Have we misunderstood the true nature of equines? A new book probes an untalked-of “hidden history” of horses that reveals their ability to eat meat. Neil Clarkson reports.
The large bay stallion presented a terrifying sight, trotting down the road with the body of a dead child hanging from its jaws.
Journalist William Knighton had been travelling by horse and buggy through the streets of Lucknow, India, wondering why they had been deserted by locals.
The stallion spied Knighton and his companion in the buggy. The horse immediately threw the toddler on the road and set off after his new prey.
Knighton knew what fate had in store, he recounted in his book, “The Private Life of an Eastern King”, about his time in the service of Nasir al-Din Haidar, the maharaja who ruled Oudh from 1827 to 1837.
The Englishman described how they had earlier come across the horribly disfigured corpse of a native woman on the road.
“The body was bruised and lacerated in all directions, the scanty drapery torn from the form; the face had been crushed as if by teeth into a shapeless mass,” Knighton reported.
The victim’s long matted hair, which fell in bundles over the road, was clotted with blood.
They proceeded, finding houses closed. A palpable sense of terror hung over the silenced city.
Further down the road they found a second victim – a youth similarly mangled and destroyed.
The pair then noticed one of the king’s troopers atop a nearby house, who warned of the stallion that would become known as the Man-eater of Lucknow.
Suddenly, the soldier shouted, “Look out! He has turned in our direction. Flee for your lives.”
Knighton and his companion did just that, as the stallion tossed aside the dead child and set off in pursuit.
“I rapidly turned the buggy round, though my horse was almost unmanageable with terror. Then we went flying back down the road at a mad gallop, heading towards an enclosure with iron gates we had passed a short time before.
“As we ran for our lives, we could hear the iron-shod hooves of the man-eater in hot pursuit.”
The second they passed through the gates, Knighton’s friend sprang from the buggy and slammed the gate shut.
“Just as the fall of the bolt secured our safety, the man-eater dashed up. His head was covered with blood, his jaws steaming with recent slaughter, his cheeks horrid with coagulated guts that had most probably spurted from his victims.
“There he stood, with cocked ears, distended nostrils and glaring eye-balls, looking savagely at us through the iron railings. My poor horse trembled as if shivering with cold at the sight of this ferocious-looking monster.”
The stallion was subsequently ambushed and captured, after which the maharaja declared it would fight his prized tiger, Burrhea.
It was a one-sided encounter, the stallion ultimately shattering Burrhea’s jaw with a mighty blow from his iron-clad hooves. Though contemporary mythology states that horses are hapless prey animals who flee from predators, the English horse left the tiger so terror-stricken, “his tail was between his legs and he ran round not unlike a whipped spaniel.”
The English thoroughbred lived out its days in an iron cage, bearing his teeth to visitors and kicking at the bars of his prison if strangers ventured too close.
Knighton’s remarkable account comes under modern-day scrutiny in a new book entitled “Deadly Equines”, by the founder of the Long Riders’ Guild, CuChullaine O’Reilly.
O’Reilly has probed mankind’s equestrian history to deliver an account that will shock many horse lovers.
He has not only pulled together remarkable accounts of equine aggression, but has undertaken what is almost certainly the first serious piece of research into meat-eating equines, from the workhorses used to explore the Poles to cultures that trained their mounts to eat flesh.
O’Reilly controversially suggests that many modern-day horse lovers have a sanitised view of the horse and suggests past generations may well have had a better understanding of their nature.
O’Reilly is quick to acknowledge that “Deadly Equines” will not make easy reading for horse lovers.
However, he stresses he is not offering a Frankenstein-style equine horror story, but instead is revealing a part of the horse’s nature which many equestrians previously did not know existed.
One of the first copies of his book has been gifted to Queen Elizabeth, in the hope royal records might cast some light on the identity of the Lucknow man-eater.
Two separate accounts suggest the horse had been a gift from Britain’s King George IV to the maharaja.
O’Reilly notes that the Queen is an accomplished horsewoman, very involved in breeding, and races some of the world’s most admired thoroughbreds, the breeding of which is thoroughly documented.
“I can’t help but hope that Colonel Toby Browne, the Queen’s Royal Equerry, might be able to determine the original name of the exported stallion,” O’Reilly explains.
“If we can discover the true identity of the infamous stallion, then the research becomes of even greater interest.”
O’Reilly says he first learned of the existence of meat-eating horses in 1977, before his departure to ride in Afghanistan.
“I read how the historical Long Rider Sven Hedin had encountered meat-eating horses in Tibet during the late 19th century,” O’Reilly recalls.
“Though I saw the words on the page, my mind was unable to grasp the magnitude of what the Swedish Long Rider had described.”
