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.
In the show Downton Abbey, there are a couple scenes over the seasons showing Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and his oldest daughter Lady Mary Crawley hosting a fox hunt. First, a brief history about English fox hunting. English farmers would take their packs of dogs over the countryside to hunt foxes who threatened their livestock. It was not until the 18th-century when an aristocrat named Hugo Meynell bred hounds specifically for hunting foxes and used horses for the chase across the English countryside. Foxhunting then became a popular sport for the rural aristocracy. While fox hunting has been banned in most of Britain due to concerns in regards to animal cruelty and property trespass, the equitation skills and traditions still live on and are celebrated in English riding disciplines and competitions today.
First, let’s look at the coats worn by the hunters. Watch this scene and pay attention to the colors and the number of buttons on each character's coat. Downton Abbey Fox Hunting scene.
During the official fox hunting season starting in the autumn after the harvests, the riders wore melton coats - tightly woven wool coats with a smooth finish - that kept the riders warm and dry. The colors and number of buttons distinguished the staff and other participants in the party. The main hunting staff were the Master of Foxhounds, the Huntsman, and the Whips.
The Master of Foxhounds organized and directed the hunt. He would wear a scarlet, single-breasted coat with square corners and four brass buttons.
The Huntsman directed the hounds and carried a horn to communicate with the participants in the hunt while the Whips carried rope or leather whips, as you saw in the scene, to keep the hounds together. They all wore scarlet coats with round corners and five brass buttons. Gentlemen, such as Lord Grantham, could wear a scarlet coat or a black coat with three buttons, and ladies riding astride could wear a dark navy, grey, or black coat like Lady Mary. The hunting staff would wear bowler hats while the gentlemen could wear either a bowler hat or a top hat. Everyone would wear white stocks around their necks with a horizontal pin, tan or white breeches, and a black knee high boots. The stocks and pin could serve as a bandage for a wound or use as a sling if the rider was injured on the hunt. The knee high boots protected the lower legs from being scratched by bushes and brush. In modern competitions, hunt riders and jumpers will usually wear a black or navy coat typically with three buttons and a white shirt underneath with a high collar and pin.
It was not unusually to see ladies participate on the hunt with the gentlemen, but usually they rode in a sidesaddle. Watch this clip of Lady Mary in a sidesaddle: Downton Abbey - Lady Mary in habit.
Lady Mary was wearing a riding habit, which was a full length dress designed for riding in a sidesaddle. When the lady sat in the saddle, her dress bottom hem would hang horizontal and not slanted like a normal dress. In this clip, Lady Mary was also wearing a double-breasted, dark melton coat with a top hat and thin veil. Personally, I would not mind wearing a veil while galloping through the countryside as it would help keep the bugs out of my eyes and mouth. Women who ride sidesaddle in shows today still wear riding habits with top hats and a veil.
Horses and Equipment
There was no designated hunting horse breed, but a rider would want a horse that was athletic, sound, and obedient. Thoroughbreds or Thoroughbred-crosses were the most popular choices because of their stamina and ability to jump high, but ponies and even light draft breeds were used by hunters.
The saddles, called hunt seats or forward seats, position the rider to sit forward. Unlike other English saddles, the stirrups are shortened making a deeper bend in the rider's knees. This helped the rider to lift his or her weight out of the saddle into a "two-point contact" position - the rider’s legs are the only points of contact with the horse vs a "three-point contact" where the rider's buttocks are in the seat. The two-point position takes the rider's weight off the horse's back to allow the horse greater movement to run faster and jump higher. I grew up riding in a western saddle, so when I rode in a hunt saddle for the first time, I felt like I was perched on top of the horse and had to balance myself more, but I could tell how my horse did have more freedom to move. Hunter horses were ridden in a simple bridle and snaffle bit with one rein. Sometimes pelham bits, a combination of a snaffle and curb bit with double reins, were used on less experienced horses.
Watch this clip of Pamuk and Lady Mary going over a fence and through water: Downton Abbey - Pamuk and Lady Mary.
There were many obstacles throughout the English countryside for hunters to overcome, such as stone walls, wooden fences, hedges, ditches, logs, water, and uneven terrain. The horses had to be accustomed to these obstacles and trustful of their riders to lead them through. These equitation skills can still be seen in equestrian competitions today, such as cross-country equestrian eventing.
