Amazons of Paris – the stuntwomen and daredevils of the nineteenth century

Viral photographs of an enigmatic Belle Epoque horsewoman called Sélika Lazevski set me hunting through archives and circuses from St Petersburg to Paris to uncover the lives of elusive professional equestriennes who were celebrated artistes, survivors, and scapegoats of the nineteenth century. I’m telling their stories now in Amazons of Paris, which began as an essay series for Paris Review Daily (you can read them here). This is a Substack newsletter for the work in progress.

These stuntwomen were daredevils not only in the circus ring but also in their lives. Sarah l’Africaine became a star for a season in the teeth of gross racism and huge physical risk. Céleste Mogador battled her way up from an abusive home to a brothel and on to the aristocracy. Jenny de Rahden endured a murder trial and the loss of her sight. Émilie Loisset paid the ultimate price. I have more stories and lives to add to these accounts, as well as introducing you to the world of high-level European circus in the nineteenth century, where performers mingled with royalty while remaining outsiders, and everyone went to the ringside to see and be seen.

I’ve been working on the book for years in between freelancing and other projects. This newsletter is a way to share the discoveries I’ve made along the way. It will be free and irregularly published because I won’t send it to you unless I have some real treats to share. I’d be honoured if you’d sign up here at Substack.

Stuntwomen, celebrities and survivors of the nineteenth-century Paris circus

A seal on horseback that got linked to an infamous scandal, a carefree beauty who hated skirts, and racy goings-on in Vienna: my first Amazons of Paris newsletter carries on where the Paris Review Daily series left off.

Émilie Loisset: Princess Daredevil and her Creepy Stans

Le Monde Illustré, 29 April 1882. Screengrab from Gallica.

To quote myself:

The more I work on these mini biographies, the harder I find it to be certain of biographical facts. I usually check multiple contemporary sources about the same events and I see errors that are carried forward by later texts and plenty of instances where there are two believable versions of an event. They are a work in progress, and I try to make the ambiguities and contradictions clear.

Gentle readers, welcome to my world when I was researching the life of Émilie Loisset. I thought she would be relatively simple to write about after tackling Jenny de Rahden and Céleste Mogador, both of whom wrote about their own lives at length. I knew there would be more material than I’d found on Selika Lazevski and Sarah l’Africaine, but I hadn’t realised that my standards and resources for research would have increased so exponentially. Now I had Belgian, German and Austrian digitised newspapers to work with, and I expanded out into birth certificates, marriage confirmations and death records, plus a novel or two. Heaven knows, there’s plenty more I could rummage through if I could visit the physical archives, but I had over a hundred pages of typed-up notes in three languages by the time I started Émilie’s essay, and that was enough for lockdown limitations. So let’s look at the research for the Paris Review Daily essay on Émilie Loisset (here) so I can try to untangle it all again.

A Giant Game of Telephone

I did my best to navigate the mess of contradictory information available and to be open about the judgment calls I made but – boy… it was a rollercoaster ride. If you look up Émilie and find something that you think I’ve missed, bear this in mind – it may very well be in my Giant Document of Notes and I just decided to exclude it from the essay and this blogpost for lack of space or faith. Paris Review Daily blogposts are meant to be 2,000 words max, and Nadja Spiegelman, my editor there, very kindly indulged me by letting me post far longer pieces.

In Signor Saltarino’s book, Émilie and Clotilde’s mother becomes “Camilla Loisset”, and Clotilde and Émilie themselves are pretty regularly confused by many writers in different countries. “Hatzfeld” is spelled in many and varied ways, my favourite of which has to be “Le Prince Narfeld”. When the reports cross the Atlantic they get even more scrambled – perhaps literally a game of Telegram. The New Orleans Daily Democrat account of events says Hatzfeldt raced horses at “Hoppeyarter” which I presume means Hoppegarten, the racecourse outside Berlin. Or there’s a US paper rechristening Clotilde as “Virginia” – possibly confused by another écuyère (Virginie Léonard) who married a banker. “Hartzfield” and “Blotilde” appear here.

When biographies of Sisi, the Empress of Austria, track into Émilie’s life, there’s a world of confusion between her and Elisa Petzold, the Austrian écuyère who a) often performed alongside her, b) was also a favourite of Sisi, and c) was originally inspired to become a circus horsewoman by another of Émilie’s aunts-by-marriage, Adeline Loisset. I am currently researching the intriguing Elisa for the Amazons of Paris book project and pursuing some extraordinary leads I found while working on Émilie’s life…

Possible birth record for Émilie.

Why Don’t You Know Which Horse it Was?

Buckle up.

9 April 1880 – Morgen Post – Pour Toujours is the jumper.

3 September 1880 – Journal de Bruxelles – Émilie performing on the jumper, Pour Toujours, for the first time [in Belgium, I guess]. Will leap the table.

26 March 1881 – Morgen Post – J’Y Pense was a dressage horse, not a jumper. Das Vaterland also says this in April 1881.

4 April 1881 – Wiener Zeitung – advertisement for Circus Renz. Says Pour Toujours is a jumper.

7 April 1881 – Wiener Cariacaturen – Pour Toujours described as a haute école horse who pirouettes and courbettes obediently.

18 April 1882 – Le Figaro – published in the immediate aftermath of Émile’s death by Albert Wolff, who knew her well and was at her funeral. He says the horse that killed her was J’Y Pense, a difficult, heavy, bay horse.

19 April 1882 – Gazette Nationale – J’Y Pense, a difficult bay-brown horse.

20 April 1882 – La Petite République – it was J’Y Pense.

4 May 1882 – Echo de Parlement – J’Y Pense dunnit.

1893 – Baron de Vaux’s Écuyers et Écuyères: Histoires des Cirques d’Europe  – Pour Toujours was a gift from an admirer in Berlin – an Irish horse with a “bad heart”. She had fallen from him in 1881.

1895 – Signor Saltarino’s Artisten Lexikon – He said Pour Toujours was a superb hunter and J’y Pense a black stallion of difficult temperament who killed Émilie.

Twentieth century – Tristan Rémy in Le Cirque dans L’Univers: Émilie bought two jumpers, Pour Toujours and J’Y Pense back from Berlin. Pour Toujours was Irish, and had once somersaulted over a table jump with her and dislocated her shoulder.

Every time I think I know which it was, another source comes up. So I still couldn’t tell you!

Several papers reported that after Émilie’s death, J’Y Pense/Pour Toujours was purchased by “le Prince de H—” in some accounts a blond German, in others, a “Hungarian” (again, the contradictions undermine me) who then blew the horse’s brains out with a pistolet, but L’Echo de Parlement reported that the horse had been purchased by Elisa Petzold—”Voilà, publicity well understood,” its correspondent noted cynically.

Know Your Aristos

If you want to dive in and find out more about the aristocratic suitors then please proceed with caution. These families are sprawling and full of repeated names.

For Clotilde’s husband, Prince Heinrich XX Reuss zu Köstritz/Baron von Reichenfels, I’ll leave you with this extract from the House of Reuss Wikipedia entry:

All the males of the House of Reuss are named Heinrich (Henry) plus a number. In the elder line the numbering covers all male children of the elder House, and the numbers increase until 100 is reached and then start again at 1. In the younger line the system is similar but the numbers increase until the end of the century before starting again at 1.

And he had two older brothers. Both called Heinrich. De Vaux calls him Jean XXII, which is one reason I don’t rely unquestioningly on De Vaux.

For Elemér Batthyány, please bear in mind that this young man was not the only sportsman in his family to own racehorses – I had a few false starts before I arrived at him. I believe his full name is Elemér Boldizsár Kázmér Batthyány von Német-Újvar Batthyány. If you’d like to see an image of him, I think this is correct, and pictures of his striking 2002 tomb are here. These may be his racing colours (or could be those of a relative who was more successful in England). There seem to have been a swindling-duelling scandal during his time as president of the Budapest Jockey Club, but my very basic reading on this subject didn’t suggest that he was involved. Here’s the current website for his family.

What I do know is that he was staying at the Goldenes Lamm in Vienna at the same time that Émilie was performing around the corner at the Renz Circus. It was customary for hotels to list guests in local newspapers – presumably so friends and family would be notified and could visit. A tantalizing triangulation that proves everything or nothing.

Elemér carried on as a sportsman and racehorse owner, but lost his estate in the turbulence following World War One. In 1920, he was seen shivering in line at a soup kitchen in Budapest, where an American acquaintance took pity on him and found him a job. He died in 1932. I cannot find any note of him marrying after Émilie’s death.

