History's Greatest Battle Horses

Katie Lambert: Hello. And welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy. And Katie and I received an email from Katelyn, who noticed that our podcasts were keeping pace with her AP US History lessons.

Katie Lambert: Yeah.

Sarah Dowdy: And Katelyn, I also learned about the caning of Charles Sumner in APUSH, so it must be a standard part of the course.

Katie Lambert: But she also suggested that we look into a little equine history, so consider it done, Katelyn. That's our subject for today.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. We're gonna be talking about all horses today, and when Katie and I were initially planning out this podcast, we were like, okay, well, we can talk about all race horses or -

Katie Lambert: Or Sea Biscuit.

Sarah Dowdy: [Inaudible] or something, but our research on Alexander the Great's horse, Bucephalus, for the Battle of the Hydaspes made us curious about the great battle horses instead, whether they're mythological or very real.

Katie Lambert: But first, we're going to give you a little bit of horse history, starting with a somewhat distressing fact, which is that we probably hunted horses for food in prehistoric times. But once they were domesticated, well after dogs and cattle, they became our companions and helpers.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And according to Georges-Louis Leclerc, who is the Comte de Buffon, a French zoologist, the horse was the proudest conquest of man, which I kind of like that quote.

Katie Lambert: I do, too, a lot. They were probably first domesticated by a tribe of Endo European origin that lived in the mountains near the Black and Caspian Seas.

Sarah Dowdy: And ever since then, we've used them for transportation, tracking herds, exploring new lands, carrying us into battle, for also for fun, so riding in tournaments and jousts, and we have words like chivalry and cavalier coming from horse.

Katie Lambert: And plus, they're just special and honored above most other animals. Greeks built up entire myths around them. Think of Centors, Pegasus, the Hippocamp, a seahorse, which made sense, since Poseidon was god of the sea and of horses.

Sarah Dowdy: And great men had their horses buried next to them, so we have horses that have been found in the tombs of the Scythian kings or the Egyptian pharaohs. And even the Legend of Camelot is completed and rounded out by a horse, Llamrei, who is King Arthur's horse. That's Welsh. I'm not totally sure I'm pronouncing it right.

Katie Lambert: Probably wrong. Let's be honest, but on to our list. So why did we pick battle horses? Well, they're obviously really important. Sarah has a good quote for this one from Shakespeare's Richard III.

Sarah Dowdy: A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse, and yeah, you know that as Richard III's line as he's unhorsed. And I'm sure he wasn't really quite so eloquent, but Richard really does go down in the Battle of Bosworth Field when he's unhorsed and cut down in the bog. So a good battle horse is important. That's the end of the War of the Roses.

Katie Lambert: And I guess Richard III's horse probably won't make our list just for that reason. We don't know much about it, but we do know about Roan Barbary, who was the steed of Richard II, who also gets a reference in Shakespeare.

Sarah Dowdy: But think about all the attributes a battle horse might be called to have. In the time of armor, you'd have to have a huge horse to be able to support a full-grown man wearing just plates and plates of chain mail and armor and armor on the horse. A battle horse might need to be fast, have good stamina, and probably the most important aspect is its temperament.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. You couldn't be too sensitive if you're in the middle of battle with all that noise, I can imagine.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so time to profile our individual horses. We're gonna start with the one that got us started on this topic in the first place.

Katie Lambert: Alexander the Great's Bucephalus. And the story, or perhaps the legend, a lot of these are just stories, only very loosely based in historical fact. We should say that. But the idea is that Fillenicus brings a wild horse to Phillip II of Macedonia, who is Alexander's father. But no one can handle this horse, and Phillip II has no idea why he's been brought this -

Sarah Dowdy: He's angry about it.

Katie Lambert: Oh, yeah. He's got this unruly horse on his hands, and what is he supposed to do with it?

Sarah Dowdy: But Alexander defies his father and says that he can handle it. And so, the father and son make a bet together: if Alexander can ride the horse, Phillip will buy it. If he can't, Alexander will have to buy the horse. And because Alexander is just a boy at the time, this is gonna be a pretty hefty purchase for him to make if he loses the bet.

Katie Lambert: But he's smart, and he's noticed that the horse shies away from its own shadow. So Alexander leads it into the sun so that its shadow is behind it. And eventually, the horse lets Alexander mount and ride him.

Sarah Dowdy: And he names him Bucephalus, which means, "Ox Head," and rides it on all his campaigns. And we've already talked a bit about Bucephalus' life in the military, but when he dies at the Battle of the Hydaspes, Alexander names a city in honor of him.

