From early in the fourteenth century, armour changed from chain-mail to heavy plate and it is clear that, without the breeding of horses of great stature and strength, this development could not have occurred, for mail armour weighed around 30lbs (13.5kg), while the most advanced form of plate armour, known as ‘white armour’, weighed around 55lbs (25kg) (without a man inside it!)
The Colleoni Statue.
The pre-eminence of heavy cavalry was soon to be challenged. During the ‘Hundred Years War’ between England and France, three battles were to change the face of warfare in Europe. In 1415 King Henry V (1387-1422) fought the battle of Agincourt near the village of the same name in northern France. The French force heavily outnumbered the English troops, and mounted on their heavy war horses should, by all odds, have carried the day. However, the ground conditions on the day were poor and waterlogged, and the French cavalry became bogged down and mired in the mud where they were picked off by the skilled Welsh foot archers with their heavy longbows. Against the fearsome rain of goose-winged cloth-yard shafts with their deadly armour piercing ‘bodkin’ points, the heavy plate of the mounted French nobility was worse than useless. A wooden saddle from the day still exists in the British Museum, with the arrow which pierced the armoured leg of the knight, passed through the saddle and very likely killed the horse too, still in place. The battles of Agincourt, Crècy and Poitiers established the eminence of the heavy Bowman over heavy cavalry, but during the Hundred years war countless hundreds and thousands of horses must have suffered the horrors of warfare, martyrs to their masters insatiable lust for land and power.
Between 1455 and 1485 England was torn by the civil strife of the ‘Wars of the Roses’, so called because of the White Rose emblem of the House of York and the Red Rose of the House of Lancaster. During the conflict numerous raids were made, by both sides, on breeding herds and, in order to protect their studs, owners exported large numbers of horses across the channel to the continent. So drastic an effect did this have that King Henry Vll (1457-1509) passed an enactment forbidding the export of horses (the word was then used to mean stallions), and of any mare whose value was six shillings and eight pence or over. This, in its turn, caused horses to become so numerous that there were large herds grazing in the pastures, and breeding to such an extent that, to prevent the lowering of the standard of height, the operation of cutting, or gelding, was introduced. (3.) Matters continued in this way until, in 1535, Henry Vlll (1491-1547) is recorded as having made the following comments:
"for that in many and most places of this Realm, commonly little Horses and Nags of small stature and value be suffered to depasture and also to cover Mares and Felys (fillies) of very small stature, by reason whereof the Breed of good and strong Horses of this Realm is now lately diminished, altered and decayed, and further is likely to decay, if speedy Remedy be not sooner provided in that Behalf".
He stipulated that:
"all owners or Fermers (farmers) of parks and enclosed grounds of the extent of one mile in compass, shall keep two Mares, being not speyed, and able to bear foals of the altitude of height of thirteen handfulls at least upon pain of 40s."
Forty shillings, or two pounds sterling, was a considerable sum of money at the time and shows the seriousness with which the matter was viewed, but further fines were also introduced. A fine of 40s was inflicted on owners:
"who shall willingly suffer any of the said Mares to be covered or kept with any stoned Horse (stallion or entire colt) under the stature of fourteen handfulls."
Later a further enactment was added for entires (stallions) running in:
"any forest, chase, moor, heath or waste..... where Mares and Felys are used to be kept..... "
setting a minimum height of 15 hands high or greater. Rather than face the consequence of such a crippling fine, owners were forced to the wholesale castration of colts under the proscribed size by means of the butcher's knife, and at a time when no anaesthetics were available. A practice still carried on today in various parts of the world, still without anaesthetics even though they are readily available, and including, at the time of writing, not twenty kilometres away from where I sit! Which, I suppose, just goes to show that there are horse owners among us who have not improved the level of their ignorance, nor their respect for other creatures, in several hundred years.
