Chalking the White Horse

Uffington white horse
For more than 3,000 the Uffington horse has glowed white. Without constant maintenance, the horse would have vanished into the foliage in 20 years.

The Uffington White Horse is the oldest of the English hill figures. For more than 3,000 years, it has run across the flank of a hill — a enormous pictogram the size of a football field and visible from 20 miles away. Of course, when this primitive drawing was first cut into the hill, the only way to see it in its entirety was from the valley below. The complexity of creating a figure of this size and shape from the ground is mind boggling.

The White Horse is maintained on Chalking Day, a ritual where volunteers are given hammers, buckets of chalk and kneepads. The chalkers kneel and smash the chalk to a paste, whitening the stony pathways in the grass inch by inch. It’s technique as ancient as the horse itself. If the horse wasn’t maintained, it would be gone in just a few decades, reclaimed by the hillside grass or erased by erosion. Archeologists believe that chalk figures were integral to the social groups of the time; that part of the benefit of the horse was the ritual gathering to maintain it and create a societal bond.

Excavation of the site in the 1990s confirmed its prehistoric beginnings. It also showed that the design for the figure was cut into the hill at a depth of up to a meter — not just scratched into the chalk surface. This made it possible to date the layers of quartz in the trench. The results of the testing showed that the horse was created  at the beginning of the Iron Age, perhaps even the end of the Bronze Age, nearly 3,000 years ago.

Chalking or scouring the horse.
Chalking or scouring the horse. This photo gives you a sense of the massive scale — and the amount of planning and coordination required to “draw” a picture of this size without the benefit of an aerial view. The original lines were created using antler picks and spades — to dig through the earth and expose the chalk layer.

Mystery surrounds the horse. No one knows why the horse was made. One theory is that since in Celtic art, horses were shown pulling the chariot of the sun, this horse was placed so that the sun crosses over it.

The shape of the horse has changed over the centuries, modified by erosion and repeated recutting. The present outline may be only a part of the original: aerial photography shows that a larger, more conventional shape of a horse lies beneath.  Some believe that it wasn’t a horse at all — put could have been a dragon or a mythical creature. But it’s certainly been called a horse since the 11th century.


You can Lead a Horse to Water

The tradition of shrimp fishing dates back to the 13th century, but it is an art that almost died out. Not long ago, only three mounted shrimp fisherman remained. That number has grown to 19 as people in the Belgian village of Oostduinkerke work to sustain their cultural heritage.

Mounted shrimp fisherman
Mounted shrimp fisherman in Oostduinkerke. Photo credit: Gigi Embrechts

“The strong Brabant horses walk breast-deep in the surf in Oostduinkerke, parallel to the coastline, pulling funnel-shaped nets held open by two wooden boards. A chain dragged over the sand creates vibrations, causing the shrimp to jump into the net. Shrimpers place the catch (which is later cooked and eaten) in baskets hanging at the horses’ sides.”

— Unesco

Fishing does not come naturally to the horses. The strong Brabant draft horses needed to pull the heavy nets must be trained to enter the ocean, where they are guided by their riders to the areas populated by grey shrimp. Once a horse is found, it stays with the fisherman for life.

“The first time a horse sees the sea and the waves, you can see it running back,” said d’Hulster. “They don’t like it.”

“There is such a love story between the horse and the fisherman,” he said. “Once he has a horse that works, he is married to the horse. Sometimes we say we like our horses more than our wife.”

New York Times – Horseback Shrimp fishing fades in Belgium

Shrimp fishing takes place twice a week during the season, and each horse brings back between 22 and 44 pounds of fish per day. Gone are the days when mounted fisherman used their catch to fertilize their fields; today the gray shrimp they catch are boiled and served up to tourists, sometimes right on the beach.

For a longer video and a profile of another of the fishing families, please watch the video from Unesco, below.

