But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.
- William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), Irish poet.
In Coole and Ballylee, 1931
Yeats ponders the transmission of values from the past where great people once dwelt. Humanity will follow wherever fashion or fantasy is bred until "all the glory is spent." He considers the past forgotten and as it is allowed to fall to ruins it becomes enveloped by each consecutive generation that covers a foundation layer by layer until the horse is riderless and the flood continues to rise drowning out even the memories of humanity’s identification with the past.
Straight from the horse's mouth.
While today riding the high horse means to act pretentiously, the fourteenth century English reformer John Wyclif recorded that in a royal pageant persons of high rank were mounted on high horses, meaning that they rode the what were once called “great horses” used in battle or tournament. The custom of parades with rich costumes died, but the idiom remained to describe anyone that is overly convinced of their superiority and importance. Arrogant, haughty, high-and-mighty, lofty, overbearing, prideful, proud, supercilious, and superior would be included on any good list of synonyms.
Many have turned the phrase around by saying,” Now, don’t get on your high horse.” Meaning don’t get in a flap over it or take offense and keep calm. High horse originally appeared sometime around 1380 to describe these great "war horses” or heavy chargers it didn’t gain its figurative sense of putting on airs until 1782.
So like Yeats I began to wonder what has been covered up through time, what was so special about these “great horses” that makes this phrase as so enduring. What exactly is a heavy charger and what were some of the most famous “war horses" from long ago? Here is what I found out.
With a wide body and bread back the heavy draft horse is an ideal combination of weight and strength. Its rounded withers in some breeds made for better pulling power. The loin and quarters are heavily muscled and the legs are thick and short maximizing traction. Heavy horses usually stand between 16 and 18 hands high and include draft horses as well as coach horses. It was the draft horse that was developed through breeding in the Middle Ages as the heavy chargers to carry armor-clad knights into battle. Eventually they came into use for agricultural work as a means to pull plows and heavy wagons and perform other tasks. Today they have been displaced for the most part by tractors.
Some good horse sense.
In days of old when knights were bold, they road Percheron horses. The ancestors of the Percheron draft horses were warhorses. These were probably descendents of Moorish Barbs and Arabians and it was the Battle of Poitiers in 732AD when the Frankish knights of Charles Martel defeated the Moors that made it feasible for the French breeders to have access to the Barbs. Almost all of the first Percheron were gray. This served an important purpose in battle since they were more visible at night. Because of their amazing endurance by 1069 the hardy Percheron had gone from warhorse to draft horse.
A horse is a horse, of course, of course.
One of the most notable warhorses is Alexander the Great’s charger Bucephalos. In Greek Bucephala means, "ox-head" or in more modern parlance bull headed. Knowing the legend behind his name may help explain why Alexander chose it. According to the historian Plutarch, as a child Alexander “tamed the wild Bucephalus by turning his head towards the sun, thereby preventing the horse from being frightened of his own shadow.”
A willing horse he was purchased from a Thessalian for thirteen talents. The young Alexander was the only person who could mount him, and he always knelt down to take up his master. Bucephalus carried Alexander on countless military campaigns and finally died in battle at the age of thirty. Alexander reportedly wept at his funeral and later built the city of Bucephala to commemorate his deeds.
A horse of a different color belonged to the Roman Emperor Caligula (37 to 41AD). Named Incitatus meaning “spurred on,” during his lifetime the charge horse was made priest and consul and supposedly drank wine out of a golden pail while dining from an ivory manger.
When they hear the term “high horse” some might think of the portrait of Napolean Bonaparte Crossing the Alps
by the Great Saint Bernard Pass. It was painted in 1800 by French artist Jacques-Louis David. In spite of the fact that Napoleon rode a mule across the Alps, David chose to romanticize the event by depicting Bonaparte on a dashing charger. The uniform he is wearing is the same one he wore into the Battle of Marengo. Historians say that David actually brought the uniform to his studio to lend some accuracy to his idea and many think that the horse portrayed is Marengo the most celebrated of Napoleon's many horses.
Napoleon had a long way to come down off of his not so high horse. His valet Constant wrote, "The Emperor mounted a horse without grace... and I believe that he would not have always been very sturdy on the horse if we had not taken so much care to give him only horses perfectly trained." Another comrade, Ernst Otto Odeleben has it straight from the horse's mouth: "Napoleon rode like a butcher...whilst galloping, his body rolled backwards and forwards and sideways, according to the speed of his horse."
Legend has it that Marengo was taken during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign and named for Napoleon's success at the Battle of Marengo. The petite gray Arabian was an eyewitness to all of his famous battles--from the second Italian war, through the retreat from Moscow, to the final battle at Waterloo. Captured by the British Marengo was proudly displayed throughout England as "Bonaparte's White Barb Charger... favourite Horse of the late Emperor" and carried the wounds to prove it, five scars and a bullet lodged in his tail. After the horse's death its skeleton was put on display in the National Army Museum.
Wild horses couldn't drag Comanche away and it was infamous defeat rather than victory that brought him fame. Known as the sole survivor of General George Custer's command at the Battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. The mustang was around six years old when he was captured in a roundup, gelded and sold to the U.S. Army Cavalry for $90. Standing 15 hands high the bay horse had a small white star on his forehead. The favorite mount for Captain Myles Keogh of the 7th Cavalry survived over a dozen battle wounds. A valiant warhorse he was discovered two days after Custer’s defeat by those burying the dead. Severely wounded he was sent by steamer to Fort Lincoln, where he was put out to pasture as a member of the 7th Cavalry. He enjoyed his reputation as a fearless and powerful steed and continued to receive full honors as a symbol of the tragedy at Little Bighorn. He died of colic at 29 years old on November 7, 1891.
Whoa! Hold your horses.
Literally speaking the highest horse in the world today stands at an impressive 19-hand, one-inch Percheron gelding. Including his neck and head that’s over eight feet tall for those without much horse sense. Aptly named Goliath he’s 6-feet, five-inches at the withers or top point of the shoulder. In July 2003 Goliath was officially given the title as the World’s Tallest Horse by Guiness World Records.
Incidentally on a related note the playful use of "clothes horse" to depict someone who likes to "live to display clothes" may be a likely extension for all this high falutin' pomp and circumstance. It first appeared around 1850 and came from "clothes horses" which were wooden racks used for drying or airing out clothes.
Encyclopedia Smithsonian:Famous Horses:
History's Famous Horses:
Percheron Draft Horses:
Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition. 1995.