World War Two Cavalry Training – and Jackal Hunting in Palestine

In January I posted this shot from Getty’s archive that claimed to show the British cavalry in action in North Africa in 1940. I knew the last British Army cavalry charge happened in Burma in 1942 and that the Queen’s Own Yorkshire Dragoons fought on horseback in Syria in 1941 but this was a mystery. My editor, Angus MacKinnon, who knows a thing or two about military history, was sceptical:

That photo was clearly staged for the camera – you can see as much from the neatness of the line of smoke discharges and the gas masks: no cavalryman worth his horse or spurs would have donned such a thing. And besides, most of the troop would have been  carrying carbines, not pistols.

Then Jane Bevan, whose PhD on foxhunting and landscape may be of interest to you, got in touch with another possible explanation:

My father, John Foster, was in the Shropshire Yeomanry, as a tenant’s farmer’s son, and then N Somerset Yeomanry in WW2. They took their horses/hunters to war with them and weren’t ‘converted’ to mechanised transport until 1941.

Not sure if they were in N Africa with their horses (although they fought there subsequently) but they certainly had them in Palestine in 1941 and formed a rag-tag pack to hunt jackal. I remember Dad saying how much the horses loved the oranges grown around Jaffa which the soldiers crushed up as feed.

Jane’s father self-published a memoir of his life and she’s sent me a few pages about his time in the regiment. They begin just after the war breaks out, when John Foster’s regiment is called to Adderley Hall in Shropshire and given saddles (which they use as pillows) and horses, which arrive eight to a wagon at the local railway station. They were tied up in open lines, but

In the wet autumn it was not very long before they were in a terrible mess. The mud around the drinking troughs was so bad that we had to ride them bare back to drink, as we could not walk through the mud. It was not long before many of the horses contracted “strangles”, a very contagious disease that starts with a lump in the throat. The lump had to be cut open to let out the puss and the horse then becomes “broken winded”.

There’s a lovely story about a trooper warning a general who was inspecting the horses to beware of one sour mare, “I shouldn’t touch her on the arse Guvnor or er’ll kick your bloody ‘ead off.”

At this time, some of the Yeomanry regiments were shipped, horses and all, to France, south to the Mediterranean and by boat to Haifa to liaise with the twelve Regular Regiments in Palestine, “still equipped with a horse and a sword”. John remained in England, where the other Yeomanry horses were being sold off and the soldiers retrained to use tanks and artillery. He bought one of the horses, a bay gelding called Jack, who was six at the time but had been one of the strangles casualties at Adderley. He passed him on to his mother, who used Jack to do a twice-weekly shopping trip from Newton to Bridgnorth during the war.

John was in training as a cavalry officer – he was in the very last group trained for this at Weedon in Northamptonshire – which still meant riding:

We were regularly sent down the jumping lane over large obstacles, riding bare back with only a strap around the horse’s neck and, as all Army horses had hogged manes, there was nothing to hang on to. Horse and rider did not always arrive together at the end of the jumping lane! We were encouraged to go hunting with the Grafton Hounds, good training for future cavalry officers. We did not need telling twice!

The Commanding Officer, Colonel Borwick, gave a lecture every Saturday morning. He has been Master of the Pytchley Hounds and every week we were reminded how important it was to get hounds hard and fit before the start of cub hunting!

Late in August 1940 he was sent to Strathclyde to board the troop shop Moultan. The convoy sailed south past Africa and round the Cape to Durban where they restocked and John celebrated his 21st birthday with a shared can of beer. They also had a chance to go racing. Back in the convoy, they reached Cairo via the Suez Canal and disembarked to trek to Palestine where the North Somerset Yeomanry were waiting at Acre.  He was put in charge of 32 men and their mounts and began a series of patrols along the Palestine-Syrian borders.

