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A Horse, Of Course? Horses in British Culture

Earlier this month, on June 3, a protester from the Animal Rising group ran onto the racetrack at Epsom, in an attempt to disrupt the competition. As the race had already begun, the protestor was caught and barreled off to the side of the track by police and security officials to prevent injury to the oncoming horses and riders.


That the protest occurred in an equestrian space says much about the centrality of the horse in the British past, as well as present. A nearly identical protest occurred 110 years ago when suffragette Emily Davison ran in front of King George V’s horse during the same race, the Epsom Derby. In 1913, the ending was far more tragic – Anmer (the King’s horse) smashed into Davison at a running gallop of about 35 mph. The collision caused Anmer to somersault, crushing jockey Herbert Jones and knocking him unconscious. Jones survived with a concussion and injured arm; Davison, suffering a fractured skull, never regained consciousness and died of her injuries four days later. Jones would later commit suicide, possibly over guilt for her death.


An old aquatint print shows a busy racecourse mid-race. A crowd gathers to watch the rides, with high stands holding viewers. A cloudy sky hangs over the twelve riders, all racing at high speed.
James Pollard, "Ascot Heath Race for His Majesty's Gold Plate," 1826. Yale Center for British Art. Public Domain.

These protests – then and now – draw attention to the role of the horse in Britain, especially before the equine pageant that is Royal Ascot. Today the racing spectacle occurs over five days (June 20-24), with almost £10 million in prize money. The event’s history stretches back to 1711, when Queen Anne) mandated the creation of a racecourse on Ascot heath. By 1752, the meeting had become so popular that London was all but deserted when races were running: “I could find no soul to dine or sup with,” complained Mr. Rigby to the Duke of Bedford.

Almost 300 years later, 300,000 attendees are expected to flock to the grounds over five days – a fraction of the 5 million who annually attend a racing fixture in the UK. Horse racing is the second most popular sport in Britain (behind football, obviously). And Britons don’t just watch horse sports: some 3.2 million people have actually ridden a horse in Britain over the last year, according the British Equestrian Trade Association’s (BETA) National Equestrian Survey for 2022/2023. Although fox-hunting was banned in 2004, “trail hunting” with hounds on an artificial scent continues. Before COVID, at least 250,000 joined these hunts on Boxing Day alone.


Given the popularity and importance of horses in Britain, it is ironic and disheartening that there have been relatively few scholarly studies of their history and culture. Early works of “horse history” were primarily written by riders and enthusiasts, those with insider expertise but not always academic training. After all, it takes time and effort to know horses well enough to ride them, let alone write about them. In 1972, J.H. Plumb despaired that there was “no work by a professional historian on horse-racing, or indeed on horses…” Studies of horse-racing did eventually appear (such as Wray Vamplew, The Turf, 1976), alongside several books on fox-hunting, already the subject of political controversy (see David Itzkowitz, Peculiar Privilege, 1977). Thanks to the herculean efforts of Peter Edwards, Mike Huggins, Donna Landry, and others, the horse slowly emerged in sport and cultural studies during the early 2000s.


These scholars sought to recover a world we have not just lost, but forgotten. As recently as 60 years ago, the horse was ever-present in daily life, from leisure to agriculture to transport to warfare. Ulrich Raulff’s perfectly titled Farewell to the Horse examines our “dehorsification.” In the nineteenth century, the ratio of horses to human was 1:10 in Britain. It wasn’t until the 1950s that horses were replaced by tractors for agricultural field labor. Underground, there were still some 20,000 “pit ponies” working in mines after World War II; it was very nearly the 21st century (1999) when the last working “pit pony” was formally retired.


An image shows a mounted guard at Buckingham Palace next to a sign that reads "Beware Horses May Kick or Bite!"
Andrew Black, "Beware Horses May Kick or Bite!" 2015. Image courtesy Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/xW1DQY.

