Let's explore the Grand National Steeplechase featured at the end of the 1944 movie National Velvet starring Mickey Rooney as Mi Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown. Here is a clip of the race from the movie: National Velvet Grand National.
First, here are some fun facts about the film.
1. Mickey Rooney was young once. Yes, this surprised to me, too.
2. The horse actor who played "The Pie" was named King Charles, and he was a first cousin to the famous thoroughbred racer Seabiscuit. Man O'War was their grandsire.
3. King Charles was gifted to Elizabeth Taylor after filming. They had developed a strong bond while making National Velvet that MGM decided to gift him to her on her 13th birthday. She kept him for the remainder of his life.
In the movie, The Pie is entered in the Grand National Steeplechase, one of the most exciting horse races in the world. The race was founded and designed by William Lynn and first raced in 1836. The race became official in 1839 in Liverpool, England where it is still raced today.
The circular course consists of 16 fences, but 30 jumps as the first 14 fences are jumped over twice. The total race distance is 4.5 miles long.
Notable fences on the course are fences 6 & 22 known as "Becher's Brook," fences 8 & 24 known as "The Canal Turn," and fence 15 known as "The Chair."
At Becher's Brook, the horse jumps up 5', but then lands 6' 10" down. With the longer fall, jockeys need to lean far back in their saddles to keep their seats.
At the Canal Turn, the horses jump over 5', but then need to immediately turn 90 degrees to the left. This turn has been known to confuse horses as some of them have wanted to keep running straight and not turn. There used to be a ditch before this jump, but it was removed in 1928.
The Chair is the tallest fence standing at 5' 3" with a 6' ditch on the take off side. The ground is also 6" higher on the landing side. It is also the only jump in the race's entire history to have claimed a jockey's life in 1862.
In the movie, Mi and Velvet cannot find a jockey to ride "The Pie," so Velvet decides she will race him even though she knows her and The Pie would be disqualified once the officials found out she was a girl. It was not until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 passed that made it possible for female jockeys to compete. The first female jockey rode in the 1977 race, and the first one to complete the race was in 1982. The female jockey who had placed the best is Katie Walsh in 2012 placing in 3rd.
Here is a video of the actual 1962 Grand National Steeplechase that shows how intense this race is: 1962 Grand National
Have any of you been to the Grand National Steeplechase? What was your experience?
Have you ever wondered where the concept of a unicorn came from? Unicorns are mythical creatures who are described as white horses with goat beards, long thin tails, cloven feet, and have a single horn coming out of their foreheads. They are wild woodland creatures who symbolize purity and can only be caught by virgins.
In the movie Legend starring Tom Cruise, the unicorns are sacred creatures in the forest and they bring light to the world. In the movie, they are portrayed by large, white Andalusian horses with single horns attached to their head. Their horns can be seen wobbling as the horses are running towards the camera. You can watch clips of the unicorns in this video (you will also see young Tom Cruise with a uni-brow): Legend Unicorns video.
So, where did the concept of the unicorn come from? Well, the description of a unicorn was first written down by a Greek doctor named Ctesias from the 4th-century BC who traveled through Persia with Indian men who told him about the animals back in their homeland. One of these animals was described as a wild donkey as big as a horse with a white body, a red head, bright blue eyes, and a long, single horn extending from its forehead. The Indians also spoke about how the horn had magical properties, and when grounded down and ingested could help with stomach problems, epilepsy, and poison.
Most likely the Indian men were telling Ctesias about the White Rhinoceros who is as big as a horse, has a white body, and a single horn on its head. Sorry to spoil the romance.
It was not until the Medieval period that the unicorn, as we imagine it today, appeared in Christian art and became associated with the Virgin Mary and Christ as being a pure creature that can heal. Unicorns were also believed to rather fight and die than be captured, hence why they were chosen as Scotland's national animal and can be seen in British coats of arms today representing Scotland.