The cavalry training also inspired the bobbery pack of dogs – a boxer called Maurice and a Great Dane by the name of Fanny Adams – that he put together to hunt the local jackal. The hedges were cactus, the horses keen. At nearby Ramle, the CO of the Remount Depot, “Mouse” Townsend, had bred the “Ramle Vale” pack from an old foxhound he’d found locally (where on earth did it come from?) and Syrian Pointers. This breeding experiment had mixed results. John says “when they were hunting a line, some of his hounds would hunt normally while others stopped to ‘point’!” Townsend had a chestnut called The Clown, which he rode bitless when they hunted.

In spring 1942 the regiment was “relieved” of its horses and sent to Cairo “to be trained in Air Formation Signals”. At this point, the war gets rather more serious for John and there doesn’t seem to be any more hunting or larking about on horses.

So we still don’t know what’s going on in the Getty photo, but have maybe raised a question about where it was shot. If anyone has any more leads or stories, do get in touch.

While I was working on this blog post, Caroline Rutter got in touch and pointed out that the great British showjumper, Colonel Harry Llewellyn (remember him from Pat Smythe days?) was also in the Middle East at the time. He served with the Warwickshire Yeomanry and took horses called Peter and Prince with him when he arrived in January 1940. They were based at Rosh Tinna near Lake Tiberias. On horseback, his squadron charged a group of spahis who were trying to rustle Palestinian cattle.

Making Fearless Men: A Medieval Riding Lesson


I briefly mentioned King Duarte I of Portugal’s Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela (The Book on the Instruction of Riding Well in Every Saddle) in The Age of the Horse. It was written in 1434, 82 years before Xenophon’s On Horsemanship was first printed. If you’re used to the narrative in which all riding was brutal and dire until the Italians rediscovered ye olde Greek texts, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this medieval Portuguese book, which was finally translated by Jeffrey L Forgeng and issued by The Boydell Press as The Book of Horsemanship this year.

I spent a few hours poring over it in Cambridge University library last summer, kicking the desk in frustration that I hadn’t been able to include it in the book. It’s quite a revelation. Every now and then archives deliver a shock of realisation: these people from the past were human! They breathed and farted and got anxious! This is one of those texts.

Duarte I, “the philosopher king”, reigned from 1433 till his death in 1438, and had a difficult apprenticeship as a prince: at one stage he was incapacitated by depression for three years. He was also a superb horseman and hunter. In The Book of Horsemanship, both these elements come together, because not only is there advice on riding, there’s also tips on how to handle nerves in oneself and in one’s pupils. He is preoccupied with “will”, which sounds, in this context, rather like self confidence.

When I was researching If Wishes Were Horses, I found very little pre-eighteenth-century material on teaching the young to ride – especially girls. So I was delighted to find a chapter that gave me an insight into medieval pedagogy and psychology. I’ll share a brief extract from “How good experiences make some men fearless; and how to teach boys and others who are starting to ride”:

You should not give him instructions except to stay tight on the horse’s back and hold himself well however he finds most suitable. Whatever he does wrong, you should not correct him much, but minimally and gently. If he does well, you should praise him generously – as much as you can without lying. You should continue in this way with him for a time until you see that he is coming to enjoy learning and practicing, and wants to receive correction and teaching. From then on start explaining to him how to hold himself strongly, for this is most necessary, always minding what I have said: more praise, less blame. If he happens to fall, or loses a stirrup, or some other contrary thing, and you see that he feels it greatly, you should excuse it as much as possible, so that he does not lose the hope and will that is of great value for this and all other things.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Found horse, Berlin street.

Found horse, Berlin street.

First up: please go directly to Horse Nation to read Susan Corwin’s account of joining a hunt in Meath, Ireland to break the world record for the number of side-saddle attendees. Fans of Molly Keane and Somerville & Ross will enjoy the craic. This was Susan’s first choice of riding expedition after a gruelling course of cancer treatment. Turns out a thick application of Irish mud, a wilful Connemara pony and some very large ditches are just the ticket.

After about the second ditch, a very kind Irish gentleman handed me his flask and assured me that the more I drank now, the smaller the ditches would get, and the more I drank at the pub later, the bigger they would get.

