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., 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.

[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.

[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, 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. 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.

Tragedy, Bravery, Royal Weddings and Queer Riders – why I can’t stop researching the nineteenth-century circus

At the Circus: Work in the Ring (1899) Toulouse-Lautrec
C/o Art Institute Chicago

Following on from essays for the Paris Review Daily about Selika Lazevski (here, with research notes here) and Sarah l’Africaine (here, with research notes here), I’ve written a third essay about my obsession with the horsewomen of the nineteenth-century Parisian circus who “lived at the center of public attention while simultaneously being marginal”. You can read it at the Paris Review‘s blog site here.

Here are some notes about the research and out-takes.



Countess Ugarte

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just an obsession with horses that forced Countess Ugarte into the circus ring, but I also couldn’t find anything about her performing, just this from a New York newspaper:


She Is to Make Her Debut in a Paris Circus

A Countess of ancient lineage, and who for many years has been one of the ornaments of the Austrian court, is about to make her debut as a circus-rider of “Haute Ecole” at the “Nouveau Cirque” at Paris. She is the daughter of the late Count Ugarte, Austrian Envoy to Wurtemberg, and is married to Hector Baltazzi, the uncle of the ill-fated Baroness Marie Vetzera, who perished, together with Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria, at Meyerling [you can read about poor Marie here].
A few months ago Countess Ugarte obtained a legal separation from her husband, whose diminutive stature contrasts ridiculously with her tall, slender and handsome appearance. She is one of the most superb horsewomen with whom I have ever ridden, and at one time owned and managed a famous racing stable.
Knowing that her insane extravagance with regard to horseflesh often led to financial ruin, Renze, the celebrated circus proprietor, repeatedly made her magnificent offers to become the star equestrienne and school-rider of his circus, and now that she is separated from her husband, without sufficient resources, I suppose that she has cast to the winds her scruples concerning the adoption of a professional career.
Hector Baltazzi, her tiny husband, is just as enthusiastic about horses as she is herself. Indeed, I have always been of the opinion that this passion constituted the only bond of sympathy between them. For Hector Baltazzi is a Levantine, from Constantinople, who has merely been tolerated by the sporting section of Austrian society on account of his good riding and perfect knowledge of the turf, but who has never been permitted to penetrate the exclusive circles to which his wife belongs and in which she moves.
Indeed, she was invited everywhere, and used, when I knew her, to go to most places without him, her husband being pointedly ignored by both court and society, and not a day passing without her being made to feel that she has been guilty of a dreadful mesalliance. – N Y Recorder

The Morning Call, 3 August 1891, page 6.

According to this Chicago Tribune piece from 1912, Anna Ugarte always felt dogged by association with the Meyerling scandal. After leaving Austria she alternated between Paris and hunting in Leicestershire. She shot herself through the heart in Melton Mowbray in 1901.

Two Adèles

I mentioned one hippodrome horsewoman called Adèle who ended up as a conwoman and thief. Here’s an earlier blog post where I tell her story and that of Adèle Drouin, who performed with neither bridle nor saddle.

Antoinette LeJars on the Facade of the Cirque d’Hiver in Central Paris



Like actresses and dancers, these were public women. Racy novels and erotica elided the circus écuyères with famous demi-mondaine courtesans of the period, like Cora Pearl, who was said to treat horses better than her lovers, and “pretty little horsebreaker” Catherine “Skittles” Walters, who carved up the bridlepaths of the Bois de Boulogne in a skin-tight riding habit in the 1860s. Like these “soiled doves,” the circus horsewomen sometimes married into the aristocracy. Céleste Mogador, who graduated from sex worker to hippodrome rider to countess, and Clotilde Loisset, a circus child who married a prince, are just two examples. In the foreword to circus critic Baron de Vaux’s Écuyers et Écuyères, the playwright Meilhac offers a teasing “true” tale of a well-brought-up young girl whose mother wants her to have diamonds, houses and horses without losing her honor, and who is advised to send her into the ring on a sidesaddle as an écuyère. She can’t ride but nobody notices – she still bags a wealthy fiancé.

