The gifting of horses is an ancient practice in many cultures that continues today.
Historically, offering a horse is a sign of respect or allegiance and is done to seal relationships whether they be public, political, and personal. It has been a way of bonding that’s been going on since horses were first domesticated.
Here are some of the world’s most famous gift horses.
The horse gift to end all gifts
The most notorious of all gift horses in history is the soldier-filled Trojan Horse described in the Greek myth.
Epic in scale, twists, turns and side dramas, it has been retold in a variety of forms from Virgil’s written account in the Aeneid (29–19 BC) to Hollywood’s big budget film ‘Troy’ released in 2004, with Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom (along with a cast of thousands – literally).
The story of the Trojan Horse is the final chapter in a long and fruitless war between the Greeks and the Trojans which started when Paris, Prince of Troy, kidnapped Helen, the Queen of Sparta and the most beautiful woman in Greece.
The Greeks waged war to win her back. They laid siege to Troy for ten years but couldn’t get inside the city until Odysseus, legendary king of Ithaca, had the clever idea of gifting the Trojans a giant wooden horse – a smart choice as the horse was the city’s emblem.
The hollow Trojan Horse was constructed quickly (Virgil tells us it only took three days), and its cavity was filled with twenty or so crack troops of the Greek army, while the rest snuck away to an island.
They left one soldier, Sinon, to explain to the Trojans that they were giving up their siege and going home, and that this was their ‘gift to Athena’ which was ‘too big for us to take home’ and would ‘protect the Trojan city from any further sieges’.
Not looking their gift horse in the mouth, or in the belly, the excited Trojans wheeled the wooden horse inside their gates, intending to offer it themselves to the Goddess Athena. After the Trojan victory festival ended, the Greeks, who were hiding inside the horse, poured out and opened the city gates to let the other Greeks enter Troy. The Greeks then easily overpowered the unsuspecting Trojans and took control of the city. Ultimately, and thanks to the Trojan Horse, the Greeks won the war.
In a vast two by four metres oil sketch, eighteenth century Italian painter Tiepolo depicts the moment when the Trojans wheeled the gift inside their city’s gates (featured image). This painting is thought to be one of a triptych (a three part series), starting with the ‘The Building of the Horse of Troy’, ‘The Procession’, and a final one (whereabouts unknown) that shows the Greeks descending from the horse to attack the city.
Tiepolo sets the ancient drama in his own times, with (then) modern Italian buildings on both sides and human figures in contemporary dress. He suggests that the city folk have all pitched in to help, with the women and boys tugging at the tow ropes from the front, while the menfolk push from the back.
The Trojans are heading towards their sacred Temple which glimmers white down the end of the road. The drama of the moment and the communal effort is underscored by the twisting, animated bodies and faces, and the bulging calf muscles on the men in the foreground.
In a lovely passage of description, the man pushing from behind in a yellow shirt and pants has literally wedged the horse’s gigantic hock into his shoulder for additional leverage.
The ‘horse’ itself is remarkably realistic, painted to look like a grey, with the high crest and huge haunches of a Percheron. He’s even shod. Painted across the wooden horse’s flank are the words ‘Paladi Votum’ meaning ‘An offering to Pallas (Athena)’ just to make the ‘innocence’ of the gift very clear.
Realistic down to the last detail, Tiepolo’s wonderful depiction of the Wooden Horse of Troy stands as a forever reminder to be wary of gift horses and not be swayed by appearances.
Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, and as a consequence of the European colonialist project and a series of wars in North Africa, hundreds of very fine horses were gifted from East to West. The Godolphin Arabian was one of these who, unlike the Trojan horse, turned out to be a true gift to the development of the English thoroughbred.
Foaled around 1724, the Godolphin Arabian was probably exported from Yemen to Syria and to the stud of the Bey of Tunis (‘Beys’ being the ‘kings’ of Tunisia from 1705 until 1957).
He was given by the Bey to Louis XV of France in 1728 as a diplomatic gift from sovereign to sovereign and travelled to France with four other Arabians (also diplomatic gifts).
Apparently, Louis XV was unenthusiastic.
The stallions weren’t in great condition after their long sea journey and were much smaller than the court horses of the period.
However, the Vicomte de Manty saw what the King had missed – that despite his small size (15 hands) he had ‘legs of iron’, ‘unequalled lightness of forehand’, a ‘tail carried in true Arabian style’ – in summary, he was a ‘horse of incomparable beauty’.
In ‘King of the Wind’, a fictional biography of this famous stallion, Marguerite Henry suggests that after he was rejected by the King he was sent to the sales and ended up pulling a cart in Paris; in terrible condition, he was spotted by Edward Coke, the Duke of Devonshire, who brought him to England.
Coke clearly had an eye for a good horse. An English contemporary veterinarian called Osmer described the Godolphin Arabian soon after his arrival in England in the following manner:
“There never was a horse… so well entitled to get racers as the Godolphin Arabian… his shoulders were deeper, and lay farther into his back, than those of any horse yet seen… Behind the shoulders, there was but a very small space where the muscles of his loins rose exceedingly high, broad, and expanded, which were inserted into his quarters with greater strength and power than in any horse.”
Traced around Daniel Quigley’s painted copy of Stubbs’ famous portrait of the Godolphin Arabian, and in the quaint form of eighteenth-century English, with its peculiar spellings and capitalisations, the horse’s praises were sung for the way in which “he ‘Hit’ with most other Pedigrees and mended the Imperfections of their Shape.”