Would you want to own a unicorn? Can you imagine trying to manage a horse that had a long horn coming out of the middle of its forehead? How the heck would it fit inside a horse trailer comfortably? Thoughts?
A topic I will explore in this post comes up in the movie Running Wild. This movie is about a woman who is threatened to have her family's ranch taken away because of unpaid debts. When she finds a herd of starving wild Mustangs on her land, she decides to work with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and open her ranch to have convicts come and care for and tame the Mustangs to make them suitable for adoption.
A big problem the BLM faces with wild horses is there is not enough grazing land to sustain large populations. With the lack of predators, horse herds can easily double in size within a few years. The BLM set up a horse adoption program so private citizens could take in these horses, but many people are not interested in adopting unbroken horses. The BLM did not have the resources to hire multiple trainers, so they came up with a solution to have groups of prison inmates train the horses under the guidance of a professional horse trainer. This program is formally called the Wild Horse Inmate Program (Whip.)
The prison inmates are from medium to low security prisons, and sign-up to volunteer to work with the horses. They are brought out to a ranch each day, and they learn to feed, water, and care for the horses. They first have classroom training to learn about horse behaviors and training methods, and then they are put to work. Over the months, the convicts learn patience, gentleness, and compassion to earn the the horses' trust and make them suitable to ride. The program has become very successful in helping to find these horses homes and also helps the inmates as well. The inmates learn life lessons and social skills that they may not have learned before going to prison. Some of the prisoners have gone on to become farriers or work on horse farms after their release.
Here is a great video and article showing real prisoners working with the wild horses. This quote from one of the men really grabbed my heart:
"Learning how to love that horse; I did not not know how to love. That was a big thing for me, too. I did not know what love was."
VIDEO: Rehabilitation Program Pairs Prisoners with Wild Horses
Here are some interesting statistics provided by the BLM.
- 3,735 horses were removed from public lands to control herd populations.
- 2,905 horses were adopted out to private owners
- 1,430 horses were trained by non-profit groups, volunteers, and federal and state prisoners.
In the 2002 animated movie Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, there is a scene when U.S. Army soldiers capture Spirit and attempt to incorporate him into the U.S. cavalry. You can watch the scene here: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
At the end of the scene, you can see the farrier attempting to use a hot "US" branding iron on Spirit. In 1853, the United States military started branding their horses on the left shoulder with the "US" mark showing the horses belonged to the United States government. In the mid 1880s, the branding was modified to include the number of the regiment below the company's letter on the left hip. When a horse was decommissioned, it was branded with a "C" for "condemned" on its right shoulder.
Tracking individual horses in the military had become an arduous task. Farriers relied on physical descriptions in their logs to track when each horse was last shod and their age. Can you imagine trying to track twenty bay horses with star markings or twenty chestnuts? As one can imagine, this method proved to be very inaccurate and disorganized.
Around the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865,) the Preston system was developed where a unique four-digit serial number was burned into the front hoof of each horse. The problem with hoof branding was farriers needed to re-brand the numbers every six months and sometimes the numbers would become illegible if the hoof wall was damaged. In 1912, the military started experimenting with lip tattoos placed on the inside upper lip for identification. By WWI, lip tattooing had replaced hoof branding.
Today in the United States, freeze branding has replaced hot iron branding as a permanent branding method. Freeze branding uses liquid nitrogen and alcohol to take the dark pigment out of the skin, making the skin white and the hair grow white. The only horses that are branded today by the U.S. Government are captured Mustangs set up for adoption and horses that are carriers of equine infectious anemia. The brand placed on Mustangs contains the registering organization (the U.S. Government), the year the horse was born, and then the serial number.
Mustang gelding adopted out by the Bureau of Land Management (USA). You can see its freeze brand on the left side of its neck near the mane's crest. Photo by Ealdgyth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hoof branding can still be done if owners wish to have their horses branded temporarily. Some horse owners have branded their zip codes on their horses' hooves if they are in a high risk danger area where they may need to evacuate quickly. Some horse clubs will also brand hooves for special memberships.
