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Historical Men and Their Horses

Updated on March 14, 2012
Copyright 2004 Shawna Lynn Ballard
Copyright 2004 Shawna Lynn Ballard

Each of these men were great military leaders. A military that, in part, does not exist today. They came from eras in which Cavalry was the primary force. The names of these men you may recognize - their leadership is world renowned. But I would like to draw your attention to another aspect of their greatness. The affection and trust they had in their horses. As I read about the victories and struggles these men had, I noticed that a horse was by their side. A man's horse was a most precious ally in times of battle.

This is a glimpse into the hearts of men - famous men and their horses: Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, The Duke of Wellington and Robert E. Lee. They formed a bond with their horse that transcends the binds of time. Through thick and thin man and his horse depended on each other. A relationship of mutual trust, respect and admiration so strong it was written in the pages of history.

Alexander taming Bucephalus

Alexander the Great and Bucephalus

Historians tend to overlook the role of the horse. But one horse they rarely forget is Bucephalus, the trustworthy steed of Alexander the Great.

On a fateful day in 344 B.C., Alexander and Bucephalus met for the first time. The unruly black stallion was brought to the court of his father, Philip II, who was always looking for a physically sound horse to fortify the Calvary. This day, a horse dealer hoped to sell the animal to the king. He was an Akhal-Teke, a strain of race horses bred in Turkmenistan and much admired for their beauty, speed and stamina. Unfortunately, ( or because of good fate) even the best horseman, including the King, could not control him. It was decided he was too nervous for battle. Philip was surprised when his 12 year old son called for the chance to ride the horse. Hesitantly, Philip granted the request. Alexander probably recognized the horses great potential. It is said that he observed a fear in the horse toward his handlers and of his own shadow. King and onlookers where doubtful and even humored by the boys overconfidence.

" I could manage this horse", said the boy, "better than others do."

"And if you do not," said his father, "what will you forfeit for your rashness?"

" I will pay," answered Alexander, "the whole price of the horse."

Bucephalus was not a young horse at 12 years and probably had some bad experiences that made him aggressive and distrusting of humans. Young Alexander approached the horse- took hold of the reins and turned the horse toward the sun so his shadow disappeared. The boy vaulted up on his back and little by little drew up the bridle, stroking him gently to calm his nerves. With authority, he commanded the horse and they rode at full speed out of the court. Bucephalus and Alexander were together from that moment on. In a way, I believe this event was a rite of passage for Alexander and one that contributed to his future greatness.

By age 25, Alexander had conquered most of the known world.

Their bond strengthened over the next 10 years. Riding together, campaigning across foreign lands, over rugged mountains and barren deserts, conquering regions of Turkey, The Levent, Egypt, Iran, Persian Afghanistan, and Hindu Kush. Then he was finally on his way to conquer India.

It was then, while at the borders of the Caspian Sea, Bucephalus was stolen!

Alexander knew that in the hands of the raiders his now aged horse would end up a beast of burden and the thought was harrowing. I could only imagine the distress he must have felt. Bucephalus had saved his life, time and time again and was his constant companion. Alexander became enraged. He wanted to kill them all, their wives and children also, unless they returned his horse safe and sound. He sent a herald to tell them of his intentions and they soon came back with his horse. Alexander, I am sure, felt tremendous relief because it is documented that he treated the thieves with kindness and rewarded them handsomely!

After a battle on the Indian border, Alexander's victory was bittersweet as his valued horse died. He did not fall in battle as some stories tell, but fell victim to fatigue and old age. Bucephalas lived to be about 30 years old. Buried with full military honours in Jalalpu Shanif outside of Jhelum, Pakistan. Alexander performed the funeral rites for Bucephalus - also naming a new founded city, Bucephala, in memory of his beloved horse.

History records Bucephalus as a valiant horse with a special place in the life and heart of a great king.

Napoleon with Marengo
Napoleon with Marengo

Napoleon and Marengo

In the early 1800's, General Napoleon Bonaparte had not only proven his valor but conquered most of the known world at that time.

As a known animal lover he kept a stable of 80 horses; Napoleon found only 8-10 acceptable for him to ride.  He also preferred little Arabs over the more popular Thoroughbreds.  His favorite being Marengo, a horse that was all of 14.1 hh.  Napoleon's troops captured him during the battle of Abouki in Egypt. Legend has it that Marengo was the mount of choice on all his famous campaigns.

