They embody the elements. Their eyes catch the light, encapsulating molten lava and smoke. Through their veins, the wind itself seemingly courses, effused from every pore. They fly absent of wings, muscles rippling as water, manes cresting. The earth sustains them just as it is also shaped beneath the strike of their footfall.
The breadth of time carries their mark. Man has endeavored to capture their essence for as long as the concept of beauty and nobility has been understood. Without feathers or horns, they fueled myth and wrote history, their grace celebrated on cavernous canvasses, etched in charcoal, and later carved from stone, frozen in motion, yet forever in flight. In oil and effigy, dappled in patina, beloved in song and poem, in the Bible itself, we find the horse as inspiration:
“19 Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?
20 Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? the glory of his nostrils [is] terrible.
21 He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in [his] strength: he goeth on to meet the armed men.
22 He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted; neither turneth he back from the sword.
23 The quiver rattleth against him, the glittering spear and the shield.
24 He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage: neither believeth he that [it is] the sound of the trumpet..” ~ Job, Chapter 39
They have carried us, literally and figuratively, across the centuries. History has been written from atop their backs, battlefields first carved out by their hooves before rock was chiseled to reflect the tale of their exploits. We know not with certainty when they were first domesticated, though the Botai settlements found in Northern Kazakhstan show evidence of a culture of horsemanship dating back to the 4th millennium BC. What is believed to be the first preserved depiction of horse and rider is a seal forged during the reign of Shu-sin of Ur’s third dynasty, which was located in the south of what is now Iraq. The north of Iraq bears evidence of the relationship between man and equine, too. Bedecked in finery, they were employed in conquest of land and lions, as depicted in ancient Assyrian bas-relief.
Upon antiquity’s Royal Road, Achaemenid Persians employed their speed to establish the Angarium, the first “pony express”. The description of their Pirradazis (messengers) as written by Herodotus, the “father of history”, would be adopted and preserved as the unofficial motto of our own United States Postal Service. Persia’s empire would later fall to Alexander the Great, whose famed steed, Bucephalus, bore him not only into war, but into legend. It is believed Alexander’s military success was assisted by the Anabasis, written by the brilliant tactician, Xenophon, who is also considered to be the father of classical equitation.
Upon Alexander’s death, his sprawling empire was divided by the Diadochi: Ptolemy I, Seleucus I Nicator, Cassander, Lysimachus. Eventually, the Roman Empire would rise in the West, the Parthian in the East. The latter’s horsemen developed the “Parthian Shot”, a military tactic of firing backward at full gallop, so dramatic in form and effect, it would become part of our modern lexicon as influencing the phrase “parting shot”. The Parthians would give way to the Sasanians, whose rule would last from 224 to 651 AD, and whose influence in culture and art is still felt. Carved out of Iran’s Naqsh-e-Rustam, one can still see the relief of Roman emperor Valerian, capitulating before a mounted Shapur I, the then-ruler of Persia, after the Battle of Edessa in 257.
As for Rome, though the age of Pax Romana was thought long over, and despite Valerian’s capture, the “Eternal City” would not yet fall for quite some time. Nor would the roars rising from the crowded Circus Maximus, the largest Roman hippodrome. It was originally founded in the 6th century BC, and expanded by Julius Caesar. It is written that, before his rise to power, a “remarkable horse” was born at his stable. Its hooves were cloven as toes. Caesar let no other ride him, for soothsayers proclaimed its master would rule the world. In 49 BC, having gained popularity and loyalty during the Gallic Wars, Caesar’s “die was cast”, for he defied the Roman senate, refusing to resign command of his armies, and crossed the fabled Rubicon.
During the course of his rule, in 46 BC, Caesar had the Circus Maximus’ track lengthened. At its fullest realization, the arena could host, by varying accounts, anywhere between 100,000 and 250,000 spectators, fanatically gathered to cast their eyes, and fortunes, on racing horses. Long before fields of Thoroughbred three-year-olds would spring with the latch of a 20-stall gate to vie for blooms beneath shadows of twin spires, pedigreed stallions imported from North Africa and Hispania, harnessed in teams, emerged from twelve gates and shoulderd their chariots precariously around the Circus Maximus’ inner track spina.