Lip tattoos are still used today on certain breeds and racehorses to match them with their registration papers which includes their full name, birth year, breed, owner, and history. It is also a way to help identify stolen horses.
Branding is starting to give way to micro-chipping. It's still very new in the equine world, but as people are becoming more familiar with it, I can imagine most registered horses being chipped in the near future.
Horse Owners - do any of you have a branded horse?
If you are a STARZ Outlander fan, you will likely recognize Ronnie B. Goodwin from Season 1 as he played one of the 18th-century Scottish Highlanders of the MacKenzie clan. He can mainly be seen with the other MacKenzie men riding through the countryside escaping the English red coats, collecting the tenant rents, and keeping an eye on the strange Sassenach woman. His character never had a name or any lines, but he did have a formidable presence on screen that was hard to miss.
Ronnie was gracious enough to agree to an interview with me and answer some questions about his experiences working as an actor on Outlander and working with the horses in the show. He also shared some information about his personal passion for horsemanship and photography.
Can you tell readers who you are, where you live, and your experience in film?
My name is Ronnie B Goodwin. I live in a small town called Dumbarton about 30 minutes from Glasgow, Scotland. I have been making films and working on films since my early 20's predominately riding horses and acting. I always have had a love for film, photography, and art. My background is in engineering, farming, and most outdoor activities along with a love for adventure and exploration.
How did you hear about and audition for Outlander? Did you take a riding test to show you knew how to handle a horse?
One morning I was doing my usual emailing and social networks, and an ad appeared on Facebook "Bearded Horseman Required," so I clicked the "Like" button. Next day, I was being auditioned for a little known show called Outlander. It was the first days of auditioning, so I got to meet the main cast, show runners, and mingle a bit. From that day on, I had the most intense, enjoyable, miserable, and taxing experience of my life. I was cast as a Highlander Horseman-no name, no lines, just a lot of shouting.
Tell me about the horses you rode in the show.
I was handed a 17.2 [hand] Hanoverian called George - an old hand at filming. He was in War Horse and Van Hellsing, and his CV (resume) was greater than mine. He was a very gentle giant and responded to almost every instruction I gave him. His ability to not spook and keep his head was fantastic as guns shots and squibs were going off every time we were out on set. He was a joy to sit on.
Was there any other horse on the show you wished you could have ridden such as Sam Heughan's (Jamie Fraser) Friesian or Graham McTavish's (Dougal MacKenzie) Percheron? Did you get to ride any of the other horses seen on the show off-screen?
I was on George for the duration of my time on the show (8 months) on and off, not consistently. I did wish I was on a smaller horse at some points, particularly when having to mount and dismount 20 times in a row. I am tall, but after awhile it got quite exhausting. I would have loved to sit on Sleepy - Sam's horse. Never had the chance to ride off-screen other than the riding auditions.
Do you have any funny stories about the horses on set? I heard in an interview that sometimes the horses would take off with the actors and the camera people would keep rolling hoping to get some good shots.
On one occasion I was to mount George, and then lift Roy on to the back of mine as his horse had been shot from under him. I mounted, leaned down to gather up Roy, and his weight took the two of use off the horse. My feet were still in the stirrup irons, and I ended up upside down under George; my kilt was around my ears, and the entire crew were watching. We had been in the wet all day and George was very wet, and as the day went on his girth loosened. The groom got a ticking of as did I.
There were a couple of occasions when horses were spooked and both horse and rider would be off like a shot. Nobody was hurt, but a few red faces :).
I saw some interviews from the main actors who talked about how the horses were cared for more than them. During breaks, how were the horses cared for?
The horses were very well cared for. There was always a vet nearby, and yes, fed and watered more regularly than cast and supporting actors. I was happy to see the care they received.