And now on with the more mixed news of all that’s weird or worrying in the horse world. Not much light-hearted fun this week, I’m afraid, but some steps forward.

  • Burger King finds itself implicated in the horse meat scandal. (CNN) Which has probably been going on for over a year… (Telegraph) Meanwhile, Poland say that five of the six slaugherhouses that supply meat to Ireland have no traces of horsemeat on site. (Reuters)
  • Aqueduct racetrack in New York begins to cancel race days in order to try and get a grip on horse safety. Six horses have broken down on the turf course and been shot since December. More of the NYT’s excellent coverage of the lethal intersection of big, casino-inflated purses and medication abuse in US horse racing (NYT)
  • Denver International Airport erected a statue of a giant blue mustang with neon red eyes five years ago, and everyone hated it. Now that those five years have passed, locals are legally allowed to petition for its removal. Will it become a cult classic or a bad taste memory? (
  • Danish scientists on the challenges and rewards of studying social hierarchy in horses. (The Horse)
  • I’ve covered donkey-milk soap as a beauty aid. Now Kazakhstan is getting in on the act with horse-milk soap. (
  • Emaciated and gravely injured cob youngster abandoned in an Essex playground. Photo not for the faint-hearted; the horse had to be put down immediately. (Thisistotalessex)
  • The number of ponies hit by cars on Dartmoor has risen with the poor weather: the ponies come to the roads for the sale that’s laid down to melt snow. (BBC)
  • An American man says he violated a horse because he was trying to make a “horseman baby”. (The Smoking Gun) And Germany outlaws bestiality. Good news for German horses, if not for wannabe centaur begetters. (NYT)

Neck or Nothing is her Motto

More snippets that I had to leave out of the book for lack of space! These extracts come from a wonderful account of a “brace of sporting ladies” from The Sporting Magazine, October 1796.

There’s a Mrs C– “so capital in her sphere” that no woman comes close, except Lady Lade, and “there is not a small number who strain every nerve to excel in equestrian achievements.” And what about Mrs C?

“She is damped by no disappointment, checked by no difficulties, terrified by no examples; superior to all sense of danger, she flies over hedge and ditch with an amazing temerity, and daringly exhibits herself in situations to which many staunch fox-hounds, and no contemptible horsemen, do not choose to expose their bodies or their heads, having the foolish fear of a broken neck.”

Her motto is “neck or nothing,” and “she will leave father, mother, and husband, and cleave to her saddle, whenever a fox chase is in view.” The tricks she has taught her favourite horse “would put Astley [the first circus proprietor]  himself to blush.” The “pious partner of her bed” keeps trying to stop her, she laughs, calls him a “muzzy methodist,” tally hos at him and drives him away.

If Wishes Were Horses: Ladies

NOT a lady's ride. Bayeux Tapestry detail c/o Wikimedia Commons.

The Taymouth Hours: the ladies set out on horseback, and begin to gallop and hunt a deer. And catch it.

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.

If Wishes Were Horses: Mary Breese

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If you know any more about Mary Breese, I’d love to know. I tried contacting the holders of Sarah Josepha Hale’s  library to find out if they could think of her source for writing about Mary (a very long shot) and also perused British sporting magazines and Norfolk papers from the time of her death. Any further leads merrily followed.
I turned up this from the Observer, October 6th 1799:
“Lately died at Lynn, in her 78th year, Miss Mary Breese; she never lived out of the parish she was born in; was a remarkable sportswoman, regularly took out her shooting licence, kept as good grey-hounds, and was as sure a shot as was in the county. At her desire her dogs and favourite mare were killed at her death, and buried in one grave.” (looks as though it wasn’t necessarily Mary’s grave, but still). The same report appears in the Sun on the 7th October, 1799 and the Oracle and Daily Advertiser on the 8th October 1799. Presumably this was serialised to US papers also as a curio and that’s how Sarah Josepha Hale picked it up.

