Two Wild Horses in St Petersburg

A little nugget on the wild horses featured in The Age of the Horse:

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Screengrab via Archive.org

St Petersburg, 1900 (I believe): two young Przewalski horses or Takhi captured in Tibet are paraded  for curious locals. They are gifts from the Grand Lama to Prince Hespère Ouchtomsky, “confidential friend of the reigning Tsar” and an aficionado of all things Asian. At the time, the Russian Empire was expanding east into Central Asia and beyond, troubling the British in their own imperial stronghold of India.

These photos come from volume eight of the “Travelogues” of American author Elias Burton Holmes, who was unimpressed by the horses:

Dazzled and for the moment docile, the animals, as we see them in the courtyard, do not uphold their reputation as the most savage of their kind; but the old man who came with them from Asia tells of many fearful things that these untameable brutes have done. Strangely enough, the very day these shaggy colts arrived – the first ever successfully exported – two representatives of Hagenbeck’s Menagerie reached Petersburg en route to Mongolia, their mission being to secure if possible a pair of these wild horses. I fear, had I been in the Prince’s place, I should have cut short the journey of the circus-men by turning over to them these embarrassing gifts of the Grand Lama.

I haven’t been able to find any mention of takhi captured in Tibet (if that is where they were caught) and am guessing that these horses did not survive long despite having made the long journey to St Petersburg.

Asking a Lama to Skin a Unicorn

I’m waiting for books I’ve ordered in the British Library and have been unable to resist searching the electronic newspaper archives. Here’s today’s treat, courtesy of the Derby Mercury, Wednesday January 10th 1821:

“THE UNICORN DISCOVERED

Major Latter, commanding in the Rajah of Sikkim’s territories, in the Hilly Country east of Nepal, had addressed to Adjutant-General-Nicol a letter, in which he states that the Unicorn, so long considered a fabulous animal, actually exists at this moment in the interior of Thibet [sic], where it is well known to the inhabitants.”

The major was perusing a Tibetan manuscript when he saw the unicorn listed as a creature with cloven hoofs. It’s local name was the one-horned tso’po. Major Latter was told that:

“… it was a native of the interior of Thibet, about the size of a tottoo (a horse from twelve to thirteen hands high,) fierce and extremely wild; seldom, if ever, caught alive, but frequently shot; and that the flesh was used for food…. They go together in herds like our wild buffaloes, and are frequently to be met with on the borders of the great desert, about a month’s journey from Lasa, in that part of the country inhabited by the wandering Tartars.”

Its tail was “boar-shaped”, its hoofs cloven, a long, curving horn grew from its forehead. It cannot, he maintains, be the rhinoceros as it lives in herds, nor is it a wild horse.

“I have written … to the Guelin Lama, requesting him to procure me a perfect skin of the animal, with the head, horn, and hoofs.”

If you’re intrigued, I can highly recommend The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers.

The Mares of Diomedes Gallop On

In Greek myth Heracles’ eighth task is to steal the flesh-eating mares of the giant Diomedes: Podagros, Lampon, Xanthos and Deinos. Heracles is victorious in the ensuing struggle with Diomedes, and feeds his body to the horses who chomp him up with much relish and gore, as in all the best Greek literature. In some versions the mares also breathe fire and you might have thought that as the horse is the herbivore incarnate, Podagros et al’s taste for flesh was as fanciful as their flaming nostrils.

Not so, it seems.

Several years ago Horse.com featured a few articles on meat-eating horses which threw up some interesting curiosities. Did you know that Icelandic horses are fed dried fish as it contains nutrients not present in the grass on the island? Or that Tibetan horses were fed sheep blood and millet gruel? More gruesome still were the accounts that readers sent in of carnivorous horses they had known, that consumed whole ducklings or murdered pigeons in their fields. Now horse historian CuChullaine O’Reilly has written a book on the subject, called Deadly Equines. Horse Talk reports:

O’Reilly said he was stunned to discover that mankind had known about meat-eating horses for at least four thousand years; that they had been known to consume nearly two dozen different types of protein, including human flesh, and that these episodes had occurred on every continent, including Antarctica.

“This wasn’t an odd example or two. This amounted to a hidden history of horses.”

O’Reilly says tales of deadly and flesh-eating horses arise in mankind’s mythology, as well as history.

“For example, mythology states that Alexander the Great’s horse, Bucephalus, was a notorious man-eater.

“Literature has Shakespeare, Steve McQueen and Sherlock Holmes all involved with man-killers or meat-eating horses. And we now know that meat-eating horses were used to explore both the Arctic Circle and Antarctica.

“The evidence is there for all to see – for those willing to do so.”

My copy has been ordered!