Jacob Jordaens, Neptune Creating the Horse


I purchased some classics on horse care... I gradually came to understand that they were like 19th-century religious tomes on how to save your soul: objective, good; instructions, extremely detailed; practical application, impossible.

C.J.J. Mullen


Pliny's Natural History, Book VIII: The nature of the terrestrial animals

Chapter 64: The Nature of the Horse

King Alexander had also a very remarkable horse; it was called Bucephalus, either on account of the fierceness of its aspect, or because it had the figure of a bull's head marked on its shoulder. It is said, that he was struck with its beauty when he was only a boy, and that it was purchased from the stud of Philonicus, the Pharsalian, for thirteen talents. When it was equipped with the royal trappings, it would suffer no one except Alexander to mount it, although at other times it would allow any one to do so. A memorable circumstance connected with it in battle is recorded of this horse; it is said that when it was wounded in the attack upon Thebes, it would not allow Alexander to mount any other horse. Many other circumstances, also, of a similar nature, occurred respecting it; so that when it died, the king duly performed its obsequies, and built around its tomb a city, which he named after it.

It is said, also, that Caesar, the Dictator, had a horse, which would allow no one to mount but himself, and that its forefeet were like those of a man; indeed it is thus represented in the statue before the temple of Venus Genetrix. The late Emperor Augustus also erected a tomb to his horse; on which occasion Germanicus Caesar wrote a poem, which still exists. There are at Agrigentum many tombs of horses, in the form of pyramids. Juha informs us, that Semiramis was so greatly enamoured of a horse, as to have had connection with it. The Scythian horsemen make loud boasts of the fame of their cavalry. On one occasion, one of their chiefs having been slain in single combat, when the conqueror came to take the spoils of the enemy, he was set upon by the horse of his opponent, and trampled on and bitten to death. Another horse, upon the bandage being removed from his eyes, found that he had covered his mother, upon which he threw himself down a precipice, and was killed. We learn, also, that for a similar cause, a groom was torn to pieces, in the territory of Reate. For these animals have a knowledge of the ties of consanguinity, and in a stud a mare will attend to its sister of the preceding year, even more carefully than its mother.

Their docility, too, is so great, that we find it stated that the whole of the cavalry of the Sybarite army were accustomed to perform a kind of dance to the sound of musical instruments. These animals also foresee battles; they lament over their masters when they have lost them, and sometimes shed tears of regret for them. When King Nicomedes was slain, his horse put an end to its life by fasting. Phylarchus relates, that Centaretus, the Galatian, after he had slain Antiochus in battle, took possesion of his horse, and mounted it in triumph; upon which the animal, inflamed with indignation, regardless of the rein and become quite ungovernable, threw itself headlong down a precipice, and they both perished together. Philistus relates, that Dionysius having left his horse stuck fast in a morass, the animal, as soon as it disengaged itself, followed the steps of its master, with a swarm of bees, which had settled on its mane; and that it was in consequence of this portent, that Dionysius gained possession of the kingdom.

Chapter 65: The disposition of the horse; remarkable facts concerning chariot horses

These animals possess an intelligence which exceeds all description. Those who have to use the javelin are well aware how the horse, by its exertions and the supple movements of its body, aids the rider in any difficulty he may have in throwing his weapon. They will even present to their master the weapons collected on the ground. The horses too, that are yoked to the chariots in the Circus, beyond a doubt, display remarkable proofs how sensible they are to encouragement and to glory. In the Secular games, which were celebrated in the Circus, under the Emperor Claudius, when the charioteer Corax, who belonged to the white party, was thrown from his place at the starting-post, his horses took the lead and kept it, opposing the other chariots, overturning them, and doing every thing against the other competitors that could have been done, had they been guided by the most skilful charioteer; and while we quite blushed to behold the skill of man excelled by that of the horse, they arrived at the goal, after going over the whole of the prescribed course. Our ancestors considered it as a still more remarkable portent, that when a charioteer had been thrown from his place, in the plebeian games of the Circus, the horses ran to the Capitol, just as if he had been standing in the car, and went three times round the temple there. But what is the greatest prodigy of all, is the fact that the horses of Ratumenna came from Veii to Rome, with the palm branch and chaplet, he himself having fallen from his chariot, after having gained the victory; from which circumstance the Ratumennian gate derived its name.

When the Sarmatae are about to undertake a long journey, they prepare their horses for it, by making them fast the day before, during which they give them but little to drink; by these means they are enabled to travel on horseback, without stopping, for one hundred and fifty miles. Some horses are known to live fifty years; but the females are not so long-lived. These last come to their full growth at the fifth year, the males a year later. The poet Virgil has very beautifully described the points which ought more especially to be looked for, as constituting the perfection of a horse; I myself have also treated of the same subject, in my work on the Use of the Javelin by Cavalry, and I find that pretty nearly all writers are agreed respecting them. The points requisite for the Circus are somewhat different, however; and while horses are put in training for other purposes at only two years old, they are not admitted to the contests of the Circus before their fifth year.

Chapter 66: The generation of the horse
The female of this animal carries her young for eleven months, and brings forth in the twelfth. The connection takes place at the vernal equinox, and generally in both sexes, at the age of two years; but the colt is much stronger when the parents are three years old. The males are capable of covering up to the thirty-third year, and it is not till after the twentieth that they are taken for this purpose from the Circus. At Opus, it is said, a horse served as a stallion until his fortieth year; though he required some assistance in raising the fore part of the body. There are few animals, however, in which the generative powers are so limited, for which reason it is only admitted to the female at certain intervals; indeed it cannot cover as many as fifteen times in the course of one year. The sexual passion of the mare is extinguished by cropping her mane; she is capable of bearing every year up to the fortieth. We have an account of a horse having lived to its seventy-fifth year. The mare brings forth standing upright, and is attached, beyond all other animals, to her offspring. The horse is born with a poisonous substance on its forehead, known as hippomanes, and used in love philtres; it is the size of a fig, and of a black colour; the mother devours it immediately on the birth of the foal, and until she has done so, she will not suckle it. When this substance can be rescued from the mother, it has the property of rendering the animal quite frantic by the smell. If a foal has lost its mother, the other mares in the herd that have young, will take charge of the orphan. It is said that the young of this animal cannot touch the earth with the mouth for the first three days after its birth. The more spirited a horse is, the deeper does it plunge its nose into the water while drinking. The Scythians prefer mares for the purposes of war, because they can pass their urine without stopping in their career.
Chapter 67: Mares impregnated by the wind
It is well known that in Lusitania, in the vicinity of the town of Olisipo and the river Tagus, the mares, by turning their faces towards the west wind as it blows, become impregnated by its breezes, and that the foals which are conceived in this way are remarkable for their extreme fleetness; but they never live beyond three years. Gallicia and Asturia are also countries of Spain; they produce a species of horse known to us as thieldones, and when smaller, asturcones; they have a peculiar and not common pace of their own, which is very easy, and arises from the two legs of the same side being moved together; it is by studying the nature of this step that our horses have been taught the movement which we call ambling. Horses have very nearly the same diseases as men; besides which, they are subject to an irregular action of the bladder, as, indeed, is the case with all beasts of burden.