Just when you thought the future was all about hybrid electric cars, along comes Simon Mulholland, who has put the horse-drawn chariot on the comeback trail. Neil Clarkson reports.
A miniature horse who grew to be a giant among his peers was the unexpected inspiration behind the re-emergence of the chariot from the shadows of history.
Simon Mulholland’s mother, Diana, started breeding miniature horses in 1985. One of her progeny, Henry the Fifth, was a fine specimen, but he simply couldn’t cut it as a miniature.
He was supposed to stop growing at 34 inches, but pressed on to 41. He was too tall for the miniature show ring.
Simon and his wife, Kate, were given Henry at the age of six. Simon, at 17 stone, was never going to ride the wee fellow.
Not wanting to see Henry grow fat and laminitic, Simon decided that Henry needed to be put in harness.
“I just didn’t feel that scaled-down horse-drawn vehicles were the answer,” says Simon, who lives at Appleby-in-Westmoreland, Cumbria, in England’s Lakes District.
“And if you build a vehicle for an animal that’s too small to ride, you follow in the footsteps of the Sumerians, Akkadians etc, and are very likely to build a chariot.”
Yes, a chariot. Should we be surprised? As Simon points out, from 3000BC to 600BC, horse-pulled chariots held the land speed record. From 600BC to approx 1830AD the horse and rider held the land speed record until man-made machines began to exert their influence.
Why were the ancients so keen on chariots?
The main reason was the size of available equines. Your 16-hand thoroughbred was still a distant glint in the eye of a vertically challenged desert stallion.
The only choice facing early Sumerian charioteers was the onager, or wild ass, which stood at about 12 hands.
“Sumeria was a civilisation where all animals were too small to ride,” says Simon.
The solution was not carriages, but chariots, which the Sumerians soon found were able to pull a man at speed with comfort.
“I never set out to build a chariot,” says Simon. “I just wanted a safe, simple vehicle designed for an adult to drive a small pony.”
His first three vehicles looked dangerous, and so they proved. However, the fourth design made a quantum leap.
“I let my wife, Kate, check it out just to see if it was as good as it looked. She survived a walk and a trot so I suggested she should try a canter. ‘No, it’s your go!’ she said. I was cantering within 5 minutes, redesigning frantically as I went.
“I thought it was just a fun vehicle, but everyone who saw it said it was a chariot. So I started looking at chariot history and discovered I had indeed built a chariot — to be specific, a straddlecar used between 2800BC and 2300BC in Sumeria and Akkad.
“Since Kate didn’t like the name straddlecar, we invented the word Saddlechariot to describe our vehicle.”
Simone went on to redesign the whole vehicle again from scratch to create the Saddlechariot of today.
Simon, a former zookeeper, salesman, cook, writer and treesurgeon, has learned a lot about engineering along the way.
“I’m an inventor, he says, “but unless you are very lucky, it takes years to discover this fact.”
The Saddlechariot is now a full-time enterprise for Simon, although the couple, who have four children, rely on the full-time work of Kate to allow Simon to devote his energies to the enterprise. The chariots have been sold to the Falkland Islands, Monaco, the United States, France, and Holland. There is one being pulled by a Caspian in Australia.
“There has been loads of interest from all over the world.”
Component manufacture is outsourced, and Simon personally assembles every Saddlechariot. He has also developed his own harness, which includes a safety release.
First and foremost, he says, he wanted to design a vehicle that was safe. “Although nobody believes a guy can work with horses for seven years and be scared of them, believe me, I am.
“So the basic essential was an exit strategy. If you are worried you can get off the vehicle, so you are safe, and with one pull of the ripcord, off comes the vehicle, so the pony is safe. That is the big one.
“It fits in the boot of a Toyota Yaris, it goes across any terrain, it is stainless steel and plastic so you don’t have to look after it and can drive on the beach, and it is brilliant fun, but it is safe for me, it is safe for Henry. Without that, I wouldn’t drive.
“The last plus is that it gives small ponies something to do as an alternative to getting fat, bored and laminitic.”
Simon says the same basic chariot can be reconfigured for use with bigger horses by fitting new shafts, an extension tube and a different tie rod.
“It works on full-size horses, but was invented for and designed around small ponies. But if it gives an old and well-loved riding animal a few extra years of hacking around the lanes, or indeed a soft retirement for an old driving animal, then great.
“But it is the tiddlers I love, especially that magic moment when they light up and depart at a flat gallop.”
Simon says he tried building a two-person chariot. “I learned just how good one-man vehicles can be. Henry hated the two-seater, and parts that had done a year of service on the standard vehicle only lasted hours on the two-seater.”
He says a carriage is designed so one horse can pull more than one person at speed.
“The chariot was designed so a pony that couldn’t carry a man could pull him at speed. A two-man chariot is a bad carriage.”
Simon says the chariot requires some balance, but charioteers are stopped from going backward by a bicycle seat and prevented from going forward by leg braces in the chariot.
“As you gain experience you can let the vehicle float free, so only 35kg of vehicle is reacting to the bumps and rocks, and 100kg of me is effectively skiing over the rough.”
Ponies take to the Saddlechariot like the proverbial duck to water. He has trained 80 to 100 equines to pull the vehicle.
“I assume I can have an animal in the Saddlechariot in less than two hours, including building the Saddlechariot and fitting the harness. This is assuming a green, inexperienced animal. And I train the driver at the same time.”
Simon confesses that his friends see his interest in the Saddlechariot as something of an obsession. That obsession includes an ambition to market the vehicle worldwide.
“Global will be enough,” he says. “I am never going to get warp factor three with Henry.”
The saddlechariots sell for £1275, including full-collar harness. Sales, he says, have been made to engineers, people married to engineers, and people simply wanting to have fun.
“I’m driving for pleasure, and so are my customers. I consider that the ponies should also be enjoying it. In an odd way, I see the pony as the customer. If they don’t like it, I wouldn’t want the owner to sign a cheque. Just goes to show I’m a lousy businessman!”
Simon is proud of his vehicle, which draws on the practical experience and expertise of the ancients.
“Six years of living, breathing, eating and driving chariots for me and my incredibly long-suffering family, has finally produced a vehicle which allows small ponies to have serious fun.
“I can and do take the vehicle anywhere because you can do things in a chariot you just can’t do in a carriage. The chariot is back — and the future is fun.
“From 3000BC to 600BC the chariot was the weapon of mass destruction, the basis of long-distance communication, and the Ferrari/Lamborghini/Aston Martin of its time.
“If you wanted to go fast, a chariot was the only answer. Boadicea, Ben Hur and Gladiator are all from the era after the chariot was redundant.”
To a civilisation without rideable horses, chariots were the ultimate buzz — the ancient equivalent of a one-seater sports car, even though they pre-dated roads and suspension.
“Buying a single-seat sportscar will always cause friction at home, but, for at least 4500 years, domestic disputes could be settled by the ‘but it’s for war, darling’ defence.”
“History books tend to ignore fun as a historical factor. With chariots I believe fun was the predominant factor … and it still is.”