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It has been said that the dog maybe a man’s best friend but the horse wrote history. Did you know that some of the ancient world’s most influential men had horses as their best friends, not dogs? I’m going to share with you a few stories about my favorite horses in Ancient History.
Let’s travel back to Ancient Greece, 800 – 600BC to the time of Greek Gods where horses played a prominent role in Greek Mythology. When you think of the Greek Gods, the most famous horse is Pegasus. Pegasus was a white winged horse and was the son of Poseidon and Medusa. Poseidon was the God of the sea, earthquakes and horses and Medusa was a Gorgon monster with snakes for hair. Since Pegasus could not live under water he couldn’t live with his father and he didn’t want to live with his mother because he was afraid of snakes.
Without a family Pegasus roamed the earth looking for a home. He wanted more than anything to be part of a herd but the other horses were afraid of him. Even though he felt lonely, he would keep himself busy by rescuing Greek soldiers from the battlefield. He would swoop down and carry away those too injured to fight. He would take them to safety then fly back to help others until the battle was won.
The God Zeus had seen Pegasus’s mighty deeds and the two soon became friends. Zeus gave his friend a forever home in Olympus. Pegasus would often carry Zeus across the heavens as he ruled over both men and Gods. Zeus loved Pegasus so much that in honor of his deeds, he made him a constellation so that he would be remembered throughout history.
A fun fact is most people believe that Pegasus belonged to Zeus’ son Hercules due to the Disney movie, Hercules, but there is no account in mythology of Pegasus being owned by Hercules. The movie boosted his popularity among children but it is his heroic deeds written in the stars that has made him a favorite among people, both young and old.
Moving forward to Macedonia 344BC, we find the horse Bucephalus whose name meant Ox Head. Bucephalus was a large jet-black stallion with a wall eye. He was an unruly horse brought to the palace of King Phillip the second of Macedonia by a horse dealer who was asking the hefty sum of 13 talons. Seeing that no one could get near, much less ride this horse, King Phillip was not interested in Bucephalus, but his son, Alexander, who was only 12 years old, saw this as an opportunity to prove his strength to his father, who viewed Alexander as a weak child.
Alexander said he could tame him and, if he failed, he would pay for the horse himself. Alexander had a great love and understanding of horses. He noticed that Bucephalus seemed scared of his own shadow. So, he approached the horse and turned him away from the sun. Unable to see his shadow, the horse became calm. Alexander whispered to Bucephalus that his shadow was just the trick of Apollo and asked him if they could ride together. He quickly mounted and tamed the unruly horse in front of his father and the crowd.
Mounted on Bucephalus, this 12-year-old boy grew to become Alexander the Great. He could ask anything, and the horse would do it. Bucephalus became a fierce war horse who feared nothing. His great size allowed him to tower over the enemy. His long and beautiful strides would move him across the field with ease. He was unfazed by the noise and seemed almost immune to injury. On numerous occasions he was pierced by arrows that would have taken down a lesser horse, yet he plowed on. Leading Alexander and his armies to one victory after another.
First conquering Persia, then the rest of the Middle East, Asia and India. They rode together for almost 20 years until tragedy struck at Bucephalus’s final battle at Hydaspes. Alexander's army defeated King Porus of the Paurava, but Bucephalus’ injuries were too great.
It is said that Alexander never recovered from the loss of his great friend. Without Bucephalus, Alexander no longer cared about conquest or the Great Empire they had secured. Alexander built Bucephalus’ tomb with his own hands and founded the city of Bucephala around it in honor of his horse.
Let’s fast-forward to the Roman Empire to the third Emperor Caligula’s short reign from 37–41 AD. Incitatus, also known as “Caligula’s Horse”, is one of the most famous horses in history known more for his pampered treatment by The Emperor than his abilities as a racehorse.
Incitatus was a chariot racing stallion imported from Spain and was the favorite horse of the Emperor Caligula. As a chariot horse, it is assumed that Incitatus would have been around 14.2 hands, a pony by today’s standard. He had to be strong enough to pull a chariot and driver while nimbble enough to maneuver between the other chariots as well as any obstacles that could appear on the course. The name Incitatus meaning "swift" or "at full gallop" in Latin suggests that he was all this and more. History states that Incitatus never lost a race.
It is often thought that Caligula was insane. He claimed that Incitatus was a combination of all Gods and that he was to be worshiped. Caligula appointed Incitatus to the Roman Senate. Incitatus had a stable of marble, with an ivory manger, purple blankets, and a collar of precious stones. He was attended to by servants and was fed oats mixed with gold flake. Caligula had a house and garden built for his horse. He would even invite dignitaries to dine with Incitatus. Legend has it that Caligula would sleep with Incitatus nights before a race to ensure that the horse had a restful night’s sleep and would kill anyone that woke his horse.
However, there are those that do not believe that Caligula was insane, but rather was making a statement of the uselessness of the Roman Senate, implying that his horse could do a better job.
Throughout history the phase Caligula’s Horse often refers to an abuse of power.
Today, history has repeated itself. When I was eight years old, I received a miniature, mule named Hershey. He is half donkey and half Shetland pony with a dark chocolate colored coat. Hershey may not be a mythical creature, but he was a little girl’s dream and I felt like we were flying every time I rode him. Hershey became my best friend, his large ears let him hear all my thoughts and secrets. One Halloween we made long flowing wings, with real feathers that we draped over his back that dragged the ground and I dressed as a goddess. With Hershey as Pegasus, we were victorious in two costume contests.
When I got Hershey, he was green. Like Alexander, I had to figure out how to train him. I used natural horsemanship techniques, which builds a bond with your horse to train him. Hershey and I may not have battled armies, but we competed in many horse shows and trail challenges. We conquered both the show ring and challenge arena. Sometimes we would have bad days and Hershey, being a mule, would become stubborn and not want to do anything. I wouldn’t give up on him. I would whisper into his long beautiful ears, “we can do it”. Hershey would rise to the occasion and we would win the class.
Hershey is retired now due to a tumor that took over part of his face but don’t feel sorry for him because he is living the good life, like a modern day Incitatus. He has his stall mucked and fresh shavings placed every day. We put his medicine in little pecan pies, which he believes are for his enjoyment. He has his own purple blanket to keep him warm in the winter even though he has a thick coat and he is given a yummy mash for breakfast and dinner with a few extras throughout the day.
Like the partnerships between Pegasus and Zeus, Bucephalus and Alexander and Caligula and his horse Incitatus the bond between Hershey and I continues to grow. Today I have shared with you some amazing stories about horses throughout ancient history. I have enjoyed studying history because I am able to relate it to my life. I hear these stories and understand exactly how they felt by relating their relationships with their horses to mine, with Hershey.
So, I leave you today with …
Sum servus tuus canis, Ut esse hominis Et equi scripsit historiam amicus.
A dog may be man’s best friend, but the horse wrote history. Unknown Author.
I believe all equines can write history, even a little mule named Hershey who left hoof prints on my heart.
By Juliette McKinley