Some equestrian cross-country eventers write about their competitions and the challenges they and their horses face, such as amateur British equestrian Nicki Strong, author of Head Strong Equestrian. Check out her blog www.headstrongequestrian.com and her Facebook page Headstrong Equestrian to see all the amazing photos of her and her horses riding through courses that replicate the obstacles similar to the ones found in the English countryside.
Aspects in the fox hunting sport have changed in recent decades and there is still much active debate about the future of the sport, however, the equestrian skills and traditions that have developed in this sport are still seen and celebrated around the world in equine competitions, including the Olympics.
The scene we are going to look at in this post is from Game of Thrones Season 1 when Ser Loras Tyrell challenges Ser Gregor Clegane "The Mountain" to a joust. In this scene, Ser Loras rides a white mare and Ser Gregor rides a black stallion (click here to watch). You will notice the black stallion starts nickering and becomes agitated when the white mare gets close to him. As Lord Petyr Baelish "Littlefinger" then explains later to Ned and Sansa Stark, the white mare is in heat, giving off a scent signaling she is ready to mate and causes the the black stallion to become distracted, which ultimately makes Ser Gregor lose the match.
The sex of the horse was an important factor to consider for soldiers and noblemen when choosing a war horse. Considering the two choices - a stallion (male) or a mare (female)- there were benefits and vices to each sex. Stallions develop thicker muscles than mares, which helps them to carry heavier loads and run faster. They also tend to have more energy. The main drawback in stallions is their proneness to become aggressive. In the wild, stallions fight each other over mating rights to the mares. Domesticated stallions still have these strong instincts to fight and reproduce, which generally makes it difficult for their human masters to control them when other horses are nearby, especially mares in heat. There are exceptions to this general statement as many well trained stallions in high level competitions today do not always, if at all, exhibit aggressive and uncontrollable behavior.
Mares tend to be more docile than stallions, but they also can have troublesome behaviors, especially when they are in heat in the spring and summer months. They can be inclined to nip and buck at other horses, and be overall grumpy. Some mares become very sensitive and unfocused, and have a difficult time minding their riders.
So, which sex did army soldiers tend to use? From records, stallions were the most popular choice, partially because the mares were reserved to reproduce and replenish the cavalry. However, there was still the problem of how to manage a group of testosterone-filled stallions and keep them from injuring each other while out on campaign.
There were some simple solutions to manage the stallions naughty behaviors, such as taking the very aggressive stallions away from the group and keeping mares away from the stallions. Wild stallions, who do not have a herd of mares, will live in “bachelor groups” and are able to cooperate with one another without any problems, so it can be assumed cavalry stallions could tolerate each as long as there were no mares to compete over. Muzzles were also used on some stallions who had the inclination to bite, but this was only a temporary solution until the stallions were trained out of that behavior.
A proactive method to prevent aggressive behavior from developing in male horses was to castrate them, turning them into geldings. Castration has been a practice in many ancient cultures for centuries. If a colt was castrated early, he could avoid developing aggressive behaviors and become very docile. He would not attempt to flirt or bolt at the mares and would not feel the need to fight other males.
Today, most horse owners castrate their male horses unless they plan to breed them. When castrated, horses usually are sedated and given an anesthetic before their testes are removed by a veterinarian. But how did people castrate stallions before the time of modern animal medicine and not get hurt by the horse who did not care to have his testicles removed? Well, there are a couple methods that have been found in old records. One method found in ancient Roman records was to use “gelding irons.” We can only guess what the irons looked like or how they immobilized the horse, but my guess is they would be used in the same way people use rope to temporarily impair a horse. Today in the US, some farmers will tie-up a colt’s legs, knock him over, and have others sit on him while someone cuts the testes with no anesthetic. Since horses are considered livestock like cows and sheep in the US, horses are not required to have a trained veterinarian castrate them, while in Great Britain, it is required by law that horses have a licensed veterinarian with medicine to perform the procedure.
Another method was to tie the testes so they would atrophy and fall off. This method had less risk of infection since there was no open wound, but would still be uncomfortable for the horse. Whatever the method used to castrate a stallion before modern drugs, it was never an easy task for the horsemen or a comfortable one for the horses.
