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

He rode an Arab horse
That King Darius had sent him. […]
You could not name the price of this horse,
Because he was so swift, and knew how to spin on his heels.
His back was two colours:
On one side he was white as an ermine,
On the other, black as a mulberry.
Nobody in the world could run beside him.
You can be sure, there was no other
So agile, be they bay or brown.
And he swiftly outstripped the brown and bay, left them flatfooted.
You would have to be mad to want a faster mount.

From the French version of the medieval poem, Roman des Thèbes. My (free) translation. All faults my own.

Talking Horses: Honhy, Honhy, Hon! A Victorian Policeman is Saluted.


Street-cab horses drinking from half-barrel of water provided by the A.S.P.C.A. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Street-cab horses drinking from half-barrel of water provided by the A.S.P.C.A. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress). Note hat on right-hand horse.

In his 29-year career as a policeman in Victorian London, John Pegg oversaw over 1,300 convictions for cruelty to horses. This poem was written “on behalf” of those horses by George H Hutt in 1892. Read more about Hutt – “the police poet” – and Pegg here, along with a collection of other “horses’ letters” on Christopher T George’s ripperology blog.

“A Horse’s Letter to Ex-Police Constable 365 John Pegg”

Dear Mr. Pegg, you’ve proved our friend,
No one can deny,
By oft detecting cruelty
While others pass it by.

Your life has been devoted to
The ailments of my race,
And when the tongue was devoid of speech,
Yours kindly took its place.

Before we had your kindly aid
Our pleading proved in vain,
And often with a heavy load
We’ve struggled on in pain.

While drivers in their ignorance
Have vowed that we did shirk,
And though we have been weak and ill
Have urged on to work.

‘Tis you and only such as you
Who mark the mute appeal,
Of us poor helpless quadrupeds
When indisposed we feel.

I’ve had the horrid toothache, Pegg,
And fast I could not go,
But as a medicine received
A cruel, stinging blow.

Again I’ve stood hour after hour
Till corns have made me kick,
And blamed for vicious temper been
Belaboured with a stick.

Sometimes a drunkard held the reins,
And muddled, did not think
That I as well as he required
A cool refreshing drink.

He loitered, tippling on the way,
Till working hours were past,
Then homeward thrashed me, and all night
Left me, unclean, to fast.

But dear old Pegg, you found it out,
And when ’twas brought to light,
You had the rascal punished well,
While Sangster set me right.

Now nearly thirty years you’ve been
An agent of the law,
And through your tact oft saved us pain
By finding out the flaw.

And though we are but helpless brutes,
Without the power of speech,
Yet in our gratefulness, dear Pegg,
A moral we can teach.

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.

Wild Horses Dragging You Away

A thousand horse and none to ride! –
With flowing tail, and flying mane,
Wide nostrils never stretched by pain,
Mouths bloodless to the bit or rein,
And feet that iron never shod,
And flanks unscarred by spur or rod,
A thousand horse, the wild, the free,
Like waves that follow o’er the sea,
Came thickly thundering on…

Lord Byron, XVII, Mazeppa (1818)

Mazeppa tells the story of a cossack courtier who falls in love with a countess and is punished by her husband by being tied to the back of a wild horse, which then charges away with him. Byron’s poem was adapted into a play that was a smash hit in the nineteenth century, possibly because Mazeppa was often played by a scantily clad actress in a bodystocking who would flail around on a horse that careered up a fake mountain at the climactic moment. It made the career of Adah Isaacs Menken, as Punch wrote:

Here’s half the town – if bills be true –
To Astley’s nightly thronging,
To see the Menken throw aside
All to her sex belonging,
Stripping off woman’s modesty,
With woman’s outward trappings –
A barebacked jade on barebacked steed,
In Cartlich’s old strappings!”

Talking Horses: My Name is Red

Talking Horses is a series of extracts from novels, poems and short stories both classic and obscure that feature fictional horses who enter into the conversation.



My Name is Red (1998) by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Erdağ M. Göknar:

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.

Talking Horses: Strider

Talking Horses is a series of extracts from novels, poems and short stories both classic and obscure that feature fictional horses who enter into the conversation.

Strider: The Story of a Horse, (1886) by Leo Tolstoy. Also known as “Kholstomer”:

Old age is sometimes majestic, sometimes ugly, and sometimes pathetic.

But old age can be both ugly and majestic, and the gelding’s old age was just of that kind.

He was tall, rather over fifteen hands high. His spots were black, or rather they had been black, but had now turned a dirty brown. He had three spots, one on his head, starting from a crooked bald patch on the side of his nose and reaching half-way down his neck. His long mane, filled with burrs, was white in some places and brownish in others. Another spot extended down his off side to the middle of his belly; the third, on his croup, touched part of his tail and went half-way down his quarters. The rest of the tail was whitish and speckled. The big bony head, with deep hollows over the eyes and a black hanging lip that had been torn at some time, hung low and heavily on his neck, which was so lean that it looked as though it were carved of wood. The pendant lip revealed a blackish bitten tongue and the yellow stumps of the worn lower teeth. The ears, one of which was slip, hung low on either side, and only occasionally moved lazily to drive away the pestering flies. Of the forelock, one tuft which was still long hung back behind an ear; the uncovered forehead was dented and rough, and the skin hung down like bags on his broad jaw-bones. The veins of his neck had grown knotty and twitched and shuddered at every touch of a fly. The expression of his face was one of stern patience, thoughtfulness, and suffering.