But in Britain, horses were not just for work or even for play. They became a symbol of the nation. Every tourist to London clamors to see the Changing of the Guard (but mind the sign “Beware! Horses may kick or bite”), while the Mounted Branch of London’s Metropolitan Police has a horse strength of 110 (by contrast, the largest mounted unit in the United States in New York is about 50). It seems every pub in the UK has equine themed decor on its walls, and there are countless boozers across the country with names like The Fox & Hounds, The Coach & Horses, The Horse & Groom, The Nag’s Head, or The White Horse, harkening back to a more horsey age. These are tangible aspects of an equestrian past that still touches us today, even if subconsciously.


Horses remain written on the British landscape unlike in any other country. Not just in the horses passed on public bridleways (40,000 km in the UK, by the way), but in the 17 equine hill figures across Britain today, the most famous being the prehistoric Uffington White Horse. For centuries, equestrian culture was a major part of British national identity, not to mention social and gender identities – and it remains so today. Where else but Britain could the debate about banning fox-hunting take up 700 hours of Parliamentary time, but the decision to invade Iraq only seven?


A thin white outline of an abstracted horse appears against a dark black background. The image looks like a graphic abstracted outline of a horses form.
Uffington White Horse, sketched by William Plenderleath, 1892. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But just as the recipe of “add women and stir” did not fix the women’s/gender history problem, “add horses and mix” has not solved the equestrian conundrum. In 1983, Keith Thomas indicated that horses were a “privileged species” and as such should be considered differently in their relationship with mankind. Research divides into equestrian history and equine study – the former via the human/rider, and the latter via the horse in the vein of animal studies (although as Susanna Forrest points out, any attempt to tell history from the point-of-view of the horse is “ventriloquy”).


Seeking to fill this research gap is the Equine History Collective (EHC). The group was formed in 2016 “to support equine history research and its dissemination and promote collaboration between equine historians in all disciplines.” Over 100 researchers are listed, spanning the globe from the US, UK, Europe, to Brazil and South Africa, and beyond, and now there’s even a bi-annual journal. But this research – as fine and nuanced as it is – has yet to integrate into the larger historical community. For example, a search of the Journal of British Studies for “equestrian” yields only 27 results (none actually relevant to “horse history”). There are no stand-alone articles on equestrianism in JBS, and the most recent book review is from 2017. By contrast, The International Journal of the History of Sport featured 15 major articles in that time, and Sport in History another eight.


But like sports history as a whole, equine history in Britain (and beyond) has been transformed in the fifty years since J.H. Plumb regretted that the field did not exist. My own work, on how the invention and improvement of the side-saddle liberated women by allowing them to ride to hounds, and then to shape British horse culture, national identity, and the imperial experience, owes a great debt to advances in all these fields of scholarship. Horse history is shaped far more by what was outside the race track than by what happened on it. I believe that we can tell a truer story by bringing horses into that wider narrative. After all, the horses were there all along.


That is particularly true of Britain, for while horses were central to work and play in many countries around the world, no nation took them more to heart than the UK. Emily Davison’s death at the hooves of the King’s horse was deeply symbolic. So the history of horses, equestrianism, and wider horse culture in Britain should not remain confined to a subgenre of sports history. It must, as it is starting to be, become part of the broader study of Britain’s culture, society, and life. The irony of British horse history is that horses achieved an integration into the lived experience of Britons in ways that their history is still striving to achieve in the study of that past.



 

Erica Munkwitz is a historian of modern British and European history. Her research focuses on gender, sport and empire in modern Britain, specifically women’s involvement in equestrianism. She is the winner of the 2018 Solidarity Prize for Excellence in Early Career Equine Research, as well as the 2016 Junior/Early Career Scholar Award from the European Committee for Sport History. Her book, Women, Horse Sports and Liberation: Equestrianism and Britain from the 18th to the 20th Centuries, was published by Routledge in 2021 and short-listed for The Lord Aberdare Literary Prize for the best book on any aspect of the history of sport in Britain. She is currently researching her second book on horses, landscape, and national identity in Britain.


 

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