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What does the white horse mean?

Clockwise from top left: George Stubb's Whistlejacket, the Westbury White Horse, the Wooden Horse from the movie Troy, Alexander and Bucephalus and a statue of Red Rum

By Denise Winterman and Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A giant statue of a white horse has been chosen to be the new "Angel of the South" at Ebbsfleet. But why is this giant steed such an important symbol?

There is a stereotypical artistic representation of the horse.

It rears back on its hind legs, its front hooves are raised, its eyes stare wildly, mane and tail fly in an imaginary wind, every sinew is strained.

We see horses drawing chariots or the horse's hooves crushing a barbarian peasant
Stephen Budiansky

And the person on its back is usually thinking about doing somebody a grievous injury with a sharp metal object.

Think of the painting of Napoleon and his horse Marengo crossing the alps, think of the statues of Alexander the Great and his horse Bucephalus, think even of the Duke of Wellington on a rather excitable horse.

Man has been trying to "do" horses in artistic form for as long as we have been trying to ride them. And there's a bit of a theme.

"From the beginning of man's association with the horse, the horse was a symbol of power, wealth and status," says historian Stephen Budiansky, author of The Nature of Horses.

Horse and civilisation

"If you look at the way the horse was depicted in art for the first 6,000 years it is as a symbol of power and often a symbol of terror.

"We see horses drawing chariots or the horse's hooves crushing a barbarian peasant."

And perhaps it was only natural for us to depict the powerful and even military horse, because this was the horse that changed the world, transforming warfare and communication after it was first domesticated in 4000BC.

Wild horses
We have been using horses for 6,000 years

The first depiction of horse and rider came two millennia later, says Pita Kelekna, author of the forthcoming book The Horse in Human History.

"The first far-flung, equestrian empire was forged by Persian Achaemenid Cyrus the Great's cavalry c 550BC. In the Far East, Qin Shi Huangdi's intensive chariot and cavalry campaigns unified China in 221BC."

These two horse empires made extraordinary advances at the same time, says Ms Kelekna, establishing thousands of miles of roads, a unitary language and writing system, an imperial legal code, and systems of weights and measures.

When Achaemenid Persia was eventually toppled, it was by the Macedonians, with their Companion shock cavalry, led by Alexander on his much-depicted horse Bucephalus.

Obsolete cavalry

When the Western Roman Empire was overrun in the 5th Century it was by horse peoples. The Arab caliphates, the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, and the Mongols showed that those who mastered horses, also mastered warfare.

The association with power and war continues today, despite the horse not having played a meaningful military role for well over a century, says Mr Budiansky.

"We still have this received cultural and visual heritage - a very strong force in the way we think about the horse."

Heavy Horse
The Heavy Horse outside Glasgow symbolises the city's industrial past

Even when the classic horse statue is not in a military pose, it is often still an "action" horse. The Horses of St Mark, four copper horses looted from Constantinople's Hippodrome in 1204 and now in Venice, form a team that would have pulled a racing chariot. This type of four-horse chariot, or quadriga, sculpture can also be seen in a more military style on Berlin's Brandenburg gate, London's Wellington Arch, and Paris's Arc De Triomphe.

But of course, the white horse at Ebbsfleet is not an "action" horse. It will stand passively on all four legs, its head slightly turned. It is said to be inspired by George Stubbs, the 18th Century painter famous for his naturalistic representations of our equine friends.

Some of George Stubbs' horses looked so real that the viewer half expected them to jump off the canvas in search of a sugar cube. Sadly for animal lovers, he got this look from a knowledge of horse anatomy gained from extensive dissection.

Speed of light

Equus Ebbsfleet is white, so calling to mind a tamer version of the prancing white horse, the symbol of Kent and the 5th Century Saxon Horsa. It is also rather less frisky than the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire.

But the Ebbsfleet horse can have its own symbolism, says Ms Kelekna.

The white horse statue at Ebbsfleet embodies man's ambition for ever more complex and rapid locomotion
Pita Kelekna

"In [ancient Indian] Vedic myth and ritual the white horse represented the primeval force that moves at the speed of light. The white horse played a key role in later religions: Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity.