Racing, under rider and before chariot, was immensely popular in the ancient world. Going back as far as 684 BC, the Greeks included equestrian sport in their Olympic games, with riders and drivers competing on the behalf of owners. While only men could physically participate, it was due to owners being recognized the winner of such contests that Princess Kyniska of Sparta, in 396 BC, became the first woman to win an Olympic sport. Her team of horses claimed victory in two games. A bronze statue honoring them and their breeder was erected in Olympia, and another marker of Kyniska’s feat was raised in Sparta’s Plane-tree Grove, a tribute never bestowed to woman before, as only kings were so-esteemed.
It was little surprise that the Romans would take such sport to another level at the Circus Maximus, with up to twenty-four races on some days. Pedigrees, victories, even manner in which a race was won, were committed to record. Before Man o’War or Secretariat, Abigeius and Compressore cultivated fervent fandom and many beloved steeds were honored in mosaic praise. One such tiled work found in Africa bears unconditional adoration: “Vincas, non vincas, te amamus, Polydoxes,” which translates to “Win or lose, we love you, Polydoxes!” These horses sped pulses as they elevated the status of the men in possession of the reins, making them superstars. Flavus Scorpus amassed 2,048 victories, Gaius Appuleius Diocles would race for 24 years and come to be thought of as the best paid athlete of all time.
The Roman Empire would eventually grow too large to support its own foundation. Over-expansionism, corruption, and a nomadic tribe which essentially lived on horseback, would cross the Volga River and lay waste to all who opposed them, forcing further instability in the empire. Eventually, it would be Attila the Hun, about whom it is written that no grass would grow where his horse had trod, at the head of their forces. Rome managed to survive his reign, which ended in 453, but the chaos wrought through the years took its toll and in 476, the last emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustulus was deposed, and what some would come to call the “Dark Ages” draped its veil upon the remnants.
The horse would, literally, pull through. While these Middle Ages lacked the kind of grandeur and feats seen over the course of the preceding classical eras, it did see innovation. Agriculture was advanced with inventions like the heavy plow, the widespread use of metal horseshoes, and the introduction of the horse collar into general employment in Europe. Equines could outwork their oxen counterparts, and their efficiency led to manorial laborers increasing production and in turn, provided them a means by which to unyoke themselves, as it were.
The horse harness system for agriculture is believed to have been developed centuries prior in what is present day China, during the Warrior States period, which covered 475-221 BC. In 221, Qin Shi Huang, who had rose to power in his state at 13-years-old, consolidated China as its “First Emperor” at the age of 38. In addition to connecting the northern border sections of what we call the Great Wall, he left his archeological mark, ordering the construction of the life-sized Terracotta Army to guard his tomb, a necropolis of thousands of silent sentries and hundreds of ornamented horses, weighing in at around 750 pounds each, discovered in 1974.
The Han Dynasty rose following the Qin and with it, the Silk Road would be paved, motivated heavily by its ruler’s desire to safeguard his kingdom from assault by nomadic horsemen. He sent out an emissary to find allies and during these travels, in the Ferghana Valley, in what is now Uzbekistan, the “heavenly horses” were found. The Dayuan, descendants of Alexander the Great’s forces, bred these imposing equines, coveted for their size, speed and stamina. They would not trade their treasure in the measure desired and so, in 104 BC, the War of the Heavenly Horses ignited, lasting three years, to satisfy the numbers of “tianma” the emperor craved. In seizing them, the Han Dynasty was strengthened not only militarily, but economically, leading to greater trade.
The veins of the Silk Road stretched across Eurasia and into North Africa, pulsing with the exchange, not only of livestock and goods, but of culture, language, and innovation. Life would course along its networks through the most significant turning points in world history. The rise and fall of empires were marked as footprints upon its paths, the word of Christ was carried upon its arms. In addition to Christianity, followers of Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam would traverse its roads. The latter was founded in the Arabian Peninsula, where the Bedouin had, for centuries, been the wardens of the “drinkers of the wind”.
The Arabian breed is one cloaked in legend. Some believe them to be the wind itself, condensed. In a cave in present day Turkey, its carved proto-type likeness was found and dated to 8000 BC. The Pharoahs of ancient Egypt honored them in relief and inscription, and their beauty is timelessly held in esteem in the Biblical Song of Solomon. The Bedouins would come to be most closely associated with them, refining the breed, and holding them, in particular the fierce mares who carried these tribes across deserts and into war, in such reverence, that they would share their tents and pass down stories of their valor, and tail female lineage through oral tradition. The best were so coveted, that even obtained through conquest or theft, to keep their lines pure, the former owners would ensure their history changed hands with them.
