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1 May 2024

The spectacle of runaway horses in London was eerily poignant

For a brief moment, animals that are otherwise trapped in lives of ceremony and discipline were free.

By John Burnside

Recent scenes of two panicked Household Cavalry horses galloping through the London streets were eerily poignant, for several reasons. First, the sight of a white horse covered in fresh, bright blood was in itself a terrible but powerfully evocative image (echoes of Picasso, or Géricault, immediately came to mind). The elegant dark horse running by its side reminded me of Black Jack, the riderless horse from John F Kennedy’s funeral parade.

For some viewers, the bizarre scenario might have conjured up an ironic reversal of those episodes when, during protests, the police have deployed equestrian units. For the demonstrators, this is always a double threat: on the one hand, they might be subjected at any minute to a police cavalry charge against which, for the horses’ sake, most would be unwilling to fight; on the other, some out-of-control protester (or perhaps an agent provocateur) might do something stupid to harm one of the animals.

During a march organised by the hacktivist group Anonymous in 2015, a horse named PH Embassy was injured by a firework – a significant PR coup for the Met, who promptly released pictures. Now, however, the boot was on the other foot: the horses were rampaging for their own reasons, and it was the police who were potentially in their path.

That such use of equestrian units is an animal rights abuse seems undeniable, which is tragic when we consider that many police handlers care deeply for their mounts. However, it is just one example of the cynicism human societies show in their dealings with horses. Historically, our literature is full of scenes where they are subjected to acts of appalling, casual brutality: from the horse-beating scene in Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky was traumatised as a child by witnessing such an incident); through Nietzsche’s mental breakdown after he tried to protect a horse from being bludgeoned to death on the streets of Turin; to the stomach-turning “breaking in” of Ginger in Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty.

Many watchers find it difficult to sit through several scenes of John Huston’s 1961 classic The Misfits, where the men wrangle mustangs to sell on as dog food, while their friend Roslyn looks on in despair. That despair is maddening. The poet Lucie Brock-Broido responded to Huston’s film with the lines: “I, soon to be an element of the lunatic/Fringe, am willing to kill for their right/ To life: I thought the horses beautiful./I cringe to think I stood for nothing.”

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The cringing, like the despair, is appropriate. For while there is no suggestion that the London horses were ill-treated, and while those who work with animals aspire to do so because they also think they are beautiful, the incident raises a number of questions about how those in power make use of both horses and the men under their command.

We should ask ourselves not only whether central London is a good place to keep horses, but also whether those horses should exist merely to provide a spectacle for tourists and the monarchically inclined. Arguments about how much money the spectacle attracts should be moot – this is a moral question – though, unsurprisingly, the coming conversations will almost certainly centre around how much cash royal pageantry brings in.

For my part, I go back to those runaway horses. Admittedly, I was watching them on a TV screen and so in no real position to judge, but I was struck by how alive they seemed, running wild through the city streets – as well as by how alive those who had witnessed the incident appeared after it was over. Of course, the horses were frightened, and certainly one seemed badly hurt. But for a moment a rare spirit of élan vital emerged in these animals, which for the rest of their confined existence are subjected to the strict and joyless discipline of a ceremony that, while it may be significant to their human neighbours, must mean absolutely nothing to them.

[See also: We must nourish children’s sense of wonder]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March