|Wild Horses on Abdon Burf, Brown Clee Hill, Shropshire|
We had no word for the strange animal we got from the white man –
So we called it sunka wakan, “holy dog.” For bringing us the horse,
we could almost forgive you for bringing us whiskey.
Horses make a landscape look more beautiful.
– Lame Deer, Holy Man of the Lakota Tribe
Lame Deer Seeker of Visions
Alice Walker chose the last line of this quote as the title of her fourth volume of poetry, and whenever I see a horse in a landscape, it springs to my mind and my tongue. To me it seems profoundly true.
There is no way of doing justice to the horse in this brief blog, nor would I pretend to be a horse expert, having given up my riding lessons at the age of 14. I am simply an admirer. I love their grace and power, the gloss and colour of their coats, their sensitive noses and mouths, their expressiveness. And I also love the way they can be completely their own being and work with a person without being subservient. Of course, the horse must be treated properly for this partnership to be successful. Otherwise . . .
|A horse tells his fallen rider exactly what he thinks of him,
from MS Bodl 264, the Romance of Alexander early 14th century
Horses in the UK are mainly recreational and sport animals, but in Medieval times they were the equivalent of cars and trucks. Poor people could not afford a horse, but the merchants, traders, crafts people and would have had pack horses (the medieval equivalent of a transit van). For ordinary riding there were palfreys which were reliable and swift enough (Volkswagen Golf??). Knights had several grades of military and riding horses to choose from, depending on their wealth and the type of warfare or tournament they favoured. A high quality horse, such as a destrier or a courser, would attract attention in the same way as a Ferrari or a Humvee does today.
In my novel, The Errant Hours, horses feature prominently. Their individual characters, their desirability, their status and their ability to form a meaningful relationship with a human being are all integral to the plot. Of course in the thirteenth century they were the main form of transport and were not treated sentimentally. However, the relationship between a horse and his rider at its best is one of respect and tenderness, and that was true 800 years ago just as it is today.
|A crusading knight (possibly Henry III) gives homage, accompanied by his horse
from the Westminster Psalter 13th century, BL Royal 2 A XXII
Excerpt from The Errant Hours a historical novel set in 1284 AD
The smith was bending over her, holding a smoking lamp. Illesa sat up quickly and brushed the sleep from her eyes.
“Is it prime?”
“No, the bells haven’t rung yet. I thought it was best to send you on your way before the town woke. You don’t need anyone following you.”
Illesa got up and felt around for her belongings in the dark. The smith watched her, his face just lines and shadows, as she pulled on her jerkin and boots. Outside the air was cool, and the stars were spread across the sky like flowers in a meadow. He went to the stable door.
“Come, I’ve got her ready for you.”
“Jezebel. She’s ready to go. She’s had a good feed and I’ve put on a better saddle. She’ll carry you there and back.” He went inside the stable.
“No, I can’t take her,” Illesa protested, following him. “You’ve only just got her back.”
“My mind is made up, girl,” he said, untying the rope across her stall. “I can’t let you go on such a journey on foot, at the mercy of thieves. What kind of man would let you go like that?” He only looked at Jezebel, stroking her nose. “I’ve done without her for nearly two months, another week won’t hurt. But you must bring her back to me when you’ve finished what you need to do.”
Illesa put her hand on Jezebel’s back.
“I really can’t take her,” she managed. “What if she was stolen again?”
“We must do what is right and let the Lord look after the rest. Now, let’s get you on your way,” the smith said, briskly.
“I will come back as soon as I can, master. God willing.”
“Aye, I don’t doubt it,” he said, glancing at her. “I’ve put bread in your pack and I’ve given Jezebel a good talking to. She understands that she’s to take you as fast as possible. Let her drink regular. She won’t need to eat till tonight.” Jezebel’s eyes were shining with reflected lamplight. He backed her out of the stall and led her into the dark yard. The horse shook her mane, and stamped her hoof.
“She wants to be off. Up you go.” He gave Illesa a hand to mount, and stood back as she adjusted the stirrups. “I went to look, and the guards are asleep. If they wake when you unlatch the gate, just tell them you’re on John the smith’s business.” He smacked Jezebel on the haunch and went inside. Illesa held Jezebel’s reins, not believing what had just happened. But he did not re-emerge and no one stopped her as she guided the horse at a quiet walk out of the yard.
