Today I saw a ghost…

In 2006 Germany experienced World Cup fever. Berlin was hosting the football championships and every cafe, bar and restaurant showed the matches on giant TV screens. Round about that time, in a city already full of street art, the work of a new artist caught my eye. They were stencilling hoofprints onto the pavements.

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I set up a blog to document them and a Google Map. I found that road railings had been painted red and white like showjumps, with evergreen trees cycle-locked to each side. The hoofprints would approach them then “jump” the rails and disappear. Some street events full of prancing people pretending to be on horseback were staged, though sadly I missed them. I found them in other cities and other countries too – people started to send me photos of them.

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At the time I had no idea how to begin what would become If Wishes Were Horses. It was a very academic text, short on life. The book was born the moment I realised that the graffiti was part of it. Shortly after I finished the book I found an interview with the artist, who said she began the work because she felt that while male sporting passions were celebrated by the World Cup, women’s equally great passion for sports was often belittled. So she covered the city with imaginary horses.

It’s over a decade since I started collecting the hoofprints. Today I saw one I’d never spotted before and which must be one of the last survivors. The ghost print is on the edge of the pond in the Weinbergsweg park in Mitte. A cross country water feature for Berlin’s imaginary herd? Here it is modelled by Otto the dachshund.

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East Berlin’s surfaces are pied with graffiti: spray-painted ‘tags’; paper cut-outs gummed in peeling layers of palimpsest; stencils of hand grenades, bananas, political slogans and dachshunds; giant murals by professional street artists that cover five-storey fire walls. Walking through the same district every day, you notice fresh ones as you might clock a new species of flower emerging from the ground, or tune into a different birdsong <use normal spaced en dash throughout>— a kind of urban nature trail that changes with the seasons. Because I never saw any artist at work, the images seemed to sprout from nowhere, a little bit of subconscious bubbling up to the surface like a rash or a dream.

The hoofs were new.

I first saw them on Kastanienalle — Horse Chestnut Avenue. A trail of white hoof prints the width of my spread hands appeared next to the pavement and walked across the pedestrian crossing. Someone had meticulously cut out the stencils and made their way across the road, spraying one, then another, in a pattern I recognized as a walk: the two left hooves struck the ground close together, the two right hoof prints were spaced wide. One, two, three, four. An invisible pony. When it reached the kerb, it vanished.

A little while later I found a second set, which sauntered across the road at Veteranenstrasse and marched up to a mysterious ‘Equine Institute’, where a bridle hung in the window. There the invisible horse planted its front hooves squarely on the doorstep, as though peering in. A third horse walked clean across the middle of a busy junction outside a police station. Up by the Mauerpark there was a fourth set, which approached the metal railings by the road. A section of the railings had been painted in red-and-white stripes like showjumping poles, and chipboard ‘wings’ had been strapped to the sides. As a finishing touch, two evergreen plants in pots had been placed on either side and fixed to the rails with bicycle locks. The invisible pony cleared the showjump and clattered off across two lanes of traffic and a tramline into the park, where it appeared and disappeared, walking the length of an old stretch of the Wall.

After that it was as though the pony were everywhere, or he had a herd of friends trotting around Berlin at night, always just round the corner, always after I was asleep. I began to look out for the pony every day, to see what he’d been up to the night before. He’d make skittish circles outside a coffee shop, or hobble across Stargarderstrasse like a deer with all four legs roped together.

I couldn’t predict where he would appear next, so I just had to go out and walk, covering miles of Berlin’s broad, grey pavements in the pursuit of the invisible ponies. My friends reported sightings, which I mapped. One horse crossed through the dingy, red-brick cloisters of the Oberbaum bridge, which linked Friedrichshain in the east to Kreuzberg in the west, while another pranced down the red carpet before the stars at the Berlinale. A third pegged across Alexanderplatz and a fourth propped up the counter at a sausage stand, resting one hind hoof.

It was as though a herd of those elusive, magical horses from the pony books I’d read in my childhood had somehow slipped through into my grown-up, urban life. Now they flickered in and out of view, for ever on the next page, like the mysterious Water Horse in Patricia Leitch’s The Black Loch, which surges out of a dark lake at midnight, or golden Flicka, always disappearing over the Wyoming hills, escaping the whirl of a lasso. The spray-painted spoor was the only clue that they had been there.

One night, on the trail of a set of hoof prints on Christinenstrasse, I passed an empty office filled with blue light. There, behind dirty windows and under a bare wire that dangled from the ceiling, was a life-size model of a black horse, who looked out into the street with ears pricked. Behind the rain-streaked glass he seemed absolutely real. I thought he might flare his nostrils and sigh, his sides rising and falling, then turn back to pace the room.

