Icelandic Horses Gather at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

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The 2013 Icelandic Horse World Championships launched this morning at the Platz der 18 Mars, in front of the Brandenburg Gate. A parade of horses and riders from over twenty nations clopped up the Strasse des 17 Juni through the middle of the Tiergarten park in the centre of Berlin and stood in a circle as the president of Iceland spoke in tribute to the breed, which he said had held Iceland together for centuries, by carrying locals back and forth from one isolated farm or village to another.  The championships will take place this week at Karlshorst, a harness racing track in the south east of the city. I’m hoping to go along* and see not just the famous “tölt” gait live, but also the fifth gait, or “skei∂”, which looks to me like the origin of the myth of Sleipnir. This horse looks like it has at least eight legs on the go…


* Oooof. Having seen the steep prices for a day ticket, I don’t think this will happen.

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 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!

May the Horse Live in Me

One of the less than lovely things about writing a book is acknowledging that your favourite lines of enquiry sometimes just don’t fit into the finished product. They are the wildest, most fascinating goose chases, but they just will not bend and be shaped into that book thing you’ve built. They won’t be twined into the narrative, or at least, if you try to do just that, you end up with a narrative that sprouts at extra branch just at the juncture where you need it to be a nice, neat, battened-down hedge. At this point, you can probably tell that my similes are currently somewhat overgrown, so I’ll prune them now and get on with the post.
In writing about girls and horses I knew I would need to tackle the subject of imaginary horses, and all the joys and creativity that come with them, and so I set about building a chapter which, in its earliest finished draft, incorporated reams of psychology theory on the development of the imagination, detailed descriptions of paracosms and, finally, the wildest, least controllable goose of all, metamorphosis. Because really, that’s what the little girl who tosses her mane and stomps her hooves is attempting: mutation into a horse. If you love something, what better fulfillment can you find than becoming it yourself?
Much of this remains in the book, but I had to lose the examples I found in folklore and legend of women transformed into horses or donkeys – although, interestingly enough, it is always as a punishment, not a sublimation. There’s Amina, a demonic, corpse-eating young wife in 1001 Nights, whose husband employs the help of a witch to magic her into equine form. “Donkeyskin” is a princess in Perrault’s classic renderings of traditional fairy tales who disguises herself as an ass to escape the incestuous desires of her father. Here’s Catherine Deneuve in the 1970 Jacques Demy film:


And lastly, Ocyrhoe, a nymph and daughter of a centaur in Greek myth who, Cassandra-like, foretells her father’s future and is punished by being transformed into a mare. This extract is from A D Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

“Soon she was whinnying clearly, and her arms
Walked on the grass, and then her fingers joined,
And their five nails were bound in a light hoof
Of undivided horn; her mouth and neck
Increased in size; her trailing dress became
A tail; that hair that wandered on her neck
Fell as a mane down on the right-hand side;
And so her voice and shape alike were new,
And that weird change gave her a new name [Hippe – mare] too.”

What inspired all this metamorphic musing? Well, my friend Aimee just sent me a link to this piece on Wired by Olivia Solon about the French artist Marion Laval-Jentet who is, I feel safe in saying, the most dedicated pony girl in history.

Laval-Jeantet and her creative partner Benoit Mangin (working as the collective Art Orienté Objet) were keen to explore the blurring of boundaries between species in the piece, entitled May the Horse Live in Me. Laval-Jeantet prepared her body to accept the horse blood plasma by getting injected with different horse immunoglobulins over the course of several months.

When she had the actual injection, there was quite a performance:

As part of the performance piece she also wore a set of stilts with hooves on the end to feel at one with the horse. She walked around with the donor horse in a “communication ritual” before having her hybrid blood extracted and freeze-dried.

She explained to Centre Press that the whole process made her feel “hyperpowerful, hypersensitive and hypernervous.” She added: “I had a feeling of being superhuman. I was not normal in my body. I had all of the emotions of a herbivore. I couldn’t sleep and I felt a little bit like a horse.”

Here’s a video of May the Horse Live in Me:

EDITED TO ADD: and here’s a fantastic site dedicated to human–equine transformation.

UPDATE 23/11/2017: Thank you to Adrian Arrattoon for this video of Dutch-Iranian singer-songwriter Sevdaliza, filmed at Hollandesche Manege in Amsterdam:

Dashed Dreams of White Horses?

Sad news. The 50m high statue of a grey horse by artist Mark Wallinger that was to be built at Ebbsfleet in Kent may not go ahead as it’s costs have risen prohibitively and donations have dried up. The Times reports:

The mood was different when the Ebbsfleet Landmark Project (ELP) was launched in 2008, a few months before the banking collapse turned the world economy upside down. At that time, Wallinger’s proposal was the instant favourite, the Turner prize-winner’s idea standing out over more abstract designs from rivals including Rachel Whiteread and Richard Deacon.

The brief was to create something monumental to dominate the high-speed rail link between London and the Channel Tunnel, in much the same way that Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North has become a landmark on the A1 near Gateshead.

The site earmarked is a scrubby patch of hillside between the A2 and Ebbsfleet International train station. The sculpture was envisaged as the centrepiece of a huge brownfield development of houses, shops, offices and industrial units. Wallinger’s stallion would be 33 times life size and visible 20 miles away. Although Anish Kapoor’s tower of red steel for the Olympic Park in Stratford will be 15m taller, the horse would be the most physically imposing work of art in the country. …

The artist can console himself that he is following in illustrious footsteps. At the end of the 15th century Leonardo da Vinci spent nearly two decades trying to build a giant, scientifically accurate, bronze horse for the Duke of Milan. War, politics and economic adversity intervened to ensure it never happened, and Leonardo’s horse remains one of the unrealised masterpieces of European art.

Working Like Trojans

Some Marengo High School students wanted to do something big. Their project for humanities class had to have something to do with the ancient Greeks. …

“It was a surprise and it was a big surprise,” said teacher Bob Pomykala said.

The students wouldn’t tell Pomykala what they were up to.

“They said they had a great idea, but they wouldn’t tell me what it was,” he said.

What they did was build a giant Trojan Horse, which, according to Greek mythology was used to sneak soldiers into the city of Troy for a triumphant battle. They built it in senior Sergio Aguilar’s yard, and then moved it right in front of Marengo Community High School.

Report and photos here, at CBS Chicago. I wonder if their next project will reference the horse who carried Napoleon and who shared the school’s name?

Those curious about the true identity of the little grey Arab should download  Jill Hamilton’s excellent investigative work, Marengo, the Myth of Napoleon’s Horse, and also look forward to ‘War Horses of Letters’, Marie Phillips and Robert Hudson’s forthcoming Radio 4 exposé of the love letters that flew back and forth between Marengo and the Duke of Wellington’s handsome chestnut, Copenhagen.