London: Horses, Survivors and Architecture

London: Horses, Survivors and Architecture

W G Gordon’s The Horse World of London is a remarkable book. Published in 1893, it’s an attempt to document not just the numbers and logistics of the army of horse power that kept the capital city functioning, but also to give a reporter’s eye view of the stables, horses and people involved, from the names of the horses in different jobs to the doses of whisky given out to those horses. It has an immediacy that’s kept me returning to it as a source.

Today I undertook a fan’s pilgrimage to a stable that features heavily in the chapter on carriers’ horses. I’ve used material about this stable in, I think, both If Wishes Were Horses and The Age of the Horse. Miraculously, it still stands between South Wharf Road and Winsland Street, right next to Paddington station. Built in 1873, it once housed 600 horses for the Great Western Railways, from vanners to shunters. It is now the Mint Wing of St Mary’s hospital, rather shabby but grade II listed.

My guess is that those two expanses of concrete fill in large doors that once let carts in and out. The building was refurbished extensively in the 1920s. The horses lived on multiple floors when it was still a stable. Here are some more stable-y windows on the South Wharf Road:

According to Gordon, there were four floors of horses originally, plus an additional stable near the goods station for 140 horses and a further infirmary for the sick. The stables were high tech for the time, with electrical lighting and good ventilation. An old army man was in charge when Gordon visited in the 1890s, and the horses were filed by colour. The walls inside were white, with varnished pine ceilings and blue brick ramps kept immaculately clear of kit or obstacles. The partitions between the horses were hung from the ceiling, with quick release should a horse kick and get a leg stuck.

Veteran horses were semi-retired but still used as extra muscle for particular loads (given that the horses in the stable generally only had a full-time workspan of five years, this wasn’t too bad a fate). The first horses went out at 2am.

Inside the yard, it’s oddly maze-like, with three smaller crooks of space. You can still see the ramps the horses used and, at the top, the old open walkways where horses were groomed have been glassed in.

The building is clearly still in heavy use but needs a makeover – hopefully its listing will mean it’s preserved as a rare piece of industrial heritage. Maybe one day we will have horse museums in places like this and not just in palaces like Chantilly and Versailles.

A short walk away, heading for Hyde Park, I saw a sign warning that horses used the nearby streets. We were yards away from the old Hyde Park Stables – a pony club centre and riding school in what must be one of the last mews used for its original purpose in London. I’d read that the stable had shut down a few months ago, but there was fresh horse poop on the road. So I went to look and got confused. It looks as though the Ross Nye stables closed but the Hyde Park stables are still open, although they seem to be on pretty much the same premises. Anyhoo, here’s a short of Bathurst Mews, complete with horses:

I rounded off my horsey day in London by nearly being run over by this fine pair of police horses, who appeared from nowhere on the Southbank as I was resting on a bench:

London is still a little bit horse powered after all.

Got Mare’s Milk?

While the idea of sipping mare’s milk might sound unusual to Western readers, it’s been a traditional staple in Central Asia, where it is often fermented into “koumiss,” a mildly alcoholic drink that was adopted by Russian doctors in the mid-19th century as a treatment for tuberculosis. Patients no less illustrious than the writers Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy swore by its curative powers. In Europe today, mare’s milk remains a niche product, but its reputation as a health elixir is causing trouble for producers in a more regulated age.

Read my new piece for NPR’s The Salt on mare’s milk here. And enjoy a slideshow of the Lindenhof Stud, visited during my research:

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From Anarchy to Mare’s Milk: a year in horse stories

From Anarchy to Mare’s Milk: a year in horse stories

I didn’t publish any articles between 2014 and 2017 because I was busy working on The Age of the Horse, so I set myself a challenge to get pieces out there to new audiences for a twelve-month surge. I’ve now reached the end and am about to sequester myself in the Stabi to work on books three and four (maybe more like three-and-a-half), so here’s a roundup. People ask me why I write about horses, but who wouldn’t love a theme that’s global, intersectional, multi-disciplinary and ever-evolving?



“Hanging Up Our Spurs” – a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse for the Literary Review.



“The Troubled History of Horsemeat in America” – for The Atlantic‘s Object Lessons blog series.



“Liberating Diana” – on the Danish sculptor making an equestrian statue of Diana, Princess of Wales. On Medium.



An obituary for Paula Sykes, pioneering woman groom of 1950s showjumping and right-hand woman of Pat Smythe. For Medium.



“Athletes or Anarchists? how the misunderstanding between horses and humans makes their domestication possible” – for Zoomorphic.