Re. Franz Edmund Joseph Gabriel Vitus von Hatzfeldt, prince of Hatzfeldt-Wildenburg. You will find every extraordinary permutation of spelling going on here, and be careful not to confuse him with any other relatives. You can see a photo of him and his Grand National winner, Ascetic’s Silver, here. This is the Wiltshire house where he lived with his wife, Clara, from 1896-1915 (you might enjoy the bracing opinions of the US Morning News on this marriage and Hatzfeldt in general).

La Petite Lambton and evidence for Elemér

In 1886, after Émilie’s death, the novelist and politician Paschal Grousset (using the pseudonym Philippe Daryl) published a book called La Petite Lambton that was advertised as being based on Émilie’s life. Though most of the plot (a near-farce about inheritance and a greedy society) does not concern her, the titular heroine, Jacqueline Lambton, has many similarities to Émilie, from her cropped, golden-brown curls to her pride, stubbornness, and dedication to her art, which she thinks deserves the same consideration as painting and sculpture. She is endowed with both a spirited horse and a courtly honor by the Empress of Austria, and is a loving daughter who makes soup for her parents every day she’s in Paris.

A young Hungarian officer, Prince Max Lédényi, is smitten and wants to marry her and no one else. Jacqueline tells him that she will only consent if his father agrees, and thus the lovers are temporarily thwarted because the Lédényi family needs new funds to support their 3,000 villagers, so Max must marry a Jewish banker’s daughter. Jacqueline’s father delivers the deus ex machina by guilefully coming up with the money—and, as she lies on the circus floor after her climactic accident, Jacqueline hears that the prince’s father has given them permission to marry. She looks angelically enraptured and expires of a broken neck. Although the book is a confection, Grousset, like Meusey, was part of an elite group of Parisian intellectuals and writers which included some of Émilie’s circle, and presumably knew the details of her life better than gossipers in Berlin or Vienna. Elemér certainly maps neatly on to Max in some instances but likely not others.

“Alain Bauquenne” or Octave Mirbeau’s L’Écuyère also features a Hungarian officer who is smitten with the heroine. He dies in a duel over her honour. The “horsewoman” in this novel is also partly Petzold.

Who’s Who of Nineteenth-Century Pseudonyms

Everyone in the nineteenth century loved a pseudonym! I was pretty lost until I discovered the Dictionnaire des Pseudonymes by Edmond Antoine Poinsot, which unmasked several of the people who wrote about Émilie (and also features Émilie and Clotilde).

Identity Swap

I mentioned the story about a Hippodrome écuyère who was supposedly injured the same day as Émilie and whose funeral (according to some) took place in the same church, just before Émilie’s. I have a theory that this is a muddle with Fanny Ghyka, who died almost a year to the day earlier after an accident in the Hippodrome, though I could be wrong. She was almost the same age as Loisset, but they had very different styles. The identities of the two women are confused elsewhere.

Incidentally, Turc the dog waited for Émilie at the circus after her death, refusing to eat, and when she did not come, he disappeared into the Paris streets and was never seen again. La Justice predicted that he ended up at the furrier or vivisectionist. In Baron de Vaux’s account, Émilie’s dog, Turc, belongs to Fanny and mourns her death. Again, we cannot always trust de Vaux.

Another seemingly crucial detail about Émilie’s funeral remains obscure: I cannot establish from contradictory sources whether the service was held in Saint-Élisabeth-de-Hongrie or Saint-Ambroise – either way, the church was too small to contain the crowd.

The Loisset Family Tree

My subquest to work out which aunt might have left Clotilde and Émilie their rumoured legacies led, inevitably, to an out-of-control project to try and map the Loisset family tree. This was hampered by a recurring problem I’ve had while researching all these essays – namely, that in 1871, the Paris Communards burned down the Hôtel de Ville and the Palais de Justice and thus all pre-1860s records.

Some of these have been hastily reconstructed. I found a digital facsimile of a scrap of paper saying “Roux Marie 27th 1856” which could, of course, be a record of Émilie’s birth (a screengrab of it is in this post). I also found another scrap for François Loisset and Caroline Loyo’s wedding in 1853, which revealed that Caroline’s real name was Gertrude. The Dutch site http://www.wiewaswie.nl was a godsend by comparison: searchable, clear, and extensive birth, marriage and death records. I also found plenty of information in the Maisons-Laffitte archives – this town was a long-term base for the family. I managed to map a lot of the family tree from these latter two archives, although, being a circus family, they dropped children all over Europe, so some names were missing.

The family also loved to duplicate names, whether in the circus ring or at home. I think there may be two sons of Jean Baptiste and Virginie Hélène called Carl/Charles. Victoire, the Loisset aunt who married the Comte di Rossi, performed as Louisa Loisset in the early 1860s. She should not be confused with the younger Louise Loisset, the seventeen-year-old cousin of Émilie and Clotilde who died in 1878. I found a mention of her performing with the fifteen-year-old sisters in 1871, and the same Belgian newspaper article also says “Victoria was also a great success”, but I have no idea who the parents of this Louisa and Victoria were. Other aunts or uncles of Clotilde and Émilie? Or non-Loissets, given that sometimes performers adopted the family names of their mentors? Anyway, I believe this younger Louisa died while working for Circus Renz in Berlin, so I guess that would be the place to start working out what exactly happened to her.

Then there’s the Émilie-Elisabeth Loisset who was born in Switzerland in 1832 to Jean Baptiste and Virginie Hélène and was the aunt at whose house OUR Émilie died. She married a man called Paul Froment, and I managed to find the notice from her funeral in 1890. Clotilde was there, as were Caroline Loyo and her son, Comtesse Victoire di Rossi and others. Oh, and Caroline sometimes performed as “Mme Loisset”.

Most poignantly, there’s a Loisset girl I’m still hoping to trace for Amazons of Paris. She was reported missing if not lost in a massive circus fire in northern Ukraine in 1883. Another horsewoman. I need to read Russian or Ukrainian.

Clotilde was at her father’s side in 1886 in a Brussels circus box when he died while watching a performance. Her husband had died just two years after Émilie, leaving her with two surviving children. She lived in a suburb of Brussels for the rest of her life and died in 1924.

Rimbaud or no Rimbaud?

The circus historian Henri Thétard wrote a 1948 article called “Rimbaud et le Cirque”, which stated that Rimbaud worked as a cashier for the Circus Loisset in Germany, Denmark and Sweden in 1877. This was investigated a few years ago by Lena Ånimmer in the Revue d’Histoire Littéraire de la France. The article uses Swedish parish, bankruptcy and hotel records rather than later hearsay and shows that there’s little evidence that Rimbaud did any such thing. It did make me wish that my fledgling Swedish was much, much better though.

Poor Elvira Madigan – tragic inspiration for many a film – was actually part of the Circus Loisset and made her debut with them in Copenhagen in 1876.

Émilie depicted in La Vie Parisienne, via Gallica.

Scholarly Sources

“Maupassant et la Presse Parisien” by Christian Goubault (Études Normandes, 43e anné, no 2, 1994) helped me finally get some sort of handle on the city’s newspapers and many of the characters involved.

“‘Death rather than dishonor’ in Mirbeau’s L’Écuyèreby Jennifer Forrest.

The edition of Mirbeau’s L’Écuyère prepared by the Société Octave Mirbeau and edited by Pierre Michel was very useful. Don’t run away with the idea that this novel is “about” Émilie though – I think there’s a good dose of Elisa Petzold in there. Some have speculated that the heroine, Julia’s, suicide was inspired by the young actress Julia Feyghine, but it was published months before her theatrical debut, let alone her death. The novel left me feeling pretty queasy, not least because of the author’s choice to have Julia trampled to a pulp at the end – other than her beautiful, serene face, of course.

Paul Aron’s “Romans de l’Écuyère” (PDF) brought up the excellent point that nineteenth-century French writers seemed obsessed with the question of whether these horsewomen were “moral” and honest as well as teaching me about lots of texts I hadn’t heard of previously.

The Reluctant Empress, by Brigitte Hamman, proved a key to the world of Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Elemér’s past.

I despaired of finding an electronic copy of Phillipe Daryl/Paschal Grousset’s La Petite Lambton but was finally able to find the entire thing serialised in Le Temps.

Missing – on my list for the Amazons of Paris research

Émilie’s will. I would like to see that. Or a document about the settling of her estate if she had none. Ditto Clotilde’s and that of their father. I don’t know how Clotilde’s husband died, either.