Al Khamsa would collectively describe five celebrated strains that would emerge, each distinct in the qualities expressed. From racing to warfare, their feats became lore, and even those on the opposite side of battle would desire them, including the armored knights of the Crusades. They brought with them formidable steeds, including destriers and, more commonly, coursers, but found the nimbleness of the Arabian an asset, too. Saladin, whose army faced off against that of King Richard the Lionheart, was not only a respected military strategist, but a student of Arabian pedigree. A story emerged and has been recounted countless times since, that, during the Battle of Jaffa, the final clash of the Third Crusade, Saladin was so moved witnessing the bravery of an unmounted Richard risking his own neck on foot to protect his men, that he sent two prized Arabians to the king.
The first documented Arabian pedigrees date to 1330, and the discrimination with which they had been bred throughout time remained as strict. These horses were a matter of honor, and fascination, which captured the imagination and admiration of horsemen in Europe. King James the I of England, it is written, purchased the Markham Arabian (which had been imported from Constantinople by Mr. Markham), in 1616 for an extraordinary 500 pounds. Charles I and II were integral to improving English stock further, credited with having cultivated the “Royal Mares”, but the sires of dynasty were yet to lay the path to the future.
This brings us to the bay Keheilan-ras-el-Fedawi, “The Headstrong”. He was born in 1700 in the Syrian desert, bred by the Anizah tribe (also known as Annazzah or Anazah), to which the royal Saudi family of Al Saud belongs. It was there that Queen Anne’s Consul to the Levant was taken with the colt. In a letter addressed to his brother he wrote, “He is about 15 hands high, of the most esteemed race among the Arabs, both is sire and dam, and the name of the said race is Mannicka.” The strain, known for its speed, would be imported by this merchant of Aldby Park, a fellow named Thomas, where he would come to be known as the Darley Arabian. He is the most celebrated of the three-founding fathers of the Thoroughbred breed, the other two being the Byerley Turk and Godolphin Arabian.
In 1764, 27-years before James Weatherby would publish the first volume of the General Stud Book, a chestnut colt from the Darley Arabian sire-line, and out of a mare by Regulus, a son of the Godolphin Arabian, was born. He was named Eclipse, and this undefeated racehorse would make such an impression in life, that he is still honored in death as the symbol, in name and figure, bestowed to the champions of today.
Columbus, Cortez, Coronado, De Soto… when they made conquest of the “New World”, they brought with them their Iberian horses, ancestors of which still roam our great American plains. Likewise, the English colonists brought their equines, importing the first Thoroughbred stallion, Bulle Rock, a son of the Darley Arabian and out of a daughter of the Byerley Turk, in 1730.
In 1775, the American Revolutionary War would commence, and though independence would be declared in 1776, the last major land conflict would not be won until 1781. It was in October of that year that George Washington, whom Thomas Jefferson referred to as the “best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback,” rode into Yorktown aboard a steed named Nelson, favored for his steadfastness in the cacophony of war, to accept the surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis.
The war would officially end in 1783, but its individual battles made an indelible mark, becoming the inspiration for tale, song, and other forms of tribute, among them, namesakes. In 1798, Colonel John Hoomes imported Diomed, who had won the inaugural running of the Epsom Derby in 1780. Diomed would sire Sir Archy, bred by Colonel John Tayloe and Captain Archibald Randolph. Sir Archy would father the great racehorse Boston. This winner of 40-of-45 races was so called for the Siege of Boston and sired another famed horse named for Revolutionary glory – Lexington.
He was originally named Darley, as his breeder, Dr. Elisha Warfield, thought he resembled the illustrious Arabian, but he would be bought and renamed by Richard Ten Broeck. He showed tremendous ability as a racehorse, but had to be retired due to failing eyesight, yet no one could have foreseen that he would go on to be the leading sire in the United States 16-times. His offspring garnered fame not only on track, as is the case with -the- Preakness, whose namesake race is the second jewel of the Triple Crown, or in the shed, with his daughter, Sarong, producing the first winner of the Kentucky Derby, Aristides, but on the battlefield, as well.
