How Lord Byron Invented the Wild Horse
For Thousands of Years They Were Pests and Food, But a Poet Made Them Wild
“…there is no denying the wild horse in us,” says the hero of Virginia Woolf’s third novel, Jacob’s Room, “To gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin; to have—positively—a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over, and as for men and women, let them go hang…” From modernist fiction to internet memes, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Arthur Miller’s Misfits, the Rolling Stones and classic car brands, the “intemperately” galloping wild horse, at one with an epic landscape, is a handy objective correlative for freedom, innate, natural nobility and the rejection of man’s follies.
But our emotional western response to free-ranging equines is a relatively recent one. For most of history, wild horses were regarded as food, pests or a source of new tame animals. The remaking of the wild horse as an equine noble savage is a story taking in Romanticism, extinction, theatrical melodramas and near-naked ladies. And it begins with a grudge against a man named Mazepa in the 17th-century Polish court, and a disgraced poet.
When I traced the backstory of wild horses for The Age of the Horse, I found only a handful of mentions by European pre-Enlightenment chroniclers for two simple reasons: wild horses were not considered very important and, what’s more, few survived even in classical times. While the domestic horse thrived in partnership with man and was duly celebrated and pored over from fetlock to forelock in art and literature, his wild cousin was rapidly pushed out of his homes in the steppes, forests and mountains of Europe and Asia. Wild horses were pests or, Erasmus Stella noted in 16th century, “good venison” for hunting and eating or—more darkly—used for pulling miscreants limb from limb in a Roman circus. I found only one artistic depiction of them: Hans Baldung’s bizarre engravings of witchy equine savages cannibalizing one another in a dark wood.
Wild horses attracted more considered attention during the Enlightenment, when the Dutch naturalist Pieter Boddaert classified them as the distinct species Equus ferus, and Russian and European explorers reported sightings in the steppes. By the early 18th century, there were two types of genuinely wild horse left: mouse-gray tarpans, who clung on in the great Polish forest of Białowieża and on the eastern steppes, and dun, spiky-maned takhi, who lived in Central Asia and still looked much as they did in Stone Age paintings at Lascaux. The European status horses of the time—the speedy, elegant English thoroughbred and prancing Iberian saddle horse—reflected glory onto their owners, but the untameable takhi and tarpan had nothing to offer Europeans but scientific curiosity—and barbecue. The tarpan had vanished from Białowieża by the early 19th century, the first marker of a rapid decline, but in 1819, the new metaphysical wild horse was born.
Mazeppa is one of Lord Byron’s later works, written just a few years before his death and shortly after he had fled England with scandal on his heels and debt dragging at his ankles. His wife had left him, taking their daughter with her. His lovers were numerous and garrulous. Rumor accused him both of homosexual affairs and of an incestuous passion for his half sister. Mazeppa—funnily enough—is about a delirious dash into exile, undertaken reluctantly but transforming its subject into a hero. Within three years of publication, Byron’s publisher John Murray had sold an impressive 7,400 copies.
Byron found his protagonist in Voltaire’s History of Charles XII, King of Sweden. The real historical Ivan Mazepa (Byron added the extra “p”) was a Cossack leader famous for defecting from Russia to Sweden before the 1709 Battle of Poltava. In Ukraine he is still a hero, in Russia, a villain. According to Voltaire, as a young man in the 1660s he served as a page at the court of King John II Casimir in Poland but was caught cuckolding a noble who had him stripped naked, tied to a “wild horse” and thus dispatched all the way back to his Ukrainian homeland. The tall tale of his amorous escapades can be traced back to the memoirs of a courtier called Pasek who held a long-standing grudge against Mazepa. In Pasek’s account, when Mazepa is caught by the irate husband he’s strapped not to the back of a wild horse but his own tame saddle horse, which promptly scarpers back to its home stable via bramble patches. Voltaire upgraded the story. Byron took it further.