The journey down the dale road was quick. After the first hour, Illesa’s stiffness dissipated. She felt light and free, like the just-milked cows that broke into a trot as they reached the water meadows.
The road became rutted and broken as it curved west, with thick undergrowth on either side. There were few travellers. Although the sun was not yet high, the day was hot. Illesa could not expect the horse to go any further without water. They passed through a small village, but everyone was working their strips and paid her no attention. At its outer boundary a track led south, towards a low hill half-covered in young trees. It was empty except for birdsong. Jezebel walked slowly, snuffling the ground, but the grazing was sparse. Illesa led her to the far side of the plantation and down to the eastern bank of the Onny. A boy with a stick was herding a scattering of cows. His shouts rose up, calling each one by name and they followed him along the river towards a distant croft. Illesa stooped on the bank next to the horse, doused her head and drank.
Before midday, she glimpsed the keep at Clun between the trees, and all around it, unfamiliar hills. A band of archers, walking east with their bows across their backs, shouted as she cantered past them. They wore no insignia. But for their comradely banter, she would have taken them for outlaws.
The town gate was open. A lone guard gave the seal on her parchment a cursory look, before waving her through. The castle stood on the far side, its grey stone walls rising in a clear sky. Illesa dismounted and walked through the busy streets, trying to ignore the ragged boys offering a room and stabling for the night. One lad with a cracked front tooth followed her when all the others had given up in favour of the next traveller.
“She’ll give you a kick if you get in her way.”
“Oh, no. Horses like me. I know all about them.”
“Really?” Illesa tried to put some scorn into her voice, but his optimism dampened it. She stopped and turned around.
“I don’t have money for you. You’d be better off finding someone else to fleece. Get lost.”
He looked up at her and an astonished smile spread across his face. He knew.
She grabbed his arm and pulled him into an alley, Jezebel skittish behind her.
“If you say a word, you’ll regret it,” she whispered in his face, smelling hay and horse shit. He was still smiling.
“Yes, m’lady,” he whispered back. “Why are you disguised?”
“Be quiet! There is no point trying to use this against me, I don’t have any money to pay you off.”
“I wouldn’t. Honest.” The smile was gone, replaced by a thoughtful expression, as if he was trying to remember something. “Are you going to the keep?”
“None of your business.” Illesa let go of his arm. He was a disturbing child; too self-assured. She wished she had not started a conversation with him. It was going to be hard to end it.
“I could help you.” He was stroking Jezebel’s nose and she was letting him.
“I don’t need your help. I just want you to go away.”
“I promise I will, if you let me ride your horse.”
Illesa laughed in surprise.
“You want to ride this horse? How old are you?”
“I dunno. More than ten maybe. I’ve ridden lots of horses, but yours looks fast. I bet she goes like the wind.” He blew on Jezebel’s nose, and she nuzzled his hollow chest.
“You want me to trust you with my horse? I don’t think so.”
“Your horse trusts me,” the boy said matter-of-factly. “What’s her name?”
He kept on stroking her nose and started whistling softly through his teeth.
“God’s wounds,” Illesa said, under her breath. “All right but I must go to the keep first. I’m on urgent business.”
“Don’t you want to know my name?”
Illesa did not reply. She took Jezebel’s rein and started leading her down the dusty street, dodging the traders and piles of rotting straw.
“I’m William,” he said, trotting along on the other side of Jezebel’s head. “My father died last year. He was the innkeeper of the White Hart. I know this place back to front.”
Illesa almost said something, but decided against it.
“I don’t have a home any more. The new innkeeper lets me sleep in the stables and feeds me if I bring him some trade. I know all about horses. This one is a beauty.”
“She’s got a temper though,” Illesa said, without looking at him.
“That’s why she goes fast; she’s got fire in her. She drinks a lot I bet.”
Illesa gave him a look, but he had eyes only for Jezebel. They were already approaching the bailey gate. People were glancing at her as they walked past. William was making her even more conspicuous.
“Go away. I can’t have you along if they let me in.”
He looked downcast for the first time.
“I’ll meet you by the river meadow at vespers if I can. That’s the best I can say.”
William nodded, as if he’d known all along and leaned toward her.
“You need to speak differently, my lady,” he whispered loudly. “You have to try to talk like a man.”
“I will. Now will you go away? You’re making me nervous.”