This history shows that the introduction of gelding was a result of the impacts of politics, culture, and warfare. At no point does the record appear to say that practice was originated in order to make the gelded animals more tractable or docile, yet most castrations carried out today are done for that reason. Well, it is perfectly legal to do so, and equally perfectly socially acceptable (as long as anaesthetics are used) but is it strictly necessary? The common lands of England were enclosed bit by bit from the 12th century on until, in 1801, the General Enclosure Act of Parliament standardised the procedure and by the late 19th century the process was virtually completed. At this point the historical reason for the practice becoming established was gone. It might be thought that it was continued because it was simply not possible to control stallions if they were to be kept on the same property as mares, and that they were in some way a less engaging animal to work with. A book first published in 1950, by the master breeder and horseman Henry Wynmalen (4.) makes excellent reading, and shows that this attitude was far from being accepted by all. The following paragraphs are taken from the book and are well worthy of repetition sixty years after they were written:
" The stallion’s attributes are virility, strength, courage and intelligence. In these respects he is considerably more formidable than the gelding. Any stallion worth his salt is bound to be very high-couraged, proud and fiery. Any trainer, with experience of working entire horses, will confirm that their interest is keener, and their intelligence brighter, than that of other horses; they appear to take a more real interest in the work they have to do, and to perform it with greater zest, and frequently with unquestionable pride and pleasure.All this is subject to their being in true sympathy with the man who handles them. In that respect the stallion’s sense is very keen and very subtle; he knows instantly whether his man is tuned to him, understands him and loves him, or is, on the contrary, anxious and maybe inwardly frightened. There is no doubt at all that the stallion is capable of very real affection for his human master, whom he knows very well, whose attention he enjoys, and for whom he will do almost anything without the slightest trouble. There is no doubt either that the stallion does miss his human friendship, and can and does feel miserable and neglected if he has for some reason, to go without it for a while. All this implies that stallions are really quite easy and, in fact, delightful horses to handle, for the type of man or woman who possesses the necessary affinity with them, and who has the gift to combine true kindness and understanding with quiet discipline. The good stallion man, like any good man with any other type of horse, must possess the ability to ensure obedience with a mere word or touch of the hand. In the hands of such men, stallions will retain all their true character, their courage and their docility. Unfortunately, not all men are like that. There are more than a few who are nervous of stallions and who try to hide their inward fear from others, from themselves, and also from the horse, by a show of bravado, a loud voice and, sometimes, the carrying of a stick or similar weapon of defence. In so doing, they may deceive themselves, they may even deceive others, but they will never deceive the horse. The horse knows, feels and reacts instantly. With his simple reasoning, which is pure logic, he decides that since there is no confidence between this man and himself, there must be something wrong with the man. Since the man does not give his confidence, so neither will the horse. Which is unfortunate, because it does lead, sometimes, to rough handling. Now rough handling is bad for any horse, but it is fatal for the stallion who, on account of his high courage and his pride, will reply in kind, will lose his confidence and, in the end his temper. Whereas any bad-tempered horse can be disagreeable enough, bad-tempered stallions can become positively dangerous. It is all a question of handling."
Wynmalen's Anglo-Arab stallion ‘Basa’ both served mares at stud and, as late as seventeen years of age, competed in both ridden and in-hand show classes. The dedication at the front of one of his five books on various aspects of the horse says it all:
To BASA, foaled in 1931 at Count Esterhazy’s Stud at Tata, Hungary, from a long line of impeccable ancestry, a true Equine Aristocrat, with the heart of a lion, the pride of a King and the gentleness of a lamb, a Champion in his own right, never defeated under saddle, and the Sire of many Champions, a great ride, known to thousands, and the Sire of great performers known to thousands, a true, generous and unforgettable friend.
It does rather seem that the continued practice of gelding in order to produce horses for riding is more a question of dealing with human fear and inadequacy than of there being anything inherently belligerent or untrustworthy on the part of stallions. In fact it sounds very much as if, in gelding, the rider deprives themselves of the full potential of their mount. We are also aware from research that some gelded males continue to show sexual behaviour so, to quote Katherine Houpt, (5.) as I have done before: "castration is not always effective in changing a male horse’s behaviour".
There do not appear to be many logical reasons left for continuing the practice except, of course, that of habit, but mindless adherence to the habits of the past would see us all running around naked and dirty and, for that reason, can hardly be presented as just cause for cutting pieces off what is supposed to be a good friend and partner. I know I have covered this subject previously, but the historical angle is one of interest and some amplification seemed due.
Enough has probably now been said on that particular subject, so let's move on, or back, to the question of size.