The Horse Ghosts of East London

I had some time to kill near Liverpool Street Station in London yesterday and remembered a quest I’d started to put together earlier this year, before it was cut short by health problems. In The Age of the Horse I’ve tried to write a sweeping, single-take overview of all the ways in which horses powered Britain in the nineteenth century. While some, like this cartoonist, thought that the advent of the railways would put the horse out of work,* in fact we used more horses than ever before once the tracks were laid (and how were they laid? Using horse power). More goods and people were in circulation thanks to the steam engine, and so more horses were needed to carry them to and fro from the stations.

The railway firms owned huge numbers of horses, and of course they had to be stabled near the stations and yards in the very centre of towns. These stables  were impressive but functional buildings, and many of them are still standing in London. Yesterday I visited just one of them.

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These are the former stables of the Great Eastern Railway on Quaker Street. Now known as Silwex House, it was until recently packed with artists, but now they have been cleared out, and according to Spitalfields Life, a Travel Lodge will move in. I did try the chipboard panel that had been nailed over the door by developers, but couldn’t get in. Someone else had had a good go at hacking through it. I’d read that the building still contains elevators for the horses – presumably carrying them up to the level of the raised abandoned railway just behind the building, although I couldn’t see a structure linking the stables to the viaduct.

If Travel Lodge get their way, three floors will be added, along with 250 bedrooms. English Heritage, The Victorian Society and The Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust are objecting. Over the road, I found some street art showing the artist-horses running away from the police.

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And just around the corner was what looked like another stencil of a workhorse:

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On my way there I walked past the Bishopsgate Institute, where, according to the invaluable Spitalfields Life, the floor of a nineteenth-century livery stables can still be found intact – plus horse pee – in the cellars. Click through for images of the buildings, past and present.

I hope to visit the other old stable buildings in the future before they vanish, and to see what ghosts are left of the horses that made the city great.

 

* it did indeed make the coach horse all but obsolete – you can see the coachman in his distinctive coat bemoaning his lot on the right of the picture.

A Brazilian City Stormed by a Cavalcade

Thank you to artist Christa Joo Hyun D’Angelo for drawing my attention to this work by Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade. Andrade organised a race through the centre of the Brazilian city of Recife for the carters who – despite being officially outlawed by city officials who see them as an afront to their notion of a modern, fully urban community – are a daily part of the economy and landscape. It’s called “Uprising” (somewhat wince-inducing but also magnificent photos of the horses at this link):

The rite blessed invisibility in a celebratory existence. The men with the carts didn’t give a fig for the movie, and the project became a pretext for taking the city in a coup and at the gallop. The ground was churned up – the paw, the horseshoe, the horseshit. Characters were incorporated. Any protagonism of the team was wiped out and dissolved into the mass. The front was taken by the horseman, a herdsman minstrel bellowing out improvised verses about the scene, the cart flying along. Forces came to the fore pulling on the reins; rhythm; momentum – ecstasy and disobedience. The sound of the horses’ hooves on the asphalt was multiplied, echoed off the walls of the buildings and spread throughout the city. The sound silenced and set the boundaries of the territory. An atmosphere of a trance being underway. Presence of spirit, incorporation of desire – Pure Candomblé*. The uprising became more that of the tremendous, sensory and corporeal passing into being of formulating policy, and the project gained new meaning from its own reinvention.

More at VDrome.

Do Horses Prefer Female Riders to Male?

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“He’s a woman’s horse.”

“Women are more sensitive riders – they’re much better at handling horses.”

How often have you heard  this? I think the Victorian era might be the period when this notion became established. Writers like Trollope believed that “rarely [do men] have such hands as a woman has on a horse’s mouth.” When I wrote If Wishes Were Horses I wanted to stress that there was nothing biological in the fact that women currently dominate horse sports in many countries – I wanted to trace the social and cultural history behind the phenomenon instead.

Because of the “snob” value of equestrianism, women (of certain classes) were allowed to ride alongside men, and it gave them an outlet that was rare in a fairly repressive society. When it was clear that many women could ride well or even out-ride men, riding became even more appealing to women, and perhaps less so to some men. Now in some places this has become a self-reinforcing phenomenon, with boys pushed out by pink equestrian accessories and assumptions that horses are a “girl thing”. Nothing to do with anything physically innate in women.

We all know of men who are superb, sensitive riders, and of women who have hands like meat hooks. What about horses themselves? Do they distinguish between human genders in their responses? Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna set out to test this.
They sent male and female riders out around a jumping course and measured the stress responses of their mounts. They decided to test the stress responses of the riders, too. Their press release explains the results:

The results were unexpected. The level of cortisol in horses’ saliva increased during the test but the increase was not affected by the sex of the rider. The horses’ heart rates also increased as a result of taking the course but the increase was irrespective of the human partner in the saddle. The tests on the riders gave similar conclusions. Again, the level of cortisol in the saliva increased but there was no difference between men and women. The riders’ pulses sped up when the horses switched from a walk to a canter and accelerated further during the jumping course. But the heart rate curves for male and female riders were close to identical.

The full journal article is here, if you’re curious to learn more. Thank you to Andrew Curry for the tip off.