Today, most people will opt to castrate their stallions to make them more manageable. Modern medicine limits the risk of infection, but back in earlier times, it would have been tough to risk having a well-bred stallion be castrated and be open to the great possibility of infection. Many people who do handle stallions today are usually very experienced horse handlers, and take extra precautions when handling them in the vicinity of mares. I personally thought it was very clever what Ser Loras did in this scene to give him an advantage. Maybe Ser Gregor should think about riding a mare next time.
Special thanks to Ruby and Hannah for their insights in working with stallions.
Ruby Butchers is the author of EquiPepper.com focusing on changing negative attitudes towards Thoroughbreds, in particular ex-race horses.
Hannah Ibbotson is the author of Jack's Kissing Spine Story that tells her journey with her horse Jack, and his recovery from kissing spine.
This article is slightly different from my previous posts, but it is still inspired by a movie. In modern movies and shows at the end of the credits, there is a phrase: “No Animals were Harmed.” This phrase is not put in the credits by the free will of the film producers to assure the audience they did not harm any animals in making their film, but the phrase actually needs to be granted by meeting the strict animal care guidelines written up by the American Humane Association. Founded in 1877 in Cleveland, Ohio, the AHA’s mission was to fight for the humane treatment of working animals and livestock. Before the AHA started monitoring Hollywood film sets in 1941, film makers had the liberty to do what they wanted to animals to capture dramatic shots, no matter the expense to the animals. There are numerous cases where animals were severely injured and/or killed during stunts with no precautions taken to prevent harm. It was all done for the sake of entertainment. Not until the AHA started bringing attention to the abuses that happened to animals in the film industry, did the public protest for humane treatment of the animal actors.
The 1936 movie Charge of the Light Brigade, starring Errol Flynn, was one of the early films that had a dark shadow cast over it for how cruelly the film director treated the horses. Errol Flynn wrote about the horse abuse in his biography My Wicked, Wicked Ways:
“Horses have been perhaps the most badly treated animals in the motion picture industry. Especially in the days when these early Westerns [Charge of the Light Brigade] were being ground out. A device called “the running W” was used on horses. A trip wire, to make the animals tumble at the right instant. The stunt man, riding the horse, knew where the trip wire was. He knew when he had to get off and all he had to do was take a fall. But the horse would go headfirst, and sometimes get hurt and have to be shot. They stopped this because so many horses broke their legs and their necks, and there were protests by the actors and the public.”
Here is a clip from Charge of the Light Brigade showing horses being tripped by "the running W." Unfortunately, this clip is very poor quality, but you can still see the horses falling: Charge of the Light Brigade - horse falls.
Hollywood did eventually start to find ways to get its dramatic shots with less harm to horses and the actors. Errol Flynn continued:
This gave ride to a wonderful breed of man. This was the stunt man who would train a horse so well that he could ride down the side of a cliff, and at a certain signal, the rider, putting his left foot under the horse, could trip him. The horse knew he would be tripped. It looked just as good, and nobody was hurt.
Since 1941 when the AHA became involved in Hollywood, the treatment of animals has drastically improved, resulting in less and less animal injuries and deaths on sets. Today, when a film wants to include animal actors, the producers need to contact the AHA and have their script reviewed by AHA representatives who will then make suggestions and changes in the script to insure the safety of the animals. An AHA representative will also be present on set with the animal actors to make sure the guidelines are being met, and then will approve the film to advertise that "No Animals were Harmed" in the credits. If you wish to see all the current guidelines, you can check out the AHA's website here: http://humanehollywood.org/index.php/on-the-set/certification-definition
From the AHA guidelines document updated in 2015, I pulled out a few rules that are specifically directed towards the humane treatment of horses and now prevent abuses that can be seen in Charge of the Light Brigade.
Actors riding and handling the horses
8-76 No cast members, extras or animal handlers shall be allowed to ride or work with a horse unless they have adequate riding skills and horse knowledge. At a minimum, all riders must be skilled enough not to jerk or twist the horse’s mouth. It is the producer’s responsibility to ensure that cast members obtain adequate training to prevent such unintentional cruelty.
8-77 Anyone required to ride on a production must first be auditioned by the wrangler boss to determine his/her riding ability. Productions, animal handlers and American Humane Association shall work collaboratively to ensure that people required to ride are qualified to perform the action required.
a. Only riders from the approved wrangler boss list may be hired.
b. Production must provide adequate lead time for such demonstration and determination prior to filming American Humane Association will have final approval of the skill, knowledge and physical limitations of any rider.
