A (Not So) Short History of Talking Horses, Donkeys and Mules

gulliver

Humans have long been aspiring Doolittles: we live alongside animals who understand us intuitively, but with whom we cannot communicate on our own terms. Is it any wonder that we often fantasise about a world in which they can speak our own language? And what would they say about us if they could?

Talking horses occur in many cultural traditions but especially in Indo-European mythology. In Indo-European Poetry and Myth, M L West points out that “the close relationship between heroes and their horses is such that they can speak to each other at critical junctures. . . . The horses are represented as intelligent, indeed wise, as well as brave and loyal, and often gifted with mantic knowledge.”

These wise talking horses have their descendents in Black Beauty, Kholstomer and Bree, although in later centuries new roles opened up for loqacious equids. The wise talking horses became critics of men, mocking humanity’s foibles and follies; very often they became comic characters in their own right. They were allowed to voice political truths of our own devising, or “speak for themselves”, which of course is only more ventriloquy, even if they made a plea for better treatment.

So this is my collection of talking horses, mules and donkeys, some of whom have their own posts on the blog, or will in the future. I’ve given links to sources for further exploration, and in some cases have added full texts to this blog. This post will be updated with each new addition, so feel free to send me examples I’ve missed. I’d love to have suggestions from you to add to the chorus of talking horses, donkeys and mules!

c. 800 BC The Illiad, by Homer, translated by Samuel Butler.

Then with a loud voice [Achilles] chided with his father’s horses saying, “Xanthus and Balius . . . this time when we have done fighting be sure and bring your driver safely back to the host of the Achaeans, and do not leave him dead on the plain as you did Patroclus.”
Then fleet Xanthus answered under the yoke . . . and he bowed his head till his mane touched the ground as it hung down from under the yoke-band. “Dread Achilles,” said he, “we will indeed save you now, but the day of your death is near, and the blame will not be ours, for it will be heaven and stern fate that will destroy you.”

Other Hellenic talking horses include Arion, a winged horse in Ancient Greek myth who also has human feet. Arion is the son of Poseidon and Demeter, and draws his father’s chariot.

c. 627 BC In Babylonian “Wisdom Literature we find scattered fragments of dialogue from a talking horse who is debating with an ox as to whom is superior.

c. 515 BC in the Bible, Numbers 22. Poor Balaam’s ass, beaten and berated, has her say.

And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

1365 Le Débat dou Cheval et dou Levrier – a poetic dialogue between a horse and a hunting dog by Jean Froissart.

1597 Marocco or “Banke’s Horse” (after his owner and trainer, William Bankes) was a real performing horse who lived in Tudor England and is mentioned by Shakespeare and John Donne. In 1597, a pamphlet called “MAROCCUS EXTATICUS OR BANKES BAY HORSE IN A TRANCE” was published, introducing Marocco as a wise and salty-tongued commentator on human follies. It features a landlord who is “the caterpiller of the commonwealth”and Morocco’s habit of quoting “this Latine I learned when I gambolde at Oxford”.

1645 A Dialogue Betwixt a Horse of warre and a millhorse wherein the content and safety of an humble and painfull life, is preferred above all the Noyse, the Tumult, and Trophies of the Warre. I love this pamphlet from the days of the English Civil War – the Cavalier war horse and the Roundhead mill horse (who may be a donkey or mule) set the world to rights with lots of fruity comments:

“For know the Cavalliers brave warlick [sic] horse/Scornes vulgar jades, and bid them kisse his arse.”

My only slightly holey transcript of the poem can be found here.

1689 Andrew Marvell’s “Dialogue between the two horses on which stands the Lait Kings and this Kings Effigies…the two horses make a visset to each other and discourse and dispute with each other as followeth.” Two equine statues converse. Some don’t think it’s genuine Marvell, however.

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Gulliver talks with the Houyhnhnms. Illustration by JJ Grandville, 1856.

1726 Ah, the Houyhnhnms of Jonathan Swift’s satirical novel, Gulliver’s Travels! A very superior form of being, these talking horses are the masters of their own land, keeping both equine servants and human (or “Yahoo”) slaves. They exhibit all the elegant rationalism to which an eighteenth-century human scholar could aspire: they do not understand the concept of lying, they privilege “friendship and benevolence” over all else – including family – and don’t even require a legal system as they are too sensible to break a law. Gulliver speaks to them in their own tongue:

It put me to the pains of many circumlocutions, to give my master a right idea of what I spoke; for their language does not abound in variety of words, because their wants and passions are fewer than among us. But it is impossible to express his noble resentment at our savage treatment of the Houyhnhnm race. . .

