War Horses Week: Invisible Horses

While wild horses in the right environment can blend beautifully into their background, the better to fool predators, it’s another story with domestic horses – especially those pressed into service in battle. The Camoupedia is a blog dedicated to the art of becoming invisible. Fascinatingly, it includes three posts about the camouflaging of horses in World War One – one about the French painting their horses khaki, and another about US soldiers in Mexico in 1915 grubbing up their favourite grey, while British troops in East Africa liked to transform their mules and ponies into zebras. And to flip the concept around, here are US snipers using a papier mâché “dead horse” to take a pop at the Hun.

Department of Zero Surprises and Some Hope

Illustration from Nutztierhaltung & Tiermedizin & Pferd by Georg Simon Winter, 1678 via Wikimedia Commons.

Illustration from Nutztierhaltung & Tiermedizin & Pferd by Georg Simon Winter, 1678 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tons of low-grade Canadian horse meat were purchased and passed off as halal beef by the Dutch businessman who is now in custody as French authorities investigate the scandal in which horse meat from Romania wound up labelled as ground beef.

(The Globe and Mail – and for my background piece on the scandal, Spiegel Online.)

Yesterday the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) announced bold steps designed to improve endurance horse welfare, proposing unprecedented athlete penalties for equine injuries, extended rest periods, and increased accountability.




The FEI, the Princess, the Sheikh and the Problematic Dead Horses: A Round Up Of Recent Articles And Sources

I’m holed up in the library working on book two, far from 2013, so here’s a round up of some recent pieces on how the FEI Endurance scandal is trotting along. We’re in the middle of the FEI’s General Assembly, and it seems the FEI would rather the horse welfare issue just went away.

  • Pippa Cuckson continues to write up a storm at the Telegraph: pro journalist doing a great job. She reports on rumours that Princess Haya has been asked to resign as president by one national federation. The FEI denies outright that this is the case.

  • Belgian Endurance have posted a copy of such a letter, here. Their site is another useful source for tracing the unfolding story. Dive in to sample the many messages of support demanding a clean up in the sport from all over the world, including individuals deeply involved at a high level. Apparently the FEI has applied the “we didn’t get the letter” explanation for many years’ worth of reports on welfare concerns.
  • Meanwhile, the FEI’s official page for endurance is leading with the story that a track-and-field Olympic medal winner will host the gala that ends the assembly. Swiss luxury goods brand Longines are the sponsor. Everything will be very shiny. For only 11.99EUR per month you can be eligible to watch a livescreening of the General Assembly itself, or at least the FEI TV site says it’s “stream testing”, whatever that may be. Their Twitter feed has zero commentary; their Facebook page features some nice photos of delegates, plus some old complaints about rollkur which they apparently forgot to remove. The last press release is about a vaulting championship, and their last newsletter update was on 1st October. This’ll be why Julie at Epona TV was laughing too hard to answer when I asked her how accountable the FEI were. At least Ms Cuckson is reporting from the spot and asking the questions that need to be answered.
  • Meanwhile, a Canadian equestrian journalist very belatedly received an email telling her that a General Assembly session she planned to attend was now closed. She has some choice things to say about that here.
  • I’ll leave you with some of Pippa’s questions for the FEI (here’s another link to the full piece):

    How “official” must a concern be before the FEI investigates?
    Why did FEI regional chairs propose that Princess Haya should stand a third term?
    Has the FEI ever discussed disciplinary tribunal findings directly with Princess Haya or Sheikh Mohammed?

    UPDATE: The FEI assembly concluded by picking up on punitive measures suggested months ago and also by hoping Princess Haya would stand for a third term.

    From the Sea to the Somme

    Photo via

    Photo of Mack, Meg and Andy Smerdon in Belgium via Andy.

    Thank you to Andy Smerdon for getting in touch with me about his project to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. Andy’s an amateur historian with a special interest in the use of equines – hosses and mules – in World War One. With his Tennessee Walking Horse Mack and mule Meg he’ll be tracing the route of the main trenches from Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast through Ypres to the battlefield, via war cemeteries and memorials in late August 2013. The journey will take a fortnight, and the team will camp out much as the original cavalrymen and mule handlers did during the Great War. Andy’s dedication to authenticity is impressive: Meg’s pack saddle has a tree that dates from 1916, and both horses’ tack is historically correct, as is their rider’s uniform. Mack and Meg will even have their hoofs branded, like the original War Horses.

