Last weekend had a War Horse theme for me. We had been given two tickets to see the theatre production so planned a Whole War Horse Weekend.
By Horse Agility Club Founder Vanessa Bee
First stop was the Army Museum in Chelsea to see the War Horse exhibition. It was absolutely fascinating, covering not only the First War but the history of war horses right back to the 1066 Norman invasion. I could have spent a lot longer there but as we were on a bit of a mission to have dinner before the show so I had to speed read much of it. What I read has opened a whole new investigation for me on how horses have been used by man in wars. Horrific statistics such as 60% of all the horses, mules and donkeys being shipped out to fight in the Boer War died. This makes the figures for the First World War look almost acceptable. Over a million horses, mules and donkeys from all over the Commonwealth were shipped to the battlefields where just over 40% died. Three quarters of those animals were used as draught animals, the mules and donkeys having the unenviable task of carrying ammunition.
Stories of horses being clipped to prevent skin diseases only to have them die of cold, horses being fed sawdust because there was nothing for them to eat brought a cold feeling to my heart. It was an honest exhibition neither glorifying nor condemning the actions of the people nearly 100 years ago, it was a case of needs must.
Not a subject of study for the faint hearted.
We reached the theatre with time to spare and had excellent seats in the middle at the back so we could see everything very clearly. And what a magnificent production it was. The puppetry was so good that my neighbour became concerned that ‘the gunfire might frighten the horses’. I expected to shed a few tears but only once did I grasp my seat and want to cry out, as Joey ran through No Man’s Land fighting the wire. It was so incredibly moving, it made me feel so hopeless. I just wanted to jump up and shout ‘Stop!’.
The next morning the sun was out and we strolled down to Hyde Park to find the Animals in War memorial which is just opposite Speakers’ Corner. On the way we met many horses and riders enjoying the warm sunshine and they were happy to talk about their experience of riding in London along the world famous Rotten Row. Many of the horses came from Hyde Park Stables and the riders were happy to stop and have their photo taken. The horses looked in superb condition, happy and alert in their work. Then I met three lovely girls who were riding for the Queen’s and talked to them about their work as I stroked the horses, I was beginning to get homesick for my own!
Crossing the park we saw an enormous sculpture by Nic Fiddian-Green called Horse at Water. This sculpture is enormous and awe inspiringly beautiful. Throughout London the image of the horse recurs over and over in many different ways. Few dogs, cats or other domestic animals seem to feature as commonly as that of the horse. Indeed the very earliest example of art ever discovered in Britain was a horse’s head carved into a bone from 10,000 years BC. The horse is so deeply ingrained in our culture.
At last we reached the Animals in War Memorial, rather incongruously in the middle of a roundabout. I felt extremely emotional at the sculptures of the animals. There are four depicted in bronze while others such as camels, elephants and oxen, are carved into the stone friezes. A heavily burdened mule followed by a donkey head towards a break in the wall while beyond the gap an unburdened horse strides through to freedom. Beside him a dog has stopped, one paw raised, looking back at the donkey and mule, compelling them to join him. At last I saw those words I quoted in this column way back in November ‘They had no choice’. The tears came then, what on earth is this madness that we use animals in this appalling way?
I recalled a quote I had seen at War Horse Exhibition. The statement, made by Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quiet on the Western Front, simply says: ‘It is the vilest baseness to use horses in war.’
I agree entirely.
As we headed back into the park two police horses crossed in front of us, their eyes protected by Perspex visors. Again that question: What is this madness? Who could bear to injure a horse’s eyes?
As our walk ended we encountered yet another magnificent sculpture of a horse and rider silhouetted against the sky. The statue on the hill was breathtaking, called Physical Energy by George Frederick Watts RA, it depicts a powerful stallion striding up an incline while his rider shades his eyes against the sun. The power, the absolute power of every muscle, every sinew taught as a bow string as he drives forward towards gathering storm clouds is how the horse should always be. Strong and free, allowed to express his beauty, unfettered by man’s weakness.