Honoring Sgt Reckless

On Veteran’s Day it was nice to see some celebration of our non-human veterans, who fought beside our family and friends. Perhaps best known is Staff Sergeant Reckless (c. 1948 – May 13, 1968), a decorated war horse who held official rank in the United States military was a Mongolian-bred mare who was purchased in October 1952 for $250 from a Korean stableboy at the Seoul racetrack who needed money to buy an artificial leg for his sister. Reckless was bought by members of the Marine Corp and trained to be a pack horse for the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Anti-Tank Company. She quickly became part of the unit and was allowed to roam freely through camp, entering the Marines’ tents, where she would sleep on cold nights, and was known for her willingness to eat nearly anything, including scrambled eggs, beer, Coca Cola and, once, about $30 worth of poker chips

A leap of faith

Beale's Cut
This photo from 1924 supposedly features Tom Mix and his horse, Tony, making the jump at Beale’s Cut — 20 feet wide and 90 feet deep — for the movie Three Jumps Ahead.

Tom Mix, born in Mix Run, Penn., on Jan. 6, 1880, was Hollywood’s first Western megastar and is credited with defining the genre for cowboy actors. He  appeared in more than 300 films (counting “shorts”) from 1909 to 1935 and was known for

Tom Mix and Tony
Tom Mix and his most famous horse, Tony.

performing his own daredevil stunts. His most famous horse was Tony the Wonder Horse. Tom’s most famous horse was Tony, who trusted Tom to do any stunt. Reportedly, Tom would talk to Tony and explain each stunt ahead of time, and then they would just do it.

The photo above was used in the publicity stills for the movie Three Jumps Ahead. While the final film has been lost, several stills of the jump are owned by collectors. The big question — even at the time — was whether the jump was really performed and, if so, if it was done by Mix or one another stunt actor.

Certainly, contemporary interviews believe it happened, although it was questioned.

tom-mix-just-tony“In his latest story of the western plains, Mix mounted, leaps a canyon 20 feet wide and 90 feet deep, undoubtedly the longest and most daring leap ever performed by a screen star.” The Palladium, Benton Harbor, MI, 7/7/1923.

“And the crashing climax – Tony’s very remarkable jump across a yawning abyss with Tom Mix on his back – is startling in its realism. There’s no fake to this scene. No possible way it could be faked. And besides, faking scenes is beneath the dignity of Tom and Tony.” The Democrat, Washington, IN, 6/5/1923.

“This is the picture that caused the accident insurance people to cancel all the policies of the redoubtable cowboy when they learned of the stunts he had mapped out to put into the creation. The horse Tony was assigned also a part that simple stood out by itself. The jump of the horse and rider of a yawning chasm has never been equalled in the realms of picture making. It was this stunt which even the Fox people thought too daring for Mix, which caused the cowboy and his insurance people to part company: Three Jumps Ahead is simply the last word in action.” Arizona Republican, Phoenix, AZ, 5/6/1923.

There were rumors that it was one of several stuntmen: Ed Stimpson or Richard Talmadge (who at one point claimed to have made the jump riding a horse named Ranger) or Andy Jauregui. There were even rumors that a stuntman died attempting the jump . . . or that there was no jump at all — that Mix and Tony rode across a bridge that was removed from the print (although that would not have resulted in the appearance of a jump). Another source claimed that several riders performed the jump over many days to get the right shots.

According to this article, here is what Tom Mix said (in the Commerce Journal, Commerce, TX, 9/21/1923):

“On Monday,” said Tom, “I drove a stage coach and four horses over a 100 foot cliff. All rolled to the bottom but no one was hurt. Tuesday, I jumped Tony over a twenty foot chasm that spanned a ninety foot drop. To get the best possible angle the stunt was repeated five times but still there were no injuries. Wednesday, I rolled down another cliff with Tony and neither of us were scratched. Thursday, being a legal holiday, I stayed at home with my family. Friday morning, I went to see a doctor to be sure that I was in perfect condition.”

My feeling is the jump was probably real. Back then, stunts were a lot more dangerous than they are today (and remember those diving horses in Atlantic City?). Certainly to ask your horse to take that kind of leap requires a great deal of faith and a horse with some real jumping talent.

Should the Diving Horses be brought back to the Jersey Shore?

Diving Horses of Steel Pier
Horses and riders (all women) dove off Steel Pier in Atlantic City for 50 years. Originally the platforms were 60 feet above the water. They were lowered to 40 feet after Sonora Carver's diving accident left her blind.UPDATE** On February 14th the owners of Steel Pier announced that they have scrapped their plans to bring back the diving horses.