"Outside Luoyang, the Han emperor constructed the White Horse Temple to welcome Buddhist missionaries arriving from the west. In medieval England, St George battled the dread dragon on a magnificent white steed."

Despite its passive stance, the horse - which will be visible to passing Eurostar passengers - could be a symbol of speed, she suggests.

"The white horse statue at Ebbsfleet embodies man's ambition for ever more complex and rapid locomotion."

And perhaps artists like horses because there are indeed so many associations that can be made.

"There isn't an emotion that we don't use horses to symbolise, which isn't true in the same degree of any other animal," says artist Christine Moss, whose work focuses on horses.

c550BC: Rampin Rider, Athens
176AD: Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Rome
Unknown: Horses of St Mark, Venice
1762: George Stubbs' Whistlejacket, London
1801: Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps
Ongoing: Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota

"This even includes contradictory characteristics - power and vulnerability, grace and strength, passion and resignation, movement and stillness."

Andy Scott, the artist behind the Heavy Horse sculpture on the M8 near Glasgow, says horses in art are often used as a broad metaphor, as well as something more personal.

"Horses are instantly accessible and everyone has their own relationship with them, even if they don't own one," he says.

"In art horses can work as a metaphor, but people also make their own narrative from the piece of art."

And ultimately we can appreciate a statue of a horse because we get on well with horses.

"We do share, in a sort of bizarre fashion, a common social structure with the horse," says Mr Budiansky.

"We are both group dwelling animals. There is a fascination that we can have this kinship with an animal that is so large and so powerful."

Below is a selection of your comments.

So encouraging that such a wonderful sculpture has been given the go ahead. It's the epitome of British stout-hearted intelligence - just like the subject itself. Thanks to all concerned.
Angus Wardlaw, London

People of Kent and Kentish people do not want this limp horse. Kent is symbolised by the rampant horse of Hengest and Horsa and the Jute Kingdom of Kent. Kent has been at the forefront of the defence of England over the centuries, that is why a defiant horse is so important, yet what we are to be given is a horse that can run away very fast!
Duncan Warmington, Staplehurst Kent

If this horse is supposed to represent amongst other things: speed, grace, power and movement - then why is it being built with a bridle in it's mouth?
Paul Hill, Oxford

No one can argue with the suitability of using a white horse as a symbol for Southern England - it certainly pre-dates Christianity in these islands - but why depict it as such a lifeless nag? The sculpture has no movement, no life, no soul.
Mark Bell, Guildford, England

If we are going to have a statue of a horse in Kent, I don't quite understand why it isn't going to be the Invicta horse, which has been the symbol of Kent for centuries, is used by organisations and businesses all over the county and is something that people from Kent can relate to. Surely it would be a much more powerful piece of art, it would be linked to Kent and it would be reinforced by the visitor seeing the same image used across the county in coats of arms, logos etc. The Angel of the North has it's wings spread and has an air of the dynamic. We're going to get a horse that looks like it's about to fall asleep. Hardly a symbol of speed.
Thomas, Maidstone, Kent, UK

This is kitsch art at its worst. The Heavy Horse near Glasgow and the Angel of the North near Gateshead at least are distinct representations. This proposed White Horse looks like a computer generated replica. Where's the artist's in all of this. It'll be nothing but an eyesore.
Rob Hill, Oxford

The lion is more symbolic of the British spirit.
Don Porter, Sandy Beach, CA

I just can not understand this horse. It is so boring. It should at least be doing something such as rearing or prancing. Better still would be if it were a Unicorn, as is shown in a lot of English shields.
Lesley Mitchell, Isleworth Middlesex. UK

The classic symbol of Kent is (as many have pointed out) a rearing horse, and therefore this monstrosity is in no way symbolic of Kent. In fact, as a 'thoroughbred' with a very Arab looking head, rather than a cobbish type, it is not even very British. The only good thing about this waste of money is that it is to be sited in probably the least attractive part of Kent and will therefore do the least visible damage possible. I'm afraid the whole thing just stinks of 'one-up-manship' - trying to better the Angel of the North. Well they have failed!
Teena, England

I think a giant horse will be quite appropriate. Didn't the Trojans get a giant horse right before the fall of Troy!
Simon Ward, Watford, UK

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