Albert Wolff says that after the fateful rehearsal, Émilie was supposed to ride two of her horses at a horse show. I discovered a couple of contenders for this, and would have loved to learn more as these were early days of such competitions and I didn’t know if a woman would compete against men or women (or at all). Sadly I couldn’t quite secure enough information. I think there were two horse shows running at the time.

One account said Émilie had toured in England. There was a Loisset manège there at one stage too, and, pre-marriage, Caroline Loyo was supposedly the lover of an English lord. A few preliminary pokes around in the archive didn’t yield much though, so those are stories for Amazons of Paris. I also think that a remark about her having “American manners” was misinterpreted by some as saying she was raised in America.

A portrait in oils of Émilie commissioned from the painter Wilhelm Richter by Sisi. It was shown at the 16 September 1882 show of Austrian art by the Österreichische Kunstverein. Here’s the catalogue.

I found the details about Émilie’s father’s court case here. I wondered if he and Antoinette had other children, but I guess these records are lost in the great bonfire of 1871.

Thanks to:

Katja Hoyer explained marriage and the Prussian army to me. Thank you to Twitter for explaining that when Saltarino called Émilie “Gretchen on horseback” he was making a Faust reference. Thank you, also, to Anna Pallai’s father and Mike Zimonyi for translating a note I found from Elemér Batthyány (it was nothing to do with Émilie but interesting all the same). Thank you also to the Batthyány and Hatzfeldt families for answering my queries, and to Gödöllő, the Kaiserliche Wagenburg Wien, the folks at Geneanet and the ever-patient Dominique Jando.

Death record for Émilie.

Céleste Mogador: Lioness of the Hippodrome

Céleste and Louise in the chariot race, L’Illustration, 1846. Screengrab via Archive.org

Paris Review Daily have just published the fifth in my Écuyères series about the circus and hippodrome horsewomen of nineteenth-century Paris. It’s about Céleste Mogador, who was so many things it was hard to cram it all into the essay, not least because she left so much of her own life writing behind. Please go on reading about Céleste – she deserves every eyeball. I’ve added my sources here.

Here’s Jana Verhoeven’s account of her serendipitous rediscovery of Céleste’s lost last memoirs, and what we know of the busy decades at the end of her life.

I wasn’t able to read Françoise Moser’s 1935 biography, Vie et Aventures de Céleste Mogador, Fille Publique, Femme de Lettres et Comtesse, but have only heard good things about it.

The entrance to the Hippodrome, 1846, L’Illustration. Screengrab via Archive.org.

Carol Mossman’s Writing with a Vengeance: The Countess de Chabrillan’s Rise from Prostitution (2009) helped me get a grip on Céleste’s life and understand her place in literary history, as did Courtney Sullivan’s The Evolution of the French Courtesan Novel: From de Chabrillan to Colette (2016).

You can read Céleste’s unexpurgated memoirs in French at various out-of-copyright archives. There is a much-abridged translation, Memoirs of a Courtesan in Nineteenth-Century Paris, by Monique Fleury Nagen, but I don’t think it captures the spirit of the original.

I also combed Gallica, as usual, for reports of Mogador’s performances and sightings of her in the city over the decades. I found stories and even books about the heydays of the Bal Mabille, plenty of humorous caricatures of Hippodrome girls and lorettes, and some images of Mogador herself (she, too, was photographed by Studio Nadar).

Jill Harsin’s Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Paris was invaluable for understanding the “infernal book” and the trap in which working-class women found themselves.

“So! You didn’t want to be in the chariot?”
“Me? No. It stops me showing myself to as many men as possible when I’m scantily dressed.”
Caricature of Hippodrome girls, Pour Rire, 27 August 1853. Screengrab by Gallica.

I kept track of the Franconi dynasty via these circus history pages: one and two.

And a note about lionesses: “Lionne” was one of many words that nineteenth-century France used to categorise women – something that culture seems endlessly fond of doing. It’s also a term whose meaning evolved during Céleste’s lifetime – probably in part because of women like her. I wanted a little clarification and found it in Miranda Gill’s Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination, which traces the transition of “lioness” from eccentric, George-Sand-esque rebel to courtesan of likely lower class origins by the time of the Second Empire (1852–1870). She quotes a disapproving Comtesse Dash:

“‘[Lionnes] became female centaurs, they smoked cigars, they adopted the manners of horsemen and they were happy to be treated in an offhand manner…. The result is what we now see: a motley intermingling of all social spheres, an assembly of monstrosities in which we can no longer recognize one other.’”

You can read the other essays in the series here, and the behind-the-scenes blog posts here (Selika), here (Sarah l’Africaine), here (why I write these essays) and here (Jenny de Rahden). The last essay in the series is written and will follow Mogador.

Disappearing Przewalskis, a 1943 train journey from the Eastern Front to Berlin, and a “Fascist leader” called Baumgarten: my unfinished wild-horse chase

Przewalski or takhi at Schorfheide. Photograph by me.

One day when I hadn’t yet started working on The Age of the Horse, I was at a National Trust property in England, vaguely on the trail of a woman who fascinated me and whose story I had researched but was unsure how to tell. I was trying to find a work-around for the limitations of biography, where lives tail away tamely and the people whom you want to introduce to one another never meet.
The stately home had a second-hand book shop, and as I rummaged through the boxes I drew out an album for a horsey magazine. It included a feature on the Przewalski horse, then thought to be the last surviving true wild horse – a pony-sized creature whose very image is on the walls of the Lascaux caves. The book mentioned the story of a pair of Przewalskis or takhis who were brought back to Berlin in 1943 in the teeth of the German retreat from Ukraine, and said that this journey was described in a book called Wild Animals, White Man by the keeper of Frankfurt Zoo, Bernhard Grzimek. So I went home and ordered a second-hand copy.
The old Perth and Kinross County Library edition that I managed to get hold of had the subtitle “Some wildlife in Europe, Soviet Russia and North America.” “Dr Bernhard Grzimek is an amazing man,” began the blurb. Grzimek was born in Neisse in 1909 and had qualified as a vet by the outbreak of the Second World War. He served in that role in the Wehrmacht and for the Food Ministry, and afterwards became director of Frankfurt Zoo. During the post-war denazification period, he was accused of having been a member of the Nazi party but later found innocent. Although Grzimek returned to his post at the zoo, Heinz Heck – whom you may know of from the Przewalski’s history in The Age of the Horse – continued to accuse him of being a collaborator. Grzimek went on to lead the zoo for another forty years, working in the global conservation movement, making documentaries (one of which won an Oscar) and writing books.
I quickly found the story that interested me and read on. It included long extracts from a letter written to Grzimek by a “Dr Hilmar Döring” who “has been living in Venezuela for some years” but “was then working for the German Commissioner-General for the Crimea, Alfred Frauenfeld, as an administrative official.” It was a very detailed account of Döring’s autumn 1943 mission to the Crimean wildlife estate of Askania Nova, then held by the German Army but under threat from advancing Soviet troops. Reichsmarschall Göring had telegraphed Frauenfeld in autumn 1943 telling him to fetch a Przewalski stallion and mare from the park so that they would be saved for the Heck brothers’ mission to “recreate” the extinct tarpan. The Hecks had already helped themselves to five Askania Nova Przewalskis.
Döring had written a detailed description of the food and goods (sausage, cooking oil, radio, etc.) that he took to bribe railway officials and workers to help him to get the horses back. There’s a description of the way the horses were transported, and at which stations they changed engines or were delayed before reaching Berlin. As dramatic stories go, it was pretty irresistible stuff for The Age of the Horse book proposal I was trying to write. On 13th October 1943, Askania Nova was overtaken by the Red Army, who eventually followed the trail of the Przewalskis all the way back to Berlin.
However, as I got deeper into other Przewalski literature for my research, I found that some books stated that these horses had vanished en route – perhaps because a train was bombed. And then there was the problem that the Berlin Zoo wasn’t really a safe space for rare animals, having been bombed multiple times – most comprehensively on 22nd November 1943. I wasn’t sure. I decided I wanted to know more. I asked Lee Boyd, a professor of biology and expert in the history and reintroduction of the Przewalski horse to the wild. Lee was unaware of the story, so I contacted Dr Waltraut Zimmerman of Cologne Zoo. She was the keeper of the comprehensive studbook for the horses. She told me that the dates were far from clear, but she believed the horses were as follows (and sent me a copy of their records):

A stallion called Charzis, number 194, moved to Schorfheide [Goering’s hunting estate outside Berlin] 16 February 1944. Year of move to Germany believed to be 1942.
Mare number 195, transferred to Schorfheide 19 October 1943. Year of move to Germany believed to be 1942.

