From the Godolphin Arabian and Red Rum to Pegasus and Black Beauty, Sarah Fitzpatrick selects the 20 horses – real and fictional – that continue to capture our imagination
The 20 most famous horses include a legendary showjumper, cartoon favourite and courageous army horse, as well as champion steeplechasers, the mount of a monarch and the celebrated equines of art and literature. Sarah Fitzpatrick selects the horses, real and fictional, that continue to capture our imagination.
As an ardent admirer of the horse, The Queen has a long and close relationship with her Household Cavalry. Learn more about Her Majesty’s “Cavalry Blacks” in The Queen’s horses: black beauties of Knightsbridge.
20 MOST FAMOUS HORSES
This magnificent steeplechaser needs no introduction. He was a true champion and came to be known simply as ‘Himself’ and would receive postal tributes addressed to ‘Arkle, Ireland’. He won three consecutive Gold Cups, the Irish National, Whitbread and Hennessy Gold Cups and romped home in the Gallagher Gold Cup to smash the course record by 17 seconds carrying 16lb more than his rival, Mill House. In Ireland, handicappers had to change the rules to take account of his supremacy, however, he still managed to win, even carrying two stone more than his rivals. This charismatic Irish national hero remains the brightest star in steeplechasing’s firmament.
Anna Sewell’s novel, written in 1877, is part of our cultural heritage, a universal. Written in the ‘first horse’, it is among the top 10 children’s books of all time, a bestseller cherished by generations that has inspired television series and feature films, too. Black Beauty has an idyllic start and the relief of a relatively happy ending but it was not written as a sweet tale for children. Sewell wrote to “induce kindness, sympathy and understanding in the treatment of horses” and achieved some real success by shining a light on inhumane practices. In particular, the book contributed to the use of a bearing-rein on hard-working carriage horses falling out of fashion.
The unmanageable black stallion that became the favoured mount of Alexander The Great was peerless in battle. Young Alexander tamed him by turning his head towards the sun, thereby dispelling his own shadow, which had frightened him – a great comfort to all who fantasise about their spooky mount becoming a champion. Alexander’s father was so impressed he adjured him, “O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) gave Burmese to HM The Queen in 1969 and Her Majesty cut a truly elegant figure riding the mare sidesaddle for 18 years at the Trooping the Colour parade. The mare proved her mettle and showed off Her Majesty’s famous riding skill when, in 1981, six blanks were fired at them. Feathers barely ruffled, the pair were settled in seconds. After 21 years’ service Burmese was retired to Windsor, where she is now buried. Her Majesty presented the RCMP with a specially commissioned rocking horse replica of Burmese by Stevenson Brothers after her 90th birthday celebrations.
Cornishman V was a family hunter who carried Mary Gordon-Watson for her Pony Club A-test; competed in point-to-points, working hunters and team chases; and was the equestrian star of International Velvet and Dick Francis’s Dead Cert. But we know this Jack of all trades and master of some as an eventer. He reached advanced level in just two events and took Olympic Team Gold Medals in Mexico 1968 with Richard Meade and Munich 1972 with Mary Gordon-Watson, as well as winning the World Championships in Punchestown by 60 marks for a team and individual gold. The young Mary Gordon-Watson on 17hh of handsome horse inspired a generation of eventers.
Dessie was a true celebrity and captured the heart of the nation. Home-bred by James Burridge in Leicestershire in 1979 he was grey and a front runner so easy for even a part-time punter to pick out. He was loved for his personality. Four of his 34 wins were in the King George VI Chase and his 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup win in filthy going remains an epic race and a testament to the horse’s indomitable spirit, earning him three cheers in the winners enclosure. There were only five finishers from a field of 13, in what was voted the greatest race of all time in a Racing Post poll. Dessie, through Midge Burridge, maintained a popular fan club throughout his retirement, making guest appearances and raising money for charity into what should have been his dotage. Desert Orchid died peacefully at the grand age of 27 in 2006; his ashes are buried by his statue at Kempton.
The godfather, and literal father, of modern racing, this 18th-century stallion was unbeaten in his 18 starts (which included 11 King’s Plates) and can be found in the bloodlines of just about every racehorse and, indeed, thoroughbred today. Thankfully for racing, the horse’s temperament was addressed not by gelding but through hard work with a rough rider. Almost unmanageable, he is thought to have covered 25ft in a single stride and was so far from being beatable that at the end of his career no-one could be found to bet against him. Eclipse, first; the rest, nowhere.
Frankel, foaled in 2008, was the top-rated racehorse of his generation and arguably of all time. To be unbeaten in 14 starts, 10 of them in Group 1 races, is an astonishing record but even that doesn’t totally reflect his form. To see the distances he won by and his unbelievable acceleration in action gives a better indication of his quality. This stunning stallion impressed as a foal, as a colt, and is now continuing to impress in the next stage of his career at stud. His name is certain to live on in the bloodlines of champions to come. We will see if he can pass on his star quality.
JOEY (WAR HORSE)
Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel has been called a modern Black Beauty and its equine narrator has become a household name. Joey was brought to a larger audience by the National Theatre’s production, its life-size puppets causing a sensation when it opened in 2007; it is still touring today. Joey has since been given the full Hollywood treatment by Steven Spielberg. He survives cavalry charges, enemy fire, barbed-wire and draught work to be reunited with young Albert. For most war horses, however, there was no happy ending. Joey brings to mind the millions of horses that went to war; we should remember them.