In this clip (click here) from Charge of the Light Brigade, the actors, including Errol Flynn, can clearly be seen pulling harshly on their reins and making their horses open their mouths in pain.
I really question how much riding and horse experience some of those actors had before this film.
Stunts and horse falls
8-87 When filming horses or livestock lying down, production must prepare the ground by making sure all rocks and other debris are removed. The ground should be softened by the use of peat, sand or other soft substance and/or by digging up the ground.
8-92 Only trained falling horses shall be used to perform horse falls; only trained jumping horses shall be used in jumping scenes; and only trained rearing horses shall be used in rearing scenes. Rearing horses must not be pulled over backwards.
8-93 For running horse/livestock falls, the ground shall be prepared to cushion the animal’s fall. In determining the number of falls allowed, consideration will be given to how the ground is prepared, length of approach, condition and skill of the animal, method of fall, and other adjacent action.
a. The ground should be softened either by spreading 4 or 5 cubic yards of sand, peat or other soft substance, or by digging up the earth, making sure that all rocks and rough clods are removed.
b. For running horse/livestock falls, the area should not be less than 20 square feet, 12 to 19 inches deep, and filled with sand or other similar materials. It must be checked for rocks, glass and other potentially harmful materials.
c. The softened earth should not be covered by materials that may lessen the effectiveness of the prepared ground. For example, grass clippings rather than sod should be used. The entrance and exit routes to the prepared horse-fall areas must be checked for hazards as well.
I highly doubt there was any ground prep for the horses to fall on in this film.
8-126 When a pistol is fired from horseback, the weapon shall be held at no less than a 45-degree angle to the horse’s head. This will decrease the chances of powder flashes causing burns to the horse’s corneas.
8-127 When firing a pistol or carbine from the ground, the weapon shall not be pointed at a horse.
8-128 When firing any type of artillery piece around horses, quarter loads must be used. Although an animal may be accustomed to loud noises, there is a danger of damage to an animal’s ears from the percussive force of the ammunition.
8-129 Artillery pieces being fired must be a minimum of 25 feet from the nearest horse.
In the scene during the gunfight, many of the horses looked very frightened by all the guns going off, indicating they were not desensitized to the gunshot sounds. I also wonder if any of those guns were at half charge.
Hollywood has come a long way in treating its horses and other animal actors with dignity and respect. In other film and show interviews I have seen, the human actors mention the animals usually get better treatment than any person working on set. Since the strict guidelines of the AHA have been implemented on film sets, filmmakers have come up with creative ways to display dramatic, astounding shots that feature horses without compromising their safety, whether it be by the camera angle or by using puppets or CGI.
It’s comforting to know when I watch a scene in a modern film and I see a horse performing a fantastic stunt, I know the horse and the stunt person are well trained and strict precautions have been taken to ensure their safety. However, knowing what I know now after researching the abuses done to horses in early films, my heart aches and it sickens me knowing that the horses were very likely ill treated, injured, and possibly killed during the making of those films.
In the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves, I want to examine the symbolism behind the markings plains Indians painted on their horses. It is commonly believed that Indians only painted their horses for battle, but they were also painted before buffalo hunts. Specific symbols were reserved for hunting to display a horse's past achievements, and bring protection and good luck to the horse and rider. Watch this clip on YouTube that features the character John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) riding with the Lakota warriors to a buffalo hunt, and pay attention to the symbols painted on the horses.
On Dunbar's horse, named Cisco, there were zig-zag patterns painted on his legs. These symbols represented lightning bolts that gave honor to the lightning god and were believed to give the horse greater speed.
Kicking Bird's horse, the white horse in the group, had a ring painted around its eye and blue patches with white dots on its shoulder and rump. The ring around the eye was meant to enhanced the horse's vision while the blue with the dots represented the buffalo tracks in the ground, which indicated the horse had participated in successful buffalo hunts in the past.
Wind in His Hair's horse, a dark bay, had horseshoes on its hind quarters and a hand print on its shoulder. The horseshoe symbols showed how many other horses this horse helped steal from rival tribes and European settlers. It was common for plains Indians to steal horses to enlarge their own tribe's herd. The hand print on the shoulder meant that the horse brought its owner back from a previous dangerous mission.