His forelegs were crooked to a bow at the knees, there were swellings over both hoofs, and on one leg, on which the piebald spot reached half-way down, there was a swelling at the knee as big as a fist. The hind legs were in better condition, but apparently long ago his haunches had been so rubbed that in places the hair would not grow again. The leanness of his body made all four legs look disproportionately long. The ribs, though straight, were so exposed and the skin so tightly drawn over them, that it seemed to have dried fast to the spaces between. His back and withers were covered with marks of old lashings, and there was a fresh sore behind, still swollen and festering; the black dock of his tail, which showed the vertebrae, hung down long and almost bare. On his dark-brown croup – near the tail – was a scar, as though of a bite, the size of a man’s hand and covered with white hair. Another scarred sore was visible on one of his shoulders. His tail and hocks were dirty because of chronic bowel troubles. The hair on the whole body, though short, stood out straight. Yet in spite of the hideous old age of this horse one involuntarily paused to reflect when one saw him, and an expert would have said at once that he had been a remarkably fine horse in his day. The expert would even have said that there was only one breed in Russia that could furnish such breadth of bone, such immense knees, such hoofs, such slender cannons, such a well-shaped neck, and above all such a skull, such eyes – large, black, and clear – and such a thoroughbred network of veins on head and neck, and such delicate skin and hair.

There was really something majestic in that horse’s figure and in the terrible union in him of repulsive indications of decrepitude, emphasized by the motley colour of his hair, and his manner which expressed the self-confidence and calm assurance that go with beauty and strength. Like a living ruin he stood alone in the midst of the dewy meadow, while not far from him could be heard the tramping, snorting and youthful neighing and whinnying of the scattered herd.

If you are in New York the Bolshoi Puppet Theatre will be giving a performance of Kholstomer at the Baryshnikov Arts Theater from 18th to 20th October. Looks absolutely wonderful!

The War Horses of Somalia

WikiCommons: Horses, colloquially referred to as Sunaari, possibly with some Arabian ancestry, seen here in the arid plains of Dhahar, Maakhir, Somalia, photographed by Abdirisak

I just finished reading a 1996 essay by the Somali scholar Said Sheikh Samatar called “Somalia’s Horse That Feeds Its Master”. It has much to say about Somali history and character, but I thought I’d glean the stories of the horses for you, because after all, why else are we on this blog? Until the British colonial authorities cracked down in the 1920s, many pastoralist Somalis owned war horses that were used exclusively for raids on other clans’ camel herds, or for defending their own. Even a small clan might have a hundred or more. Samatar writes that there were two types of pony: the western Galbeed and the Bari from the east. The Bari was smaller at only 13hh or 14hh but considered better because its living conditions were harsher. If you think your cob is a “good doer” you should think of a Bari: even when one of these ponies was in work and getting a scant diet of dry grass, it only needed watering at one of the scattered oases every other day. When water was low, they were given camel milk. Samatar writes:

“The Somalis show great kindness to their horses, rearing and caring for them with marked meticulousness. A man talks to his mount, sings to it in familiar language and will crawl on stones under a thorn bush to extract for it a bite of something to eat. … The pastoral Somalis seldom ride their horses for sport, reserving the energies and services of their beloved beasts for the gravest of moments when dear life hangs on a sudden flight or pursuit. Before delivering a raid, the pastoralists will lead their horses for miles, only mounting when the object of their enterprise is in sight.”

In mid-1990’s Somalia, he adds, warriors prefer “an open-top Toyota truck mounted with a Browning machine gun”. More cheerily, I’ll leave you with some of Samatar’s translations of the nineteenth-century poetry that he heard chanted when he was growing up in one of these clans, singing the praises of the horse:


O Victory Bearer, my horse,

When I ponder upon his glorious triumphs,

And his sublime qualities:

I compare them to the waters of a fresh spring

And the depths of the spring we will never be able to reach,

O Men of God, tell me if, in making this claim, I have committed an error!

“Guulside, or the Victory Bearer” by Ali Bu’ul, translated by Said Sheikh Samatar.


A spear that chops limbs,

half-blackened frm its formidable iron shaft,

that, when it is shot at you, flails frightfully through the air –

My horse saves me from these dangers.

I wonder: is this horse of the kind of nobility as possessed by a holyman,

Who is versed in the Holy Rites,

And when you have sacrificed a lamb in his honour,

He reads you a sublime revelation from the Qur’an,

And showers you with holy scriptures.

“A Horse Beyond Compare” by Raage Ugaas, translated by Said Sheikh Samatar.


This horse is infinitely dearer to me than any other stock,

And I cherish him as dearly as the parents that created me,

And as a beloved brother,

Is he an inheritance from blessed heaven!?

And if I don’t see him for a brief season,

I am smitten with an anxiety of longing,

And come close to dying from a nagging fear,

Is he not my very heart!

“A Fine War Horse” by Sayyid Mahammad, translated by Said Sheikh Samatar.