Nor was O’Reilly the only one to struggle with the implication of Hedin’s clues.
While engaged in recent fieldwork, German anthropologist Toni Huber was told by Tibetan riders that in the past they often fed their horses meat, blood and offal.
“Toni thought the Tibetans were playing a joke on him. It wasn’t until he returned home, and found Hedin’s historical research, that he realised the Tibetans had been telling the truth.”
O’Reilly says his research on the subject might have remained academic, had it not been for an account on Horsetalk of the tragic death of an infant caused by a horse.
“Horses terrified our ancestors,” O’Reilly says, “and they are still capable of frightening and killing us today.
“Unfortunately, thanks to the widespread effects of equestrian amnesia, the knowledge of deadly horses has been lost to the general public.”
He decided that if these consistent truths, as he calls them, about horses had been important enough for our ancestors to record, then he should publish his own findings.
O’Reilly is a vastly experienced horseman and is under no illusions that his book will be welcomed with open arms by horse lovers. Nor does he believe his view that modern-day equestrian have a sanitised view of horses will find ready acceptance.
“The average human being’s daily knowledge of equine nature has diminished to an alarming extent,” he asserts.
“It has been replaced by a Disney-esque version of events where there is no dark side to nature.
“This is particularly true in Anglophone countries, where the appearance of books and films now commonly depicts horses in romantic terms.”
To be forewarned is to be forearmed. An American academic has warned him: “You are likely to find your book shunned by the horse community.”
“In terms of controversy,” O’Reilly says, “I’m an investigative equestrian reporter, not a missionary. It’s not my job to convert people, just present them with the research.
“We must acknowledge the fact that there are tremendous financial stakes involved in admitting that horses are not timid grass-eaters who are afraid of predatory mankind.
“That’s why I’m not immune to the possibility that an entrenched portion of the modern equestrian world will have strong reason to denounce this analysis of historical events because it challenges so many cherished notions of today’s equestrian theology.
“This privileged, but outdated, point of view urges people to define horses as how we wish them to be, nor necessarily how nature created them. I believe the research demonstrates that the best way to understand horses is to first admit that we don’t know everything about them.”
Revelations on cultures that trained horses to eat meat will startle many, but O’Reilly stresses that some cultures are much more comfortable with the notion.
Many in Western nations will be surprised to learn that equestrian cultures in the Orient have no problem in acknowledging this part of the horse’s nature, he says.
“What we need to consider is that the modern horse world may have lost touch with a special type of wisdom, one which until recently had been common knowledge among earlier equestrian cultures.
“For example, not only did the Lord Chamberlain of Bhutan confirm that the King’s 40 horses routinely received a special meal containing tiger fat, modern horsemen in that nation wrote to say that they are still feeding their horses beef and yak meat.”
O’Reilly says blood-eating horses in Tibet and meat-eating horses in Bhutan show that the Western belief that the horse is a herbivore, not an omnivore, is in need of immediate re-evaluation.
O’Reilly said he was stunned to discover that mankind had known about meat-eating horses for at least four thousand years; that they had been known to consume nearly two dozen different types of protein, including human flesh, and that these episodes had occurred on every continent, including Antarctica.
“This wasn’t an odd example or two. This amounted to a hidden history of horses.”
O’Reilly says tales of deadly and flesh-eating horses arise in mankind’s mythology, as well as history.
“For example, mythology states that Alexander the Great’s horse, Bucephalus, was a notorious man-eater.
“Literature has Shakespeare, Steve McQueen and Sherlock Holmes all involved with man-killers or meat-eating horses. And we now know that meat-eating horses were used to explore both the Arctic Circle and Antarctica.
“The evidence is there for all to see – for those willing to do so.”
In writing his book, his role as founder of the Long Riders’ Guild proved invaluable.
“Because the Guild has members in 43 countries, I began querying the Long Riders for evidence.
“I was surprised to find Long Riders had not only been eyewitnesses to modern meat-eating horses, one of our members rode a meat-eating horse across the Gobi Desert into Tibet.
“Plus, as word of the project quietly grew, academic allies shared historical episodes of other notorious equines. Finally, a stream of new clues were forwarded by fellow horsemen eager to assist in the search.
“In a very short time, it became an ongoing international investigation, which is currently seeking new evidence in Mongolia and from assorted horse cultures around the world.”
Right up to print deadline, O’Reilly was adding further evidence to his book.
“First, we confirmed that in 1908 Sir Ernest Shackleton shared a meat-based diet with the horses he employed to reach the South Pole,” he says.
“That fact alone demonstrated that humans and horses were capable of maintaining a mutual omnivorous existence.