The great commander was not known for great horsemanship.  On the contrary, he had a poor seat, shifting around in the saddle so much that he wore holes in his breeches.  He was awkward and unsteady on horseback. In spite of this he was a tireless rider- rash and imprudent.  Marengo must have been forgiving of this to be compatible with such a rider.

Putting their trust in each other, they survived 15 difficult years of desert sun, winter snows, near starvation, chronic thirst, and battle wounds.  That horse must have possessed superior temperament and stamina, for he, at age 19, carried the graceless Napoleon 3,000 miles to Moscow and back.  Countless horses died but Marengo prevailed.

Napoleon concidered horses to have a link with Deity and once said, " How do we know that animals have not a language of their own? My opinion is that it is a presumption in us to say no, because we do not understand them. A horse has memory, knowledge and love"

Napoleon was courageous with great perseverance.  He was also just a man.  Mentally, leading hundreds of thousands of men can be overwhelming especially when compounded by the extremely high ambitions of conquering the world.  It is said he often rode out on horseback on worrysome days. When he was out of sorts or needed to wrestle with a problem he would go for a gallop, often gone for an hour or more.

The infamous Battle of Waterloo is where the partnership abruptly ends.  Napoleon was defeated and Marengo was taken by the British.  He was a military marvel and served a legendary leader.  The British celebrated Marengo and he was paraded in London, where sightseers thronged by the thousands to admire Napoleons personal charger.

In 1832, Marengo died at the remarkable age of 38.  A very old age in horse years. In death as in life, the name Marengo is synonymous with equine valor.  As a memorial, the horses skeletal remains reside at the Waterloo Gallery at the National Museum, Chelsea.  The world has not forgotten the famous horse and I am sure his companion and leader did not forget him either.  While in captivity, Napoleon did much writing about his life. He is noted as saying -

"When I lost my way, I was accustomed to throw the reins on his neck and he always discovered places where I, with all my observation and boasted superior knowledge could not."

The Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo
The Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo

The Duke of Wellington and Copenhagen

Napoleon's enemies at The Battle of Waterloo were the British and their allies led by the Duke of Wellington. The duke's mount was a chestnut, grade horse 15 hh, "Copenhagen". Foaled in 1808, produced by a Rutland Arabian mare, Lady Cathrine and John Bull, a thoroughbred. At the age of three he was used as a racehorse, but did not excel in the sport. His owner sold him and he ended up with the Duke of Wellington. His name is derived from the 2ND Battle of Copenhagen,1807 in which the British had a celebrated victory over the Danish City of Copenhagen.

He was a top of the line battle horse- steady, obedient and possesed great stamina. On one occasion he carried the General Duke into a square of infantry men under cannon fire, remaining composed the entire time.

The Duke said of him: "There may have been many faster horses, no doubt many handsomer, but for bottom and endurance I never saw his fellow"

Copenhagen and The Duke became synonymous; even after retiring they remained together. The Duke of Wellington, also known as the "Iron Duke", became Prime Minister in 1828 and rode Copenhagen up Downing Street to take up his new position. The public commemorated the horse with many statues and paintings, but he left the biggest impression on the Duke's heart.

After Copenhagen's death he concealed the place of burial to protect his horses remains from souvenir hunters. He no doubt was greatly missed by the Duke and they were blessed for having met and shared such great memories.

The only photo of Traveller with his trusted rider.
The only photo of Traveller with his trusted rider.

Robert E. Lee and Traveller

Robert E. Lee served as the top Confederate General during the American Civil War. His mount was an American Saddle Bred of the Grayee Eagle Stock. A gorgeous Iron grey horse, 16 hh, with dark mane and long flowing tail. He was noted for his springy walk, good disposition and bouncy uncomfortable trot. but it is written that when General Lee was in the saddle the horses' movements became smooth.

It was before the war that the General first noticed the horse. Captain Joseph M. Broun visited donning a splendid horse. The general commented on the steed noting that he would ride him in the near future. Each time the Captain paid a visit, Robert E. Lee inquired of the horse fondly referring to him as "my colt". Eventually, he purchased the horse naming him "Traveller" spelled in the British style with two L's.

Together they faced the bloodiest war in American History. General Lee relied on Traveller's great courage and stamina during long, tiring campaigns. At the battle in Spotsylvania, he saved the generals' life by rearing to let a whizzing Union Cannon ball pass under his body. They were surely devoted to one another.