This paragraph came between “…faded down through the ranks” and “This combination of sex and sexism…”.

Contemporary Performers

An interview with Camilla Naprous of The Devil’s Horsemen.

Here’s Camille of Théâtre du Centaure


And Sabrina Sow of Equinoctis:


The Story of the “Black Gazelle” of the Paris Hippodrome: Sarah L’Africaine

A new essay on an equestrian stuntwoman who set Second Empire Paris alight: Sarah l’Africaine, following on from an earlier piece about the mystery horsewoman Selika Lazevski.

Here’s some information about my sources:

Most of the firsthand material is combed from Gallica, the incredible, searchable digital collection of the French national library.

The quotations in this section:

Dumas’ journal, Le Mousquetaire, published a letter demanding to know how Menken, an artist and “beauty itself,” could be replaced by “a negress who is absolute ugliness everywhere except in Guinea or Senegambia, and who probably had no other teachers than the monkeys from whom she took courses in the Coconut trees?”

are quoted and translated by Kari Weil in the excellent “Purebreds and Amazons: saying things with horses in late-nineteenth-century France” differences, a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, Spring 1999.

On the grotesque tradition of the “femme sauvage”:

Nichola A Haxell’s “‘Ces Dames du Cirque’: A Taxonomy of Male Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Art” was invaluable. You can read it here.

Les Saltimbanques, leur vie, leurs moeurs (1875) by Gaston Escudier has drawings by P de Crauzat. Note the name of the femme sauvage in my rough translation here:

Screenshot 2019-10-11 at 2.28.54 PM

“a wild woman who appears in an iron cage, surrounded by four gendarmes with a sabre in their fists, and near whom stands a man who reddens iron bars on a stove.
This savage, having executed the dance of her country, prays, emits the war cry of the desert and devours her pieces of glass as we crunch on nuts. – There it is, incidentally, her ordinary fare – The thing used is worth being recounted.
They present the savage a plate piled with slivers of bottles; she throws herself on them, grabs them in her hands, thrusts them into her mouth and breaks them between her teeth so she can swallow them with extraordinary voracity. What a gullet!
What the public does not see is that the so-called savage pretends to take the pieces of glass from the plate, while in reality she doesn’t pick up any. The noise heard is made in the wings by a compere, who strikes some pieces of glass against one another, or by some bonbons that the savage crunches (which replicates the sound of glass perfectly when you crunch them between your teeth) This scene has a fantastic effect, and the public lets itself be taken in.
The savage then talks in her “native tongue” with whoever wants to engage with her. An oddball, one day, engaged in conversation with her:
– Chi coic libi kerr?
– yes, very good (in English), replied the lad.
– kara birsoic keres ser maderas?
– Das ist ganz gut.
And the lad stepped into the theatre to talk to her more closely:
– Sarah! Sarah! Mahien tier?
– Si, si parla l’italiano, sauvago buono.
This conversation went on in this fashion for two minutes, and the public believed that it happened, when the lad, making a faux pas, opened the bars and fell, by accident, on the femme sauvage, who cried, ‘Oh! Monsieur, please, don’t do me any harm!’
You can imagine the amusement of the crowd. It required the intervention of the police to prevent the savage, the saltimbanque and all the material from being demolished.
That’s one anecdote among thousands”

Screenshot 2019-10-11 at 2.28.39 PM

He also relates this anecdote:

“This little scene reminds me of another where the theatre was, at Versailles, the stage of a femme sauvage.
A monsieur entered the loge, saw the savage on her stage, listened closely to the sound of her voice, threw himself on her, seized her by the arms and cried,
– Ah! So this is how you left me, Thérèse, to become a femme sauvage! Right! Follow me!
–heavens, it’s my husband! She cried, and fainted.
It really was her husband, whom she had left. It seemed that she had one obsession, of performing as a femme sauvage, and one fine day, she something the home to install herself in a fairground stall. Inquiries made, I later learned that the poor Thérèse, whose husband so strongly denied her talents, donned the garb of the femme sauvage every night, and received her friends thus.
Voila, we agree, a singular obsession. And if, this winter, you encounter at a masked ball a grand woman disguised as a Hottentot, you can say:
– It’s Thérèse, the savage of Versailles.
If she managed to make her husband adopt the same costume, they would make a fine couple, all the more so if her husband blacked up like a negro.”