Other hunting symbols that could be painted on horses were a circle around the nostril to enhance the horse's sense of smell; a fence painted on the jaw to keep the good luck from escaping from the mouth; a buffalo painted on the shoulder gave thanks to the Great Spirit for past kills; yellow triangles on the hooves made the horse more sure-footed and nimble; and the sun was to wish for good weather as it was dishonorable to hunt during bad conditions.
Paint colors did have some meaning to individual tribes, such as red for the color of blood and blue for the color of wisdom, but individuals would use what ever colors were available at the time with no special meaning. Colors were usually made out of different colored soils, charcoal, and flowers; and then were mixed with something to help it stick, such as animal fat or urine.
Here are some fun facts about the buffalo hunt scene in Dances with Wolves:
In this post, I am going to write about ancient Roman chariot racing inspired by the epic scene in the 1959 film Ben Hur starring Charlton Heston. You can watch the scene here: Chariot Race Scene. In this post, I am going to throw some Latin words around, so bear with me.
The circus or arena set in Ben Hur was modeled after the Jerusalem hippodrome built by Herod the Great in the late first century BC. The hippodrome, meaning "horse course," was designed by the Greeks, and later used by the Romans. This type of arena was traditionally only used for horse races, but the Romans would also use it for other games and events. It was shaped like a horseshoe with a square portico at the end that housed the race horses and chariots. In Ben Hur, it took about a thousand workers to build the arena that spanned eighteen acres in the back-lot of Cinecitta Studios outside of Rome. The spina, the median strip, was built with tubing, wood, and plaster and stood forty-feet tall. Thirty-six thousand tons of sand were brought in to cover the surface to help keep the horses from going lame. The arena had cost one million dollars to make, and the whole scene totaled four million dollars and ten weeks to film. Sadly, the whole set was dismantled after the film was completed.
In the film, the race was made up of teams of four horses called a quadriga, meaning four yoked. The two outside horses were called the funalis and the two middle ones were the iguales, or the actual yoke horses. The funalis were the faster horses who would set the pace, while the iguales were the ones who pulled the weight of chariot and kept it steady. All the horses would need to work as a team and match pace with each other and take signals from their driver on when to slow down and when to speed up. An uncooperative, flighty horse would have spelled disaster for the whole team. The inside funalis horse, the one closest to the spina, would have had the most difficult job because he had to lead the team around the sharp turns while keeping the fast pace. When a specific horse was named in a quadriga in ancient records, it would usually be the inside funalis horse. In the scene when Judah Ben Hur was asked to race Sheik Ilderim’s team, he speaks about moving his smartest horse to the inside funalis position.
In the film, Judah Ben Hur’s horses were called Arabians, but the horses used were actually Andalusians and the other horse teams were made up of Lipizzans. Ancient Roman chariot race teams would have very likely been made up of close ancestors to the modern Arabian. When ancient Roman records mentioned horse breeds, the African breed was the most favored compared to the Spanish, Gaulish, Greek, and Cappadocian breeds. The African breed was described to have the characteristics of speed, endurance, intelligence, and hard hooves which are all present in the Arabian.
The driver, usually a male slave to the owner of the team, would need to be very fit to compete in this kind of race. He would need to have the strength to steer four galloping horses and help balance a 900lbs chariot around the sharp turns. Unlike other arena sports, the driver did not race in the nude, but would wear a tunic with a breastplate, leg wrapping, and a metal cap. Charlton Heston was experienced with horses before coming onto this film, but he had to spend a month learning how to stand in a chariot and control a four horse team.
The starting line was called the creta, or white line. Starting positions would be determined by drawing lots. Each driver chose his position as his name came up, so there was some strategy on where a driver chose to be placed. Drivers usually wanted to be as close to the spina as possible, but another option would be to be placed next to a team that could be easily intimidated and pushed out of the competition. The horses would run counterclockwise around the spina seven times, although in the film, they ran around nine times. I am not sure if this was an adaptation by the film to make the race more dramatic, or if various ancient circuses would set up their races differently. At the start of the race, teams would sprint to get as close to the spina as possible for the turns. Most crashes happened on the turns where men and horses would be severely hurt if not killed. An altar to honor Taraxippus, a ghost who scared horses, would usually be placed on the turns. I guess everyone can blame a Taraxippus when their horse frightens for no reason. Dirty tactics were used to gain advantages, such as cutting off, tailgating, crowding, and even whipping another team's horses. These tactics were frowned upon, but were considered part of the nature of the sport.