Oh. Wrong year. Or was it?

Przewlaksis at Berlin Zoo, photographed by me.

Dr Zimmerman told me that it was possible that the horses had first been kept in a city called Alfeld, near Hannover, where an exotic animal dealer called L. Ruhe was based. He had contacts with the man to whom Askania Nova had belonged, Falz-Fein. She said she had no proof, however.
The information in the studbook had been collected by Erna Mohr, a conscientious and scholarly zoologist who had worked throughout the war and later wrote a book about Przewalskis. She was probably in a better position than Grzimek – working in the food ministry – to know what was happening with zoo animals in this period. Dr Zimmerman said she would have seen the horses on a regular basis. She had also been deeply involved in a related saga about the reintroduction of the European bison. So how could I fact check the story? I kicked off my wild horse hunt.
I contacted Grzimek’s family, but they had no information or old research notes. I emailed several NGOs concerned with the Przewalski horse, but either got no response or an apology that the organization was unable to help. I found the original German version of the Grzimek book and realized some text was missing from the English translation. From this I learned that Grzimek’s death dates for the horses matched those of the studbook, and that Grzimek contacted the Hecks to find out what happened to the horses from Askania Nova – but does not specify which ones – and was told they ended up in Schorfheide. Many things were matching up. Others, not so much.
I wrote to the Deutsche Dienstelle, a government agency that oversees the records of German military personnel of the Second World War. This was a long shot but I thought I might as well try – many officials and bureaucrats ended up fighting by the end of the war. They replied with details of two Hilmar Dörings – one was a soldier who had been killed in 1942. The other was an older Waffen-SS member who fought in a front-line unit and lived in Bavaria after the war. In neither case could they confirm – or eliminate – a connection with Frauenfeld, but it didn’t sound likely that either had held that post in the Crimea. Nor could the Deutsche Dienstelle say if that Döring had really existed.
Dr Kai Artinger, who’d written about Przewalski horses and Berlin Zoo, kindly checked his notes for me but found no new information. I contacted Berlin Zoo but have lost their response – if there was any. Next, I hired a professional researcher called Christian Mögwitz to tackle the Bundesarchiv.
Christian found plenty of letters and records relating to Frauenfeld, and lots of records about the requisitioning and movement of horses, but none of them were wild horses. They were cavalry and draught animals for the war effort and breeding. Of Dr Hilmar Döring there was no sign. Christian suggested a trip to root around in the archives in Koblenz but I didn’t have the funds for this.
One question was now dogging me. The horses had definitely made the journey from Askania Nova to Berlin – despite what some accounts said – but why would Grzimek invent these other details? I could understand getting a date wrong, although who could confuse the events of 1942 with those of 1943? And why go into such detail about the journey if the supposed author had perhaps never existed? The story included a goose that Döring smuggled home – a comic touch to an already unorthodox journey.
I started – belatedly – to research Grzimek beyond the English language Wikipedia. Was he really who he seemed to be, this “amazing man”? There’s the dodgy results of his colonialist efforts in Africa, for one. Then, in 2015 as I was researching the horses, Die Welt published an article on Grzimek’s wartime activities. That Grzimek had lied about his Nazi party and SA membership was known, the article said – the biographer Claudia Sewig had already exposed these facts after his death. But now a TV drama and documentary were further broadcasting the details. His claim to have helped persecuted Jews was also questioned. Research also uncovered his desertion at the end of the war when he was called up to the Eastern Front. The end verdict, however, seemed to be that he had not been an ideologically committed Nazi, but just an ordinary German trying to get along in life (not unlike many other Nazi party members).
Cash-wise and experience-wise, I was at something of a dead end at this stage, only confirming my suspicion that Grzimek was an unreliable narrator. I decided to contact Askania Nova.
In very little time I had a reply. the deputy director for research, Natalya Ivanovna Yasinetskaya, sent a long email explaining that there were many blind spots in the Przewalskis’ history. She included extracts from the biopark’s records, one detailing the slaughter of both animals and people at Askania Nova by the Nazis. Another stated clearly that “many animals were taken to the Berlin Zoo by the fascist leader, Baumgarten.” A third said, “In the summer of 1942, two more purebred wild horses, a stallion born in 1930 and a filly born in 1939 … were taken to Germany by the Nazis …” The stallion was called Charzis; the mare was unnamed. There had been seven Przewalskis in the Crimea estate in 1941. All had been removed by the Germans.
What happened to them ultimately? I had another wild-horse hunt on the go, to find out what happened to the horses at Schorfheide. The situation was rather like that of Askania Nova – Germans said Russians had destroyed them. Russians said Germans had destroyed them.

Przewalski at Berlin Zoo, photographed by me.

At this point, I was out of funds and time and deep into writing The Age of the Horse, which had a delivery date and publishing schedule, so I was left with these threads. I wrote up what I knew of Przewalski and tarpan history in a long scholarly essay later published in two parts (one here and one here). I wrote a piece about their literary history for LitHub. And I occasionally wondered about this complicated horse hunt and all the loose threads I was left with.
Who was Baumgarten? Did Grzimek know him and disguise him as “Hilmar Döring” in his account, perhaps changing the date for added excitement? Is this saga in anyway connected (and HOW?) to Grzimek’s post-war feud with Heinz Heck? Did the Soviets get Baumgarten’s name wrong, or were they told a false name? Why were two horses left in Askania Nova in the first Heck sweep of the occupied estate? Why the goose? I’ll leave my threads here because this is one biography I can’t tie up neatly, although I don’t want it to tail away tamely either. As Hilary Mantel put it in her Reith lectures:

“Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It’s no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It’s the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and it often falls short of that.”

A Short History of Certain Western Men Attempting To Explain Why Women Love Horses

Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, March, 1866. Archive.org via WikiCommons.

“Women are already a bad cocktail unto themselves. Unchecked and untempered they’ll run feral and ruin the best of men, but you combine them with horses and John Freaking Wayne would have difficulty in taming them. I cannot pin it down, nor do I wish to expend the calories of energy to figure out why women have such a psychological attachment to horses, but they do.”

Aaron Clarey on MRA blog, Return of Kings.

Poor Aaron. A certain kind of man will forever be mystified by women, largely because he won’t listen to what they actually have to say. Nowhere is that clearer than in the centuries-old subgenre of Men Attempting To Explain Why Women Love Horses, which is busting with theories about phallic symbolism, misplaced maternal instinct and women basically being oversexed animals anyway. I wrote my first book, If Wishes Were Horses, about the history of the girl–pony bond, an experience that led to my dentist telling me that women had orgasms when riding and a guy standing up after a talk I’d given and mansplaining that it was all about sex anyway.
Now it seems more appropriate to flip the script and ask, why are men like Aaron Clarey so worried – even scared – by equestriennes? After some extensive research in the archives I boiled it down to four reasons:

Amalia Materna, the first Bayreuth Brünnhilde with Cocotte, the first Bayreuth Grane. Via WikiCommons.

Horses make women forget to act like ladies

The first horsewomen came from the Eurasian Steppes and ended up a few thousand years later lodged firmly in the imaginations of the Ancient Greeks. The Amazons were mounted warriors who wore trousers and wielded axes and bows; recent archaeological evidence suggests they had battle wounds to match. The Greeks were fascinated by these barbarians with their egalitarian communities and polyamorous inclinations, but they kept their own women away from horses. The Amazon became a template for a certain kind of horsey, unwomanly woman.
Skip a millennium forward and Byzantine chronicler Nicetas Choniates mentions a crusader army in Syria that included women led by a “Penthesileia” or Amazon queen “riding horseback in the manner of men, not on coverlets sidesaddle but unashamedly astride, and bearing lances and weapons as men do; dressed in masculine garb.” By this time, the patriarchy had started to have more developed ideas about women covering up their bodies and staying home. In the West, they’d even claimed trousers for men. Horses had become quintessential symbols of male power – essential in battle, for status and increasingly in farming and the economy – so when women got hold of horses and did anything other than sit sideways on them like they were benches, things got hairy. On horses, women could get about. They could travel. They were equals. They positively started to swagger. Across the centuries, the number of horses increased, as did the number of Amazons.
A British magazine called The Spectator carried an advertisement on the 16th September 1712 scolding a young horsewoman, who, on meeting a man on the road, “pulled off her hat, in which there was a Feather, with the Mein and Air of a young Officer, saying at the same Time, Your Servant, Mr Spec.” Worse, another Spectator writer recorded the horror of seeing a lady foxhunter who

“makes nothing of leaping over a six-bar gate. If a man tells a waggish story, she gives him a push with her hand in jest, and calls him an impudent dog; and, if her servant neglect his business, threatens to kick him out of the house; I have heard her in her wrath call a substantial tradesman a lousie cur.”