Katie Lambert: So that brings us to our next horse, which is El Cid's horse, Babieca. And there are, again, several folktales about how Babieca came to be the favorite steed of El Cid, who, by the way, is the leader of the Reconquista, the rebellion that threw over the Moors. And he's the hero of Spain.

Sarah Dowdy: The hero of Spain, yeah.

Katie Lambert: So one story is that El Cid got the horse from his godfather, who was a priest, Piere Pringose, or Fat Pete was his nickname. The priest offers Cid whichever horse he wants from the monastery, and the monastery has all these beautifully bred horses. And Cid picks this awkward little colt, and his godfather is so upset at him and thinks it's an awful choice and shouts, "Babieca," which means, "Stupid." And it's unclear if he's shouting at the horse or El Cid, but I'm gonna guess it was at El Cid.

Sarah Dowdy: And the second story is that perhaps El Cid won the horse in a battle. The King of Seville rode to meet El Cid on this beautiful white horse, which was adorned with purple and gold and silver bells, a jeweled bridle. And El Cid says his opponent looks more like he's going to a tournament than a battle, so he issues a challenge that whoever wins will get not only Valencia, but also the pretty horse. And Cid routes the Moors, and although the king escapes, he leaves behind his horse.

Katie Lambert: So whatever the story is, Babieca carries El Cid for 30 years, even when El Cid is dead. This was in caps in the outline. It's very important. So El Cid orders his men to array him in his armor and have him ride out on his old horse, should he be killed in battle. He does die in his final fight with the Moors, and his men follow his wishes, put him in his armor, prop him up on his horse, and have him ride out promptly at midnight to fight the enemy, backed up by white-robed knights.

Sarah Dowdy: It's so creepy.

Katie Lambert: And - yeah, it obviously terrifies the men who have seen him mortally wounded the day before. And they're all, "Oh, El Cid is risen," and I just have to know it's a little bit - it's weakened at El Cid's -

Sarah Dowdy: The screenplay we're working on together. Babieca outlives his master and dies two years after he did, unridden.

Katie Lambert: And an interesting note on breeds here, Babieca was an Andalusian, which is considered by many to be the epitome of a Spanish horse. And another famous Andalusian was William the Conqueror's horse, who he rode in the Battle of Hastings. We could talk about him if we knew his name, but we don't, so.

Sarah Dowdy: That horse's name did not go down in history, unlike El Morzillo, who was the pride and joy of one our most famous conquistadors, Cortes.

Katie Lambert: El Morzillo was a black Spanish barb stallion, and his name means, "Black with a reddish luster." And the story goes on the way to Honduras, El Morzillo gets a large splinter in his hoof, and he's really debilitated by this. And he's ferried across a river. You know, they're trying to help him out, but he's not well. He's got bad water, low rations, and vampire bats keep on attacking him and sucking his blood at night. And it's gotten to the point where Cortes has to press on and leave behind his horse, but he wants to make sure he's taken care of.

Sarah Dowdy: So he leaves him with the Indians near Lake Pitenne and says, "Please take good care of my horse." And the Indians take this very seriously and treat El Morzillo like a god, feeding him tropical flowers, fruits, and chicken. And I don't know if you know much about horses, but they don't eat chicken.

Katie Lambert: They don't eat that.

Sarah Dowdy: So the poor horse starves.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. And so, the Aztecs are obviously concerned about the potential wrath of Cortes, and they carve a stone statue of the deceased horse sitting on his haunches, which is an odd position for a horse to be in. And they call the effigy Xemenchec, possibly, which is the god of thunder and lightning.

Sarah Dowdy: But later, Spanish missionaries destroy the statue, so you cannot go and see it for yourself.

Katie Lambert: So skipping ahead a bit in time, we get to Napoleon's famous horse, Marengo.

Sarah Dowdy: He had three white horses, although, you were telling me one historian was saying [inaudible] white.

Katie Lambert: Jill Hamilton.

Sarah Dowdy: Right. She wrote a book on Marengo, an entire book just on him, and she said that his white chargers that are so famous in paintings were actually gray.

Katie Lambert: And they were just painted white in the - in the pictures.

Sarah Dowdy: You know, just to show off Napoleon.

Katie Lambert: But Napoleon's favorite horse was Marengo, who was an Arabian. And he's a small high-spirited charger, much like Napoleon.