There were surprisingly no serious injuries for the actors or horses in the making of this scene. The actual race horses in ancient Rome would have been susceptible to strained tendons in the legs, cracked hooves, and strained backs. Records describe care methods to help heal some injuries, such as treating a horse’s eye that had been hit by a whip or how to treat a cut tongue, which indicates how the harsh bits were. The film brought in and trained about eighty horses, so if horses became tired or injured, they could be replaced.
The driver would most likely had to deal with grit flying up from the ground and getting in his eyes. It’s amazing these drivers could have even seen where they were going. Charlton Heston had to wear special contacts to protect his eyes from all the flying debris. Drivers would have also been subject to leather burns and blisters from the reins as the actor Stephen Boyd who played Messala suffered from during filming. And of course, if crashes happened, both horses and drivers would have been tangled in leathers and possibly be crushed by their own chariots or been trampled over by another team, as was depicted a few times in Ben Hur. Another risk was drivers usually wrapped the reins around their waists, so they were in danger of being dragged by their horses if they crashed, but in the film the actors only wrapped the reins around their wrists.
Roman chariot racing was a very dangerous sport, which made it very appealing in the Roman masses. Every major Roman city and town would have had a circus arena, and horse racing was one of the most favored sports to watch. I thought Ben Hur's adaptation of capturing the excitement and the danger involved in a Roman chariot race while staying historically accurate was done very well.
In the Outlander Season 2 episode titled "Untimely Resurrection" when Jamie and Claire are in France, there is a scene where Jamie goes with the Duke of Sandringham to purchase some horses. In the scene, Jamie inspects a horse's teeth and says, “They claim they’re 3-year-olds, but this one has seen a fair few seasons more.” While not an exact science, inspecting a horse’s teeth can give a fairly accurate estimate of a horse’s age.
Age is determined by inspecting the 12 front teeth called incisors. Like humans, horses have two sets of teeth: “baby” also called “milk teeth” and "permanent teeth."
Age 1 year
All the “baby” or “milk teeth” have erupted. They are smaller, rounder, and have a lighter color than permanent teeth.
Age 2-3 years
The middle, permanent incisors on the upper jaw erupt and will come in contact with the lower incisors at about 3 years of age. Permanent molars have started coming in by this time.
Age 4 years
The canine teeth have erupted and the corner incisors are not in full contact yet.
Special note: Mares usually do not have canine teeth, but stallions/geldings do. Canines are also known as "fighting teeth" and have no benefit for eating.
Age 5 years
All the permanent teeth have replaced the “milk teeth.” The horse now has what is called a “full mouth” and all the incisors are in full contact.
Age 8-10 years
Teeth at this point are starting to show wear and yellowing is present. When the permanent teeth erupted at 5 years, there were cups on the biting surfaces. At about 10 years, the cups on the lower, corner incisors will have disappeared. Cups are still present on the upper, corner incisors.
After 8 years, it becomes more difficult to accurately estimate age.
Age 10 years
The incisors start angling more forward and the upper incisors start to look longer. The teeth will start looking less round and more triangular. A dark groove starts to appear at the gum line on the upper corner incisors called the Galvayne’s Groove.
Age 15 years
The Galvayne’s Groove will reach half way down the incisor. All the cups on the biting surfaces of the upper and lower teeth are gone. Lower incisors start to look shorter than the upper incisors as the teeth angle becomes more acute.
Age 20 years
Galvayne’s Groove will span the whole length of the incisor teeth from top to bottom. The teeth are more angled and look more triangular. They will also be very yellowed.
Age 25 years
The top half of Galvayne’s Groove will have disappeared. The angle of teeth is very steep and teeth look very worn.
Again, inspecting a horse's teeth is not an exact science in determining its age. A horse that has spent much of its life out on pasture and a horse that has been stabled its whole life can have very different looking teeth even if they are the same age. Vets and horse owners take into account the horse's over-all appearance to estimate its age, such as if the horse's hips and spine are starting to protrude or if there is gray hair around the eyes and muzzle.
So, I suspect that Jamie likely saw that the horse had a "full mouth" and the lower and upper incisors were in full contact, indicating that the horse was not 3 years old, but probably somewhere between 5 and 8 years old.
