999. Here’s a story from The Mirror about one of the other “last pit ponies”, Sparky:

Since his retirement in 1988, Sparky has been taking it easy at the National Coal Mining Museum and has been looked after by Wendy and her colleague Bonnie Littlewood.

“When he first came out of the mine, he had to blink his way into the light,” says Wendy. “He hadn’t seen much sun and wasn’t used to it. The change in pace also took some adjustment.”

Now, Sparky’s life consists of staying out in a field overnight and spending his morning in the stable eating oats and barley, and meeting visitors.

The oldest pony in the museum, he is something of a living legend. “He’s a real charmer,” says Wendy. “It takes a while for him to warm to someone but once he does, he’s your friend for life. He’s stubborn and knows his own mind. He’s a real Victor Meldrew. But eventually, if you’re patient, he comes round.

“And he likes women. The gentle touch is what works with him. If you shout at him you have no chance.”


Feed Your Horse on Pineapples and Fish


Theophilactus, Patriarch of Constantinople, kept above 2000 horses, and was so intent, and earnest in feeding them, that he gave them pistachios, pineapples, palm-fruit, raisins, dried-figs, and all of them the choicest, moistened with perfumed wine and mixed with saffron, cinnamon, and other costly drug; in this excess going beyond the Emperor himself, who laid in the manger for his horse, called the winged, raisins, and kernels instead of barley.
… In Petrarch’s time there lived one in Italy who doted so on his sick horse, that he spread under him a silk bed, with a golden pillow. And when he himself was laid fast by the gout that he could not stir, and must be ruled by the physicians laws, yet would he needs be carried by his servants or be laid on another horse, and taking his Physicians with him twice, or thrice a day visited his sick horse, and sit down by him sighing, and troubled, stroking him, and murmuring comfort to him. 
The mighty King of Narfinga had a horse thought to be of such a value for the incredible plenty of jewels, wherewith it was laden, that he was worth one of our cities. In such esteem is the horse among most nations…


Caesar’s [horses] besieged by Scipio ate duck meat, rinsed in fresh water. Pompey’s horses at Dyrrachium in a siege ate leaves stripped from trees, and reed-roots. In Senega, that dry ful, fitches, and mixed. In Thrace by Strymon, thistleleaves. In Parthia the herb hippax. In Tartary boughs, and bark of trees, and roots struck out of the earth with their hoofs. In Aden they eat fish, there being plenty there. And dried fish in Golconda in Persia; and among the Gedrosians, the Celts, Macedonians, Lydians, and Paeons inhabiting the Prasian Lake. The Arabs feed them twice a day with camel’s milk. In spring with tender herbs. They love to drink water whether troubled, or clear, running, or standing, muddy, or other. Some, to make them mettled, give them wine; especially if lean, or old beer of oats, or corn, say some.

Extracts from The Natural History of the Four-Footed Beasts by Johannes Johnston (this English translation, 1675).

Image from The Horse in History by Basil Tozer. Shows the Duke of Schonberg. Image “after a painting by Sir Godfrey Knelser”.


Another Urban Stable Under Threat – this time in California

Cliff Yamashita, a retired tow truck driver, owns Miley and her new colt, Titan. Like most of his fellow boarders, he likes to go riding at nearby Point Pinole Regional Shoreline. He said he would probably have to sell both animals if he gets kicked out.

“I can’t afford the other stables,” he said. “Nobody here can. There are nicer stables, sure, but they charge you for that. As long as the horse is taken care of, it doesn’t mind what the stable looks like.”

Inspectors from the city and from the animal control department visited the property this month. A spokesman for the animal control department said the animals all looked fine.

“The horses were all healthy, with food and water,” said Steve Burdo, a spokesman for the department. “There were no issues of abuse or neglect.”

Code enforcement officers issued abatement orders and installed padlocks on the gates leading to what they said were the illegal dumps next door, but allowed the horses to remain. Horse owners said the city inspectors told them they did not even know there was a stable on the property. City Manager Bill Lindsay said the stable had operated “under the radar.”

At that, the horse owners whinnied in disbelief. It’s not easy, they said, to hide 100 horses for 17 years.

News from My thoughts on the role of urban stables and the squeezing out of working class horse culture are here.

Horses in the Wings


The theatrical and circus historian A H Saxon is the don of hippodrama history. I bought an old library copy of his Enter Foot and Horse when I was working on The Age of the Horse because I knew it would be the key to nineteenth-century equestrian theatre. I wasn’t disappointed.

Hippodramas were, to quote Saxon himself, plays “in which trained horses were considered actors, with business, often leading actions of their own, to perform.” They grew out of the very early equestrian circuses and were generally light on serious content, heavy on melodrama and chock full of sensational sets, scenes and galloping horses.

Saxon’s work is invaluable because the hippodrama is not exactly popular with theatrical historians and it also fell from fashion fairly rapidly, thus ensuring that few traces of it lingered in popular consciousness. I was delighted to find the facsimile of a script for one on It’s called

The Blood-Red Knight


The Fatal Bridge

A Grand Melo Dramatic Romance

In Two Acts


It was created by George Male for John Astley in 1810, just as the genre was taking off and getting steadily more spectacular. The plot is a classic piece of melodrama. The Blood-Red Knight, Sir Rowland, is hellbent on challenging the chastity of his brother Alphonso’s wife, Isabella, and begins the first act by chasing her and her son Henry through a sinister wood and up and down mountains.