1799 The Memoirs of Dick the Little Poney: Supposed to be Written by Himself. Children’s book with more than a helping of Rousseau, narrated by the ever confident Dick, who is far less of a doormat than his descendant, Black Beauty.

When I reflect on the eminence to which I have since risen, and what honourable masters I have carried, the original meanness of my condition only serves to give a lustre to my good qualities. It is evident, if I rose, it was by merit alone: if I was esteemed, it was because I was useful. The general tenor of my conduct has raised me to what I now am, and I wish my readers to aim at similar rewards by similar means. They need not then blush at the retrospect, however humble their birth.

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1815 The Adventures of a Donkey by Arabella Argus.

1815 Falada the talking horse in The Goose Girl, collected by the Brothers Grimm. The novelist Hans Fallada chose his pseudonym from the Grimm Bros’ Hans and from Falada. (thank you to Susan Manderson for telling me about Falada)

1821 Further Adventures of Jemmy Donkey Interspersed with Biographical Sketches of the Horse. Also by Arabella Argus.

c. 1825 From “The Rape”, a “romantic ballad” collected in The Songs of Greece by M C Fauriel and translated by Charles Brinsley Sheridan.

One aged horse, all scarr’d with wounds,
Neigh’d loud, as if to say:
“I now am old, nor fit to bear
My master on his way;

Yet would I strain each failing nerve
To save they beauteous bride,
Whose snowy fingers slaked my thirst,
And stroked my silky side.”

He placed at once the saddle’s weight
Upon that gallant black,
Who pranced with pride to feel again
His master on his back.

And seem’d to say: “Nine folds of cloth
Must brace thy dizzied head,
Nor must thou press the madd’ning spur,
Though now my youth is fled;

For fancy’s power might make me feel
A colt that scour’d the plains,
And I might widely strew around
My rider’s gore and brains!”

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François Baucher, from US edition of A Method of Horsemanship

1835 The controversial horseman François Baucher wrote a “Dialogue on Equitation” between Man, Horse and “Hippo-Théo”, who is the god of horses. In it, the Horse pleads its case and asks for more understanding, and Man is upbraided for unfeeling and cruelty. Hilda Nelson’s 1992 translation for J A Allen is great.

Hippo-Théo: Horseman, remember that intelligence obliges, and that you have to make the future forget mankind’s past errors, far too prolonged, with respect to your noble steed.

1859 Tuppy, or the Autobiography of a Donkey by E Burrows

From The Absence of Dobrynya, sung by Abram Evtikhiev Chukov and translated by Nora Kershaw Chadwick in Russian Heroic Poetry. Poem collected in the mid-nineteenth century by Aleksei Rybnikov:

. . . Dobrynya’s horse stumbled:
“Oh, you food for wolves, you bear’s skin!
Why are you stumbling to-day?”
The good steed addressed him,
Addressed him in human voice:
“Ah, my beloved master!
You see not the misfortune which has befallen you:
Your young wife Nastasya Nikulichna
Has married bold Alyosha Popovich;
They are holding a feast for three days;
To-day they go to holy Church,
To receive the crowns of gold”.
Dobrynya Nikitich flew into a rage;
He took his silken whip,
He beat his steed about the legs,
About the legs, the back legs,
So that his steed set off at a gallop,
From mountain to mountain, from hill to hill,
Leaping rivers and lakes,
Extending his legs to their full stride.

1873 The introduction of the horse to America brought about both economic and cultural changes. This is an extract from Peter Mitchell’s Horse Nations – The Worldwide Impact of the Horse on Indigenous Societies Post-1492 (2015, page 171) about a talking horse which, like many earlier Indo-European models, is a source of mystical knowledge:

. . . the Lakota healer and elder, Black Elk, . . . acquired his “great vision” at the age of 9, three years before the Little Big Horn. In it, a bay horse spoke to him and introduced him to other spiritual powers.

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1895 US edition of Black Beauty, published by Thomas Y Crowell & Co.

1877 Black Beauty.

Anna Sewell’s only novel was once believed to be the sixth biggest selling book of all time, with over forty million copies sold or given away. It was written for adults – specifically for working men who had horses in their care – but it became a children’s classic. Concern about the welfare of all horses (not just the expensive ones) had been growing across the nineteenth century, along with the early stirrings of an animal rights movement, so the foundations were already laid for Sewell’s “Autobiography of a Horse”. It begins, as do the earlier equine autobiographies, in an Edenic setting:

The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side looked into a ploughed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside; at the top of the meadow was a plantation of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook overhung by a steep bank.