Norman Thelwell’s Penelope and irrepressible steed, Kipper, first appeared in the 1960s in a strip cartoon in the Sunday Express. Kipper strikes a chord because although horses are “difficult to draw [my father] was good at them, they are realistic despite being cartoons, have character without being cartoonish”, David Thelwell explains. Kipper is the first pony every ‘Penelope’ had or wanted. Many of the cartoons are delightfully instructive (Thelwell’s background was in teaching) but with an irresistible humour and always kind. That Thelwell’s creation is so instantly relatable is especially impressive as he was not ‘horsey’ himself, just possessed of a brilliant eye.
THE MALTESE CAT
The master of short stories, able to anthropomorphise without saccharine and beloved from the cradle to the grave, only Kipling could create the perfect polo pony, and the most brilliant polo game, in The Maltese Cat. He might have started life pulling a vegetable cart in Malta but The Cat was a tactician and poet of polo and he lived to be welcome in the officers’ mess and have £3,000 offered for him at the end of a match… The Past Pluperfect Prestissimo Player of the Game.
MARENGO AND COPENHAGEN
The chargers of Napoleon I and the Duke of Wellington have much in common. Both were named after battles, were prized for their stamina and lived into a remarkable old age. Copenhagen was well bred, being related to the great Eclipse, and was raced before finding his way to the Duke’s stable and carrying him for 17 hours at Waterloo. He was buried, with full military honours, at Stratfield Saye.
Marengo was small, at just over 14hh, but his Arab blood allowed him to stay for 80-mile gallops from Valladolid to Burgos in five hours. His skeleton is displayed at the National Army Museum, Chelsea.
Show-jumper Milton was picked as a winner and started by Caroline Bradley. After her tragic death he came to fame under John Whitaker. Their partnership was legendary: jumping seven consecutive double clears in the Nations Cup; three gold medals at the European Championships; a silver and a bronze at the World Championships; and they won two FEI world cup finals. When Milton retired in 1994, he was the first horse outside racing to have won more than £1m (not including the value of cars he won) and his place in the pantheon of great horses was assured. The grey (always a popular colour) seemed to float over fences, rarely incurring a fault and maintaining a loyal following through a long career and beyond.
The winged horse of Greek mythology was born of the Gorgon Medusa, springing from her decapitated body, and Poseidon. This rather revolting beginning is eclipsed by his heroic deeds, including carrying Bellerophon to triumph over the Chimera, drawing thunderbolts for Zeus and his large constellation, visible in both hemispheres. Pegasus must be the most frequently depicted horse of all time and a demigod, though we would love him anyway – he is a white horse, with wings.
Red Rum was still the best-known horse in the UK 11 years after his death, named by 45% of the public in a poll and beating Black Beauty. The exceptional steeplechaser never fell in 100 starts and is widely credited with saving the Grand National, a race he dominated throughout the 1970s. The course was in danger of development when Red Rum captured the country’s imagination and helped bring Aintree and the National back to the heart of the sporting calendar. He broke the course record and remains the only three-time winner, also coming second twice. Television appearances included BBC Sports Personality of the Year, delightfully ‘pricking his lugs up’ at the recorded voice of his jockey, Tommy Stack. An active retirement included switching on the lights at Blackpool and there was outcry at the prospect of his sale to a Japanese/American restaurateur – one of Rummy’s fans is reported to have assailed him with a cry of: “Remember Pearl Harbor!” Red Rum remains at home, buried not far from the Southport sands where he was trained, at the National’s finishing post.
This American icon was as versatile as he was fast, decimating opposition on dirt and turf, breaking course and world records as he went. A fine-looking horse with exceptional confirmation, Secretariat was a cover star that lived the American dream, breaking the course record in each of his Triple Crown wins and screaming home in the 1973 Belmont Stakes to win by an astonishing 31 lengths – widely considered one of the greatest races ever. Disney made a film about him and he has passed his huge heart on through his daughters to produce more champions.
The Hyde Park bombing in 1982 claimed the lives of four soldiers and seven horses of the Household Cavalry. Sefton survived horrendous wounds after hours of surgery and, even more remarkably, was able to return to service. His courage and resilience captured the imagination of the British people, a symbol of resistance against terrorism at a time when the IRA’s bombings were at their height. Seven more soldiers were killed in a second bomb that day at Regent’s Park. Sefton served for 17 years before his retirement and remains a figure of stoic courage in the public imagination.
Valegro brought dressage to the masses. He swept all before him, latterly breaking world records with almost every outing and winning gold for the home crowd at London 2012. Blueberry, as he is affectionately known at home, has come up through the ranks with Charlotte Dujardin. It’s a fairytale of girl and horse conquering the world. This ‘once in a lifetime horse’ with ‘a face like a seahorse’ has enchanted the public as well as his doting rider. His farewell performance at Olympia was a sell-out and earned him a standing ovation. He is still inspiring and meeting fans with appearances and master classes.
A fine racehorse with creditable wins under his girth, including a strong four-miler at York, Whistlejacket remains famous not for his speed but for his image. Stubbs’ life-size portrait of the Marquess of Rockingham’s stallion is instantly recognisable. The painting is probably the most famous work by the best equine artist of all time. Stubbs elevated animal painting and portraiture to a genre of art. The scale and spare composition were unprecedented in the 18th century and still awe inspiring today.
THE FOUNDATION SIRES
The Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian
Although a number of stallions were imported in the 18th century, three are credited with developing the thoroughbred that we know today. The Byerley Turk gets his name from Captain Robert Byerley, who captured him in Hungary and may have subsequently ridden him in the battle of the Boyne in Ireland.
Thomas Darley brought his Arabian back from Aleppo at the start of the 18th century; the stallion is the great grandsire of Eclipse.
Lord Godolphin’s Arabian had been a gift to the King of France from the Emperor of Morocco and the name is now doubly famous in racing as the global breeding operation of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.