Tornasol – the horse who defied Siena and 384 years of history

The image above shows last year’s July Palio.

I spent a week in Siena last August watching the preparations for the famous Palio horse race and have written an account which I hope to get published soon. The Palio is a stunning civic and historic phenomenon that is brutal on horses. This July, after a week of trial races and being whipped and spurred round the town square twice daily, a horse called Tornasol decided he’d had enough and refused to run. Viva l’anarchia, Tornasol. The equine revolution starts here.

If you want a brief introduction to the Palio and don’t mind it skipping over any issues related to the actual horses, this documentary unravels some of its complexities:

The Daddies of Them All: How Arab and Turkoman Stallions Dominate the Gene Pool

A team at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, has discovered that nearly all today’s horses* trace tail-male back to Arabian and Turkoman stallions brought to Europe over the last seven centuries (yes, pre-thoroughbred). There is so little diversity in domestic horses’ Y chromosomes that it took an advance in research methods to be able to distinguish between the limited lines out there. Researchers will even be able to designate haplotypes for single stallions, which is how they discovered the Turkoman great great great great great great (times a few more) grandsires of today’s thoroughbreds. Here’s a link to their research.

The fact that in modern times we humans chose to use a small number of stallions to improve our horses makes an interesting contrast to a study published in April on the early years of horse domestication (from 3,500BC on). When I was working on The Age of the Horse, I believed the current research, which suggested that very few stallions were involved in the process of turning wild horses into stockier, faster, more colourful and higher milk-yielding domestic horses. The study team revealed that the opposite was true. In fact, we began our working relationship with horses with plenty of stallions and lots of Y chromosome and haplotype diversity. You can see the study here. Then the bottleneck narrowed as we discovered intensive breeding and those fancy Oriental stallions.

 

 

*I would be curious to know which modern breeds were used in this study. Would the results be different for Mongolian horses?

 

 

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.