1886 Strider, or the Story of a Horse (Kholstomer) by Leo Tolstoy. Yes, Tolstoy published an equine autobiography just a decade after Black Beauty. He was less restricted in his writing than the genteel Anna, although Strider as sad a tale to tell as Beauty:

Yes, I am the son of Affable I and of Baba. My pedigree name is Muzhik, and I was nicknamed Strider by the crowd because of my long and sweeping strides, the like of which was nowhere to be found in all Russia. There is no more thoroughbred horse in the world. I should never have told you this. What good would it have done? You would never have recognized me: even Vyazapurikha, who was with me in Khrenovo, did not recognize me till now. You would not have believed me if Vyazapurikha were not here to be my witness, and I should never have told you this. I don’t need equine sympathy. But you wished it. Yes, I am that Strider whom connoisseurs are looking for and cannot find – that Strider whom the count himself knew and got rid of from his stud because I outran Swan, his favourite.

1898 brought one of the many children’s books inspired by Anna Sewell’s work: this time it’s White Dandy or Master and I by American author Velma Caldwell Melville, promoted as “a companion book to ‘Black Beauty’.(Thank you to Ingunn Aasland for letting me know about this one)

1892 A poem from the equids of London to the policeman John Pegg, who was stalwart in their defence against cruel drivers, riders and masters:

So horses, mules, and asses, too,
Their wishes to you give
By neighing “Honhy, honhy, hon!”
Which means “Long may you live.”

May those who have the care of us
With your kind acts agree,
Then animals of every class
Will better treated be.

1895 Thank you for seaofgold2012 for reminding me of Rudyard Kipling’s famous story, The Maltese Cat, in which a team of polo ponies discuss the meaning of the game.

“Let’s see,” said a soft, golden-coloured Arab, who had been playing very badly the day before, to the Maltese Cat, “didn’t we meet in Abdul Rahman’s stable in Bombay four seasons ago? I won the Paikpattan Cup next season, you may remember.”

“Not me,” said the Maltese Cat politely. “I was at Malta then, pulling a vegetable cart. I don’t race. I play the game.”

“O-oh!” said the Arab, cocking his tail and swaggering off.

1906 A Horse’s Tale by Mark Twain. Buffalo Bill’s horse Soldier Boy. Somewhat twee tale which begins in an American fort during the Indian Wars and somehow ends in a bullfight in Spain. Twain knocked it out in just eight days.

I am Buffalo Bill’s horse.  I have spent my life under his saddle—with him in it, too, and he is good for two hundred pounds, without his clothes; and there is no telling how much he does weigh when he is out on the war-path and has his batteries belted on.  . . . I am his favorite horse, out of dozens.  Big as he is, I have carried him eighty-one miles between nightfall and sunrise on the scout; and I am good for fifty, day in and day out, and all the time.  I am not large, but I am built on a business basis.  I have carried him thousands and thousands of miles on scout duty for the army, and there’s not a gorge, nor a pass, nor a valley, nor a fort, nor a trading post, nor a buffalo-range in the whole sweep of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains that we don’t know as well as we know the bugle-calls.

1906 Memoirs of a Cow Pony, as told by himself. By John H Burns.

1924 A A Milne’s Eeyore. I can’t beat Wikipedia’s trenchant take on this ass: “He is generally characterized as a pessimistic, gloomy, depressed, anhedonic, old grey stuffed donkey who is a friend of the title character, Winnie-the-Pooh.”

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1929 If only my German were better! When the British play War Horse arrived in Germany, I would have translated this little-known novel, A Horse’s Memoir of the Front by Ernst Johannsen. All I know is that it’s about the Western Front in World War One. (Image from here)

1929 Moorland Mousie and Older Mousie (1932) by Golden Gorse, illustrated by Lionel Edwards. The story of an Exmoor pony.

1930 Jane Badger volunteers John Thorburn’s Hildebrand, a truculent piebald refusenik.

1937 and another one from Jane – the children’s classic Silver Snaffles by Primrose Cumming.

1937 The Talking Horse, a short story for children by Walter R Brooks that first appeared in Liberty magazine this year and went on to provide the inspiration for Mister Ed (see below).