Sarah Dowdy: When Napoleon was exiled, he took some of his horses with him, but he left Marengo in Paris. He was, of course, planning to return, which he did. He even rode Marengo in Waterloo, and we know how that went. And that's where the horse was injured in the hip.

Katie Lambert: It doesn't go well for Marengo either.

Sarah Dowdy: No. And on his retreat, Marengo lags behind somehow and he's captured by another general, General J. J. Angerstein, who tried to use him as a stud. But also, that apparently didn't go well.

Katie Lambert: So Marengo outlives Napoleon by eight years as a trophy horse, essentially, and dies at 38. A lot of these horses also die at very old ages. It's kind of a common theme. But Marengo's skeleton is mounted in White Hall and - Sarah Dowdy: Another common theme.Katie Lambert: Yeah.

Sarah Dowdy: A lot of them are mounted.

Katie Lambert: And a snuffbox is made out of one of his hoofs. It has a silver lid on it.

Sarah Dowdy: But as far as the horses on the other side go, we have the Duke of Wellington's horse, Copenhagen, who was the Iron Duke's very best charger.

Katie Lambert: Copenhagen was a difficult horse, even after Waterloo, when Wellington is dismounted to give Copenhagen a congratulatory pat on the - on the rump. The horse almost kicks him, so I just think of Wellington having dodged death all day long almost gets kicked by his own horse.

Sarah Dowdy: In Waterloo. But as difficult as Copenhagen may have been, he was very good at what he did, known for being unflinching in gunfire and cannon fire.

Katie Lambert: And he was also a surprise full. Copenhagen's mother, Lady Catherine, which is a little confusing when you see it in print.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. Reading this outline, I just kept reading that the Duke of Wellington's mother was in full and didn't really understand.

Katie Lambert: So Copenhagen's mother had been sent on a British military expedition to Denmark in 1807, and she - they didn't know that she was in full. And the Duke of Wellington was in charge of a division in the force at the time, but the mare ended up producing her full when she got home. And it was named Copenhagen in honor of the siege.

Sarah Dowdy: And even after the battles were over, the Iron Duke and Copenhagen stuck together. When Wellington became Prime Minister, he rode Copenhagen up Downing Street to Number 10, which of course, is the Prime Minister's residence.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. And he must have mellowed a little bit with age, Copenhagen, that is. He was regularly ridden by children and friends at the Duke's country house. And I - I like this detail, too. The Duchess regularly gave him treats of bread, so Copenhagen seemed to think that he might have a chance with all ladies getting a little bread snack and would come up to them very friendly.

Sarah Dowdy: I would give Copenhagen some bread. He died at, again, a very old age. And the War Museum was interested in displaying his bones with those of Marengo, but the Duke preferred to keep his horse at home buried under an oak, which is nice.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. So moving on to some famous American horses, Traveller, who I think we both agreed is probably the most -

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, the best known.

Katie Lambert: - famous American horse. Traveller is General Robert E. Lee's horse, and he's a confederate gray colt, who was born Jeff Davis and was a show horse, apparently a very good one, too.

Sarah Dowdy: Right. But then, he became part of the confederate cavalry and eventually caught Lee's eye. And his owner, Major Thomas Brown, offered the horse to Lee as a gift, but Lee said he was far too valuable for him to accept without payment.

Katie Lambert: So he buys him from Brown and renames him Traveller. And Traveller has amazing stamina, and he's very brave. And he even saves Lee's life on occasion. At one point, he dodges a union cannon ball by rearing up on his hind legs. And they're together everywhere, all the way up until the end at Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

Sarah Dowdy: As one of the terms of surrender, Lee asked Grant that the Confederate soldiers be allowed to take home their own horses, and Grant, considering his own horse, Cincinnati, agreed to the terms.

Katie Lambert: Lee and Traveller also share their retirement together, and Traveller is Lee's companion at Washington and Lee. When Lee dies, Traveller actually walks immediately behind his hearse in this position of honor.

Sarah Dowdy: And Traveller was buried on Washington and Lee grounds, but because he was so popular, he was exhumed, our recurring podcast theme.

Katie Lambert: It even applies to horses.

Sarah Dowdy: Hi s skeleton was mounted and displayed at the school, but after 60 years on display, his bones began to crumble. So the horse was reburied outside the Lee Chapel at the university near the Lee family crypt.

Katie Lambert: On a random note, just looking over WNL's website, it looks like their safe ride program might be called Traveller, which I really liked.