UPDATE: On February 14th the owners of the Steel Pier announced they had scrapped their plans to bring back the diving horses.

One of the main attractions of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier was the diving horses. From the 1920s until the 1978 (yes, 50+ years!) horses ridden by women in swim suits dove from a 40 foot platform into a pool. I wrote about it some time ago (Don’t try this at home: the diving horses of Atlantic City).

Now, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority announced plans to bring back the famous act as part of the first phase of the Steel Pier improvement project.

The decision has caused a lot of controversy. While contemporary accounts from the riders indicate that the horses who participated in the act were not coerced — read the account that was emailed to me by rider Louise Lamoureux, What was it like to ride a diving horse? — animal rights activists are already gearing up for a fight.

Not all contemporary accounts are as positive as the ones reported by Sonora Carver or Louise Lamoureax. I found an anonymous person’s first person account (posted on the Circus No-Spin blog) that suggests horses didn’t always want to jump:

They didn’t like doing it at all, and I saw numerous times the cosequence (sic) for refusing. Of course the shpeel was how they looked forward to the jump because of the carrot they got at the end. One windy day, the granstand (sic) was half full and the horse refused to jump. There was no way to get down except for backing down the ramp or jumping. They tried to get the people to leave, but no one budged. The horse stood up there for close to an hour before the crowd finally left and they could go up and push him off. Believe me, there was no carrot waiting that time.

Riders of the Diving Horses were always glamorous young women
The riders of the diving horse were always glamorous young women, clad in bathing suits.

Certainly there were injuries, but it doesn’t seem like there were as many as you would expect, especially since there was little concession to safety other than the primitive helmet worn by the riders — many of the young women suffered broken bones that occurred when the horses were trying to get out of the pool (not during the fall). Sonora Carver, perhaps the most famous of the riders, did go blind when she did not close her eyes and suffered detached retinas. However, she continued to ride the diving horses for another decade after her injury.

I discovered you can by the Kindle version of Carver’s book, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, on Amazon so I’m off to read it tonight. Carver reportedly dismissed the way her story was told in the Disney Movie, Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken. I saw the movie a few years ago and am looking forward to hearing her version.

So what do you think? Should the diving horses return to Steel Pier? Would it be possible to make the act safer? Would you go and watch?

War Horse Fact & Fiction Website is a treasure trove of information

War Horse Fact & Fiction Exhibit Website
War Horse Fact & Fiction Exhibit Website

Unfortunately, I’m not planning a trip to London to see this fabulous exhibition at the National Army Museum in person. But the website offers a lot of information that you can enjoy from the comfort of your living room.

Here’s a short video clip from 1915 that’s part of the exhibit. It shows Indian cavalry horses being loaded onto a French train. Good to know that even back then there were horses that didn’t like to load!


Sergeant Reckless: The Korean War Horse

Gunnery Sgt Joe Latham with Reckless Credit: provided by Robin Hutton
Gunnery Sgt Joe Latham with Reckless carrying munitions. Credit: provided by Robin Hutton

The popularity of War Horse has really increased the visibility of the war horse in battle and brought to public attention the stories of some of the horses that touched a lot of soldiers’ hearts. Here’s the story of Reckless, a Mongolian bred mare who was bought by a marine gun crew with their own money and trained her to carry shells for the recoil-less rifle they called “reckless”.

The mare, whom they also name Reckless, becomes their mascot and an indispensable member of their gun crew. She made countless trips, often under heavy fire, from the ammunition supply point to the gun — often alone.


In recognition of her contribution, the Marines presented her with a special citation for bravery, “promoted” her to Sergeant and personally pay her way back to the United States. She enjoyed a well-earned retirement pastured at Camp Pendleton.

Toronto’s War Horse

Thanks to Fran Jurga for bringing this to my attention.

One of the most positive things about play (and upcoming movie) War Horse, is that it has brought to public attention the plight of the horses who went to war, and has singled out some of the individual horses who were equal partners with the soldiers — carrying them into battle, sharing the danger and becoming more than “just horses” to their riders.