Did you have much time to work and get comfortable with the horses you rode before you started filming or did you arrive on set and ride a strange horse?
We showed up, the horses were tacked and ready, we got on and started our day. Sometimes after long periods of standing around, we would walk the horses to keep them warm.
What is it like to ride in a kilt? Was it hard to keep a good leg grip and stay steady in the saddle? Would you ride in the kilt again on your own time or never again?
Firstly, the saddles were Portuguese saddles with big thick sheepskin numnahs (saddle pad,) and this made it tough to grip. I could barely touch the horse with my heels. The saddles were high in the front and high in the back, so mounting was always a task; always fiddling with the kilt after seated on the horse, not very Highlander, and riding in the kilt was not so bad. Getting off was sometimes difficult as I got tangled on the high points of the saddle with steel weapons and musket, could get messy, but all went well. On my own time, I would never ride in a kilt; always getting nipped on the thigh, and could get very cold and wet. Crazy times :)
Have you been involved in other film productions where you worked with horses?
I was a rider on Lorna Doune many years ago. Also, umpteen short films and work for TV.
Tell me about your history with horses. What breeds have you owned?
I owned for a short while a Clydesdale cross Irish Draft named Leah. He was a big sweetheart and still works for the disabled kids. I had to sell him when he turned 5.
Where is your favorite place to ride a horse in Scotland?
When I visit my sister, we go for the occasional ride on the grounds of Balmoral. She breeds Highland Ponies for the Queen. Balmoral is also where I take pictures on a good day.
Tell me about your photography. How did you get into it? What do you enjoy shooting the most?
I make films as well as photography. My career took a bit of a twist. Last day shooting on Outlander, we were making the Time Warner ad for the show; riding and doing my thing. On the way home I started to sweat and feel extremely sick. I had been bitten by a tick, and soon after I found I had contracted Lyme. So for the next almost 3 years I had to rethink my career and get healthy, so I put down my film camera and started gathering wildlife images, landscapes, etc. I had no energy to make a film so did what I could to keep active. My images are now how I make my living.
Describe your style and what you hope to communicate with your photos.
I simply like to make pictures that get me excited, and when I put them on my site, it is a joy to see people from all over the world purchasing my work and hanging the images in their homes. As far as style is considered, I have worked hard to create my own style; unique I would think.
Where in the world would you like to travel to photograph? I see you were able to get some great pictures in Colorado.
I love to travel Scotland as the light always changes, and even a mucky day can look amazing. I did travel to Colorado. I had an event organised by my good friend Brian Terpstra. I did a talk at the Drake Centre, we explored the Rockies, did some fishing for wild trout, ate a lot of food and had a ball. I am hoping to do a proper explore on my next visit.
Below is a sample of Ronnie's beautiful images including some wonderful shots of Scottish ponies. You can view his whole collection and purchase images on his website https://ronniebgoodwin.selz.com/
Great thanks to Ronnie for this interview and for giving some great behind-the-scenes on Outlander and what it's like to act with horses. Please check out Ronnie's websites and follow him on social media.