Le Figaro du Théâtre ran this story on 11 November 1866 at the height of Sarah’s fame:

“We read in the Vigie de Cherbourg:
Monday 29 October, one of the parades of many performers who were established at a fairground at Maladerie at Caen, was brightened up by an unexpected scene.
Among the remarkable subjects announced by the clown, as taking part in the show, was a femme sauvage, who, head crowned with feathers, face adorned by a magnificent black beard, warmed up for her performance by eating flaming oakum.
The femme sauvage should break rocks on her stomach, and, dressed in the guise of a crinoline, the kilos “of the coarsest kind” as the grand Bilboquet but it.
As the clown detailed all the marvels that, for the price of ten centimes, could unfurl beneath the astonished eyes of the spectators, a peasant did not lose sight of the femme sauvage.
– Jeanette! he cried.
At this name the femme sauvage turned in astonishment.
– Not a doubt! It’s her! replied the peasant.
And he threw himself on the stage, seized the beard that had shortly before drawn the admiration of the crowd, and pushed on the perfectly beardless cheek, the most vigorous slap that had ever rung out on the rock breaker.
The woman was none other than the peasant’s wife, who lived near Saint-Lô, and whom she had abandoned to follow her love, proving that she was evidently less savage than she appeared.”

The Baudelaire poem is “La femme sauvage et la petite maîtresse”.

Revues and satires featuring Sarah:

Je me le demande, at the Théâtre Folies Saint-Germaine in December 1866. Sarah was played by Louise Berthal, whom you can see here.

Les Thugs à Paris was co-written by Albert Wolff (him again) and Eugene Grange and performed that November. Here Sarah was played by “Silly”.

Sarah in London:

Towards the end of my research I saw a brief note saying that Sarah was due to go to London to perform that winter. I couldn’t find any obvious trace of her and wonder how she would have been received, given that Black people had been attacked in London the previous year following a rebellion in Jamaica. But she would have just missed Sarah Redmond, an American anti-slavery activist who had been lecturing in the city.

I did find that the Agricultural Hall in Islington had hosted a show organised by John and George Sanger (of the circus dynasty) called Congress of the Monarchs, a spectacular featuring people impersonating kings and queens of many nations. It opened around Christmas in 1866 and closed at the end of February in 1867. Perhaps Sarah was in the cast, though I couldn’t find a detailed listing (The Marvellous Craggs have a better listing but say they can’t spot her either – they also caught my Sanger slip up).

On Adah Isaacs Menken‘s own adoption of blackface and her depiction as white, read Daphne Brooks’ Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. I’ve written a little about Adah in The Age of the Horse and in this essay on wild horses and Mazeppa, but haven’t included her in this écuyères series because much has already been written about her, and it’s as wild a ride as she took on that horse.

Who was Sarah Dow?

When I was trying to work out Sarah’s real name, another name floated up in close connection so I went on a bit of a hunt to check what was going on. Sarah Dow was another performing horsewoman who specialised in the “ride of Mazeppa” and stood in for Menken on many occasions. However, to the best of my research, she was a blonde “daughter of England” from Birmingham.

The specialist archives and libraries and their very helpful staff were:

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
Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, where I was lucky enough to be a writer in residence this February.

London: Horses, Survivors and Architecture

W G Gordon’s The Horse World of London is a remarkable book. Published in 1893, it’s an attempt to document not just the numbers and logistics of the army of horse power that kept the capital city functioning, but also to give a reporter’s eye view of the stables, horses and people involved, from the names of the horses in different jobs to the doses of whisky given out to those horses. It has an immediacy that’s kept me returning to it as a source.

Today I undertook a fan’s pilgrimage to a stable that features heavily in the chapter on carriers’ horses. I’ve used material about this stable in, I think, both If Wishes Were Horses and The Age of the Horse. Miraculously, it still stands between South Wharf Road and Winsland Street, right next to Paddington station. Built in 1873, it once housed 600 horses for the Great Western Railways, from vanners to shunters. It is now the Mint Wing of St Mary’s hospital, rather shabby but grade II listed.