1940 Misty the Grey Pony by Joyce Lennon (thanks again to Jane Badger).

1940 Speedy, the Story of and Irish Pony by Esmé Hamilton (JB once more!).

1941 Horses in the Valley by Brian Fairfax-Lucy (or, to give him his real name as researched by Jane Badger, Sir Brian Fulke Cameron-Ramsay-Fairfax-Lucy, 5th Bt) .

1946 Francis and Francis Goes to Washington (1948) by David Stern. A US Army mule takes a young soldier under his wing, and later they even run for Congress. Made into a series of films in the early 1950s.

1954 Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah (Bree) and Hwin in C S Lewis’ Narnia novels The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle.

Kidnapped, or stolen, or captured – whichever you like to call it. My mother warned me not to range the Southern slopes, into Archenland and beyond, but I wouldn’t heed her. And by the Lion’s Mane I have paid for my folly. All these years I have been a slave to humans, hiding my true nature and pretending to be dumb and witless like their horses.

1945 Animal Farm. George Orwell’s political satire has defeated many a child misled by the promise of talking farmyard animals. I threw my copy across the room when I learned of the fate of Boxer, one of three talking horses who finds themselves under the fist of the pig Napoleon. Benjamin the donkey alledgedly reminded Orwell’s friends of Orwell himself, and seems to be at least partially related to Eeyore.

1954 Son of Black Beauty by Phyllis Briggs. Stardust, the biologically improbable son of Black Beauty, has a rip-roaring adventure that includes a stint in a circus and surviving a terrible shipwreck.

1961–1966 Mister Ed – popular American TV show starring “a talking palomino” whose lips were moved vaguely in sync with his lines (spoken by Allan Lane) using fine wires.

1965 Ponies Plot by C Northcote Parkinson, a children’s pony book with a twist – it’s narrated by the horses, who dream of one day having a little girl of their own.

“Well,” said Skylark, “I should choose a girl of about nine, standing about fifteen hooves and weighing not more than four stone twleve pounds.”
“Or less,” said Dunblane quickly.
“She should have a snub nose,” said Brighty in a dreamy way, “with fair or red hair – yes, and freckles –”
“Freckles, yes,” agreed Skylark. “But a brunette can be all right too, so long as her back is straight and her legs are long.”
“I actually prefer a brunette with straight hair,” said Spice. “But she needs to be dependable, generous and kind, nicely mannered and reasonably intelligent.”
“Not too confident or rash,” suggested Dunblane.
“But with at least three years’ experience,” said Unbeatable.

1973 In Robert Heilen’s Time Enough for Love there’s a whole species of genetically modified mule that can speak. Thank you to Si Brown for introducing me to Buck.

1975–1982  The Pullein-Thompson sisters wrote a series of first-person novellas about other horses in Black Beauty’s family who lived through many different periods in human history from the American slave trade to English witch hunts:
Black Princess, Black Romany, Black Piper (Diana)
Black Velvet, Blossom, Black Pioneer (Christine)
Black Ebony, Black Nightshade, Black Swift, Black Raven (Josephine)

1982 War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. Blockbuster children’s novel, play and film describing the First World War service of a horse called Joey.

1988 Traveller by Richard Adams. The author of Watership Down narrates a novel about the American Civil War from the perspective of General Robert E Lee’s horse, Traveller.

“I’ve always reckoned a good horse has to put a proper value on hisself, or no one else will . . . A horse has to have – what can you say? – he has to have faith in his man ‘fore he can be brave hisself.”

1990 Madoc, a Mystery – a poem by Paul Muldoon – includes a talking horse called Bucephalus.

1998 My Name is Red, by Orhan Parmuk.

Ignore the fact that I’m standing here placid and still; if truth be told, I’ve been galloping for centuries; I’ve passed over plains, fought in battles, carried off the melancholy daughters of shahs to be wed; I’ve galloped tirelessly page by page from story to history, from history to legend and from book to book; I’ve appeared in countless stories, fables, books and battles; I’ve accompanied  invincible heroes, legendary lovers and fantastic armies; I’ve galloped from campaign to campaign with our victorious sultans, and as a result, I’ve appeared in countless illustrations.

1998 Gletta the Icelandic mare dishes out life advice in Living Your Dream. (Hat tip to Diane Graves)

2007 Our Horses in Egypt by Rosalind Belben. This novel echos the real-life story of Dorothea Brooke, who travelled to Egypt after the First World War and began to rescue and care for horses abandoned there by the British troops in 1918. The main equine character, a mare called Philomena, doesn’t directly say anything, but the account of her experiences seems closer to the true interior monologue of any horse than many more sentimental equine autobiographies.