    If you want to join them or to send a donation as they raise funds for the Royal British Legion and the Blue Cross, send me an email and I’ll put you through to Andy.

    The Black Market In Black Beauties: A Piece For Spiegel Online About The Horse Meat Crisis

    Source: Wiki Commons, Naturgeschichte für Bürgerschulen. Dr. Karl Rothe, Ferdinand Frank, Josef Steigl. I. Wien 1895, Verlag von A. Pichler's Witwe & Sohn.

    Source: Wiki Commons, Naturgeschichte für Bürgerschulen. Dr. Karl Rothe, Ferdinand Frank, Josef Steigl. I. Wien 1895, Verlag von A. Pichler’s Witwe & Sohn.

    How bureacracy has failed both horses and consumers, and how a long-held quest to provide cheap red meat for the working man ended in fraud. I need to add the credit for the Saint-Hilaire translation, which will appear here when I have time! Meanwhile, here’s something on the history of hippophagy, something on bute, and something on the use of horses to collect recycling waste.

    UPDATE: As a Romanian reader pointed out, my sources claiming that many horses were slaughtered in the wake of an EU-inspired Romanian ban on horsedrawn carts were overreaching. The time lag is too great between events.  Mea culpa. The New York Times has done the actual legwork I didn’t do:

    Fed by mostly fictitious accounts of a mass slaughter of Romanian horses after the introduction of new traffic rules banning horse-drawn carts, the news media in France and Britain reported that hundreds of thousands of Romanian horses had suddenly entered the food chain.

    “It is total nonsense,” said Lucian Dinita, the chief of Romania’s road police. The nation, he said, did introduce a law in 2006 restricting horse-drawn carts on roads, but it was scrapped two years later and led to no mass culling of unemployed horses.

    My information came from a 2008 Telegraph article and accompanying video, available here. It quotes local animal charities, vets and the then head of the Romanian police traffic safety department:

    Chief Commissioner Carol Varna, head of the Romanian police traffic safety department, said that more than 1,000 carts had been seized since officers started to enforce the law.

    “There are some owners who just let their horses go when they cannot afford them any more,” he said.

    Plus Ça Change: British Ponies To Slaughter

    Letter to The Times, September 22nd, 1928:

    “I am taking all possible measures to find out whether the Dartmoor ponies are going to Belgium for slaughter, and, if so, how and where they are killed. We have already traced one truckload which was travelling from Friday to Sunday in England.

    Miss A. M. F. Coles, International League Against the Export of Horses for Butchery, 11, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, W.C. 2.”

    And yes, that’s Ada Cole, founder of what is now World Horse Welfare.



    If Wishes Were Horses: Diminutive Dianas

    Here’s some Pathé footage of the International Horse Show at Olympia in 1920 (spot the hydrangeas and the standard lamp shades!), the King’s Gold Cup in 1921,  opening day in 1922 (plus side-saddle) and a little showjumping. You can just make out the backdrop of Lowther Castle in this film from 1923.

    And this – now, how I wish I’d found this when I was writing the book! – this is a special clip of women, girls and their horses at Olympia in 1930. “Motorcars have not driven from Eve her love for a four-footed friend.” Quite right! And my goodness, the elegance of those top-hatted ladies riding side-saddle (there’s even an arena-level shot), the smart pony carriages and the girls in their felt hats. Towards the end of the film they all don costumes from the 1860s and climb onto stage coaches. Magic.

    Karen Krizanovich alerted me to this site which features a “midget handsome cab” at Olympia in the 1920s: pony up front, little girl riding inside and boy playing cabbie.

    World Horse Welfare have some biographical details about their founder, Ada Cole, here, while the horse home named for her is now managed by Redwings. Dorothy Brooke is celebrated by the aid organisation she launched to save old British war horses in Cairo; the Brooke has now evolved into an international charity which uses direct aid and education to improve the working lives of the donkeys, horses and mules that sustain the economy of the developing world. There’s nothing sentimental about the fact that the health of these animals can make a critical difference to the welfare of the families that own them.  I can’t endorse them strongly enough!

    This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.