By 1775, Britain had its first female Master of Fox Hounds, the Marchioness of Salisbury, who swore, gambled, interfered in politics and rode all day. She carried on hunting into her seventies despite being blind – she employed a groom to tell her when a jump was coming up – and was only killed when the feathers in her hair were ignited by a candle and burned down a wing of her home. Lady Salisbury’s opponents showed her out hunting as the first Mistress of Fox Hounds, beetle-browed with stubble darkening her chin, her gray hair loose and straggling to her waist, her famous blue habit shredded to rags, a fox’s brush in one hand and a whip in the other. The horror.

Mrs. Esther Stace, from Yarrowitch, riding sidesaddle and clearing a record 6’6″ at the Sydney Royal Show. Walcha Historical Society, via WikiCommons.

Horses make women do risky things – which makes men look bad

English kingmaker Margaret Beaufort and French queen Catherine de Medici are credited with reworking the sidesaddle by the eighteenth century into something that enabled women to gallop and leap (Catherine had a broken hip to show for it). In Britain, the rise of foxhunting combined with the Enclosure Act and the new thoroughbred horse breed to transform hunting into a high-speed, high-risk sport over increasingly high fences. In the 1830s the sidesaddle got another overhaul, making it possible for women to tackle the huge hedges, ditches and gates of the English and Irish countryside. And so they did, putting a few male egos out of shape.
The comic writer R S Surtees opined that

“Pretty dears who would scream at the sight of a frog or a mouse, will face a bullfinch from which many men would turn away – indeed that is one of the palpable inconveniences of ladies hunting, for it is almost a point of honour for men to go over what the ladies have taken.”

Not only were the women increasingly enjoying themselves in a very male space, they were also showing the guys up. A little feminine guile was required to avoid being an utter harridan like the Marchioness.
One example of a lady who balanced femininity with outrageous dare-devil riding was Empress Alexandra of Austria, who took lessons from circus riders and could stand on the back of one horse while driving four more before her. In the Irish hunting field she “dearly love[d] a little bit of rivalry”, and once ignored her gentleman “pilot” to chase Irish horsewoman Nannie Power O’ Donoghue over a huge hedge with a drop on the other side (Nannie’s horse stumbled on landing, tossing off Nannie, who remounted without thinking and barely lost a beat). But each time the hunt stopped, the peerlessly bold “Sisi” was so delicately ladylike that she held a fan before her face to shield herself from the vulgar public gaze.
Men were beginning to cotton on though; liberating women on the hunting field led to liberated women off it. As a male character in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret put it when he was upbraided by the heroine:

“That’s the consequence of letting a girl follow the hounds. She learns to look at everything in life as she does at six feet of timber or a sunk fence; she goes through the world as she goes across country – straight ahead, and over everything.”

What might women do if they got the bit between their teeth? By 1867, F C Skey, one of the foremost experts on the newly defined female disease of “hysteria” had pinpointed his typical patient: “a female member of a family exhibiting more than usual force or decision of character, of strong resolution, fearless of danger, bold riders, having plenty of what is termed nerve.” Riding was considered good for the health, but too much riding – like too much “horseyness” – was a bad sign indeed.

Frenzy, by Wladyslaw Podkowinski, via Wikicommons

Horses make women sexy – in the wrong way

The dashing women in the hunting field were also a cause for concern because the sporting life exposed them to men who were not always gentlemen and to grooms and riding masters, who, in the process of legging them onto and off their horses, might lay hands on the ladies, causing elopement. This is exactly what happens in Aurora Floyd, the sequel to Lady Audley’s Secret, when the heroine marries a truculent jockey with long eyelashes, setting herself up for a life of blackmail. Sidesaddle wasn’t enough to hold back these out-of-control Amazons, and there appeared to be a danger that riding caused even more direct sexual stimulation in women. In the late nineteenth century a new movement of professional “sexologists” emerged to study just exactly what was going on in women’s brains, and they took their cues from Skey.
For Richard Krafft-Ebbing, the “female urning” or lesbian was easily diagnosed because she was drawn to horses, which represented male toys and soldiery rather than dolls and girliness. “The masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom, finds pleasure in the pursuit of manly sports, and in manifestations of courage and bravado,” he explained. His beautiful patient, Miss X, despite having “a large bust and the appearance of an exceptionally handsome woman,” refused the attentions of would-be suitors and was “strikingly mannish in her manners, had masculine tastes, loved gymnastics and horseback exercise, smoked, and had masculine carriage and gait.” Miss D in Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex told her doctor “before I could walk I begged to be put on horses’ backs”. Case solved.
As women and girls began to take over the Western horse world in the twentieth century, the psychoanalysts came out in force to explain what was really going on. Now it was decided that girls who wanted to win rosettes were simply acting out their repressed sexuality or displacing feelings that should rightly be focused on men. Anna Freud nailed it. It was all about penises:

“A little girl’s horse-craze betrays either her primitive autoerotic desires (if her enjoyment is confined to the rhythmic movement of the horse); or her identification with the care-taking mother (if she enjoys above all looking after the horse, grooming it, etc.); or her penis envy (if she identifies with the big, powerful animals and treats it as an addition to her body); or her phallic sublimations (if it is her ambition to master the horse, to perform on it etc.)”

Of course, whatever the girls actually said they liked about riding was irrelevant because what did they know anyway? Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim fretted,

“Imagine what it would do to a girl’s enjoyment of riding, to her self-respect, if she were made conscious of this desire which she is acting out in riding. She would be devastated – robbed of a harmless and enjoyable sublimation, and reduced in her own eyes to a bad person. At the same time, she would be hard-pressed to find an equally suitable outlet for such inner pressures, and therefore might not be able to master them.”

To play the psychoanalysts at their own game, one can’t help noticing a certain underlying male anxiety, best on display when you tell a man you like horse riding and he starts nervously talking about Catherine the Great, horse penis size or “mounting”. Literature’s best example is the American heiress Lou Carrington, created by D H Lawrence in St Mawr, who says she’d rather give up her husband than castrate her horse, for “I’ll preserve one last male thing in the museum of this world, if I can.” If women disappear into the sunset on a virile stallion, where does that leave the men? Which leads me to my final fear factor.

Lawyer Inez Boissevain, wearing white cape, seated on white horse at the National American Woman Suffrage Association parade, March 3, 1913, Washington, D.C. Via WikiCommons.

Women who like horses might forget about men

The archetype of the equestrian female who, for some unfathomable reason, doesn’t give a damn about whether men find her hot or not became a familiar one over which men fretted well into the twentieth century and beyond – as Aaron Clarey demonstrates. The obsessive horsewoman raises the spectre that men might not, after all, be the fiery star about which women orbit. No wonder threateningly “horsey” women were monitored for signs of indifference to marriage.
In 1956, when British champion showjumper Pat Smythe scored the first Olympic showjumping medal ever held by a woman, sports journalist Hylton Cleaver asked:

“Will Pat Smythe ever marry? A great many people would like to marry her. She has given no sign of becoming horse-faced, heavy-handed or hard-hearted. She has set an example the other girls … have followed. They have each preserved the charm they started with; most of them like music, and all of them dance.”

Well, thank goodness for that. (Smythe had already shelved one boyfriend who tried to make her choose between marriage and her career.)
Commentators are subtler now, but not much. British three-time Olympic dressage gold medallist Charlotte Dujardin had to explain why she hadn’t yet married the boyfriend who proposed to her at the 2016 Olympics.
The worst offenders are older women who frankly no longer care what you think and who happen to dominate the US equestrian industry. In 2011, the American Horse Council Foundation estimated that 75 percent of the 9.2 million horses in the USA were owned by women over forty. Aaron Clary was tapping into a zeitgeist of a sort when he went on to complain about his mother, who “has supplanted her children, her husband, and her family with 4 dumb beasts of burden. … She has sacrificed human interaction and financial stability with eating-pooping-riding animules.”