Gallery and shop: ronniebgoodwin.selz.com
As 2017 comes to a close and I look back at all my posts from this year, I am so grateful I decided to jump into the world of blogging - particularly horse blogging. Let me open up to you all and tell you why I decided to start blogging. I am a stay at home mom to two very young boys who are currently 2 1/2 years and 8 months old. Back in June, it was the one year anniversary of me quitting my job and becoming a full-time stay-at-home-mom. While I do like being home full-time with my boys, I became very bored. My whole world was only about being a mom. The majority of my social life was with other moms and we naturally only talked about our kids and mommy things. I wanted to have something I could focus on that was not related to babies. One interest I had to put aside in my life, even before I had kids, was my love for horses and equestrianism. I have not owned a horse since I was a teenager, but I have worked at barns and volunteered with horse rescues, but currently because of the lack of time, I was not able to be around horses and connect with the horse community. How could I connect with other equine enthusiasts if I was not working with horses? I came up with the idea to start a blog when I was watching one of my favorite TV shows that brought up horse topics that I knew non-horsey people would not understand. So, I logged onto Weebly, wrote up my first post inspired from the show Outlander and talked about horse breeds in 18th-century Scotland, and hit the PUBLISH button. After not getting blasted with negative feedback (I seriously thought people would find my writing boring and juvenile), I kept posting about a new horse subject from a movie or TV show every two weeks. I connected with other equestrians on Twitter and then was invited to join an equestrian blogging group on Facebook that has been nothing but positive and supportive. Through this group that is mainly consists of bloggers from the United Kingdom, I found a blogger who lives literally ten minutes away from me in Western Washington. We met up, rode horses, and have become good friends. Here is a picture of us below.
I have become friends with other horse enthusiasts online who, unfortunately, live far away, but I hope to meet in person someday. It's amazing how close knit the equestrian community is all around the world and how willing people are to open up about their struggles with themselves, their horses, and life in general. While I am very busy with my family, I love logging online and reading everyone's new posts about their journeys with their horses and horse related activities.
In conclusion to this post, I would like to tell you all my three favorite posts in my blog from 2017.
1. Outlander - Scottish Horse Breeds
This is my number one because it was my first post. I will always remember how nervous I was when I published this and the kind of feedback I would receive. Happily, it was received well and has been one of my most popular posts.
2. Ben Hur - Roman Chariot Racing
The first time I watched the chariot racing scene in the 1959 Ben Hur movie, my jaw was on the floor because I knew nothing in that scene was CGI. You could see the raw power of the horses racing around the hippodrome and the actors holding on for their dear lives. I had so much fun researching this scene and reading up on the history of horse chariot racing in the ancient Roman world.
3. Interview - Les Amis Stunt Team of Scotland
I was able to secure an interview with the Les Amis Stunt Team in Scotland and learn about the overall process and preparation that happens before a horse actor goes in front of a camera. I do hope to do more interviews with stunt people and movie horse handlers in the next year.
Thank you everyone who has supported me on my journey as an horse blogger. Thank you for all the comments whether they be on social media or in my blog's comment section. I hope everyone has a very happy New Year and I look forward to connecting with you all in 2018!
Today, I want to focus on a scene from the 1979 movie The Black Stallion. Watch here: Swimming Black Stallion saves Alec. In this scene, the stallion has already jumped off the burning ship into the water before Alec, the boy, falls in. When the stallion appears, he can be seen swimming towards the boy while keeping his head above water.
To film this scene, the film crew used an actual horse in a water tank and had attached wire cables to the sides of his halter to guide him towards the kid actor. You can see these wires in some of the shots. All the sudden, the horse's head gets pulled hard to his left side and turns him upside down where we can see his legs thrashing above the surface. This was actually a mistake done by the horse handlers as the person controlling the horse’s left side wire pulled too hard and flipped the poor horse over. Luckily, the horse was able to correct itself and get its head back above the surface on his own and swim on.
Horses can swim if they need to. Their bodies are buoyant enough to keep their heads just above the water to breathe and their powerful legs are able to push them forward. Horses in the wild will swim across rivers to richer grazing grounds or to escape from land predators if necessary. However, since they are not built for swimming, they can only tread water for a short time before they become exhausted, which puts them at great risk of drowning. I recently read a news article about a girl who took her pony swimming on the beach and the pony panicked in the water and swam further out into the sea because he did not know how to turn around, and then he drowned.
Many horse owners today love to take their horses swimming to cool off during the summer months. Some precautions horse owners should keep in mind is to make sure their horses become comfortable in water before they take them swimming. Also, be mindful that water does not get into the horse's ears as they can not drain easily and can get infected. Lastly, be mindful of hypothermia. A healthy horse’s temperature is between 99 - 101F (37-38C.) If a horse stays in cool water for too long, they can become hypothermic. A good rule of thumb to follow is if the water is uncomfortable for the rider, it’s probably uncomfortable for the horse.
