"The history of mankind is carried on the back of a horse."–Author Unknown
In my previous blog, WAR HORSES: Part One, we took a look at notable horses ridden by prominent generals of the Civil War. This time, we travel further back in history to examine more war horses whose names and bravery in battle are nearly as legendary as those of their owners.
|Alexander tames Bucephalus
The year was 346 B.C. and Philip II of Macedon had just paid the exorbitant price of thirteen talents for a gorgeous black stallion, only to find that he could not be ridden. No one was able to even mount the huge beast. Philip’s ten-year-old son, Alexander, watched the proceedings and stepped forward, declaring the horse’s handlers spineless and challenging his father that he could ride the stallion. The boy was so adamant that he was granted the chance. Alexander took the horse’s reins, turned him to face the sun, and promptly leaped onto his bare back! Only Alexander had noticed that the stallion was afraid of his own shadow. He named the enormous horse Bucephalus and they became inseparable. Alexander the Great rode him into every battle from the conquest of Greece and Thebes through Guagamela into India.
|Napoleon Bonaparte and Marengo
Paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte often depict him on horseback (not surprising since the French general stood only five feet, six inches in height). A favorite mount was “Marengo,” a fierce, stocky grey who was wounded eight times without ever throwing his master from the saddle. It was aboard Marengo that Bonaparte met his Waterloo (1815), ending the Napoleonic Era of European history. His last horse was a white Arabian named Le Vizir, who lived to the age of thirty-three. He was mounted and is currently on display at the Army Museum in Paris.
Closer to home, America’s founding father, George Washington was a revered horseman. Thomas Jefferson called him "the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback." Most paintings of Washington show him astride “Blueskin,” a flashy white half-Arab with a dark mane. However, the General usually rode a chestnut gelding named “Nelson” into battle, since he was calmer under cannon fire. After his service during the Revolutionary War, Nelson lived out his days at Mt. Vernon and was reported to “…run, neighing, to the fence, proud to be caressed by the great master's hands.”
Speaking of the Revolution, Paul Revere’s midnight ride forever stands as the event heralding the beginning of the conflict between England and the fledgling colony of America. And who was the horse he rode? Unfortunately, we may never know. Revere borrowed a horse from a merchant named John Larkin for the hellbent-for-leather ride to Lexington. The steed’s name is lost to history.
|Andrew Jackson and Sam Patch
Tennessee native son Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson favored thoroughbreds, raising and training them himself. Most well-known was “Truxton.” A favorite story of Jackson is that he engaged in a duel after a local rival forfeited a race between Truxton and a horse named “Ploughboy.” Old Hickory caught a bullet near his heart and, since doctors were afraid to remove it, there it stayed throughout the future president’s life. “Sam Patch” is the white stallion shown in Jackson’s presidential portrait and the horse who holds the title of being the General’s true “war horse.” Sam Patch was named for a daredevil celebrity of the era, who died attempting a jump across the falls of the Genesee River.
|Kit Carson and Apache
The Plains Indian Wars from the 1850s through the late 1870s are possibly the most iconic of all conflicts between mounted opponents. Christopher “Kit”Carson was one of the earliest Indian fighters. He was another leader who lacked in stature at five feet, one and a half inches tall but possessed an abundance of daring. According to the first Carson biography, The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains by De Witt C. Peters, the “Fighting Trapper” rode a horse with the ironic name of “Apache.”
General George Armstrong Custer’s most famous horses were “Dandy” and “Vic.” It was Vic, a stockinged sorrel with a blazed face, that Custer rode during the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn. The Sioux claimed that Vic was captured after the massacre.
|Dandy (left) and Vic (right), belonged to Gen. George Custer
|Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt and Little Texas
During the Spanish American War, Theodore Roosevelt led the charge of the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Hill (July, 1898) on “Little Texas,” a chestnut described as a “pony” by historians. After the war, Roosevelt brought Little Texas back to the family's Sagamore Hill estate on Long Island where he lived out his days as playmate to the five Roosevelt children.
|Two legends: Villa, Siete Luegas
In the early 1900s, Francisco “Pancho” Villa blazed a rebel’s trail across Mexico (and one raid on U.S. soil) on his stallion “Siete Leguas,” which translates to “Seven Leagues.” Villa was proud of the horse’s stamina and speed. Supposedly, Siete Leguas regularly covered seven leagues (about twenty-four miles) during conquests.
I have barely touched on the history of horses in warfare. Since the Greek myth of the Trojan Horse, the majestic animals have been a part of military battle lore. Did you know that, soon after the 9/11 attacks, a small band of U.S. Special Forces soldiers secretly entered Afghanistan and went to war against the Taliban…riding horses? Isn’t that thrilling? Here is Doug Stanton's book about the raid.
"Look back at our struggle for freedom,
Trace our present day's strength to it's source;
And you'll find that man's pathway to glory
Is strewn with the bones of the horse."
- Unknown author
All the best,
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