So there you have it. Women who love horses are mannish, hysterical, lesbian, oversexed, insufficiently interested in men and children, hard-faced, unstable, career-obsessed and, goddamnit, spending all their money on the thing they care most about in the world. Small wonder they make the patriarchy antsy.

The Baudelairean Horsewoman: Jenny de Rahden


The new Écuyères essay is up at the Paris Review Daily’s blog: it’s about Baroness Jenny de Rahden.

This is part of a series on circus horsewomen of nineteenth-century Paris. The earlier essays are on Selika Lazevski (research blog here), Sarah l’Africaine (research blog here) and my obsession with these circus horsewomen (research blog here). Two more essays are in the pipeline, and I’m considering a newsletter of more stories, so contact me or sign up to this blog’s RSS feed if you’re interested. I can’t stop researching these horsewomen!


My starting point years ago was Hilda Nelson’s The Écuyère of the Nineteenth Century in the Circus, which is heavily based on Baron de Vaux’s Écuyers et Écuyères: Histoires des Cirques d’Europe and Jenny’s own book.

I was very caught up in Jenny’s own Roman de l’Écuyère, which you can view here on the peerless Gallica [source of the images above], where I also found the vast number of newspaper clippings relating to her. I have just discovered searchable German-language databases but haven’t ventured into them on Jenny’s behalf instead. If I do, and find more, I will add an update here or in a newsletter I’m trying to organize.

I didn’t discover the German Wikipedia article till late in the process. The more I work on these mini biographies, the harder I find it to be certain of biographical facts. I usually check multiple contemporary sources about the same events and I see errors that are carried forward by later texts and plenty of instances where there are two believable versions of an event. They are a work in progress, and I try to make the ambiguities and contradictions clear.

I found “Les Proses de l’Écuyère de Cirque (1850-1914)” by Paul Aron a very helpful overview of just some of the literary texts inspired by circus horsewomen in France in this period.  I’m building a database of sorts for these mentions, and Nichola A Haxell’s “‘Ces Dames du Cirque’: A Taxonomy of Male Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Art” also introduced me to new texts.

Multiplying Jennies

I’ve been researching Jenny’s life on and off for years, and in that time, have gotten muddled more than a few times.

Both Baron de Vaux and Saltarino’s Artisten-Lexicon (1895) mention a “Miss Jenny” or “Mlle Jenny” who was not Jenny de Rahden. I think one of the circulated pictures of an écuyère leaning back as a horse rears up might well be this Mlle Jenny rather than Jenny de Rahden – it’s certainly the case in Saltarino.

I then thought *this* beautiful Jenny de Rahden was our Jenny. And it turned out she’s the Baron de Rahden’s sister or Jenny’s sister-in-law. Check the dates, everyone! And then check them again with multiple sources. And then take a punt to decide which you trust.

In L’Écho d’Alger on 30 October 1897, I found Pierre Hachet-Souplet writing about an écuyère he calls “Flora” who was described as Baudelarian, rode a pied horse and had blond hair. This sounds very like our Jenny from the Jules LeMaître review of her early performances in Paris, but then the Hachet-Souplet article takes a twist, regaling us with the tale that when Flora was asked for her favourite scent, she said bergamot, omitting to mention that if she made an error as a child her father stuck her head in horse shit –  until she was 16 years old. Yes, another strange article that makes me think I’m missing some very specific context.

Rhaden or Rahden?

Presumably because it’s a Russian name, Jenny’s name is spelled in both variations. I got VERY confused about this until I decided to stick to the spelling used for her memoir. Rahden.

Jenny at the Movies

Hilda Nelson says that Jenny’s memoir was made into a silent film, Elvira Madigan, but I’m fairly certain this is not the case. Elvira was a very real person with a distinct tragic story (you can read it here) and several films were made about her life, but she’s not Jenny. There is a silent film called “L’Écuyère” (1922) but this is based on an 1885 novel by Paul Bourget that’s unconnected to the circus.


Jenny’s memoir inspired a play by Louis Lormel called (of course) L’Ecuyère, drame en 1 acte et 2 tableaux (1908), a radio drama by Robert Sadoul (Seule, la mort…, broadcast 26 June 1948) and a feuilleton for France Soir by Paul Gordeaux and Jacques Pecnard. I recently discovered a novel called Le Dernier Salut de l’Amazone by Véronique Chauvy based on her life.

Possible Sightings

If you want to reliably see Jenny, look at the facsimile of her book on Gallica.

The Musée du Carnavalet in Paris has a poster by Jean-Alcide-Henri Boichard that, if it dates from 1895, could be Jenny performing at Cirque d’Hiver. It might be also Emilie Loisset, who wore “bohemian” costume, was often said to be blonde and more conventionally pretty, and was at the Cirque d’Hiver in the early 1880s. However, I haven’t read of Emilie doing this particular trick. You can see it (and buy a print) here. The museum has been closed for restoration the entire time I’ve been researching the circus horsewomen. I’m desperate to go when it reopens.

There’s a Nadar studio photo of a circus horsewoman called Mlle Jenny and I did, for some time, think it was our Jenny, but I think it’s the écuyère I mentioned above. Click on the images here to see it next to the image of Selika Lazevski.

In a trawl around Getty Images I found this old engraving, issued at the time of the trial. She looks more like a bar maid who could hold her own than a Baudelarian horsewoman, and Getty claimed that she was killed by her husband in 1893. Which is definitely not true.

I’ve seen several claims that she is one of the models for the dressage écuyère depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec in the image accompanying the essay on the Paris Review site but have been unable to confirm this.


Bibliothèque Nationale de France, especially the Département des Arts du Spectacle
Paris Archives/Fonds Paul Haynon.
Sammlung Variété, Zirkus, Kabarett at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin.
Bibliothèque Musée de l’Opéra, Paris – they have a surviving poster of Sarah in action, described in the essay.
Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty, Université Paris 3.
National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield.

Amazons, Lionesses and Women of the World – a newsletter on women and horses in the long nineteenth century?

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 10.23.50
Would you be interested in a newsletter about women and horses in the long nineteenth century?
I’m thinking a mixture of mini biographies like those for the circus horsewomen, plus social history and horse history.
Comment and tell me what you think or what you’d like me to cover!

Is Strangles the Equine Coronavirus?


As part of Strangles Awareness Week 2020, Redwings talked to bacteriologist Dr Andrew Waller of the Animal Health Trust. I’ve added the results of the Q&A as a PDF here: COVID-19 vs Strangles.

The Q&A is an excellent rundown of strangles symptoms and the issues over recovery. If you want to know how horses can catch strangles, how long they remain immune and the duration of the worst symptoms, you’ll find answers here. Luckily we know a lot more about strangles than coronavirus!

Inventing the Wild Horse: the Manmade History of the Takhi and Tarpan from 3500BCE–1828

I’ve just published a chapter called “Inventing the Wild Horse: the Manmade History of the Takhi and Tarpan from 1828–2018” in Horse Breeds and Human Society: Purity, Identity and the Making of the Modern Horse, edited by Kristen Guest and Monica Mattfeld (Routledge, 2020). I went overboard writing this and outstripped my word count so had to chop off all the pre-1828 information. So here’s the first half of that account, from 3500 BCE to 1828 – excuse the slight overlap in wording!


The domestication of a species creates two new categories: the newly tamed animal and its shadow self, the wild animal. Traditionally, the wild animal has had limited value beyond its meat or skin in the West, as it competes with humans and their domestic animals for resources or damages manmade landscaping efforts or livestock. The story of two proposed subspecies of wild horse, the Tarpan of the western Eurasian steppes and the Takhi of the eastern steppes, is a saga of colonialism, scientific advances and nineteenth- and twentieth-century notions of racial purity and “breed”, in which, for western scientists, the wild horse came gradually into focus from fleeting, secondhand sighting to dissected specimen to be defined and redefined both taxonomically and culturally. The question of what exactly a wild horse is was also reformulated and posed repeatedly, and the distinctions between wild and domestic blurred. The last twist played out in February 2018 in the era of rewilding.