Fun facts: Have you ever heard the phrase, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth?" It means to not be ungrateful towards a gift. If someone was given a free horse, it would be rude and tacky to look at its mouth to assess its age and monetary value.
Also, "You're looking long in the tooth," was inspired from an old horse's teeth looking longer than a younger horse's.
Picture drawings are Public Domain and were taken from "The Exterior of the Horse" by Goubaux, Armand, 1820-1890 Barrier, Gustave Harger, Simon J. J
I am finally going to write about a horse movie! One of my favorites is Hidalgo which was inspired by Frank Hopkins and his tale about participating in the “Ocean of Fire” race across Arabia in 1891 with his Mustang Paint named Hidalgo against the native desert Bedouins and their purebred Arabian horses. Hopkins’ story has come under scrutiny as there is very little evidence to support his claims. According to his accounts, he raced his Mustang Paint against a hundred Arabian horses across 3,000 miles of desert along the Persian Gulf and the borders of modern day Iraq and Syria. He won the race on the 68th day, 33 hours ahead of his nearest competitor. I’ll let everyone come to their own conclusions on whether Hopkins’ credibility has been tarnished by cynical naysayers or he was just full of horse s**t.
No offense towards Mustangs, but the real stars of this movie were the desert Arabians. If you were going to choose a breed to ride across a massive desert, you would be wise to choose a horse that has been shaped by this harsh and very unforgiving environment. The Arabian horse was (and still is) a jewel born from the deserts in the Middle East. Islamic stories claim Allah created the horse from the four winds as he embodies the spirit from the North, strength from the South, speed from the East, and intelligence from the West. Anyone who has been around Arabians for any amount of time can affirm these attributes.
The desert environment has created very unique characteristics in the Arabian breed. All purebred Arabs have dark skin to avoid sunburn, and they have large nostrils and lungs to breath in more oxygen to support their unique cardiovascular system that allows them to sweat and cool off quickly. They also have a more compact and thin structure which allows to them to stay more sound by not putting as much strain and stretch on their tendons.
They also have one less vertebrae in their backs to help them carry heavier loads. Though they maybe a smaller horse breed, standing usually between 14.2 and 15.1 hands, they require less food and water which is essential to them surviving in an arid environment. Many stories prove how well designed these horses are for going the distance in a short amount of time. For example, in Cairo, an Arabian once traveled 90 miles in a record 7 hours and 52 minutes. So going back to Hopkins’ story, I really have a hard time believing that his Mustang would have beaten his nearest Arabian competitor by 33 hours. Very likely, his horse would have been dead from exhaustion long before he would have reached the finish line if he pushed him that hard. A Mustang can very likely outrun an Arabian in a short sprint, but when it comes to desert endurance racing, there’s no debate on who would come out the champion.
Horse endurance racing is still a very active sport all around the globe, but being inspired by this movie, let’s focus on long distance desert racing that is still active in the Persian Gulf. In Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, an annual 125-mile race has occurred every year since 1998 in the Seyh al-Salam desert. Racing around a 19-mile course, think of this as a NASCAR race, but with horses. There are “pit stops” where the horses are hydrated and rested for a time by their support team with extensive veterinary inspections, there are strategies on pace and placement towards the beginning and middle of the race, and then the real push comes towards the end. Only a third of the participants will finish. The horses need to carry at least 150 pounds, so really anyone - man, woman, short, tall - can participate. The race takes about 10 hours to complete at a steady canter, and surprise, surprise, all the horses are Arabians or mostly Arabian.
There are other races done in the Persian Gulf, such as in Qatar where they race 75 miles in about 8 hours. Here is a video showing a race from 2012.
The American Mustang has its own legends and place in the world, but when it comes to running vast distances across deserts, the Arabian reigns.
I am going to examine the cavalry charge scene from a Game of Thrones (GOT) episode in season six titled “Battle of the Bastards” when Jon Snow (good guy) and Ramsay Bolton (very bad guy) battle for control of Winterfell. I am also going to discuss the special training required to make an effective cavalry horse.
The cavalry scene can be watched on this YouTube link here. It’s seven minutes long, but I will be focusing on the first four minutes. While viewing, imagine what all five senses - sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch - would detect if you were present in this battle. Warning: If you are sensitive to violence and gore, please don’t watch this.
