To contemplate our changing relationship with the horse over the millennia is to reflect on both our own story and the shifts in our perception of the more-than-human world. A lengthy narrative – in which we’ve moved from being observant participants to self-proclaimed ‘masters’ – it is vividly illustrated by zooarchaeological remains, art and ritual bound up in the horse and its lore.
To gain an idea of how our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors viewed the horse we can find echoes of kill sites like Solutré (in southern France) in the more familiar historic relationship between North American Plains Indians and the bison. So; a vital source of sustenance, hunting strategies based on the drive and the head or skull as symbol of the animal’s life force or anima. It’s tempting to see the revived Welsh folk tradition of the Mari Lwyd as a vestige of this ‘head cult’ – and indeed the hobby and pantomime horses of English tradition…
Then, a hiatus of millennia before moving forward to the end of the prehistoric period and the Bronze and Iron Ages when the contract changes and the horse, no longer revered prey,becomes servant. And as hierarchies based on land ownership – the seeds of which are sown in the earlier agricultural revolution of the Neolithic – are consolidated, the horse becomes symbol of wealth, power and the wild tamed. Our current monarch is a consummate horse master – as are the oil-rich royal families of the Gulf states.
In two-dimensional art we have moved from the stubby, brush-maned ponies of the painted caves to the intensively manipulated bloodlines portrayed in the carefully choreographed, photorealistic depictions of ‘hunters’ by the painter George Stubbs and his contemporaries; masterly depictions in oil which are status symbols in their own right.
In three dimensions, the horse conveys the great depth of our connection with Europe, there being an apparent thread connecting Palaeolithic horse carvings found in the Pyrenees with Wales’ oldest known portable artwork; the carefully incised jawbone of a horse found in Kendrick’s Cave on the Great Orme, Llandudno (now on display in the British Museum and around 11,000 years old). As the ice retreated, our northbound ancestors brought their horse worshipping (and hunting) culture with them.
Sir William Boyd Dawkins records 545 horse teeth and bones from Ffynnon Beuno cave in the Clwydian Range. Of these, a number show signs of having been gnawed by hyaenas at least 20,000 years before the Kendricks Cave piece was created. Stark indicators of a brutal struggle for survival, these chomp-marks will, it seems likely, prove to be more enduring than the traces of our current socio-political preoccupations. Back in the unforgiving world of the Late Upper Palaeolithic the crushing jaws of the hyaena – the most powerful biting force in nature – probably served to puncture any sense of mastery that our Ice Age ancestors might have begun to acquire.