“How Lord Byron invented the wild horse” – for Literary Hub.



“The Hidden History of Bathing in Soup Broth” – for Gastro Obscura.


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“Selika: Mystery of the Belle Epoque” – for Paris Review Daily.



“Just horse play? A review of Ex Anima by Théâtre Équestre Zingaro” for Culturised.



Another framed winner.

“Horse-race Politics” – an essay on Siena’s Palio for Nowhere Magazine‘s Fall 2017 Travel Writing contest.



“Mare’s Milk for Health? Europeans Look to Horses for Ancient Remedy” – for NPR’s The Salt.

Horse-Race Politics, The Palio August 2016

I looked up from the center of the small courtyard, above the hexagonal pillars, the Gothic arches and then higher, to the crenellations that framed a rectangle of deep-blue sky where a single planet or star shone. The building was made of stone and brick and the yard sealed by a thick, studded door, but it stank of herbivore life—a familiar, multi-noted fragrance of ammonia, digested hay, fresh sweat and the greasy powder that lives in short, silky coats. Underfoot, the flagstones were covered with yellow volcanic dust mixed with water to make a barely yielding surface. Intersecting crescents had been pressed into it by metal-shod hoofs. The courtyard had been empty for hours but the presence of the animals lingered, contained by the stone.

My long-read “Horse-Race Politics” on the great bareback race of Siena, the Palio, was a finalist in Nowhere Magazine‘s 2017 Fall Travel Writing Contest. You can read it here, but here are a few accompanying visuals.

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She-Wolf return triumphant with Preziosa Penelope after the tratta or lottery in which horses are assigned to districts:

And Doris Day in a film about the Palio:

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Footage of the race I saw:

I can recommend John Hunt and James Gay-Rees’ 2015 documentary, Palio, although the only admission that the horses might suffer comes from a lingering shot of the wounds suffered by one after a fall. The tie-in book is superb – full of history and imagery. I also dipped into Elizabeth Tobey’s excellent “The Palio Horse in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy” in The Culture of the Horse and The Palio in Italian Renaissance Art, Thought, and Culture.

Andrea di Robilant’s long read on the Getty family and the Palio for Town and Country is super too – he really brings out the skullduggery and some of the dodgier veterinary issues. If you want to read a fantastic ethnomusicological study of the Palio, I quoted translations from Dr Anna Hersey’s paper, “L’anima nostra che sa le canzoni: Musical improvisation in theory and practice at Siena’s Palio.” It opens with a tourist getting slapped and goes on from there. Palio be crazy, people. Don’t get in the way of the Senesi.

The Beautiful Irony – An Afterword for The Age of the Horse, February 2018


Przewalski horse in Berlin Zoo.

On 23 February 2018 an international group of paleogeneticists and zooarchaeologists studying horse domestication published a report in the journal Science. They had recovered and sequenced DNA from the remains of horses found at the Botai site, hoping, as team-member Ludovico Orlando put it, “to catch evolution red-handed, when domestication first started.” Instead, they turned our understanding of domestication, of the wild and the feral, upside down.

The Botai horses did not appear to be the ancestors of today’s domestic horses. They were the ancestors of the Przewalski. Our sacred wild Takhi was, like the mustangs, the brumbies and the New Forest ponies, feral – an escapee from the Botai’s Copper Age corrals. Very like the wild horses on cave walls with their upright manes and dun coats, but taller and tamed. Either so many other wild horses had been added to the gene pool since the Botai vanished that the Przewalski DNA had been erased, or domestication had happened in other places, with other ghost horse herds. All two thousand of our last surviving wild horses disappeared overnight.

Thinking back to Hustai and everything that led to the rewilding of those 121,000 acres of steppe, to the airlifts, the complicated breeding programme, the conferences, studies, rangers, scientists, grants and zookeepers, I thought only what a beautiful irony we’d created. After all that the horse had done for humanity, we’d thrown the world’s resources into returning the earliest horse who’d known a bridle and a fence to a landscape with neither bridles nor fences. The Takhi was tamed, and we had insisted that he become wild once more.




“Ancient genomes revisit the ancestry of domestic and Przewalski’s horses” by C Gaunitz et al. Science, 22 February, 2018.

“Ancient DNA upends the horse family tree” by Elizabeth Pennisi. Science, 22 February, 2018.

“Surprising new study redraws family tree of domesticated and ‘wild’ horses” by University of Kansas., 22 February 2018.