The “finest horse that he had ever seen,” is how Ulysses S. Grant described Cincinnati, a son of Lexington, and favored mount during the Civil War. Only two others were allowed to ride the over 17-hands high Thoroughbred: Admiral Daniel Ammen, who had rescued Ulysses from drowning as a boy, and President Lincoln himself. According to Grant, “He came to City Point in the last month of the war and was with me all the time. He was a fine horseman and rode my horse ‘Cincinnati’ every day.” It was aboard Cincinnati that Grant went to Appomattox to confirm terms of the Confederate Army’s surrender with Robert E. Lee, whose horse, Traveller, was also a celebrity. The bond between these equine soldiers and their generals was inextricable. These men had counted on their bravery and sure-footedness as the world around them fell from grace, resonant with the sound of cannon fire and agony. Following the war, it is written that Grant turned down an offer of $10,000 in gold, roughly over $150,000 by today’s measure, for the stalwart charger that had carried him through one of the most pivotal chapters of the world’s history.
Horses would prove indispensable during another, as World War I saw the importation of nearly a million hooved heroes: horses, donkeys, and mules from America to supplement the British forces. Motorized vehicles were still novel and unreliable, so as they had for century after century, horses were called to duty, bearing the weight of their officers and straining against that of their war machines. This conflict, however, was unlike any they had faced before, charging into trench warfare, barbed-wire arresting their assailment, mortars and shrapnel raining from the sky, smoke and mustard gas clouding the horizon. Yet, wrapped in the history of such unimaginable evils that would claim the lives of tens of millions, as well as millions of service animals, is the Cinderella story of the “horse the Germans could not kill”, a Thoroughbred named Warrior, whose dam was named for the fairytale princess.
Warrior had been bred to be a cavalry mount by his owner, General Jack Seely of the Isle of Wight. He would serve through all four years of the Great War. He survived shell fire at Ypres, machinegun aerial assault in Somme (which claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 British soldiers on the first day of battle), was pulled, sunk belly-deep, from the mire en route to Passchendaele, and led one of the last crucial cavalry charges in history, hindering the Germans at Moreuil Wood. Almost as extraordinary is that, exactly four years later, the bay gelding would win a point-to-point race at home on the Isle of Wight, where he would be the subject of fanfare until his passing at the age of 32, and 100 years later, he was posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin medal, the animals’ equivalent of the Victoria Cross.
Mechanization advanced between the first and second World Wars, but cavalry was still employed during the latter, though in much greater number, by the Nazi opposition. Some numbers report that the Germans used nearly three million horses and mules. The misery and death born from the mind of Adolf Hitler was incomprehensible as he endeavored to break the world and raise it anew for his twisted version of a master race, but the machinations did not stop with the desire to mold man into what he considered fitting of the definition, but of steeds worthy of his seat.
The majestic, white, Lipizzan steeds of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, known for their strength and beauty in execution of military maneuvers akin to that of ballet, were seized following the Nazi annexation of Austria 1938. The broodmares were sent to the countryside in Hostau, Czechoslovakia, where other coveted equine specimens, among them Thoroughbreds, had been taken as the genetic building blocks of this “super breed”.
The Nazi scourge would finally be defeated in 1945, but not before upwards of an unfathomable 70-million lives had been claimed by death or disfigurement. With the end of the war and the United States Army’s advance into Germany, an extraordinary event took place, motivated by a love for the equine. Fearing the horses at Hostau would be claimed by desperate elements who would mistreat or even butcher them, as the Red Army had already done to stallions of the Royal Hungarian Riding School in Budapest, a German officer surrendered himself in hopes of their rescue. Colonel Charles Hancock Reed, a horseman from Virginia, informed General Patton, who gave the go ahead to, “Get them. Make it fast,” leading to the successful execution of Operation Cowboy, in which the Americans, along with former German forces, among them Cossacks, worked together to escort hundreds of horses to save haven.
Another horse who had survived the war, sheltered from bomb and theft, was an undefeated racehorse, bred by the incomparable mind, Federico Tesio. Ahead of the commencement of WWII, Tesio, wary of Italy’s support of Germany, sold the Darley Arabian sire-lined stallion to Martin Benson of Newmarket, England, who had the fortified stable prepared for him at his Beech House Stud. Though Nearco was notorious for his aggressive nature, what he lacked in mildness, he more than made up for in prepotency, becoming a sire not only of champions, but of future sires, too.
