The Chalk Horses of Wiltshire
Shya Beth delves into the creation, construction and legend surrounding the Uffington White Horse as well as the other chalk horses of Wiltshire county in England.
The passion between horses and humans has been represented in many different forms though out time and space — from century-old myths and legends, international events and movies to paintings and sculpture. Here’s another form that people have used to celebrate their equine partner: chalk horses!
What are chalk horses?
Chalk horses and other “hill figures” are made from cutting deep into a hillside, creating large trenches of chalk, a soft and white form of limestone, making the designs stand out against the landscape.
Hill figures have been created since prehistory, including animal- and human-shaped cuttings as well as more modern abstract symbols and advertising brands. The reasons for these hill carvings are not widely known. Wiltshire, a county in England, has fourteen chalk horses, the most of any place in the world. Let’s take a closer look at some of the best-known examples.
The Uffington White Horse
The Uffington White Horse is the oldest known white horse hill carving in England. The 374-foot-long figure lies on the upper slopes of White Horse Hill in the English civil parish of Uffington. The hill forms a part of the Berkshire Downs and overlooks the Vale of White Horse to the north. Best views of the figure are said to be from the air, or from directly across the Vale, particularly around the villages of Great Coxwell, Longcot and Fernham.
The site is owned and managed by the National Trust and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The Guardian stated in 2003 that “for more than 3,000 years, the Uffington White Horse has been jealously guarded as a masterpiece of minimalist art.” It also inspired the creation of other white horse hill figures.
It is thought that the horse dates back to the Iron Age (800 BC–AD 100) or the late Bronze Age (1000–700 BC). This view was generally held by scholars even before the 1990s, based on the similar Celtic art, and it was confirmed following a 1990 excavation led by Simon Palmer and David Miles of the Oxford Archaeological Unit, following which deposits of silt removed from the horse’s “beak” were scientifically dated to the late Bronze Age. It has long been debated whether the chalk figure was intended to represent a horse or some other animal (see below). However, it has been called a horse since the 11th century, at least.
Until the late 19th century the horse was scoured every seven years as part of a “local fair” held on the hill. After that, the horse was only scoured when needed. Scouring is a process of removing the weathered top layer of chalk, along with any dirt or grass that has grown on the chalk to keep it visible.
There have been numerous “additions” to the horse over the years. In August of 2002, a rider and three dogs were added as a joke and a Christmas hat was added for the holiday season (the Ho Ho Ho Uffington White Horse). In March of 2012 as part of a pre-Cheltenham Festival publicity stunt, a bookmaker added a large jockey to the figure using canvas and tent pegs to appear as real chalk during the night.
Legends surrounding the white horse
Every great hero or horse needs an old legend to be passed down by the generations!
The Uffington white horse is said to be a mare, and to have her invisible foal on the hill beside her. At night the horse and foal come down to eat at the slope below known as the Manger, and to drink at nearby Woolstone Wells, where hoofprints from the horses are said to be visible.
It is also said that near that near the Uffington horse is a flat-topped hill known as Dragon Hill; the Uffington horse is sometimes said to represent a dragon. There is a story that St George killed the dragon on Dragon Hill, and the patch of bare chalk on the flat summit is the spot where the dragon’s blood fell.
There are many stories that King Arthur is not dead, but lies sleeping, and will one day awake when England is in a great war. It is said locally that when Arthur awakes, the Uffington horse will rise up and dance on nearby Dragon Hill.
The other chalk horses of Wiltshire
These horses were cut much later than the Uffington horse — dates vary from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.
- Alton Barnes horse
- Old Pewsey horse
- New Pewsey horse
- Old Devizes horse (also called the Snobs’ horse)
- Broad Town horse
- Cherhill or Oldbury horse
- Westbury or Bratton horse
- Marlborough horse
- Osmington horse
- Folkestone horse
- Kilburn horse
- Litlington horse
- Ham Hill or Inkpen horse (now lost)
- Tan Hill horse (now lost)
- Rockley horse (now lost)
- Hindhead horse (now lost)
Each of these chalk horses has its own story: to learn more and to view images, visit The Flying Shetlands blog, with the chalk horses covered in Part I and Part II.
Check out The Flying Shetlands, a blog by equine artist and rider Shya Beth. Her mission is to showcase and highlight unique and exceptional equine art and artists across the globe. Growing daily, The Flying Shetlands has new articles every Tuesday and Friday. It is also the founder of the first ever #EquineArtHour on Twitter for equine artists along with art and equine enthusiasts to share their work and interact with each other for an hour every Sunday, 4-5 p.m. See the official page here.
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