When he finally gets his mitts on Isabella, he gives her a choice – give in to him or her son will be killed. Alphonso (earlier reported to have died in “the Holy Wars”) interrupts at the crucial moment but is bundled away to his death, forcing Isabella to agree to marry Sir Rowland. Luckily Alphonso wasn’t dead at all, and he and some friends storm the castle and launch into a stirring sword fight followed by a cavalry assault across a falling bridge.

At its climax, Isabella shoots Sir Rowland just before he can chop Alphonso in two, and it all ends happily ever after.

The full script at is later, US edition, which you can browse here. It’s just 24 pages long. As A H Saxon points out in Enter Foot and Horse, this is not much of a script for a performance that lasted an hour and forty minutes. Not for nothing are the directions so long, although sadly they contain none of the minute moves that must go into coordinating a stage fight. Just how possible was that level of planning if horses were involved in a mêlée? Or did everyone just muck in and aim to get to the right spot at the right moment?

I have found, thanks to Caroline Hodak’s paper on hippodrama, information from the playbill about the special effects. I don’t have the original, so please forgive this re-translation of Hodak’s French translation:

The castle is attacked, the surrounding river is covered with boats filled with warriors while the walls are violently attacked […] Men and horses are represented injured and dying, in all positions, while other soldiers and their horses emerge from the river, forming an effect [sic] completely new and unprecedented in this country – and elsewhere – all ending with the complete defeat of the Blood Red Knight and the reunion of Alphonse and Isabelle.

Hodak quotes one report from the French writer Louis Simond, who saw the play and compared it unfavourably to performances in France:

Astley is a show of equitation and one naturally forms an advantageous notion of this type of spectacle as performed in England, which is something of an island of Houyhnhms . I expected something far superior to what I had seen in other countries, but I found the horses moderately well-trained: the men did no tricks that were out of the ordinary. Instead of equitation, we had drama and harlequinades, battle and fights. The characters were Moors and Saracens, and the horses were there like actors, as at Covent Garden; they ran in to the pit, and climbed onto the boards of the stage – all was covered in earth.

He goes on to say that between each act acrobats performed in the pit (at a guess this is the ring in front of the stage), sending up clouds of dust and tearing their trousers. Those is the cheap seats roared while respectable looking middle-class Londoners sat in the boxes. There was, Simond concluded, “a little corner of barbarity in most English popular amusements.” He moves on swiftly to Westminster Abbey.

Here’s a contemporary image of The Blood-Red Knight from the British Library’s archives. It had a first run at Astley’s Amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road in London of 175 performances, making an eye-watering £18,000 for Astley and company, and was introduced to New York in 1823.

Volapük hippique

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From The Illustrated Horse Management by Edward Mayhew (1800) via

There are plenty of researchers trying to fathom the language that horses use to one another. Measuring whinnies. Grading snorts. Tracking whickers. Whether we will ever have more than a primitive understanding of it or not is a question for philosophers, so perhaps it’s more interesting to look at some of the lexicons that humans have developed for interspecies communication (or at least one-way communication: we tell you what to do, you do it).

Of course, the different styles of riding and horse-handling we practice are all physical languages – however imperfect and potentially baffling to horses. But some equestrian communicators have sought to create a language of human words and sounds instead. When I spent time with people who farm with horses in the USA for The Age of the Horse I learned some of the teamster or farmer’s basic commands, apparently well known by trained working draught horses Stateside. There’s “gee” for right and “haw” for left. “Whoa” or “ho!” seems to do the trick for stopping.

It’s not a big vocabulary, but it gets the job done. The trouble is, it’s not universal – not even between English-speaking countries. In the US, the teamster stands on the left, in England, on the right. So an English driver says “haw” for right and “gee” for left, which must be confusing for any horses that make the transatlantic trip.

Perhaps the French veterinary surgeon Emile Decroix had something similar in mind when, in 1898, he proposed a “Volapük hippique”. Volapük was invented by a German priest divinely inspired to create an international language; it flourished briefly before being outstripped by Esperanto. Decroix, whose name you might recognise – he was one of the foremost advocates of hippophagy in France – came up with these commands:

Hi! for “go”

Ha! for “forward and to the right”

Hé! for “forward and to the left”

Ho! for “halt”

Hi! Hi! for “trot”

Ha! Ha! for “right about”

Hé! Hé! for “left about”

Ho! Ho! for “back”

He offered a medal to the first person to present a horse trained either under the saddle or in harness to respond to Volapük hippique, but sadly there were no contenders. If anyone fancies giving it a go now, I’d love to hear from you – although I’d understand if you wanted to train far, far from earshot of anyone else.


Source: Decroix, E. Projet de langage phonétique universel pour la conduite des animaux. Bulletin de la Société nationale d’Acclimatation de France, Paris, 1898, Forty-fourth Year, pp. 241 ff.