What is it about horses? Why on Saturday will we smile fondly when we see the Household Cavalry as it accompanies King Charles in his golden carriage on his way to Westminster Abbey for his Coronation? Why, in fact, do we need horses in our national pageants?
They are, of course, strong and beautiful and streamlined in their movements, as we can see in that Lloyds Bank commercial. It wouldn’t be the same if a herd of cows trotted down the Mall instead of a platoon of horses. Cows would look comical. If it was a pack of wolves, they would be menacing.
But horses are never comic or frightening. And when it comes to big, ceremonial occasions, only the horse, it seems, can give us elegance and nobility.
We see horses as our friends and our allies, and, although few of us today have ever actually ridden one, we like to think we could. Our relationship with the horse is primeval.
He can be a workmate, a companion and a soldierly comrade. Until relatively recently, when we went to war, our horses were conscripted, too. They carried us into battle.
At the seaside, we ride our children upon donkeys, the horse’s evolutionary cousin; we stop to watch day-old foals tottering awkwardly around watchful mares in the New Forest; and we cheer on racehorses at the Derby and show jumpers at the Horse of the Year Show.
Intuitively, we understand that if we offer a horse a lump of sugar or a handful of hay, those huge teeth, under that velvet nose, won’t bite off our fingers.
And, riders know that, should they fall from the saddle, their horse won’t abandon them, but will probably hang around grazing, waiting for them to remount.
We admire the shape of horses, their stoic gentleness inside such strong bodies, and their boldness and size when ridden by policemen or cavalry soldiers. But, again, why?
Put simply, I would suggest that, more than any other animal, historically the horse helped us get where we are today. Without the aid of the horse much of Western society wouldn’t have developed in the way it has.
The dog may be our pal, but the horse has been our greatest servant, our chief means of conveyance, the backs of horses carrying us for thousands of years wherever we wanted to go. As for the horses that didn’t carry us, they pulled us and our belongings in coaches and carts instead.
Man and horse fit together perfectly. As a unit they are faster, stronger and have more stamina than man alone. It was said that when the indigenous tribes of America first saw the sword-wielding Spanish conquistadors riding horses at them, they fled in fear, believing that the combined pair became some kind of dragon. There were no horses in the Americas until taken there by Europeans.
Exactly when the horse became domesticated is a matter of debate. Cave paintings often depict horses, while some anthropologists have suggested that domestication may have occurred on the steppes of Central Asia thousands of years ago. Evolution and thoughtful breeding did the rest.
Yes, breeding. How else would the Sport of Kings have created generations of racehorses? The late Queen is said to have owned over 3000 racehorses during her reign, often Arab stallions bred for speed. Then there were those swift footed little Mongol horses that brought Genghis Khan and his armies to the doors of Europe; huge cart horses that carried Crusading knights in heavy armour into battle; and Andalusian bloodstock with their nimble hooves in the bullring. While every soldier emperor from Julius Caesar to Napoleon was carved in stone astride a prancing horse.
Literature, especially books for children, is stuffed with romantic horse stories, from ‘Black Beauty’ to ‘War Horse’, while the film industry built an American myth around the lonely cowboy and his horse roaming the Western wilderness together.
Closer to home, early film, now colourised, often shows a late nineteenth century world in which London’s streets were teeming with horses, some pulling omnibuses, other cabs, and yet more drawing carts.
The streets, of course, were inevitably caked with horse manure, which meant that most grand houses from that period still have a grate outside the front door on which to scrape one’s shoes. While the grandest houses of all had mews buildings around the back where horses were stabled. None of the great capitals of Europe would have looked the same if provision hadn’t had to be made two centuries ago for horse drawn carriages.
But, just as important as a means of travel or transport, the horse was the greatest aid for agriculture the world had known until the invention of the internal combustion engine.
Putting aside the fertilising attributes of horse manure on garden roses, the vast prairies of America were first tilled by horse drawn ploughs; forests were stumped up, and logs dragged away by them. The horse was central to all this.
How could we not have fallen in love with this wonderful animal, which, in return for feeding, did so much of…yes, the donkey work?
We don’t have to endow horses with an understanding they don’t have. Good as he was at Aintree, Red Rum didn’t know what he’d done when he won the Grand National three times.
But seeing the way horses have been edged to the side-lines of our world is a loss to us all. No longer required for labouring work, they are now mainly used for ceremony or leisure. No longer beasts of burden in the pits and in the fields, they’ve lost much of their function.
Until…. along comes a national event, a Coronation, a moment when tradition is allowed to flower. And the horse, man’s great companion, has his day again.
And, for that one day, we will be able to look over our shoulders and celebrate, not only the Coronation, but what went before in a different world when the humble horse was mighty.