Sarah Dowdy: We called ours Watchdogs. We didn't have a horse. We had a bulldog.

Katie Lambert: No. We had a bulldog. Another famous confederate horse was Little Sorrel, who was Stonewall Jackson's horse. And he was captured by the confederates and chosen as a - as a horse for Mrs. Jackson. But Stonewall takes him on after his horse, Big Sorrel, doesn't do very well in battle.

Sarah Dowdy: But Stonewall was wounded accidentally by his own men while he was riding Little Sorrel and died shortly thereafter, so maybe not our most successful of horses. But Little Sorrel later became a mascot of the Virginia Military Institute.

Katie Lambert: And he dies at the confederate soldiers' home, which I also thought was interesting.

Sarah Dowdy: And another horse on display, he's at VMI's museum in Lexington if you want to go see him.

Katie Lambert: So our next horse, Comanche, is known not as a - not for his victories but for being a survivor.

Sarah Dowdy: At the Battle of Little Big Horn, and he's frequently thought to have been Custer's horse. But that's not true. Comanche was actually owned by Captain Myles Walter Keogh.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. And he's famous for being the sole survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and I see this in almost every account that Comanche is the only survivor. But I did notice Kenneth Davis mentioned that a scout was allowed to escape by the Native Americans, so I don't know.

Sarah Dowdy: If you know anything more about that, email us at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com and tell us.

Katie Lambert: But Comanche's of Mustang lineage and he's captured in a wild horse roundup in the 1860's. And he's sold to the US Cavalry after he's gelded.

Sarah Dowdy: And we liked this one little detail about him, not the gelding, but that he had a small white star on his forehead.

Katie Lambert: Uh-huh. So he's the favorite horse of the 7th Cavalry's Captain Myles Keogh, as we mentioned, and he sustains 12 wounds in his service for the 7th Cavalry. But after Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn, when everyone has been killed, a burial party goes scoping out the site of the battle. And they find one severely wounded horse, and that's Comanche, of course, and transport him to Fort Lincoln to recover.

Sarah Dowdy: And he stayed in the 7th Cavalry, but he was excused from all duties, although, he did appear at formal regimental functions wearing black with backward facing boots in the stirrups.

Katie Lambert: Leading the 7th Cavalry.

Sarah Dowdy: Right. And he died at about the age of 29 and is mounted for a fee and on the condition that the taxidermist would be able to show him at the Chicago Exposition of 1893.

Katie Lambert: And he's still on display. You can see him at the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History.

Sarah Dowdy: And that brings us to what we were referring to as our bonus horse.

Katie Lambert: Because he's not technically a military horse.

Sarah Dowdy


Katie Lambert: But you'll see why - why we had to include him.

Sarah Dowdy: Because he's pretty cool. This is Caligula's horse, Incitatus, and there is an old tale about Caligula's love for his horse. And if you'll remember the last time we mentioned Caligula, it was when he was busy having Juba II murdered.

Katie Lambert: Which I really hold against him.

Sarah Dowdy: Oh, of course.

Katie Lambert: So the Roman historian, Suetonius, relates a story without thoroughly looking into whether it's true or not. So this also fits in with a kind of mythological quality of a lot of these horse tales. But you know, it's that Incitatus had a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets, and a collar of precious stones. And Caligula even gave this horse a house, and it's also said that he intended to make him a consul.

Sarah Dowdy: I also read that he was fed gold-dusted barley, and this is, again, probably just some ridiculousness, but it was just so entertaining I had to add it. But this fact about all of the trappings that Incitatus is entitled to under Caligula is passed on as fact between historians. In the 2nd Century, we have Dio Cassius recounting basically the same thing, saying Caligula even promised to appoint his horse a consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer. So check your facts, historians.

Katie Lambert: So this makes us tempted to talk about Caligula more on a later podcast. I think you guys can expect that.

Sarah Dowdy: The monsters of history. It could be a series. Be thinking about it. So all week, pretty much, I've been sending Katie pictures of horses and these famous horses on most of my emails. But I have not been posting them to our brand new Twitter account. I've been restraining myself from too many horse facts, but you should check us out. It's called Missed in History, and we're on Twitter.

Katie Lambert: I did put the gold-flaked barley thing on there, so - and you would have known that before now if you were one of our followers. So if you'd like to learn more about animal domestication, we have a wonderful article written by former Stuff You Missed in History host, Jane McGrath. And you can come to our webpage and search for it at www.howstuffworks.com.

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