My guess is that those two expanses of concrete fill in large doors that once let carts in and out. The building was refurbished extensively in the 1920s. The horses lived on multiple floors when it was still a stable. Here are some more stable-y windows on the South Wharf Road:

According to Gordon, there were four floors of horses originally, plus an additional stable near the goods station for 140 horses and a further infirmary for the sick. The stables were high tech for the time, with electrical lighting and good ventilation. An old army man was in charge when Gordon visited in the 1890s, and the horses were filed by colour. The walls inside were white, with varnished pine ceilings and blue brick ramps kept immaculately clear of kit or obstacles. The partitions between the horses were hung from the ceiling, with quick release should a horse kick and get a leg stuck.

Veteran horses were semi-retired but still used as extra muscle for particular loads (given that the horses in the stable generally only had a full-time workspan of five years, this wasn’t too bad a fate). The first horses went out at 2am.

Inside the yard, it’s oddly maze-like, with three smaller crooks of space. You can still see the ramps the horses used and, at the top, the old open walkways where horses were groomed have been glassed in.

The building is clearly still in heavy use but needs a makeover – hopefully its listing will mean it’s preserved as a rare piece of industrial heritage. Maybe one day we will have horse museums in places like this and not just in palaces like Chantilly and Versailles.

A short walk away, heading for Hyde Park, I saw a sign warning that horses used the nearby streets. We were yards away from the old Hyde Park Stables – a pony club centre and riding school in what must be one of the last mews used for its original purpose in London. I’d read that the stable had shut down a few months ago, but there was fresh horse poop on the road. So I went to look and got confused. It looks as though the Ross Nye stables closed but the Hyde Park stables are still open, although they seem to be on pretty much the same premises. [UPDATE: with thanks to Maria, I was wrong – Ross Nye is still open and Hyde Park closed] Anyhoo, here’s a short of Bathurst Mews, complete with horses:

I rounded off my horsey day in London by nearly being run over by this fine pair of police horses, who appeared from nowhere on the Southbank as I was resting on a bench:

London is still a little bit horse powered after all.

Got Mare’s Milk?

While the idea of sipping mare’s milk might sound unusual to Western readers, it’s been a traditional staple in Central Asia, where it is often fermented into “koumiss,” a mildly alcoholic drink that was adopted by Russian doctors in the mid-19th century as a treatment for tuberculosis. Patients no less illustrious than the writers Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy swore by its curative powers. In Europe today, mare’s milk remains a niche product, but its reputation as a health elixir is causing trouble for producers in a more regulated age.

Read my new piece for NPR’s The Salt on mare’s milk here. And enjoy a slideshow of the Lindenhof Stud, visited during my research:

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From Anarchy to Mare’s Milk: a year in horse stories

I didn’t publish any articles between 2014 and 2017 because I was busy working on The Age of the Horse, so I set myself a challenge to get pieces out there to new audiences for a twelve-month surge. I’ve now reached the end and am about to sequester myself in the Stabi to work on books three and four (maybe more like three-and-a-half), so here’s a roundup. People ask me why I write about horses, but who wouldn’t love a theme that’s global, intersectional, multi-disciplinary and ever-evolving?



“Hanging Up Our Spurs” – a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse for the Literary Review.



“The Troubled History of Horsemeat in America” – for The Atlantic‘s Object Lessons blog series.



“Liberating Diana” – on the Danish sculptor making an equestrian statue of Diana, Princess of Wales. On Medium.



An obituary for Paula Sykes, pioneering woman groom of 1950s showjumping and right-hand woman of Pat Smythe. For Medium.



“Athletes or Anarchists? how the misunderstanding between horses and humans makes their domestication possible” – for Zoomorphic.



“How Lord Byron invented the wild horse” – for Literary Hub.



“The Hidden History of Bathing in Soup Broth” – for Gastro Obscura.


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“Selika: Mystery of the Belle Epoque” – for Paris Review Daily.



“Just horse play? A review of Ex Anima by Théâtre Équestre Zingaro” for Culturised.


