Horses have been part of our history since we first domesticated Equus ferus around 6,000 years ago. In war, art, sport and leisure, they have served under harness and carried us on their backs, forming remarkable relationships with humans over the centuries. Even in our mechanised twenty-first century society, the horse has far from disappeared, though people are more likely to meet one today in the pages of a book than out on the street. As a child, I devoured series such as Judith M. Berrisford’s Jackie books and Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books, which tap into every little girl’s dream of owning a pony. I also enjoyed classic titles such as Black Beauty, which Anna Sewell wrote to highlight the welfare of working horses in the late eighteen hundreds and is therefore arguably not ‘just’ a children’s book. But while little girls eventually outgrow ponies, the bond formed between horse and human is not so easily broken. So where does all the equine fiction go?
In my teenage years, owing to my habit of reading anything with a horse on the cover, I stumbled across Zane Gray’s Wildfire, a Western about the wild stallion of the title. The scene where the young heroine Lucy Bostil is stripped naked by a jealous suitor and tied to the back of her father’s prize racehorse before being driven into a real wildfire has stayed with me, and the man who can tame a wild stallion is surely every horse-mad teenage girl’s dream hero, even before he rides to her rescue. More disturbingly, the sexual subtext of horse riding is explored in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, where disturbed teenager Alan Strang achieves orgasm riding naked bareback, and worships the horse spirit to such an extent that he blinds six horses who have watched him attempt intimacy with a girl who works in the stables. Popular author Jilly Cooper has also exploited this subtext in her Riders series, of which the Sunday Telegraph said: ‘Sex and horses: who could ask for more?’
It’s true that horses can unite people romantically. I met my husband through a mutual connection to horses — a marriage that prompted a career change for me from programming computers in a high-rise office block to working as a stable ‘lad’ in a Herefordshire racing yard. Yet, just as there is more to a good romance than sex, the best adult horse stories build on the relationship between their horse and human characters to drive the plot. In his novel The Horse Whisperer, Nicholas Evans uses a horrific riding accident to bring together New York editor Annie, mother of a badly injured young rider, and Tom Booker, the ‘horse whisperer’ of the title, whom she employs to re-train the traumatised horse. ‘I help horses with people problems,’ Tom tells Annie in the 1998 film starring Robert Redford, whereas Annie is convinced she needs him to help her with a horse problem — in reality, of course, this is the same thing. Tom uses methods based on those of real-life horse whisperers such as Buck Brannaman and Monty Roberts, whose book The Man Who Listens to Horses gives a fascinating insight into equine behaviour.
Healing also occurs in Jojo Moyes’ The Horse Dancer, which takes a horse and rider from the elite Cadre Noir riding school in France and displaces them to a forgotten yard in the back streets of London, where parentless teenager Sarah struggles to keep the horse secret from social services after her grandfather has a heart attack. This horse, ‘Boo’, draws together ambitious lawyer Natasha and her estranged photographer husband in a desperate quest to find Sarah when she runs away with Boo — in the process rediscovering their passion for each other. Moyes begins each chapter of her novel with a quote from Xenophon’s On Horsemanship, an ancient Greek text still used by horse trainers today, which reinforces the idea of an almost mystical bond between horse and rider. For example, in chapter seven when Sarah is struggling to care for Boo on her own: ‘Any sudden signal will bewilder a spirited horse, just as a man is upset by any sudden sight or sound or other experience.’ (Xenophon, On Horsemanship.)
In the ancient world, horses represented power and status. Achilles, the hero of Homer’s Iliad, had two immortal horses called Balios and Xanthos to pull his chariot in the Trojan War. When his friend Patroclus is killed by the Trojan prince Hector in a duel, these horses weep over the body. Achilles then takes his revenge by killing Hector ‘tamer of horses’, while in the eventual fall of Troy, the wooden effigy the Greeks build to trick the Trojans into hauling it (and, hidden inside its belly, their best warriors) into their city takes the shape of a gigantic horse.
War continued to challenge the relationship between man and horse until the early twentieth century. Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is now almost as well known as Black Beauty, thanks to its successful stage play that, in 2016, completed an eight-year run in London’s West End. Although the book’s equine narrator and the bond between the horse Joey and his young owner Albert would seem to make this story classic children’s book material, War Horse’s First World War setting (the last war where horses were used in mainstream battle) gives the story adult resonance. Both the stage play and the 2011 film directed by Steven Spielberg helped bridge the gap between the child-friendly text and its adult themes. Similarly, in I am the Great Horse, my own equine narrator Bucephalas tells the story of Alexander the Great’s conquests in Persia and his quest for immortality at the edge of the known world. In my book, I decided to give a legendary element to the bond between horse and rider — a bond that can be broken only by death. It is surely no coincidence that the faithful stallion’s death in battle against war elephants in India contributed to Alexander’s decision to turn around and lead his men home.
Cormac McCarthy recognises the relationship between man and horse in his Western All the Pretty Horses, where young John Grady Cole is searching for a land where he can ride his horse without encountering any fences. If you doubt that a grown man can form a strong bond with a horse, you need look no further than in the film of Mario Puzo’s Mafia epic The Godfather, where refusing to cast Johnny Fontane, a friend of the powerful Corleone family, in a leading role, results in film producer Jack Woltz waking up one morning to find the head of his favourite racehorse at the bottom of his bed.
Indeed, horse racing is perhaps the easiest way for adults to connect with horses today, even if it is only during the traditional office sweepstake once a year when the Grand National is run at Aintree. Racehorses bring together all kinds of people, from jockeys and stable hands to professional trainers and owners who rub shoulders with royalty. Then there are the bookies and gamblers and all the associated trades such as farriers and horsebox drivers… With such fertile ground for plots, it’s no surprise that some of those with experience of working in the industry have gone on to write fiction about horses — notably ex-jockey Dick Francis with his popular series of horse racing thrillers and, more recently, trainer Jenny Pitman and top jockeys John Francome and A.P. McCoy. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley has also explored the sport, with her book Horse Heaven, set in the world of American horse racing.
Horses do not even have to be fictional to make a compelling story. The underdog colt Seabiscuit and his maverick jockey ‘Red’ Pollard, who raced in America during the Great Depression of the nineteen-thirties against the most famous names of the era, is one example. Laura Hillenbrand’s book Seabiscuit: an American legend tells how the little colt, mistreated as a youngster and trained to lose, was rescued by car manufacturer Charles S. Howard and persuaded to fulfil his potential by down on his luck trainer Tom Smith, defying all odds to win a match race against the apparently ‘unbeatable’ War Admiral. In 1938, the story made the number one news story, ahead of items about Roosevelt and Hitler. In challenging times, it seems, we turn to our sporting heroes and heroines for hope and diversion, and maybe horses with their athletic grace and seemingly unselfish relationships with humans can fill this need better than most.
The days of Equus ferus may be long gone, the horses in our streets replaced by motor vehicles, and my local riding stables – like many others, I suspect – converted into holiday homes. Yet the horse remains part of our lives, immortalized in print and on screen for generations to come.