The poet wasn’t interested in verisimilitude or the geopolitics of Mazepa’s later career; he made Mazeppa’s mad career on the “wild horse” the heart of the poem. From Voltaire’s one-line summary, Byron extrapolates an epic. Byron’s Mazeppa has fallen in love with Theresa, of “the Asiatic eye,” and his punishment involves a horse that’s not just wild, but “Wild as the wild-deer, and untaught / With spur and bridle undefiled.” The horse, “a Tartar of the Ukraine breed,” dominates the poem: it is elemental, foam-flecked, fearful and furious. For two days and nights the terrified animal dashes across country, “all human dwellings left behind,” through sinister woods and “boundless plain” with Mazeppa tied bleeding and swooning to his back. Mazeppa passes out and comes to as the horse plunges through the Dnieper river. Wolves chase them. The word “wild” resounds throughout the poem.
Finally the horse reaches an Eden with “wild luxuriant soil” unhaunted by “Man nor brute.” The wretched creature collapses, and the exhausted Mazeppa becomes aware of “a trampling troop” approaching, and sees, not horsemen, but wild horses by the thousands, headed by a black “Patriarch.” Byron/Mazeppa lingers on the way the horses are untouched by man’s cruelty:
Wide nostrils never stretched by pain,
Mouths bloodless to the bit or rein,
And feet that iron never shod,
And flanks unscarred by spur or rod—
A thousand horse—the wild—the free.
When the horses approach, they see that Mazeppa’s steed is dead and has a human spreadeagled on its back, and they wheel in alarm and disappear, leaving Mazeppa to the vultures. He is rescued by a Cossack maiden who is also “wild.” Perhaps, writes Peter Cochran, “The horse’s soul may have transmigrated into the body of [Mazeppa’s] new protectress.”
Mazeppa’s pellmell ride has been interpreted as representing the (autobiographical) torments of sexual desire, a battle with creativity and a dramatic ride into Romanticism itself. It’s also the debut of a new kind of literary horse. European literature is full of equines who are noble partners to man, from Achilles’ Xanthus and Balius onward, but Byron’s wild horse wants nothing to do with humans. He does not reflect glory on his rider; he subsumes Mazeppa into his own elemental being. His desire to be free is all consuming and becomes his ruin. He is a pure, natural force, better without man’s influence, unlike a king’s plume-bedecked parade horse or the hussar’s charger with its jingling mouthful of metal. A noble savage, in other words. And the west was ready for this new creature.
Nineteenth-century Europe and America ran on horsepower, the indispensable cog that locked teeth with steam and man power in the Industrial Revolution. In Byron’s lifetime, horses powered early factory and mill machinery. In ever-rising numbers, they circulated people and goods in growing cities and provided universal labor for farms. Harnessed and perpetually toiling, they were ubiquitous as never before, and early animal welfare campaigners were already responding to their plight. Byron’s Romantic wild horse was the workhorse’s mirror twin, reimbued with all the mystery and nobility Dobbin lacked. His clarion whinny resonated. The west fell in love.
Byron’s poem inspired Victor Hugo to write his own Mazeppa, but also the painters Géricault, Delacroix and the composer Liszt, who made the horse gallop madly up and down his piano in arpeggios. Byron’s horse really took off in the popular imagination when it charged headlong into the theater. Horses represented not just mass labor but mass entertainment in the 19th century. The circus, developed in England in the late 1700s, had evolved into elaborate dramatic performances called “hippodramas” in which highly trained horses clattered and capered across stages alongside human actors, doing tricks and taking part in stage fights and races. Mazeppa became the international smash hit of the brief and glorious era of this genre, seducing audiences for decades.
While Byron had turned Voltaire’s scant paragraph into an epic, the hippodramaturges threw down their reins and urged the horse still faster. Mazeppa became a foundling chastely in love with the lovely young Olinska or Theresia [sic], who was engaged to an evil count. The hero challenged the count and was punished with the wild ride, but at the end of it he was recognized by the “Tartar” prophet king and returned to Poland with loyal supporters—picturesquely disguised as gypsy musicians—to rescue the suicidal Olinska/Theresia in a glorious punch up. Zebras, “oriental” costumes and palm trees were sometimes involved, and the stunts were thrilling.
The actor playing Mazeppa would be tied in his “fleshings” or skin-coloured tights to a real horse which would then canter off stage to be replaced by an identical horse with a dummy on its back. The second horse raced up a series of narrow ramps disguised as mountain pathways—all the way to the flies—in “a tremendous storm of thunder, lightning, hail and rain” before leaping into a “chasm.” A rolling panorama animated its swim through the two-dimensional wooden waves of the Dnieper, pursued by puppet wolves and vultures.
