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.

1993 Sweet William, A Memoir of Old Horse by John Hawkes.

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.
And in a very special category indeed, here’s a talking horse that appeared in a fable created by linguists to showcase Proto-Indo European, their hypothetical reconstruction of a 6,000-year-old language.

3 thoughts on “A (Not So) Short History of Talking Horses, Donkeys and Mules

  1. This is brilliant. Absolutely ashamed to say The Iliad was one of my special subjects in my final year and I completely failed to pick up the talking horse. Another one I think you’d like is John Thorburn’s Hildebrand. Hildebrand takes no prisoners. He is the original horse who will not cooperate (and he also eats hens).

  2. Once a year I reread my favorite “talking horses” short story by Rudyard Kipling “The Maltese Cat.” It’s polo ponies discussing the polo game in which they are playing. The Maltese Cat is one of the ponies.

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