2009 onwards Thank you again Ingunn Aasland for letting me know about The Horse Diaries series, which, rather like the Black Beauty’s family books, tell the stories of different horses in different countries and periods of history.

In 2014 Netflix launched an animated sitcom for grown-ups about a washed-up TV star from the 1990s who happens to be a horse: BoJack Horseman.


2016 Another animated series, Bob’s Burgers, features a teenage heroine called Tina whose best friend is an imaginary black stallion called Jericho.

 2016 The FEI’s social media campaign for equestrian events at the Rio Olympics includes a loqacious, ambitious nag called Billy.

The Horse Ghosts of East London

I had some time to kill near Liverpool Street Station in London yesterday and remembered a quest I’d started to put together earlier this year, before it was cut short by health problems. In The Age of the Horse I’ve tried to write a sweeping, single-take overview of all the ways in which horses powered Britain in the nineteenth century. While some, like this cartoonist, thought that the advent of the railways would put the horse out of work,* in fact we used more horses than ever before once the tracks were laid (and how were they laid? Using horse power). More goods and people were in circulation thanks to the steam engine, and so more horses were needed to carry them to and fro from the stations.

The railway firms owned huge numbers of horses, and of course they had to be stabled near the stations and yards in the very centre of towns. These stables  were impressive but functional buildings, and many of them are still standing in London. Yesterday I visited just one of them.

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These are the former stables of the Great Eastern Railway on Quaker Street. Now known as Silwex House, it was until recently packed with artists, but now they have been cleared out, and according to Spitalfields Life, a Travel Lodge will move in. I did try the chipboard panel that had been nailed over the door by developers, but couldn’t get in. Someone else had had a good go at hacking through it. I’d read that the building still contains elevators for the horses – presumably carrying them up to the level of the raised abandoned railway just behind the building, although I couldn’t see a structure linking the stables to the viaduct.

If Travel Lodge get their way, three floors will be added, along with 250 bedrooms. English Heritage, The Victorian Society and The Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust are objecting. Over the road, I found some street art showing the artist-horses running away from the police.

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And just around the corner was what looked like another stencil of a workhorse:

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On my way there I walked past the Bishopsgate Institute, where, according to the invaluable Spitalfields Life, the floor of a nineteenth-century livery stables can still be found intact – plus horse pee – in the cellars. Click through for images of the buildings, past and present.

I hope to visit the other old stable buildings in the future before they vanish, and to see what ghosts are left of the horses that made the city great.

 

* it did indeed make the coach horse all but obsolete – you can see the coachman in his distinctive coat bemoaning his lot on the right of the picture.

Christmas Quiz: Count the Health and Safety Violations!

Dear readers,

Merry Christmas to you all! Here’s my If Wishes Were Horses festive quiz: count the health and safety horrors committed by “Little Miss Fearless” in this short Pathé video from 1933 1923*.

I’ve spent most of 2015 slogging away to finish book two, The Age of the Horse, which will be out at the end of August. More exciting news to follow on this severely neglected blog.

All best wishes

Susanna

*Thanks to YouTube commenter Antarch for pointing this out.

The Pony Who Needed a New Shoe

The following instance of animal intelligence is sent to us by Dr. John Rae, F.R.S., who states that the Mr. William Sinclair mentioned is respectable and trustworthy. The anecdote is taken from the ‘Orkney Herald’ of May 11:—”A well-authenticated and extraordinary case of the sagacity of the Shetland pony has just come under our notice. A year or two ago Mr. William Sinclair, pupil-teacher, Holm, imported one of these little animals from Shetland on which to ride to and from school, his residence being at a considerable distance from the school buildings. Up to that time the animal had been unshod, but some time afterwards Mr. Sinclair had it shod by Mr. Pratt, the parish blacksmith. The other day Mr. Pratt, whose smithy is a long distance from Mr. Sinclair’s house, saw the pony, without halter or anything upon it, walking up to where he was working. Thinking the animal had strayed from home, he drove it off, throwing stones after the beast to make it run homewards. This had the desired effect for a short time; but Mr. Pratt had only got fairly at work once more in the smithy when the pony’s head again made its appearance at the door. On proceeding a second time outside to drive the pony away, Mr. Pratt, with a blacksmith’s instinct, took a look at the pony’s feet, when he observed that one of its shoes had been lost. Having made a shoe he put it on, and then waited to see what the animal would do. For a moment it looked at the blacksmith as if asking whether he was done, then pawed once or twice to see if the newly-shod foot was comfortable, and finally gave a pleased neigh, erected its head, and started homewards at a brisk trot. The owner was also exceedingly surprised to find the animal at home completely shod the same evening, and it was only on calling at the smithy some days afterwards that he learned the full extent of his pony’s sagacity.”