Consider the devasting impact on the breed had Nearco not emerged from the underground and seen the daylight of peace. Without him, there would be no Nasrullah, no Nearctic. Gasp with wonder and relief that he did not fall prey, for without Nearctic, there would have been no Northern Dancer. Had that been the case, then there would be no Nijinsky, Nureyev, Dixieland Band, El Gran Senor, Danzig, or Storm Bird, so no Storm Cat…. No Northern Dancer would also mean no Sadler’s Wells… in turn, no Galileo, and hence, no Frankel… Without Nearco siring Nasrullah, our books would be absent of Nashua and his daughter, Gold Digger, dam of Mr. Prospector. Gone, too, would be Nasrullah’s son Bold Ruler, and consequently, our definition of greatness would not be awe-inspired, as we would not have been moved to tears, our mouths agape, hearts speeding wildly upon realizing the boundaries of possibility had been shattered by the innate majesty and dominance of Secretariat, whose records in each leg of the 1973 Triple Crown still stand.
He graced the cover of Time in an era that that the nation needed something to raise morale, as, since the 50s, first the Korean War (in which a mare named Sergeant Reckless would attain immortality for her bravery in moving supplies through perilous terrain), and then Vietnam took its toll, as did political discord.. As the prolific writer William Nack put it, “Secretariat suddenly transcended horse racing and became a cultural phenomenon, a sort of undeclared national holiday from the tortures of Watergate and the Vietnam War.”
Without the Nearco line of Bold Ruler, the Hall of Fame would be lacking another Triple Crown champion in Seattle Slew, a son of Bold Reason by Boldnesian, who would later sire a Hall of Famer out of a daughter of Secretariat: A.P. Indy. It is through 1992’s Breeders’ Cup Classic victor that another dynasty has been found, as he became a sire-of-sires, including Pulpit, who is responsible for Tapit.
It’s overwhelming to digest the ramifications just in racing of a single horse being erased from history, but as you view the modernized world around you, remember, the soaring skyscrapers, vehicles and signal towers are but in their infancy on this ancient globe. Remember, there are people still alive whose parents grew up with cars being rare luxuries for the rich. Until its mass production began in the early 1900s, it was the horse which carried society. Whether on its back or behind it, the steadfast steed has heeded our charge to war, raised glittering empires and golden fields of wheat, conveyed wares, innovation, and revolution on hoof-beaten paths. As you sit on your computer or smart phone, remember it was the bridled embodiment of wind which conducted the exchange of culture and language on dusty networks spanning the then-known world.
As you ponder the turning points of our history, be mindful that the horse was there, beneath or beside, overcoming oppression and depression. In light of that truth, as dark as these days in 2020 may feel, there is a comfort, and wonder, that while horses have widely become a foreign vestige of antiquity, flesh and bone replaced by wires and steel, their roles cast for sport, as thought no longer required for survival, they prove their existence bound to ours, yet again. As the globe has ground to a seeming halt, there is solace seeing one of the most integral and enduring relationships we have outside of our species still in harmony, still on track, each shod hoof commanding the ground below to erupt, manes and tails sailing like banners declaring we shall not surrender hope. How fascinating that the travails now suffocating this modern world would be assuaged by those who drink the wind? Reflected through the lens, their images digitized and channeled upon invisible signals before pulled into focus on flat screen televisions, they still manage to take us along for the ride.
No one knows with certainty when man first climbed upon the back of a horse. There is no question, however, that it was one of the most defining moments in all of history. You can only imagine the moments preceding it. The tightening ache that comes holding one’s breath while commanding nerves to quiet the tremble of an outstretched hand…The wide-eyed equine gaze as it drew close, ears flickering, nostrils drawing wide, aquiver with anticipation as fingers threaded through mane in search of withers to leverage weight… You can almost envision the reflexive twitch rippling across that horse’s tensed muscles as a leg drew up and over its back. You couldn’t even begin to imagine the rider’s view from that seat, because neither could they. They had no idea that the entirety of the world was now in sight, a vantage gained not through subjugation, but alliance, and one which, to this day, enables us to see past the present to a better tomorrow.