Magazine article The Spectator

What Would the Horses Say If Only They Could Speak?

Magazine article The Spectator

What Would the Horses Say If Only They Could Speak?

Article excerpt

What decent person does not admire horses? They are intelligent, sensitive, sometimes headstrong, very occasionally wicked, but on the whole overwhelmingly industrious, obedient, devoted creatures who for thousands of years have worked their bodies out for us, often without adequate appreciation. Horses can certainly feel intensely and, if they could speak, what tales could they not tell, of ill-treatment, ingratitude and miseries needlessly inflicted? In my part of Somerset there are many thousands of horses and often on my long walks I peer over gates to salute them in their fields. They scamper up, friendly and inquisitive, and I pause to rub their big, wise, sensible heads and exchange understanding noises. I sometimes ask, 'Are you all right? Do they treat you well? @ Answer comes there none, but their eyes deliver cloudy messages.

The vast majority of people who keep horses today look after them and in many cases love them. Yet the same could have been said of slaves in the old South, and we know what happened to those defenceless souls when they were sold off in markets and fell into bad hands. Horses are subject to the same uncertain fate. Owners die, adoring teenage girls grow up and move into town, or tastes, interests change, or poverty strikes, and for all these reasons horses are sold and go their owners know not whither. And horses grow old and past their work, and not all those who employ them can afford to put them out to grass, as they merit. They begin a long, sad journey into the unknown, and many changes of master, each (one fears) more degrading than the last, so that the eventual knacker's yard comes as a merciful release. I sometimes wish there was a legal requirement for each horse to be provided with proper documentation, so that there is some record of what becomes of them and some check on their treatment. After all, we do as much for a motor car, a mere inanimate object of unfeeling metal.

it is always satIsfying to hear of a great horse receiving generous treatment. Copenhagen, born in the year of Nelson's victory over the Danish navy, had an Arab dam and was grandson to the most famous of all racehorses, Eclipse - 'Eclipse first, the rest nowhere!' was Denis O'Kelly's memorable comment on the Queen's Plate at Winchester, 1769. Wellington bought Copenhagen in 1810, won victories on him, and rode him for many dangerous hours during the appalling slaughter of Waterloo. He revered the horse in his own unsentimental way, looked after him and, when Copenhagen finally died, paid a worthy tribute: 'There may have been many faster horses, no doubt many handsomer, but for bottom and endurance I never saw his fellow.' There is a clip from Copenhagen's mane, preserved in a little glass case in the Cavalry Club. I have likewise seen the stuffed head and neck, attached to a wooden body, that belonged to the fine stallion the Earl of Cardigan rode when leading the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. You can see it at Deene Park, the family seat of the Brudenells, in Northamptonshire.

It is gratifying to discover that, after Waterloo, when thousands of French wounded lay untended on the field, a group of London surgeons went out to treat them, saving many lives, and that they did not neglect the wounded horses either. The Scots surgeon, Charles Bell, worked on until 'his clothes were stiff with blood' and his arms 'powerless with the exertions of using the knife'. Later, the most famous surgeon of the age, Sir Astley Cooper, attended the sale of the wounded Waterloo horses, considered fit only for the knacker, bought 12 of the worst cases, took them to his Hertfordshire estate and began the systematic extraction of bullets and grapeshot. …

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