The equine actors shone night after night. “When she came rearing, plunging, biting, snapping, whirling, kicking her way on to the stage, the scarlet lining of her nostrils and the foam flying from her mouth made our screams very natural ones,” wrote American actress Clara Morris of one equine colleague. At least one horse and one actor were killed in falls on stage.
When Mazeppa’s popularity flagged mid-century, a New York showman called Captain John B. Smith found a young American woman called Adah Isaacs Menken to don the fleshings and be trussed up on the horse, and sent her on tour. Menken not only caused a sensation thanks to her skimpy romper and cigar habit, but also by completing the whole ride with no dummy stunt double and even jumping fences while trailing from her horse’s back. She sparked a vogue of female Mazeppas satirized in one burlesque as having a “classical style of … dress [which] does not much trouble the sewing machine.”
Just as the fictional Wild Horse was flourishing, real wild horses continued to steadily vanish from Europe. They were gone from Bialowiecza in the early 1700s. The last tarpan in the Ukraine died in the 1870s after hunters pursued it till it broke a leg. The takhi—later named the Przewalski horse after the Polish-Russian explorer who first brought a skin back to Moscow—was depleted by European animal collectors who stole or accidentally killed hundreds of foals in their efforts to gather mating specimens. The handful captured were bred closely in tiny groups in zoos, but the takhi became extinct in the wild in the 1960s.
Westerners could still see a Byronic “thousand horse and none to ride” in one place, itself a semi-legendary topos—the American frontier. Although horses had evolved and eventually died out in the Americas, they returned with the Conquistadors, escaping and thriving in the familiar wilderness. According to Deanne Stillman, author of Mustang, in the early 1700s, maps of America featured patches labeled simply “Vast Herds of Wild Horses.” The mustangs were elusive, recurring characters in the new genre of frontier travelogues whose authors described the feral horses in terms colored by Romanticism.
Washington Irving, both admired by and an admirer of Byron, was struck by a mustang he saw in Oklahoma in 1832: “It was the first time I had ever seen a horse scouring his native wilderness in all the pride and freedom of his nature. How different from the poor, mutilated, checked, reined-up victim of luxury, caprice, and avarice, in our cities.” Irving’s and others’ narratives often feature attempts to capture a wild horse followed by the author’s dismay when the once noble beast is defeated and condemned to the bit, rein, spur and rod. “A stage hero,” Irving wrote, “representing the despair of a captive prince could not have played his part more dramatically. There was absolutely a moral grandeur in it.”
The anthropologist Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence pointed out that the settlers were both attracted to the wildness of the horses and the frontier and driven to destroy them with civilization. In “The White Mustang of the Prairies” she traces the campfire legend of a mighty stallion who paced the West, becoming so well known that it was turned into a hippodrama and mentioned by Melville in Moby-Dick. This “White Steed,” too, is eventually caught but pines or starves himself to death as “a kind of sacrifice to liberty itself.”
Today campaign groups battle to save the world’s feral horse populations from government culling programs or poachers in the Danube delta, in Montana, near Chernobyl, and in New South Wales, arguing that the animals have a right to the wilderness. Mustang advocates are once again rallying forces after President Trump made moves to legalize the sale of wild horses on Bureau of Land Management land to slaughter houses in Canada and Mexico. Despite nearly a century of campaigning to ensure the protection of America’s wild horses, mustangs remain caught between symbol and expendable natural resource.
The takhi—which turned out to be so authentically wild that it has a different number of chromosomes to domestic horses—has been painstakingly brought back from the brink of Dodo-level extinction and returned to the Mongolian steppes. The 2,000 or so alive today are descended from just 13 horses, and, unlike their mustang and brumby cousins, their future seems safe—they are valued simply for their wildness and not their price per pound. In 2013 at Hustai, the Mongolian national park created as a home for the returning takhi, I fell asleep on a hillside watching them graze in a landscape of horizonless grasslands. It turns out that real wild horses spend most of their time peaceably—and ceaselessly—eating rather than hurtling around white-eyed and whinnying into the Romantic void.