Equestrians - have you ever taken your horses swimming?
Ever wonder how a horse is chosen for a film role and what preparations need to happen before a horse sets foot in front of the camera? I was able to interview the Les Amis Stunt Team from Scotland to help answer these questions and get some wonderful insight on what goes on behind-the-scenes to prepare horse actors to work in a film production.
Can you tell me about who the Les Amis Stunt Team is, where you are based out of, and what you do with horses?
We are a stunt team based in the borders of Scotland. We specialise in live performance shows such as cossack style trick riding or jousting & themed stunt shows such as wild west or barbarian shows, which we take all over the UK & Ireland. We also perform a lot of equestrian theatre shows, bringing theatre and horses together.
Within our shows we perform many stunts such as rider falls, drags & many trick riding moves, our horses also perform many tricks such as bowing, standing on pedestals & rearing up. Being able to perform trick riding, stunts & horse tricks you have a perfect advantage before going onto a film set.
We have been asked to & have done bits & pieces of small film & T.V jobs with our own horses, but on larger productions we work for larger teams & supply riders & grooms only.
When film makers contact you requesting horses, do they usually know exactly what kind of horses they want for their film or do they ask you for suggestions based off what their film is about?
It can really depend on what the film needs as to if they will ask for a specific horse or type of horse. For example we have recently been involved in a production about a viking princess, so they were obviously looking for a Norwegian Fjord horse as another breed would not have really worked. Which was perfect for us as we have Onion our Norwegian Fjord horse, who has been with us for nearly 10 years.
Generally for smaller productions or back ground work they just need the horse & rider combination who can do the job properly. Although most productions will prefer Friesian & Andalusian horses.
When organising with the production you have to discuss what is required of the horses & riders, make sure you have a place to livery the horses close enough to set & organise enough ground crew to look after & prepare the horses for their days work.
As we are based in Scotland we like to keep things local, so if it is possible we will transport our horses back to our farm or in the past have had the production company come to our 75 acre hill farm or local area to use as the set.
Do you research and make/order historically accurate horse tack for the different time periods the films take place in or do you usually use modern equipment?
A combination of both really, accuracy is a very important part in many film jobs but safety during stunts is paramount. Generally we (Les Amis) make all of our own saddle, bridles, trappings & breastplates. We make our trick riding saddles, historical saddles (such as roman & border riever) & historical side saddles, this way the fit to the horse is best & we can make the saddle exactly how we want/need it.
Other equipment such as harness and general purpose saddle we will purchase. With the exception of roman chariot harness, I am not sure where you would start to look to buy those, but luckily our saddlers whipped them up as easily as anything!
For our live shows we research what era tack we are in need of, so we have a bit of a stock pile when a film jobs comes up.
I am curious about what goes on during a typical day on set with a horse. Do the horses get lunged before filming to get their jitters out and help them to be more calm for the actors riding them? What else needs to be done to prepare the horses for a day on set?
Generally the day will start by feeding the horses & transporting them to location, once there usually the grooming or washing will start. Tack & equipment are often cleaned before heading to location, but if not then it will also need to be cleaned before it goes to set! (even though it is often covered in dirt by the break down department immediately!)
Yes, the horses will be either exercised before an actor rides them or warmed up before going onto set, if they will be expected to work quite hard. More often than not horses are just in the background, so they are just needed to stand & chill out while the actors do their bit.
Do you ever need to help horses get accustomed to props, actors' costumes (such as big frilly hats), or set pieces? Ever have problems of horses shying away or becoming nervous of what they see on set, such as large filming equipment?