The earliest evidence of horse domestication dates from c.3500 BCE in a cluster of settlements named after the nearby Botai village in northeast Kazakhstan, occurring closer to recorded memory than most other major domestications. Archaeologists found a nitrate-rich area that was perhaps a corral and longer lower-leg bones than those of local wild horse skeletons. Equine teeth at the site showed signs of bitwear, although some scholars still dispute that this is comprehensive proof of domestication. The clinching evidence has been the discovery of mare’s milk proteins in Botai pottery; nobody milks a wild animal.[1]

This geographical location corresponds to the reduced territory of wild horses during this period. Abundant evidence from fossils, bones and frozen ancient specimens shows that the early members of the Equidae family evolved in the Americas before crossing the land bridge into Eurasia as Equus and establishing themselves successfully in a wide territory by the early Pleistocene.[2] However, by the beginning of the Holocene (9600 BCE), the population had fallen until it disappeared in parts of Europe. Between 5500 BCE and 3750 BCE it once more expanded into central and western Europe, likely utilising forest clearances initiated by Neolithic hominids,[3] perhaps showing that the fate of the wild horse was already intertwined with human interventions. Most horses, however, seem to have been located in open landscapes on the steppes (where they encountered the Botai) and the Iberian Peninsula: researchers have found that the ancestors of today’s domestic horses originated entirely in these two Holocene refugia[4] and that modern horses draw most of their haplotypes from Eastern Europe and Siberia.[5] Palaeogeneticists believe that humans went on recruiting wild horses into the domestic population, although these results have been complicated by later hyperselective breedings which drastically reduced the variation in patrilines of most modern horses.[6] Domestic horses do show both positive and negative changes from ancient wild horses: humans appear to have selected for genes involved in the development of bone and muscle and the level of fear response while also adding harmful mutations.[7]


Tracing the existence of the wild horse in the period following domestication is a frustrating process, partly because the horses themselves largely avoided people, partly because the people most likely to see them in remote areas were usually illiterate, and partly because the horses do not seem to have been considered very important in either Eastern or Western written culture. In the east, they are far more rarely mentioned than the Khulan or wild ass.[8] They appear in scattered reports from across the Eurasian continent and northern Africa but these texts are complicated by the lack of distinction between wild horses and what could be feral domestic horses, or even other species such as zebra or gnu.[9] Distinctly wild horses also seldom feature in art after the Bronze Age, although there are striking early works like the Maikop silver vase found in the Caucasus in 1954 and belonging to a culture dating to 3700–3000 BCE, and an ivory carving found in Iran in 1905 and dating to 2700-3000 BCE.[10]

Classical authors provide the earliest written sources concerning wild horses at the western end of the steppe and in Europe. Herodotus mentions wild horses near the River Bug in Scythia (an area now in Ukraine) who turned white in winter, and Pliny includes “equiferi” in his list of animal species.[11] Wild horses were brought to Rome for beast hunts and also spotted in Hither Spain” by Varro[12] and the Alps by Strabo.[13] Pope Gregory III forbade the consumption of wild horses in Germany in 732AD, and wild horses are recorded in the testament of the Kievan Rus’ prince Vladimir II Monomakh (1053–1125) near Chernigov in northern Ukraine;[14] in Germany by Albertus von Großen (1193–1280); in Denmark in the twelfth century; in twelfth century Silesia where Duke Sobeslaus used them to improve his own stock;[15] as game in Westphalia (1316); in the Vosges Mountains, where Rösslin described them in 1593 as “much wilder and shyer than the stag …  yet when they are tamed, which is accomplished with great toil and trouble, they make the very best horses, that equal those of Spain and Turkey”;[16] in Lithuanian and Prussian woods (1518); in Ukraine (1600-1673) and at multiple “tierparks” in Prussia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries where, in at least one instance, they were hunted by Teutonic knights for their hides. Grand Master Prince Albrecht von Hohenzollern (1490–1568) kept wild horses on his hunting estate.[17] A hunt for wild horses was arranged in the forest of Białowieża in what is now Poland in 1409;[18] poachers were fined 360 grosze for killing wild horses there in 1588.[19]

Imagery is harder to find. A mid-tenth-century fresco in St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev shows a wild-horse hunt.[20] Hans Baldung’s sinister series of three woodcuts of wild horses viciously attacking one another in a forest c. 1534 is a rare later European depiction. Most intriguingly, Pope Calixtus III issued a prohibition on Spanish people taking part in rituals in “the cave with the horse pictures” in 1458, although it is unclear which cave he meant.[21]

By the end of the 1500s, reports of European wild horses coalesced and became more detailed as the horses themselves were increasingly contained in game parks. The wild horse described is usually mouse grey with a dark mane and tail and stripe down its back (“eel stripe”) but considered unfit to ride due to a “soft back” or temperament problems.

At the eastern end of the steppe, wild horses appear in art found at the Shang Dynasty (c.1600 BCE–1046 BCE) burial site at Anyang.[22] The earliest surviving written mentions I could find of a wild horse at this end of the steppe is in a 113 BCE Chinese account of a “heavenly horse” who was found keeping company with wild horses in Dunhuang at the southen end of the Gobi desert.[23] Some horned wild mares were seen near Qinghai lake in northwestern China during the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE).[24] The next source is the Tibetan monk Bodowa c.900 CE,[25] followed by the 1637 presentation of a wild horse from a Mongolian nobleman to the emperor of Manchuria.[26]

Wild horses were also recorded in North Africa by Leo Africanus (c.1494–c.1554) who said they were captured and consumed by locals,[27] and Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576) claimed that there were black coated, pale-eyed wild horses in the forests of northern Gaul in the sixteenth century, but also that they gave off sparks when rubbed, which sounds implausible.[28]


The eighteenth-century development of natural history led to a vogue for the classification and cataloguing of species, bringing more definition to the wild horse. The catalyst was a series of Russian expeditions into the Eurasian steppes as part of a longer process of colonisation begun under Ivan the Terrible in 1550.[29] The first, from St Petersburg to Peking in 1719–1722, included a Scottish doctor named John Bell who gave an extremely detailed account of the wild horses he saw near the River Tom in Siberia. He described them as “of a chestnut-colour, which cannot be tamed, though they are catched as foals.” They were hunted by the Kalmucks, he said, for their meat and skins.[30] Just a few decades later in 1750, a grand hunt in a “wilderness” near Lyau-tong was organised for the Emperor of Manchuria, in which 200–300 wild horses were captured or killed.[31] Twenty-one years later, a Manchurian dictionary names the animal as the “Takh”, describing it as the ancestor of the domestic horse. The Ancient Mongolian variation “Takhi” is now used for the eastern steppe horse.[32]

Bell’s sighting and the Manchurian dictionary entry were not enough to qualify wild horses for a spot in Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae (1735).[33] Other prominent naturalists were also sceptical. Buffon published the fourth volume of his Histoire Naturelle in 1753 and noted that while there were small free-roaming horses in China he did not believe that the wild” horses in Tartary or Mongolia were any different to the local domestic strain. Despite reports from Scotland, Muscovy, Cyprus and Maio (an island in Cape Verde), he maintained that there were no wild horses left in Europe due to human hunters or settlers.[34]

A further Russian expedition to the area south and southwest of the Urals between 1734 and 1737 included both a sighting and a naming of the western steppe wild horse; the local term “tarpany” was used by expedition member Petr Ivanovich Rychkov, but his findings were not published till 1762 in his Topografia Orensburgskaia.[35] In a 1733–1743 Siberian expedition, the German naturalist Johann Georg Gmelin heard reports of wild horses near Ekaterinburg.[36]

Students of Linnaeus were involved in the next wave of Russian expeditions undertaken between 1768 and 1774. These were organised by the Russian Academy of Sciences and led largely by foreign-born scholars from Germany (Peter Simon Pallas and Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin, nephew of Johann Georg), Sweden (Johann Peter Falck, who had worked as a tutor in Linnaeus’ home and was accompanied by a German student of Linnaeus called Johann Gottlieb Georgi) and Baltic Germany (Johann Anton Güldenstädt). The sole Russian leader was Ivan Lepekhin.[37]

The expeditions had a two-fold purpose: the scientific exploration of landscape, flora and fauna, and the assessment of the newly acquired land for agricultural purposes and colonial exploitation. The Tarpan were of considerable interest, and the Academy’s explorers travelled largely in the western end of the steppes, tracking the expansion of Russia’s territories under Catherine the Great. It seemed that the Tarpans were also on the move, driven away from familiar habitats by locals who were fed up with them stealing mares, killing domestic stallions and raiding fodder supplies.

Samuel Gmelin’s wild horse chase took him to Bobrovsk, near Voronezh, where he saw a small herd of six horses who promptly “galloped away with unimaginable speed.” Locals helped him catch and kill two stallions and two mares. His expedition produced what, despite several increasingly fanciful later depictions, was the only illustration of a Tarpan taken from life.[38] His description of these mouse-coloured, small, short-tailed and “crisp-maned” horses was used by Antonious in 1912 to designate this “subspecies” of wild horse as Equus gmelini.

