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.
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.