Nature, May 19, 1881, quoted in George John Romanes’ Animal Intelligence.

Horses in Harlem Under Threat

Manhattan’s carriage horses aren’t the only ones whose livelihood is under threat. When the ritzy Claremont Riding Academy on West 89th Street closed down in 2007, many thought that it was the last riding school on the island. Not true. The New York Riding Academy was founded by Dr George Blair in 1988, and offers free lessons to local kids every summer in Randall’s Park in Harlem. Former governor Mario Cuomo gave Blair permission to use a scrap of wasteland he’d cleared of debris, and, five years and several hundred thousand dollars of his own money later, Blair had the stable up and running. For thirty years, the kids of Harlem have been learning to ride in the park. But.

all that changed this summer when the Parks Department blocked off access to a road that the couple used to bring supplies to the stables, stopped mowing their lawn, and took about 100 feet of the grazing land, Blair said.

The Parks Department asked for permission to use a bit of their land to install a container to store rental bikes, said his wife, Ann Blair, 74.

“When they asked for a small piece of land, of course without hesitation we said, ‘Sure it’s fine,’” she said. “But then we saw a large area that we cleaned up for the horses be gone and taken with the blink of an eye.”

Dr. Blair was furious that the Parks Department would take over land used to provide free services to children in order to store bike rentals that local children can’t afford and the park profits from, he said.

More about the subsequent negotiations can be found here at DNA Info, but it doesn’t look good.

Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, London and Stepney Bank in Newcastle are two community riding programmes that have found support and continue to make a difference to local kids, although it looks like the project working with Dublin “pony kids” has evaporated (if it hasn’t, I’d love to find out more). The Emilie Faurie Foundation provides riding lessons at schools across the country. Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre is (among other things) a Riding for the Disabled facility of long standing. Horses in the Hood works with youth in South Central LA. However, lately it’s seemed that many of the campaigns to ostensibly improve the welfare of urban horses seem to involve working against their owners rather than with them.

Most of the establishments targeted recently by campaigners and city authorities happen to be those run by people who are both poor and, often, not white: some Baltimore “street arabbers” lost horses earlier this year, Fletcher Street Riding Club in Philadelphia was bulldozed, and the Cedar Lanes Stables of the Federation of Black Cowboys was shut down. The Westway stables in London are underthreat of being replaced with a skate park.

Stables are not viewed as contributions to communities, perhaps because horses are still seen as the domain of the rich and the spoiled. And my goodness, the space they take up that could be converted into nice luxury apartments… AHEM.

To me there also seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the generosity of horselovers to rescues or therapy programmes, and the cold shoulder shown to potentially life-changing urban projects for kids. We horse-crazy people know just what gifts we were lucky enough to experience in our own horsey childhoods, and yet beyond charity appeals for great organisations like Riding for the Disabled, I don’t see much fundraising to help bring that joy to children who don’t have much else.

Go to any equestrian chat forum and you’ll see one familiar refrain come up among the battles over barefoot vs. shod and feeding regimens: other people don’t understand equestrianism. Why aren’t there more horse sports on the TV like there used to be? Why don’t cyclists and motorists slow down for horses? Are people really complaining about horse manure on roads? Why do people dismiss me as a posh idiot when I say I own horses? Why don’t people understand how important the issue of horse slaughter is, or what’s happening to mustangs? Why don’t they know how great equine-assisted therapy is?

And yet in cities everywhere there are projects that have the potential not just to improve the lives of locals, but to educate the world in general about what horses are, and what they can contribute. Stables that could give homes to rescued horses (look at Zig Zag, rescued by Redwings and now at Ebony Horse Club). That provide a place of comforting routine and daily escape for children in trouble. That could help bring fresh, healthy food to “food deserts“. That could be the heart of communities.

And all of these projects need our support.

The Noble Truck-Horses

A Cart-horse, by James Ward, R.A. Courtesy of the British Museum, London, via Wiki Commons.

A Cart-horse, by James Ward, R.A. Courtesy of the British Museum, London, via Wiki Commons.

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 endeavored 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, 1849