Pallas was not at first convinced that the free-roaming horses he encountered en route to Samara in 1773 were truly wild, recording, “they are chiefly the produce of some bewildered Kirguese and Kalmuck horses, or of the stallions of the Nomades belonging to this district, with either single mares or whole herds they have carried off.” But in 1780 he included wild horses in the list of “quadrupeds of Russia and Siberia” he sent to the British scientist Thomas Pennant for inclusion in his A History of Quadrupeds, convinced that “some of them seem really to be the original wild races.” He eventually distinguished between chestnut, bay and dun horses in the steppe north of the Black Sea and the brown, silver-grey and dark brown horses with white markings near the Volga at the east end of the sea, which he linked to the Cossack horses who had escaped at the siege of Azov (1641).[39] Güldenstädt also found quantities of wild horses on the Azov steppe; the Nogai people were busy eliminating them.

Meanwhile, the wild horses of Eastern European game parks were also disappearing. The physician Belsazar Hacquet (1739–1815) saw them on a Count Zamoyski’s estate three miles from Zamość in southeastern Poland, describing them as black-brown and untameable. He said they were sometimes taken to Lvov for baiting. The Polish poet Kajetan Koźmian (1771–1856) also remembered small but strong mouse-grey wild horses at Zamość in this era.[40]

In 1785, the Dutch naturalist and physician Pieter Boddaert (1730–1795) created the category of Equus ferus in his Elenchus Animalium, and the wild horse was official. Boddaert names Pallas, Gmelin and Pennant as his sources, describing Equus ferusas having a mouse-grey coat, a short, curly mane, short tail and long ears: “Habitat in Arabia, Tataria in Xensi, Chinae, in Woronesk [Voronezh], Russia.” He did not mention the forest horses of Eastern Europe or the Takhi.

[1] Kwok, R. “Evidence for ancient horse ranch uncovered” Nature, 5 March 2009.  https://www.nature.com/news/2009/090305/full/news.2009.141.html, accessed 6 June 2018.

[2] MacFadden, B J. Fossil Horses: Systematics, Paleobiology, and Evolution of the Family Equidae. Cambridge University Press. 1992.

[3]Sommer, R. S., Benecke, N. , Lõugas, L. , Nelle, O. and Schmölcke, U. (2011), Holocene survival of the wild horse in Europe: a matter of open landscape?. J. Quaternary Sci., 26: 805-812. doi:10.1002/jqs.1509

[4] Warmuth V, Eriksson A, Bower MA, Cañon J, Cothran G, Distl O, et al. (2011) European Domestic Horses Originated in Two Holocene Refugia. PLoS ONE 6(3): e18194. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0018194

[5] Cieslak M, Pruvost M, Benecke N, Hofreiter M, Morales A, Reissmann M, et al. (2010) Origin and History of Mitochondrial DNA Lineages in Domestic Horses. PLoS ONE 5(12): e15311. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0015311

[6] Wallner, Barbara et al. “Y Chromosome Uncovers the Recent Oriental Origin of Modern Stallions”. Current Biology, Volume 27 , Issue 13 , 2029 – 2035.e5

[7] Schubert M, Jónsson H, Chang D, et al. Prehistoric genomes reveal the genetic foundation and cost of horse domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2014;111(52):E5661-E5669. doi:10.1073/pnas.1416991111.

[8] Bököyni, S. The Przevalsky Horse. Translated by Lili Halápy. Souvenir Press. London. 1974. p. 64.

[9] Oppian in Cynegetica said there was a “dread overweening tribe” of “hippoagros” or “Wild Horses” in Ethiopia with tusks, split hooves and a mane that ran from head to tail. Loeb Classical Library, 1928.

[10] Boyd L and Houpt K A, Przewalski’s Horse: the history and biology of an endangered species. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994. p. 7.

[11] Smith, Charles Hamilton. The Natural History of Horses: the equidae or genus equus of authors. 1841. Edinburgh. W H Lizars.

[12] Varro. De Re Rustica. Loed Classical Library, 1934, book II.

[13] Strabo. Geography. Book IV Chapter 6 published in Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library edition,1923. p 263.

[14] Hehn, V. Cultivated Plants and Domesticated Animals in Their Migration from Asia to Europe. Historico-Linguistic Studies. London. 1885. p38.

[15] Hehn, V. Cultivated Plants and Domesticated Animals in Their Migration from Asia to Europe. Historico-Linguistic Studies. London. 1885. p38

[16] Hehn, V. Cultivated Plants and Domesticated Animals in Their Migration from Asia to Europe. Historico-Linguistic Studies. London. 1885. p38

[17] Jezierski T and Jaworski Z, Das Polnische Konik, Westarp Wissenschaften-Verlagsgesellschaft, Hohenwarsleben, 2008. pp. 9-10.

[18] Clutton-Brock, J. Horse Power. Natural History Museum Publications, London, 1992. p28.

[19] Samojlik T and Jedrzejewska B. The Bison: Rich Treasure of the Forests” in Conservation and Hunting: Białowieża forest in the time of kings.  ed. by T. Samojlik. 2005.

[20] Bököyni, S. The Przevalsky Horse. Translated by Lili Halápy. Souvenir Press. London. 1974. Picture section.

[21] Bahn, P and Vertut, J. Journey Through the Ice Age. University of California Press. 1997. p. 16.

[22] Linduff, K M. “A Walk on the Wild Side: Late Shang Appropriation of Horses in China” in Prehistoric Steppe Adaptation and the Horse, edited by Levine M, Renfrew C and Boyle K. McDonald Institute Monographs, Oxbow Books (distributors), 2003.

[23] Waley, A. “The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana” in History Today.

[24] Hendricks, B L. International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds. University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

[25]  Bouman I and Bouman J, “The History of Przewalski’s Horse” in Boyd L and Houpt K A, Przewalski’s Horse: the history and biology of an endangered species. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994. p. 7.

[26] Ibid. p 8. There may always be more texts that haven’t reached Western wild horse scholarship yet.

[27] Africanus, L. The History and Description of Africa. Translated by John Pory. London. vol III, Hakluyt Society. translation 1600, this edition MDCCCXCVI.

[28] There are also mentions of wild horses in Arabia, although Arabia sometimes seems confused with Tartary” even at quite a late date, for example, by Thomas Bewick in his History of Quadrupeds, where a description of the behaviour of wild horses in Arabia” closely echoes that of John Bell. “Desert” is often used for “steppe” during this period.

[29] Moon, D. The Russian Academy of Sciences Expeditions to the Steppes in the Late Eighteenth Century.” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 88, no. 1/2, 2010, pp. 204236. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20780418. p.205

[30] Bell, J. Travels from St Petersburgh in Russia to Various Parts of Asia. 1719-22 originally published 1763.  Edinburgh. William Creech, sold by John Murray, London 1806.

[31] Mohr, E. The Asiatic Wild Horse. Translated by Daphne Machin Goodall. J A Allen & Co., London. 1971. p. 27.

[32] Bouman I and Bouman J. “The history of Przewalski’s horse” in Boyd L and Houpt K A, Przewalski’s Horse: the history and biology of an endangered species. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994. p. 8.

[33] Boyd L and Houpt K A, Przewalski’s Horse: the history and biology of an endangered species. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994. p. 87.

[34] He writes at length about the feral American mustang though, believing that they were stronger, lighter, and more nervous than most domestic horses, but also more beautiful because they were not subjugated by man.

[35] Vermeulen, H F. Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment. University of Nebraska Press, Nebraska. 2015. p196.

[36] Gmelin, J G. Voyage en Siberie. Translated by M. de Keralio. Desaint, Paris. MDCCLXVII. vol 1 p.47.

[37] Moon, D. The Russian Academy of Sciences Expeditions to the Steppes in the Late Eighteenth Century.” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 88, no. 1/2, 2010, pp. 204–236. www.jstor.org/stable/20780418. pp204-212

[38] Clutton-Brock, J. Horse Power. Natural History Museum Publications, London, 1992. p 28.

[39] Smith, Charles Hamilton. The Natural History of Horses: the equidae or genus equus of authors. 1841. Edinburgh. W H Lizars. p146.

[40] Jezierski T and Jaworski Z, Das Polnische Konik, Westarp Wissenschaften-Verlagsgesellschaft, Hohenwarsleben, 2008. p 12.