In this scene, we saw a medieval-style battle with heavy cavalry, archers, and armored soldiers. This is one of the most epic battles I have ever seen on screen. Many battle scenes in movies and TV are usually too clean and unrealistic, especially when it comes to the casualties of both man and beast, but Game of Thrones has never shied away from violence and gore.
Having a cavalry granted armies many advantages, such as greater tactical mobility, greater striking force, and greater intimidation. As you saw in the scene when the camera was behind Jon Snow and the vast wall of horse flesh was rushing towards him, you could imagine the fear the actual foot soldiers would have had knowing they were going to be trampled or likely stabbed to death before getting a chance to strike a blow. (BTW, that shot of the horses coming at Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) had no CGI. Those were actual horses running towards the actor.)
Like a soldier, a cavalry horse needed special training before it could stand on the battlefield. One of the first stages of training, after the horse had been broken to ride, was to accustom it to the elements of a battle. Horses are herbivores, which means they are the prey in the food chain. All their instincts scream for them to run at any perceived threat, which has helped them to survive throughout many millennia. Horses will run or shy away from obnoxious smells and strange sights. Even elements we would not think as a threat, the horse could perceive differently. I have seen a number of horses panic at the sight of plastic bag floating by in the wind. A cavalry horse had to be convinced to ignore its primal instincts and trust its rider's commands to be successful in and, hopefully, survive a battle. From this GOT battle scene, let’s examine what a horse's five senses would have detected:
Sight: Other horses, men, swords, lances, bows, flying arrows, men wearing armor, flags flapping in the wind, fire, and a not-so-friendly looking giant.
Hearing: Yelling, screaming from both men and horses, weapons clashing, bones breaking.
Taste: Dirt, sweat.
Smell: Burning flesh (did you see the flayed men on the burning X-shaped crosses?), urine and feces, sweat, fear.
Touch: Moisture, cold, wind, heavier rider wearing armor and weapons.
All of these elements could cause a disruption to a horse’s obedience, which could turn into a deadly situation for its rider. If something is strange, horses will usually run and ask questions later. Horsemen in charge of training the cavalry horses would need to expose the horses and desensitize them to these elements of battle while they were young. Trainers would very likely ride in armor while carrying weapons and holding flags, maybe have a fire burning near by, and possibly have some rotting corpses around the training area. Although, I am not sure how Ramsay Bolton’s cavalry did not shy away from the giant since giants had been thought to be extinct before Jon Snow found one beyond The Great Wall. During the Third Macedonian War (171-168BC) between ancient Rome and Macedonia, Prince Perseus of Macedon made mock-ups of elephants to desensitize his horses so they would not shy away from the Roman war elephants during battle. My childhood horse was a very docile Arabian, and we would take rides on rural roads. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles would pass us and he never spooked. Barking dogs would run up to the end of their fences, sheep would bleat, and other horses would come to greet us, but my horse would confidently walk by. But one day while passing by a familiar sheep farm, he saw a llama for the first time, and all the sudden we were on the other side of the road cantering away. It never occurred to me he would be afraid of a llama. He had never seen one before and assumed it was dangerous. Anytime we passed by this farm and the llama was out, I would have my horse stop and gaze at the llama from a distance. After awhile, my horse realized this llama was not a demon that was going to come over the fence and eat him alive, and he eventually walked confidently past. Again, it comes back to things we may not see as threatening, but horses do.
Once the horses had been desensitized, they would need to be taught special maneuvers that could give a soldier a greater chance of success in defeating the enemy and surviving the battle. Many skills a cavalry horse would need to learn are very similar to what a modern day cattle or reining horse learns. For example, flying lead changes would be useful to change direction quickly while staying balanced to avoid being speared with a lance, rollbacks and back-ups could get the horse and rider quickly away from advancing enemies, and sliding stops could help keep a soldier wearing armor from being launched over his horse's head if they need to come to a sudden stop.
Other useful skills would be to have the horse rear and strike with its hooves, kick, bite, and ram on command. Check out these photos on this blog from Horse Nation that show the skills of the cavalry horses from the 1920s and 1930s.
A cavalry horse was as a much of a soldier as a man in the army. The amount of bravery and training a horse needed to run into a battle is astounding and they should be revered when one looks back at the epic cavalry battles in history. This scene from GOT is able to give us an idea of how brutal and bloody a battle could be for both the men and the horses involved.
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.