Near the end of the war, after the Battle of Antietam, Lee sat astride Traveller for hours watching the disappointing retreat of the Confederate Army across the Potomac river. The enemy army took notice and the Union General Carter wrote:

"The sight of general Lee and his splendid warhorse, Traveller, was a graven image in the heart of every red blooded soldier"

By the end of the war Lee and Traveller where renowned - becoming a national symbol. They remained together until Robert E. Lee's death in 1870. Lee once said,

"Traveller is my only companion, I may also say my pleasure. He and I whenever practical, wander out in the mountains and enjoy sweet confidences."

One year after Lees' death - Traveller fell ill and died, they are buried a few feet from each other at the campus Chapel at Washington & Lee University, Lexington , Virginia.

Traveller's grave site at Lee Chapel
Traveller's grave site at Lee Chapel

A horse is the projection of people's dreams about themselves - strong, powerful, beautiful and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.

By Pam Brown


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    • profile image 2 years ago

      What a tremendous infmtn of this adds !

      But its limit.we want the vast treassure of kings and their horses

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Thanks for the information on Bucephalus. I'm linking your hub to mine to add some depth to my story. You can find my hub on my profile.

    • Kejanny profile image

      Kejanny 5 years ago from Papua New Guinea

      I love this awesome hub about these special horses, the magnificent animal I love, too.

    • profile image

      Marcus blog 8 years ago

      Interestingly Wellington removed Copenhagens hooves and had snuff boxes made from them. 2 of these snuff boxes still remain today and are the Property of The 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, formally The Duke Of Wellingtons Regiment.

    • Journey * profile image

      Nyesha Pagnou MPH 8 years ago from USA

      Another wonderful tribute to horses. Thanks Real Tomato!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 9 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Thanks for the horse stories, Tomato, I love Bucephalus, what a wonderful story, he must have been a magnificant creature.

    • The Real Tomato profile image

      The Real Tomato 9 years ago

      Shalini - poetry in motion is a great way of describing it !

      Kerryg- I agree about the calvary but it is a catch 22. Horses aren't a casualty anymore but now we have airforce that can kill more innocent people.

      Thanks to you both for your comments!

    • kerryg profile image

      kerryg 9 years ago from USA

      What a great tribute to these magnificent horses!

      I have to say, though, that I'm glad we don't use cavalry any more. It breaks my heart to have innocent animals dying because of stupid human squabbles.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 9 years ago from India

      What a wonderful hub - I love to watch horses in motion - there's such a powerful yet fluid grace in them. Yes, seeing a horse and rider well suited is sheer poetry in motion.

    • The Real Tomato profile image

      The Real Tomato 9 years ago

      C.C. Riter - Yes, many fine men, boys and horses. There are so many stories to tell - I appriciate you reading.

      Teresa - Imagine what those men ( in ceremony) would look like if it not for their horse! It is the horse, I think, that brings such grandure to the procession. On the side- I was still laughing about your last Hub when I was trying to fall asleep. It must be a gift to write with knee slapping humor.

      Hawkdream - Those movies portray the intimate bond man can have with the horse. I have not experienced it- but I have seen it. I think you have to be born with horse blood in your veins, my husband is one of them. It is an awe and wonder, - at the same time, I honestly cannot relate.(wish I could) The Black Stallion is one of my favorite movies- not only because of the horse aspect of it (which is a great story) but Micky Rooney!

      Birte - (with an i) ( - : So often I have seen horses tolerate a rider (humor them), then it is a beautiful sight to see when a horse and rider are a good match. The mutual respect isn't always there with every horse and rider- even when the horse obeys. Thank you for your comments

    • BirteEdwards profile image

      BirteEdwards 9 years ago

      This is truly an outstanding Hub both in content and in writing.

      I always love it when we pay attention to that which is often overseen. This is a great example of looking at the overseen, what we take for granted. Why should we take for granted that the horse will obey it's owner/rider in everything, especially in such fierce situation as a battle.

      It says as much about the animal as the rider.

    • Hawkesdream profile image

      Hawkesdream 9 years ago from Cornwall

      I feel that horses are often not given credit enough for what they are capable of, Have you ever seen the film' The horse whisperer' in that the bond between a young girl and her horse was amazing.

      Another fillm 'The Black Stallion' helped a young boy survive on a desert island.

      With all films I feel that some element of truth is present ,bearing out your hub ,great once again.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image

      Sheila 9 years ago from The Other Bangor

      What a great idea for a hub. Cavalry are thankfully ceremonial now, so these fine animals don't have to go to war.

    • profile image

      C. C. Riter 9 years ago

      Wonderful hub and a great tribute to horses. It's a shame what man has done to them and I'm glad for the most part they don't take part in war as they once did. Many fine horses have been slaughtered on the battlefields. thanks