Horses in the Wings

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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 Archive.org. It’s called

The Blood-Red Knight

or

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 Archive.org 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.

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.

To Have Wished My Self a Horse

When the right vertuous E.W. and I were at the Emperour’s court togither [in Vienna in 1574], wee gave our selves to learne horsemanship of Ion Pietro Pugliano . . . He said . . . horsemen were the noblest of soldiers . . . they were the maisters of war, and ornaments of peace, speedie goers, and strong abiders, triumphers both in Camps and Courts: nay, to so unbeleeved a point he proceeded, as that no earthly thing bred such wonder to a Prince, as to be a good horseman. Skill of government were but a Pedanteria, in comparison then would he adde several praises, by telling what a peerless beast the horse was, the only serviceable Courtier without flattery, the beast of most bewtie, faithfulnesse, courage, and such more, that if I had not beene a peece of a Logician before I came to him, I think he would have perswaded mee to have wished my self a horse.

From Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesie. Found in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts.

How to Spoil a Horse

“The thing is this,” said Merrylegs. “Ginger has a bad habit of biting and snapping; that is why they call her Ginger, and when she was in the loose box she used to snap very much. One day she bit James in the arm and made it bleed, and so Miss Flora and Miss Jessie, who are very fond of me, were afraid to come into the stable. They used to bring me nice things to eat, an apple or a carrot, or a piece of bread, but after Ginger stood in that box they dared not come, and I missed them very much. I hope they will now come again, if you do not bite or snap.”

I told him I never bit anything but grass, hay, and corn, and could not think what pleasure Ginger found it.

“Well, I don’t think she does find pleasure,” says Merrylegs; “it is just a bad habit; she says no one was ever kind to her, and why should she not bite? Of course, it is a very bad habit; but I am sure, if all she says be true, she must have been very ill-used before she came here. John does all he can to please her, and James does all he can, and our master never uses a whip if a horse acts right; so I think she might be good-tempered here.”

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell (1877).

… horses trained exclusively with negative reinforcement appear to make negative associations with humans, anticipating constraints they can’t control, said Lesimple. Certain training techniques and positions – as well as poor equitation style, especially of novice riders – can lead to chronic pain. Horses with chronic back pain showed more signs of depression, aggression, or learned helplessness (when they seem to “check out” of the environment that they have come to perceive as negative), she said.

“From their very earliest ages, horses develop an ‘appreciation’ of humans which is more or less positive, meaning that their perception of humans is associated with positive or negative emotions, but it is rarely neutral,” [French researcher Dr Clémence] Lesimple said. While the research provides a strong link between poor welfare and negative interactions with humans, there is a positive side to the research, said Lesimple. Improving a horse’s welfare can not only improve a horse’s relationship with humans, but when started from the beginning it can help ensure a lifetime of positive perceptions of humans on the ground, in management settings, and under saddle.

Study: Human Interaction Shapes Horses’ Negative Emotions, by Christa Lesté-Lasserre, The Horse.com, May 2015.

Equitation Tips from Medieval Germany

Codex Manesse, UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 413v: Meister Rumslant. Between 1305 and 1315. Via Wikicommons, added to web by University of Heidelberg.

Codex Manesse, UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 413v: Meister Rumslant. Between 1305 and 1315. Via Wikicommons, added to web by University of Heidelberg.

Thank you to Justin E H Smith for his translation of this “Blessing for Horses,” a twelfth-century German poem included in the Codex Manesse.

A man went his way ·
dragging his steed ·
There my lord met him ·
With all of his men ·

How · is it going · man?
Why aren’t you riding?
How can I ride when ·
my steed is all stiff?

Just push at his flank, man ·
while whispering to him ·
he’ll step with his right foot ·
and get along good ·

And the original Middle High German:

Man gieng after wege ·
zoh sin ros in handon ·
do begagenda imo min trohtin
mit sinero arngrihte ·

wes · man · gestu ·
zu ne ridestu ·
waz mag ih riten ·
min ros ist errehet ·

nu ziuhez da bi fiere ·
tu rune imo in daz ora ·
drit ez an den cesewen fuoz ·
so wirt imo des erreheten buoz ·