What is it about horses? They’re everywhere, it seems.
What set it off for me was Paul Muldoon’s latest poetry collection Horse Latitudes. Then came Bat for Lashes’ haunting song ‘Horse and I’, from her Mercury Prize nominated album Fur and Gold. Next, I was hosting a reading in Whitechapel and introduced two young poets, Abigail Oborne and Ross Sutherland. Ross delivers an extraordinary piece, ‘Horse at midnight’, which comprises over sixty consecutive adjectives to describe a horse. Then came Abi’s ‘Portraits of a seaside town’, a poem ostensibly about Whitstable, Kent – but really about…. Yes, you guessed it.
After work I drink beer and talk about how I think everything is a conspiracy, ‘I mean,’ I say, ‘I mean, take horses for an example, if you look closely you notice that all horses have exactly the same face.’
Another time, the title track from Patti Smith’s seminal album Horses came on the radio, whilst I was reading the late Bill Griffiths’ Durham & other sequences. And there they are again.
There is the clipping, trotting, and pony and trap
James and Lisa come to applaud
and the horse shakes a bit at the childer hands.
See? Horses are everywhere!
Assuming I still have my sanity, let’s consider why the humble horse might be so popular amongst writers and musicians – of any age.
According to Wikipedia, which, alarmingly, is fast becoming my sole source of wisdom, the horse (or Equus caballus) is a large, odd-toed ungulate mammal. The horse has played a vital role in the development of human societies – as pack animal, in agriculture and in war. And it’s widely believed that contact with horses can benefit people with disabilities.
Okay, so we’ve established that horses are indispensable to us humans, whether we’re trading, growing stuff or killing each other. But that last point – that horses can benefit those with disabilities – points to a deeper, more psychological and symbolic understanding of the horse.
The horse, it is supposed, is a noble creature, blessed with intelligence and unusual sensitivity. Under human control, they can be tools and companions – from Black Beauty and My Little Pony to Mister Ed. Eating the flesh of the horse (hippophagy) is considered taboo in many cultures. It’s makruh in Islam and treif in Judaism. There is a rich tradition of horse worship throughout the world, particularly in Celtic, Germanic and Scandinavian cultures. In the sprawling world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the land of Rohan is home to a horse cult. Its leaders are ‘horse-lords’, its warriors skilled riders with armour decorated with horse symbols. (Also, see this short video on ‘horse eroticism’ in the Peter Jackson film of LOTR.) Like much of Tolkien’s writing, this is fantasy fiction based loosely on historical fact. Rohirrim culture is Tolkien’s reimagining of an idealised Anglo-Saxon world. Remember that the first Germanic warriors to come to Britain, at the behest of Vortigern, were a pair of Jutes named Hengest (‘stallion’) and Horsa. Well, that’s what the Venerable Bede says anyway.
And what about the giant horse symbols carved into the very landscape by our ancestors, like the one at Uffington?
Strangely, considering the long-established convention of the horse as noble and intelligent, an alternative tradition casts our long-faced friend as a symbol of lust, the animal metaphor for sexuality. Just think of the common phrase ‘unbridled passion’. The bridle controls the horse and ensures the dick remains safely within the trouser.
Chaucer, as you might imagine, loved this kind of stuff and would never have passed up the opportunity for a spot of comic word-play. In the Reeve’s Tale, the ‘swyving’ of the Miller’s wife and daughter by ‘yonge povre scolers two’ is provoked by the following episode, in which the Miller unbridles the students’ horse.
The clerkes hors, ther as it stood ybounde
Bihynde the mille, under a levesel;
And to the hors he goth hym faire and wel;
He strepeth of the brydel right anon.
And whan the hors was laus, he gynneth gon
Toward the fen, ther wilde mares renne,
And forth with “wehee,” thurgh thikke and thurgh thenne.
Thus perfectly setting the tone for the subsequent cuckolding of the Miller.
Withinne a while this John the clerk up leep,
And on this goode wyf he Leith on soore.
So myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yoore;
He priketh harde and depe as he were mad.
In a similar vein, Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bête (1975) opens with explicit images of horse copulation – simultaneously setting the film’s uncomfortably erotic tone and prefiguring various human amorous encounters. Then of course there’s Peter Shaffer’s play Equus (1973), which counts that Potter boy amongst its recent leading men.
Study the English language (and no doubt others too) and you’ll notice that the horse features widely in its idiomatic expressions. Dark horse, high horse, horsing around, flogging a dead horse, from the horse’s mouth, even horseradish. I could go on…
Perhaps this is the best evidence of the way in which the horse has entirely pervaded human culture and society – as a tool, a slave, as animal companion and as symbol, a metaphoric screen onto which we project hopes, anxieties and desires. From contemporary music right back to the very first images daubed on cave walls. It’s a tradition with a future, that’s for sure.