Horses – and mules – in World War 1

Have you seen War Horse? Very moving. For more facts about horses – and mules – in the First World War  “The Equine Army” episode in the BBC series “World War 1 at Home” is great.

Just how many horses and mules were involved? The answer might amaze you: nearly a million by the end of the war.

army-horses-mules_lastcav_02_700

In fact, the army had gone a long way towards mechanization by the outbreak of the war – it was a matter of the sheer scale of the supplies and light artillery which needed to be hauled about Europe that led to the use of so many horses. There were some 25,000 horses in the army to begin with in 1914 but by the end of the first year of the war there were half a million. How did the army manage this? Because there simply weren’t enough horses, even on farms, in Britain, they started importing wild mustangs from the USA and then mules. At one point, some one thousand horses and mules a week. They then had to tame them very quickly – generally using the old, Western methods of “breaking in” by roping and riding the horse to point of exhaustion. That wasn’t what the trainers wanted to do – it was a matter of the urgency of war.

Mules, according to “The Equine Army” programme, were a bit of a puzzle to the army at first. Treating them as horses didn’t work – mules of course are very independently minded. Some say stubborn. And there are some great clips that illustrate this: there’s one of a number of soldiers in a tug of war (and not winning) with one mule. And another of some soldiers trying to shoe a mule: the mule is tied up, it’s boxed in by wooden bars, its leg is tied to a post by a rope – and still it’s kicking out wildly while the farrier approaches with the hot shoe. Unlike a horse, a mule, as you can clearly see in this clip, can kick in all directions, not just backwards. Fortunately, the army eventually got used to mules, finding them more robust in the wartime environment of mud, cold, mud, bad weather, mud and heavy loads. Both horses and mules certainly played a big part in winning the war, but at a great cost.

War Horse, the movie, book or play, had some heart breaking moments but it does have [spoiler alert] a happy ending. Not so for the 484,000 horses and mules which died or were killed. And not so for the 900,000 or so which were unable to return to Britain.

Try catch up TV or hope for a DVD release to see World War 1 at Home: The Equine Army.

To read about your favourite film or TV horse, check out Lights! Camera! Gallop! The Story of the Horse in Film.

coversmall

Advertisements

Cobs – victims of neglect more than other horse breeds?

Worryingly there are more and more reports of abandoned horses as the financial crisis continues and people are unable to afford their upkeep. There have been some nasty cases of neglect in the news:

In Hertfordshire, an abandoned horse – described as looking like a “walking skeleton,” forced to eat tree bark to survive, was rescued from a field. It was a three-year-old, called Maggie, and was “underweight, with lice, mange and signs of serious neglect”. Fortunately this one, after being rescued from a flooded field and given urgent treatment, was taken to The Horse Trust in Buckinghamshire. In February, the report goes on to mention, five horses are known to have died within five miles of where Maggie was found – but there may be other cases that have not been reported.

There’s a picture at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-21775639

And yes, Maggie looks a Cob type to me.

There continue to be news stories of “fly-grazing” where horses are let loose on public land or on grass verges beside A roads or even motorways. Sometimes the horses are tethered, if the owner’s motive if simply to get grazing because they can’t afford hay or even field rent. But sometimes they are simply abandoned, just left to fend for themselves.

Even more worrying is the case of a horse that had to be rescued from a beach cliff face where it was found hanging by a rope round its neck. This one was rescued just in time before the tide would have reached and rushed to Redwings Horse Sanctuary for treatment.

Tethering a horse with a rope round its neck is something often seen in old Westerns. So too is lassoing a horse by the neck and pulling it to halt. See, for example, The 1961 film The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable or the 1952 film Wild Stallion (shown recently on TV in the UK).Yes horses’ necks are much stronger than ours – but tethering this way and leaving a horse is downright dangerous. Sadly – but unsurprisingly, in this case, despite the best efforts of the rescuers, the horse died from a collapsed windpipe. Again, you can see a picture at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-21640420

And yes, this one looks like a Cob too.

Like so many things, it looks like it all comes down to money. As Jeanette Allen, chief executive of The Horse Trust is quoted by the BBC as saying “Horses like Maggie” – that’s basically cobs then – “have little commercial value and sadly this means more and more horses are being abandoned and left to fend for themselves.”

What to do? Well I suppose until the Government comes up with a Plan B to rescue the economy, all we can do is keep an eye out, report neglect and support organisations such as the Horse Trust and Redwings Horse Sanctuary.

For more on horses in film see Lights! Camera! Gallop!  http://tinyurl.com/horseinfilmstorycover alone not pdf small

Alexander the Great’s great horse (shame about the stirrups)

I was watching Andrew Marr’s otherwise excellent History of the World, episode 2 – Age of Empire the other day (I’d recorded it, not sure when it was originally on) and there was a fabulous re-enactment of Alexander the Great, as a boy, taming Bucephalus, a magnificent but wild black stallion. Alexander alone had noticed that Bucephalus was afraid of his own shadow. Turning him round, the boy was able to quieten the horse when experienced horse-trainers had all failed. The horse was sleek, black and beautiful and Alexander simply leaped onto his back and rode off.

So far so good.

But a later clip shows Alexander, now grown up and conquering people and their lands hither and thither across the world. And you can just glimpse some metal stirrups…… Alexander’s time was around the fourth century BC.  Stirrups were developed some centuries later – and the first ones were simple leather loops for the big toe, certainly not full steel stirrups.

You can read more about horses in film and TV in my ebook Lights! Camera! Gallop http://tinyurl.com/lightscameragallop