With our own horses they all undergo a lot of training & desensitisation to strange & scary objects & with an understanding of training they are all very good at quickly calming down if something has frightened them. It is very good for us to be able to take our horses out to live performances as performing in a main arena with thousands of spectators is a good start to working around the hustle & bustle found on a set. With a combination of young and older/experienced horses the young/inexperienced ones take great confidence from the others.
Personally our horses all live out as one big herd which gives them the ability to trust in their own instincts as well as following their lead horses into worrying situations.
I have seen interviews where actors confess they did not know how to ride a horse before shooting their film, but told their casting director they did to help them get the part. Do you find most of the actors you work with have some horse riding experience or all they all true beginners?
The actors that we have worked with with our own horses have all had a fairly basic knowledge of riding, so a lesson or two is needed before going in front of the camera.
We are more than happy to take the time to help an actor with their riding as it will be of great benefit to the film & also a benefit to the horse he/she will ride.
Which of your horses gets the most requests for film work?
The main horse that has particularly been requested is Onion our Norwegian Fjord horse & this is of course because of his breeding.
I see most of your horses are Friesians and Andalusians, which are two very common breeds used in movies and shows now a days. Why do you think they are so popular in movies and shows today?
Friesians & Andalusians are very ancient breeds, so for historical shows or movies they are a very accurate breed. They are also particularly fancy & amazing to look at, which gives them the wow factor when performing in front of a live audience or a camera. But they are also lovely to train & work with & will really put their all into learning a new trick or movement!
Follow Les Amis Stunt Team on social media.
Special thanks to Les Amis Stunt Team for the wonderful interview! I look forward to seeing you and your horses on the big and small screens!
Why don’t humans ride zebras? When I was younger, I always wanted to own a zebra after watching the National Geographic shows and save them from the lions and hyenas.
In the film Racing Stripes, a zebra gets left behind by a circus and then is rescued by a farmer and his daughter who live near a horse racing facility. After watching the racehorses, the zebra decides to become a racehorse with the farmer’s daughter, and they take a journey that ends with them winning a race against the formally trained Thoroughbred racehorses and earns their respect.
This film begs the question, why were zebras never domesticated by humans? They would have been very helpful for African tribes to use to farm and haul supplies, so why were they never yoked and broken to ride? After doing some research, I found out humans have tried many times to harness and saddle the zebra, but the problem was that zebras could never be truly tamed by man, unlike their European equine cousins. During the British colonization of Africa, there were attempts to domesticate the zebra as it would have saved the expense of importing horses from Europe and acclimating them to the hotter and drier climates, and new diseases. There was very little success in taming the zebras as they were very difficult to catch, and were very aggressive and unpredictable. Some people who have recently tried to ride zebras under saddle say they will be completely fine one day and the next day act like they have never seen a saddle nor a human before. Zebras tend to cause the most injuries even to familiar zookeepers.
One famous example of “successful” domestication was when Lord Rothschild famously harnessed four zebras and had them pull a carriage to Buckingham Palace, but even Lord Rothschild admitted he would not do anything beyond putting the zebras in harnesses.
So what makes zebras different from their European equine relatives? The big difference is their environments. Zebras have always lived in the African savanna where there are many large predators such as lions, crocodiles, hyenas, and man. Comparatively, European horses did not have as many predators in their habitat, so they did not need to develop such high alertness and very aggressive behaviors to fight off predators. Without these intensified survival instincts, European horses were more trusting and were able to bond with humans, and then throughout the millennia of domestically breeding out aggressive behaviors, man and horse have created a very close relationship, while zebras have kept their primal survival instincts intact and their distance from man.
Hayden Panettiere, the actress who rides the zebra in the movie, did say in an interview she tried to bond with the four zebras used in the film, but it was difficult and they would kick and bite at her. She also said riding a zebra was very different from riding a horse as they are short and wide. I also bet their gaits are not very smooth.