A lovely blog post on Lady Salisbury or Old Sarum. And a snippet about a ferocious huntress from my notes.

This chapter included an out-take that I think deserves reproducing here. I’m still not sure if I regret not adding her to the early-nineteenth-century Amazons, especially as she had a Norfolk connection:

Twenty-two year-old Mrs Alicia Thornton, the daughter of a Norwich watchmaker and wife of a Colonel Thornton, pitted her horse, Old Vingarillo against her brother-in-law Captain Flint on Thornville over four miles at York in 1804. More than £200,000 was wagered on the race by one hundred thousand spectators,  “nearly ten times the number appeared on the Knavesmire than did on the day when Bay Malton ran, or when Eclipse went over the course,” as Thomas Brown noted in his Anecdotes of Horses.  She wore a blue jockey’s cap over her fair hair and, above her voluminous skirts which, in an engraving of the match, are blown against her thighs, a man’s silks with a “leopard-coloured body, with blue sleeves, the vest buff.”

She started the favourite among the menfolk on the course, who’d been impressed by an earlier exercise ride she’d turned in, and for the first three miles of the race, “the oldest sportsmen on the stand thought she must have won,” only for her horse to go lame and her to pull him up. “Never, surely,” wrote Brown, “did a woman ride in better style. It was difficult to say whether her horsemanship, her dress, or her beauty, were most admired – the tout ensemble was unique … She flew along the course with an astonishing swiftness, conscious of her own superior skill.”   In 1805 she matched top jockey Francis Buckle over two miles, and – sporting embroidered stockings and a purple waistcoat – trounced him by half a neck to the ecstasy of the crowd.

Here’s a poem by a contemporary spectator:

See the course throng’d with gazers, and lots of ‘Old rakes’,

To view the ‘beautiful Heroine’ start for the stakes;

With handkerchiefs waving, the spectators all clap,

Half dressed like a jockey, with her whip and her cap.

With spirits like fire, behold her mount the gay prad,

And the cheers and the smiles make her heart light and glad;

And Mrs Thornton’s ‘the favourite’ through thick and through thin,

And the swell and the jockeys all bet that she’ll win.

UPDATE: no Mary, but the Taverham poem features in Jane Bevan’s PhD on Foxhunting and Landscape from 1700 – 1900, available at the UEA website.


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.

If Wishes Were Horses: Jeunes Filles Bien Elevées

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I loved this chapter and had far, far to much to write about, some chunks of which may appear here if not used elsewhere. Meanwhile, enjoy the slideshow. The books came largely from

J. Collinson and Sons rocking horses.

A website maintained by Nannie Power O’Donoghue’s biographer, Olga E. Lockley.

The brilliantly titled Unprotected Females in Norway is here, while I have to apologise: Wanderings in Patagonia by Florence Dixie should be Across Patagonia.

I only wish I’d found this snippet when writing the book, but it just cropped up in December 2012, and has to be included:

“In his lecture series on hysteria, F. C. Skey warned his audience that the typical hysteric was not a person of weak mind but ‘a female member of a family exhibiting more than usual force or decision of character, of strong resolution, fearless of danger, bold riders, having plenty of what is termed nerve.'”

Elaine Showalter, “Victorian Women and Insanity” in Madhouses, Mad-doctors and Madmen ed Andrew Scull, 1981.

The Analysis of the Hunting Field, being a Series of Sketches of the principal characters that compose one the whole forming a slight souvenir of the season 1845-6 – R S Surtees:

“Riding for ladies is now become wholly a matter of luxury – there are not journey ridings – even the pillion shave disappeared with recent years, and farmers’ wives drive to market in gigs with ‘Giles Jolter,’ or whatever their husband’s name may be, pointed up behind. When her Majesty took her daily promenades à cheval, as the French call them, in the Park, equestrianism was all the rage, and we had nothing but habits and slate-coloured veils. Indeed, each season shows a good master of fair equestrians still, though, perhaps, not so many as there used to be. We never go into the Park without thinking how much better it must be for them than the enervating, listless motion of a carriage. Even park riding is slow work compared to the free gallop of the country, but to be sure park riding is generally pursued at a season of the year when it is too hot for hard exercise.”

