Fantastic, iconic, prehistoric – the white chalk horses of Great Britain

Mention “white horses” to most equestrians, and they’ll correct you that the vast majority of seemingly white horses are actually grey, typically born dark and growing greyer as they age. However, there is another type of white horse that has remained the same colour for millennia.

Around Britain, the shape of horses have been carved into chalky hillsides, creating large white horses visible from miles around. The south-west of England has more white horses than anywhere else in the world, thanks to the chalky soil and rolling terrain that makes it so suitable for viewing this rural art. And contrary to oft-held opinion, most of Britain’s chalk horses are not prehistoric – the majority of the ones we can still see today were cut in the past 250 years.

Carved into Britain’s hills, there are 16 official white horse figures – known as geolyphs, large designs formed on the ground using elements of the landscape. There are also many more that have been lost over the years, as they require regular maintenance to keep their form, as well as small replicas. There’s even a word coined to describe the art of carving white horses into chalk upland areas: “leucipotomy”.

Uffington White Horse: the prototype

The oldest of all Britain’s chalk horses is the Uffington White Horse, situated in Oxfordshire on the Berkshire Downs near the Ridgeway, and now owned by the National Trust. The figure, which can be viewed from 20 miles away as a landmark in the centre of England, is an abstract stick horse cut into the chalk soil. It is 110m long, and in its abstract, stick-like form, is viewed as a masterpiece of minimalist art.

Archaeologists believe that the Uffington horse dates back to the Bronze Age, nearly 3,000 years ago. They knew it was ancient as it is mentioned in 11th- and 12th-century manuscripts, and the shape of the horse is similar to those on coins from 2,000 years ago and in Celtic art. However, archaeological dating – using a technique dating the layer of quartz in the trenches making up the shape – shows that it is more likely to be around the end of the Bronze Age to the beginning of the Iron Age.

No one knows exactly why these original horses were first made. Its strategic position on the Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest road which connects other Bronze Age landmarks such as forts and burial mounds, means it may be a symbol of an ancient tribe staking land rights.

Legends abound, such as the horse’s continuing connection to King Arthur, an idea that the horse may move or dance during the night for some major life-changing event. And if you want to make a wish, you’re supposed to stand near the horse’s eye, close your own eyes and turn round three times.

HORSE AND HOUND »


Tuesday’s Horse

Official Blog of The Fund for Horses

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