If a zebra was able to be domesticated, could it competitively race against Thoroughbreds? One may think that having to run away from lions would make it a very fast runner. Zebras can run 35-40 mph which is about the same speed that Thoroughbreds typically race at, however, zebras are not endurance runners. Zebras may be able to keep up with a Thoroughbred in a short sprint, but not in a mile long race.
Seriously, how fun would it be to see people riding zebras at horse shows today?
In Season 1 of TURN: Washington’s Spies in the episode “Against Thy Neighbor,” Captain Simcoe secretly feeds Major Hewlett’s beloved horse, Bucephalus, a poisoned apple. Once Bucephalus ate the apple, he immediately reacted by violently bucking and rearing, and then ultimately collapsed with foam coming out of his mouth. To relieve the horse’s suffering, Captain Hewlett shoots his horse in the head.
This scene got me thinking about what poison(s) existed in the late 18th-century that could have had an immediate and sudden effect on a 1,300 lbs (I am estimating) horse, and be small enough to hide in an apple.
Before I start examining possible poisons Captain Simcoe may have used on Bucephalus, let’s first look at the design of a horse’s stomach. One of the biggest drawbacks to the horse’s digestive system is that it cannot regurgitate anything that enters the stomach. The ability to regurgitate is a body’s defensive mechanism to quickly push out harmful parasites and material, but horses cannot perform this action because of the way their stomachs are designed. The muscles around their lower esophageal sphincter are so strong that they can’t relax enough to let gas and food go back up the esophagus. Once something enters a horse’s stomach, it can only go one way, so a horse needs to be cautious of what it eats. Typically, horses will avoid certain bitter tasting plants that are known to be poisonous or unhealthy. If something tastes very bitter, a horse will usually spit it back out. When my horse injured his knee, I had to give him some bitter tasting anti-inflammatory medication for a week. He refused to eat the medication alone, so I had to mix it with some honey and hide it in his molasses grain for him to eat it.
So what poison could Captain Simcoe have used that was available in the 18th-century that would have immediately harmed the horse, not have a strong bitter taste, and be small enough to disguise in an apple? One possibility is a chemical called strychnine. Strychnine was a popular poison used in the 18th-century mostly to kill rats and other rodents, and sometimes people. Its symptoms included immediate muscle stiffness and then ultimately suffocation because the airway muscles would become paralyzed. However, it would also take a very large dose to kill a horse. Bucephalus did not show these symptoms and the amount of strychnine needed to harm him could not have been disguised in an apple. The possible and the most probable poison used was arsenic. Signs of arsenic poisoning in a large dose are abdominal cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, and then shock. Arsenic does not have a bitter taste and a large dose is small enough that it could have been hidden in an apple. While current horse owners, hopefully, do not need to worry about their horses being intentionally poisoned, horses do die from accidental poisoning by consuming very poisonous plants that can be found near pastures or in gardens. Here are six plants that are common in the United States and can be found in Europe that are highly toxic and can quickly kill a horse.
Water Hemlock - Found near fertile and wet areas. It takes about 2 pounds to kill a horse and can be fatal within 15 minutes of ingesting.
Yew tree - This causes sudden respiratory and cardiac arrest. One mouthful can be fatal. Horses have been found dead with the leaves still in their mouths.
Red maple leaves - The leaves become poisonous when they wilt. Consuming only 1 to 2 pounds can cause kidney and liver failure.
Oleander - Mostly grows in hot climates and planted in gardens. This affects the horse’s heart rate. About 30 to 40 leaves can be fatal.
Foxglove - Grows near forests and meadows and very common in gardens. 3-4 ounces can stop a horse’s heart.
Rhododendron - Typically found in gardens. 1-2 pounds of leaves can lead to cardiac arrest a few hours after consumption.
I am Amy. I love movies, TV, and horses. I grew up with horses and taught kids how to ride during my summer breaks from school. Now I am a country girl living in a city hoping to someday move back into a rural area and own a horse again.