The Godolphin Arabian initially worked as a ‘teaser’ stallion at the Duke of Devonshire’s stud, but one day, an English mare ‘Hobgoblin’ decided he was ‘the one’ and her decision was a famous day for racing if there ever was one. The mating produced the remarkable, fast and beautiful ‘Lathe’.
After the Duke’s death, the Arabian was passed to Lord Godolphin. Here he began to pass on his unrivalled speed and beauty (as well as bay colouring) to over one hundred successful progeny including Cade, Regulus and Blank, all of whom proved to be champion sires in their own right.
The Godolphin Arabian died on Christmas Day 1753 at the age of twenty-nine and his grave can still be visited in the Gog Magog Hills in Cambridgeshire, England.
Another fabulous work of the 17th century shows a prize stallion being presented to the Maharana of Mewar in Udaipur, Rajasthan. It was painted between 1845 and 1846 by an artist known as Tara who worked in the court of Sarup Singh.
The gift horse is covered in the most magnificent caparison, including a gilded hood and optically dazzling blanket. A pleased-looking Maharana looks him over carefully, surrounded by his hookah-pipe assistant, courtiers, musicians and dancers. A black dog pants in the heat in the left-hand corner. Everyone is on their best behaviour, and wearing festive matching pink outfits.
These ‘inspections’ of newly gifted horses, as well the Maharana’s favourites, were daily rituals that could take many hours.
The static arrangement depicted by the artist Tara, reflects Mughal court hierarchies. On almost the same horizontal plane, stallion and Maharana regard each other ‘eye-to-eye’, an interesting reflection of the extreme value horses had in the Mughal empire. Image source Wikimedia Commons.
The static arrangements reflect court hierarchies and the sharing of the same horizontal plane which allows the stallion and the Maharana to regard each other ‘eye-to-eye are an interesting reflection of the extreme value of horses to the Mughals.
Read more about the Divine Marwari horses of the Mughals.
Gift horses in the 20th century
Queen Elizabeth II has been gifted many horses, but one of her favourites was ‘Burmese’ which she received from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and rode in the Trooping the Colour Ceremony for eighteen years.
Foaled in 1962, Burmese was a black Hanoverian cross RCMP Police Service mare who was presented to the Queen in 1969 when the Mounties came to perform at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.
Her very solid temperament was tested at the Trooping of the Colour in 1981 when six blank shots were fired from the crowd at close range.
With the Queen riding side saddle, the mare ‘startled’ but quickly settled back into the parade. Burmese was retired in 1987 and spent the remainder of her days enjoying the green pastures of Windsor Castle before passing away at the age of twenty-eight.
But it’s not just world-leaders and royalty who receive gift horses, movie stars do as well.
Perhaps the most famous example is ‘the Pie’ (named King Charles in real life), who was given to Elizabeth Taylor on her thirteenth birthday by MGM studios.
The $800 paid by the studios bought a lot of horse. To prepare for their jumping scenes, Taylor, co-star Micky Rooney and King Charles were sent to master horseman and German immigrant, Egon Merz, who gave them lessons at his Escondido Beach stables near Malibu.
King Charles was a bold jumper who ended up leaping over cars as well as the steeplechase jumps we see him tackle in the film. He was a seven-year-old leggy chestnut thoroughbred and a cousin to Seabiscuit. He could be cranky, biting a trainer who was teaching him to lie down and play dead.
Taylor also took quite a bad fall off him which injured her back. In any case, the bond between them was not broken and while owned by Taylor, he lived out his life well cared for at Egon Merz’s stable.
It was the memory of King Charles, and that cute terrier ‘Jacob’ who played the Brown family dog that led to one of Taylor’s most quoted sayings: “Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses.”
Gift horses today
Remarkably, the practice of horse-gifting (not just to movie stars but on the world-leader scale), continues in the twenty-first century.
In August 2011 and following the tradition of giving either a yak, a horse or a camel to visiting dignitaries, the Mongolian Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold presented then United States Vice President Joe Biden with a horse during a cultural demonstration outside Ulaanbataar.
Joe Biden named the Mongolian horse “Celtic” and tied two ceremonial knots in the blue silk scarf around his neck which spooked the horse and made him rear, at which point he was led away.
In 2018, France’s President Macron gave the Chinese President Xi Jinping a nine-year-old brown-bay Selle Francais gelding from France’s elite Republican Guard called ‘Vesuve de Brekka’. Due to his excellent temperament, he became squadron head horse and participated in the parade of the Republican Guard escorting the French president on 11 November 2017.
The Chinese president had apparently been fascinated by the equine escort provided by the Republican Guard during an earlier visit to Paris, and Emmanuel Macron chose to offer him Vésuve de Brekka in return to Xi Jinping’s gift of a pair of pandas six years earlier.
A powerful symbolism
Horses have played a formative role in shaping our human world. Their longstanding high value and beauty carries a powerful charge of symbolic meaning.
It is not surprising therefore, that to this day, the gifting of horses between world leaders maintains its enormous ‘softening’ diplomatic power and attracts mainstream media attention.
The practice has also contributed to our language.
The saying, ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ (meaning don’t find fault with something received as a gift or favour because it might make the giver feel embarrassed or even angry), appeared first in Old English but is probably much older.
The saying ‘beware Greeks bearing gifts’ warns against gift-givers who are enemies or at least unproven. It is mentioned by Virgil when the priest Laocoon tries to warn the Trojans not to accept the Wooden Horse.
Fascinating as the stories of these gift horses has been, I will leave it to my horse dentist to do the mouth checking. And as every Christmas approaches, I will ‘gift’ my horses extra carrots, try not to go too mad on equine retail therapy, and spread peace and goodwill to all the four- and the two-legged.