Another framed winner.

“Horse-race Politics” – an essay on Siena’s Palio for Nowhere Magazine‘s Fall 2017 Travel Writing contest.



“Mare’s Milk for Health? Europeans Look to Horses for Ancient Remedy” – for NPR’s The Salt.

Horse-Race Politics, The Palio August 2016

I looked up from the center of the small courtyard, above the hexagonal pillars, the Gothic arches and then higher, to the crenellations that framed a rectangle of deep-blue sky where a single planet or star shone. The building was made of stone and brick and the yard sealed by a thick, studded door, but it stank of herbivore life—a familiar, multi-noted fragrance of ammonia, digested hay, fresh sweat and the greasy powder that lives in short, silky coats. Underfoot, the flagstones were covered with yellow volcanic dust mixed with water to make a barely yielding surface. Intersecting crescents had been pressed into it by metal-shod hoofs. The courtyard had been empty for hours but the presence of the animals lingered, contained by the stone.

My long-read “Horse-Race Politics” on the great bareback race of Siena, the Palio, was a finalist in Nowhere Magazine‘s 2017 Fall Travel Writing Contest. You can read it here, but here are a few accompanying visuals.

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She-Wolf return triumphant with Preziosa Penelope after the tratta or lottery in which horses are assigned to districts:

And Doris Day in a film about the Palio:

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Footage of the race I saw:

I can recommend John Hunt and James Gay-Rees’ 2015 documentary, Palio, although the only admission that the horses might suffer comes from a lingering shot of the wounds suffered by one after a fall. The tie-in book is superb – full of history and imagery. I also dipped into Elizabeth Tobey’s excellent “The Palio Horse in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy” in The Culture of the Horse and The Palio in Italian Renaissance Art, Thought, and Culture.

Andrea di Robilant’s long read on the Getty family and the Palio for Town and Country is super too – he really brings out the skullduggery and some of the dodgier veterinary issues. If you want to read a fantastic ethnomusicological study of the Palio, I quoted translations from Dr Anna Hersey’s paper, “L’anima nostra che sa le canzoni: Musical improvisation in theory and practice at Siena’s Palio.” It opens with a tourist getting slapped and goes on from there. Palio be crazy, people. Don’t get in the way of the Senesi.

The Beautiful Irony – An Afterword for The Age of the Horse, February 2018

Przewalski horse in Berlin Zoo.

On 23 February 2018 an international group of paleogeneticists and zooarchaeologists studying horse domestication published a report in the journal Science. They had recovered and sequenced DNA from the remains of horses found at the Botai site, hoping, as team-member Ludovico Orlando put it, “to catch evolution red-handed, when domestication first started.” Instead, they turned our understanding of domestication, of the wild and the feral, upside down.

The Botai horses did not appear to be the ancestors of today’s domestic horses. They were the ancestors of the Przewalski. Our sacred wild Takhi was, like the mustangs, the brumbies and the New Forest ponies, feral – an escapee from the Botai’s Copper Age corrals. Very like the wild horses on cave walls with their upright manes and dun coats, but taller and tamed. Either so many other wild horses had been added to the gene pool since the Botai vanished that the Przewalski DNA had been erased, or domestication had happened in other places, with other ghost horse herds. All two thousand of our last surviving wild horses disappeared overnight.

Thinking back to Hustai and everything that led to the rewilding of those 121,000 acres of steppe, to the airlifts, the complicated breeding programme, the conferences, studies, rangers, scientists, grants and zookeepers, I thought only what a beautiful irony we’d created. After all that the horse had done for humanity, we’d thrown the world’s resources into returning the earliest horse who’d known a bridle and a fence to a landscape with neither bridles nor fences. The Takhi was tamed, and we had insisted that he become wild once more.




“Ancient genomes revisit the ancestry of domestic and Przewalski’s horses” by C Gaunitz et al. Science, 22 February, 2018.

“Ancient DNA upends the horse family tree” by Elizabeth Pennisi. Science, 22 February, 2018.

“Surprising new study redraws family tree of domesticated and ‘wild’ horses” by University of Kansas., 22 February 2018.