“Next, we discovered that in 1938 a German expedition to Tibet had filmed that nation’s blood-eating horses. This was a custom which apparently only ceased after the Chinese ‘cultural revolution’ decimated Tibet.
“Finally, we learned that Kazakh tribesmen claim to still be able to train the meat-eating horses used to cross the Gobi Desert. These were the fabled horses once employed by CIA spies riding from China to Tibet.”
He expects a flood of personal and historical evidence will quickly be revealed after the public release of “Deadly Equines”.
That flood is also likely to extend to a fair flow of criticism from those uncomfortable with O’Reilly’s premise that many modern-day horse owners have a sanitised view of horses.
“When mankind’s chain of equestrian memory is broken, falsehood can masquerade as truth,” O’Reilly asserts.
“We must not lose sight of the fact that until the end of the 19th century a large percentage of humanity knew that horses were capable of eating meat and behaving in an aggressive manner.
“Yet how did mankind’s equestrian amnesia become so advanced that 6000 years of wisdom managed to be lost in three generations?
“Part of the blame is connected to the rise of the automobile culture,” he suggests, “as the motorised age undermined the need for horses in transportation, agriculture and warfare.”
That revolution saw millions of horses destroyed, as mankind eagerly embraced the motor and destroyed the horses which had served him for millennia.”
There is also a surprising lack of intellectual curiosity about our collective equestrian past, he suggests.
“For the past few decades scientists have wrongly viewed the horse as a nostalgic relic of a pre-industrial age.
“While there have been recent significant breakthroughs in genetic research, the academic community has played a part in allowing the world’s equestrian heritage to atrophy to the point of intellectual extinction.”
O’Reilly, it seems, is not after first prize in any popularity contest. He continues: “In the corporate-dominated magazine world, where finances always come first, meaningful research is passed over in preference to ads for expensive horse equipment and colourful riding togs.
“The result is that for the last 50 years, though the public yearned for something meaningful, there has been little cross-community discussion undertaken between academics and mainstream equestrian magazine editors.
“The worst danger is the increase of hocus-pocus horsemanship. These shamans and showmen who peddle various equestrian superstitions over the internet and in expensive clinics, urge a departure from rational thought and embrace emotionalism instead.
“The cumulative effect is the emergence of a 21st century horse world which is in danger of being overwhelmed by equestrian superstition and is infected by various equine personality cults, all of which threaten to undermine the intellectual integrity of serious equestrian science.”
O’Reilly says many horse owners will acknowledge horses can be dangerous and have inflicted nasty injuries through a variety of means.
“‘Deadly Equines’ takes our understanding of violent equine behaviour to a whole new level.”
So, should horse lovers read his book, unpalatable as some of it may be?
“While there are certainly going to be people who prefer to embrace a policy of wilful blindness, I believe the majority of readers will realise that what’s on offer is not a Frankenstein-style equine horror story,” O’Reilly says.
“Quite the contrary. What is under discussion is the strong possibility that we may be witnessing the re-discovery of a part of the horse’s nature which many of us previously did not know existed.”
O’Reilly, as a Long Rider, has ridden vast distances in the saddle, and is well aware of the place of horses in human history.
“During the long centuries of our mutual existence, the horse has upheld our puny species. He has freed us from the restrictions of gravity, liberated us from the prejudices of the village, and in this darkening world, shown our generation how sweet it is to be alive.
“Yet for too long,” he suggests, “the horse world has refused to see what was before our collective eyes.
“The result, I fear, is that we have been lulled into a set of false beliefs which threaten to bind our minds and fetter our curiosity.
“We would do well to remember how young Jane Goodall shocked the world in 1960 when she discovered that chimps kill other animals and consume their flesh.
“With the example of Goodall’s chimpanzee discoveries in mind, if the world realises that some horses are also capable of eating meat and displaying extreme aggression, then a collective readjustment could begin to occur, for it may have an unexpected impact on a surprisingly large portion of humanity.”
O’Reilly is currently writing full time, but in the next northern summer hopes to embark, with his wife, Basha, on a ride around the globe, circling what he calls the equestrian equator.
While he acknowledges some will not be willing to take on board the message in “Deadly Equines”, others will accept its findings.
“As Steve McQueen stated in The Reivers, the film about a fish-eating racehorse, ‘Sometimes you have to say goodbye to the things you know and hello to the things you don’t”.
If you have additional personal or historical evidence, please contact CuChullaine O’Reilly at: [email protected].
Learn more about the “Deadly Equines” research project.Partipate in the international discussion regarding “Deadly Equines”.
First published on Horsetalk on August 24, 2011.