Here’s Mrs Hayes (1893) on the perils of learning to ride later in life:

‘The same remark applies to older ladies, who, with the usual angelic resignation of my set, try their best to obey the command of their lords and masters by learning to ride. I fear that success in this art is seldom obtained by ladies over thirty years of age, for by that time they have generally lost the dashing pluck of their youth; their figures have become set and matronly; and, as a rule, they find great difficulty in mastering the subtleties of balance and grip. Also, a state of nervous anxiety is apt to add to the general stiffness of their appearance, and to suggest discomfort and irritability.’

Vieille Moustache on the superiority of the Engish equestrienne in the 1870s:

“The daughter of a peer, or other great grandee of the country, may be almost said to be a horsewoman to the manner born. Riding comes as naturally to her as it does to her brothers. Both clamber up on their ponies, or are lifted on, almost as soon as they can walk, and consequently ‘grow’ into their riding, and become at fifteen or sixteen years of age as much at home in the saddle as they are on the sofa. In the hunting field they see the best types of riding extant, both male and female, and learn to copy their style and mode of handling their horses, while oral instructions of the highest order is always at hand to supplement daily practice. To the great ladies of England, then, all hints on the subject would be superfluous, Most of them justly take great pride in their riding, spare no pains to excel in it, and are thoroughly successful.
In fact, it is the one accomplishment in which they as far surpass the women of all other countries in the world as they outvie them in personal beauty.
A German or French woman possibly may hold her own with an Englishwoman in a ball room or a box at the opera; but put her on horseback, and take her to the covert side, she is ‘not in it’ with her English rivals.”

And on scandal in the hunting field (one suspects he’s referring to Skittles and others of her ilk):

“I feel bound to observe that from time to time a vast amount of ‘twaddle’ is ventilated on the question of the propriety of ladies riding with hounds. All sorts of absurd objections  have been brought forward against the practice; as, for instance, that hunting as regards ladies is a mere excuse for display and flirtation, and that it is both unfeminine and dangerous. I believe that these objections, made by people who never knew the glorious exhilaration of hunting, may be briefly disposed of. I reside where the very cream of midland hunting is carried on, and I perceive that year after year the number of ladies of high rank and social position who grace the field with their presence is on the increase; while to the best of my belief no female equestrians who are not ladies have been seen with hounds in Leicestershire or its vicinity for some years. So much for the stamp of woman that hunts nowadays.”

Elizabeth Carr, writing in the 1880s, agrees:

“There is still another false idea prevalent among a certain class of people, which is that a love for horses, and for horseback riding necessarily makes one coarse, and detracts from the refinement of a woman’s nature. It must be acknowledged that the coarseness of a vulgar spirit can be nowhere more conspicuously displayed than in the saddle, and yet in no place is the delicacy and decorum of woman more observable. A person on horseback is placed in a position where every motion is subject to critical observation and comment. The quiet, simple costume, the easy movements, the absence of ostentatious display, will always proclaim the refined, well-bred rider. Rudeness in the saddle is as much out of place as in the parlor or the salon, and greatly more annoying to spectators, besides being disrespectful and dangerous to other riders. Abrupt movements, awkward and rapid paces, frequently cause neighboring horses to become rest-less, and even to run away. Because a lady loves her horse, and enjoys riding him, it is by no means necessary that she should become a Lady Gay Spanker, indulge in stable talk, make familiars of the grooms and stable boys, or follow the hounds in the hunting field.”

And the last word to Lady Greville, editor of Ladies in the Field (1894):

“Riding improves the temper, the spirits and the appetite; black shadows and morbid fancies disappear from the mental horizon, and wretched indeed must he be who can preserve a gloomy or discontented frame of mind during a fine run in a grass country, or even in a sharp brisk gallop over turfy downs.”

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.