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.
Alice Hayes was a British horsewoman married to an army vet, Horace Hayes, who wrote many books on horsecare in the nineteenth century. She travelled widely with him in the course of his work, and rode a great variety of often difficult horses. The most wiley, perhaps, wasn’t a horse at all:
“The most awkward kicker I ever rode was a mountain Zebra, which my husband broke in at Calcutta. He kicked very neatly without lowering his head, and, as the slightest touch on his ears drove him nearly out of his mind, I had great difficulty in avoiding them, as he kicked with a sort of peculiar wriggle which complicated the performance for me, because I had had no practice on a kicking zebra, and had to pick up my knowledge as I went on. It was no use trying to rein him back; for he had a neck like a bull, with a small rudimentary dewlap, and at every kick he gave, he made a noise like a pig grunting. His skin was the best part about him, and was as lovely and soft to the touch as the finest sealskin. As I believe I am the only woman who has ridden a mountain zebra, this photograph is probably unique. It ought to be a better one, seeing the trouble I took to make my obstinate mount stand still; but he seemed to regard the camera as an infernal machine destined for his destruction, and flatly refused to pose nicely for his portrait. He was far too neck-strong to make a pleasant mount for a lady. Kickers, as I have already said, should never be taken into any hunting field.
The Horsewoman, by Alice Hayes (1893)
I’ve been hoofing around New York and DC in the pursuit of a holiday and book two (which will be out in, ooooooh, 2015?). Shanks’ Mare and I saw a surprising number of equines on our travels, although we missed the zebra and pony on the loose on Staten Island. Books two and three are about – among many things – the way that humans think about horses and use them both physically and mentally. Here’s a visual collage of New York horses (minus police officers and the urban cowboys of Queens) in November 2012 (with thanks to Helen for the 86th Street Pegasus):
eBay, I don’t believe you. That never happened in my daydreams.
Right, on with a long overdue HHLHL! I’ve been busy organising a research trip for book two but the horse world went on turning, and lovely people have been sending me links, so enjoy this extra special post whose diversity reminds me why I’m writing that second book in the first place.
- A zebra pulling a trap in Brixton, circa 1915. (Urban75)
- Look at this beautifully carved golden horse head discovered in a Thracian tomb in Bulgaria. It dates from the third century BC. (Guardian)
- If Radio 4 ever gets rid of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time I’ll know Britain is over. Here Melvyn and guests discuss the Upanishads – some of the sacred texts of Hinduism. Horse sacrifice is mentioned (maybe with a connection to the Steppes folk who first domesticated horses?) Thanks to Mum for sending this. (Radio 4)
- The “Pony” chair of Eero Aarnio, the brilliant Finnish designer who came up with the Sixties icon, the Bubble Chair. (Eero Aarnio)
- Francis Robinson send me this cute piece on a police horse who likes to rearrange cones at Buckingham Palace (Daily Mail)
- Wired on the astonishing solidification of the Brony movement, with military personnel confessing their love for My Little Pony in front of the camera. Thanks to my brother for this one (Wired)
- A clean drug-test sheet for all competitors at this year’s Breeders’ Cup. Some of the races were even lasix-free. (ESPN)
- Mega race mare and US Horse of the Year Havre de Grace sells for $10,000,000 (Blood Horse)
- The feral Chicoteague ponies survived Sandy just fine (Daily Press) Speaking of the hurricane, this crazy hoss was just fine too. (Washington Post)
- Horses in today’s US military (CS Monitor)
- A disaster for a herd of Brumbies in Western Australia (ABC)
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 Archive.org.
J. Collinson and Sons rocking horses.
A website maintained by Nannie Power O’Donoghue’s biographer, Olga E. Lockley.
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.
The Chronicle of the Horse interviewed a Texan woman called Sammi Jo Stohler who has schooled her zebra to jump:
“As I was training horses, I kept hearing, ‘You can’t train zebras, they’re untrainable.’ I said, ‘Why?’ To say something is untrainable implies that it can’t learn, and we all know that if they couldn’t learn, they’d all be extinct. They have to be able to learn and adapt. Obviously, the burden lies on the trainer to be able to train them,” Stohler said.
Watch Zack in action:
I suppose the myth of the untrainable zebra has two bits of reasoning behind it. Firstly, that none of the locals in Africa bothered to domesticate zebras before Europeans arrived. Given that there were large parts of Eurasia in which other locals didn’t bother to domesticate horses before the Central Asian Steppes culture arrived in their midst, this argument doesn’t quite wash. The second question that arises: why don’t you see more Westerners riding around on them?
Well, you did. Here’s the Victorian sidesaddle expert, Mrs Alice Hayes, riding a mountain zebra trained by her husband, Captain Horace Hayes:
And here’s Walter Rothschild driving his four in hand:
They were also used alongside mules as draft animals in the Transvaal in the nineteenth century. Here’s the hideous sight of a colonial officer, straight from central casting, leaping a fence held aloft by native servants in East Africa:
I’d guess you don’t see more “tame” zebras because we already have plenty of specially bred, larger horses to choose from, and the striped equid represents mere novelty value. You could buy one from a specialist exotic animal dealer in London for between £100–£150 in Victorian Age (thank you to Lee Jackson for that snippet), and nowadays some zebra species are so common that you can actually expect to eat them as pizza topping in the UK. Yes, in topsy-turvy Britain it’s easier to buy zebra flesh than horse meat.
One place they’ve always found a home is, of course, the circus. One of the early fathers of the modern circus, Andrew Ducrow, trained two zebras for performance in the early 19th century despite the claims of the French naturalist Cuvier that this was impossible. According to the Magazine of Natural History in 1840, Ducrow’s zebras “entirely lost their spirit and vivacity in consequence, assuming the humbled bearing of the common donkey.” I’ve seen a contemporary drawing of this feat but alas can’t find it online. Meanwhile, these rather surly beasts of the 21st century are doing liberty work – the artificial representation of natural freedom – for Circus Knie: