As we see above, in de Vos and Wildens’ dramatic ‘Horse attacked by dogs’, dog and horse contact can end in disaster with both reverting to their raw primal selves and the humans ending in a heap.

Each day, different versions of the above scenario occur thousands of times. The online horse news press reports on these frequently. Yet where there is friction, there can also be love.

Horses and dogs form bonds not only with us but frequently with each other, and the boundlessly rich canon of the horse in art shows us both sides of this timeless coin.

Horses and dogs mingling together is our focus for this month because of the self-evident fact that dog people are often horse people, and horse people are often dog people, thus we’ve brought them together in ways that Nature might not have planned.

Humans, equines and canines form attachments to and between each other, and have been doing so since before the Bronze Age. Dates for dog domestication are sporadically re-dated backwards, but generally agreed to be around 14,200 years ago; first horse domestication dates are similarly fuzzy with 6000 to 4000 years ago being a common estimate.

“Culturally and historically, both species function as absolutely central symbols for making and sharing meaning; they live in our hearts, minds, and even our solar system.”

Both animals feature in our deepest most powerful symbols tales and allegories. Their images have become powerful shorthand for our most basic concepts. Standing for loyalty and fidelity; Sirius the ‘dog star’, in its constellation Canis Major is the brightest star; it is ever-faithful, signifying the flooding Nile like clockwork for the ancient Egyptians.

George Stubbs, ‘A Grey Hunter and a Groom and a Greyhound at Creswell Crags’ 1762-64.

Stubbs, George; A Grey Hunter with a Groom and a Greyhound at Creswell Crags; Tate; Image Wikimedia Commons

Heavenwards, we also have Pegasus, the massive constellation over the Northern Hemisphere, named for the flying horse of Greek mythology. We use a dog to convey the idea of ‘perfect fidelity’ as we see with one of imagery’s most famous dogs, HMV’s Nipper (see Image A on the next page), and we still use the measure of the strength of a horse to describe the output power of the electric motor.

Up until the Enlightenment, the story of how dogs and horses in art were depicted reflected them as ‘instrumental’, as helpers in human quests rather than individuals of and for themselves. Questions about our moral responsibilities towards them, and their mental capacities counted but little.

The Enlightenment, which occurred during the “long 18th century” (1685-1815) saw the development of a much greater interest in animal consciousness. This consciousness took depictions of horses and dogs beyond the ‘instrumental’ function as companionship providers or instruments of war or sport, and into a more modern tradition in which a new understanding of their sentience, or capacity for feeling, began to form.

Horses and dogs in art began to be painted with a higher degree of psychological and physiological individuality. Such depictions became in fact true ‘portraits’ of animal ‘sitters’ often using similar framing, lighting and posing as for human subjects.

Francis Barraud, ‘His Master’s Voice’ 1898.

Francis Barraud, ‘His Master’s Voice’ 1898. Image Source Wikimedia Commons.

The post-Enlightenment dog or horse in art now meets our eye; they ‘regard’ us back directly, and do so knowingly. In addition, the eighteenth century saw the rise of animaliers (the French word for artists who specialise in animals), who began to excel in private commissions of individual dogs and horses.

The best known are George Stubbs, Rosa Bonheur, and Edwin Landseer.

From a family of renowned animaliers and history painters in France, Horace Vernet, (30 June 1789 – 17 January 1863) working slightly later than Stubbs, shows us mutually aligned horse-dog grief with his ‘The Wounded Trumpeter’ of 1819 (see Image below). Here, the animals show concern for their human companion, a soldier. The trumpeter is from the 1st Hussar regiment of the French Army.

Significant details help us ‘read’ this tragic narrative; there is a bullet hole in the cottage wall, and behind the dog we see the encounter in which the Trumpeter was shot still going on; two mounted soldiers in the background gloom to the right fire their pistols.

In the foreground, blood flows from a bullet wound on the soldier’s forehead and his face has a deathly pallor. The horse itself has a red blotch on its flank, possibly of human blood. Both horse and dog know something is terribly wrong; the dog is using taste, (licking) to rouse the wounded man, but the horse is using its own dominant senses, sight, smell, and it is also lowering its head to use its whiskers (vibrissae or sensory hairs) to further explore.

The horse’s face is a picture of stress; eyes wide, and heavily wrinkled over the brow, you can literally see it running through its repertoire of known human behaviours trying to figure it out. What makes this such an interesting painting is how each species explore the trauma before them within their own ethogram, and ways of understanding appropriate to their social group. Additionally, the horse is staring deeply into his owner’s face for a sign of life – which is another mark of a kind recognition of humanimal co-feeling.

Horace Vernet ‘The Wounded trumpeter’ 1819.

Horace Vernet ‘The Wounded trumpeter’ 1819. Image Source Wikimedia Commons.

Horace Vernet ‘The Wounded trumpeter’ 1819.

Horace Vernet ‘The Wounded trumpeter’ 1819. Image Source Wikimedia Commons.

“Friendships seem able to transcend all kinds of hard wired responses in both dogs and horses, and where would we all be without it?”

There’s an obvious discourse engaging us here about loyalty – extending from dog and horse to man to Empire; and yet through the lens of animal studies, it is even more speculative; not every dog or horse returns to you after a fall. The larger overweening narrative here is of the soldier’s loyalty to his military battalion, and this loyalty is mirrored in the animals’ behaviour.

‘The Wounded Trumpeter’ has an even more heartbreaking ‘pendant’ or companion image intended to be hung beside it. Titled ‘The Dog of the Regiment Wounded’. Here we see the same hairy white dog with black patches over its ears, covered in blood from a wound on the head and paw, being held and tended to by two young soldiers from the same group as the Trumpeter, a bugle player and a drummer, who are trying to give the dog some water in the midst of battle we barely see through billowing clouds of dust, smoke, and gun powder.

In ‘The Wounded Trumpeter’ we see the animals showing concern for a soldier, whereas in ‘The Dog of the Regiment Wounded’ we see the reverse, soldiers showing concern for an animal. Both paintings were exhibited side by side, as the artist intended, without their titles, at the Paris Salon of 1819.

One critic, Étienne Jouy, noted wryly that, whereas he heard many visitors exclaim ‘oh the poor dog!’ he never heard one say ‘oh, the poor trumpeter!’

On a less tragic note, the dog and the horse together in art is of course the mainstay of the genre of the ‘sporting art’ – showing the two not so much interacting together as playing complementary roles.

Far more numerous than images such as the Vernets, hunting imagery doesn’t reflect the growing ‘humanimal’ conscious as either ‘The Wounded Trumpeter’ or ‘The Dog of the Regiment Wounded’. Additionally, hunting is more a form of human sociality, with the combination of both dogs and horses being an add-on – albeit one that brings three species together.

George Stubbs ‘The 3rd Duke of Richmond with the Charlton Hunt’ 1759-60.

George Stubbs ‘The 3rd Duke of Richmond with the Charlton Hunt’ 1759-60. Image Source Wikimedia Commons.

In Image B on the next page, we see this in Stubbs’s ‘3rd Duke of Richmond With the Charlton Hunt’ which shows one of the artist’s patrons enjoying the hunt. The picture’s primary purpose is to underscore the Duke’s wealth and social standing with the animals laid out before us very much as human property.

Comparing ‘The 3rd Duke of Richmond with the Charlton Hunt, with Stubbs’ ‘1777, ‘A Grey Hunter with a Groom and a Greyhound at Creswell Crags’  (1762-64), we see inter-species comradery tenderly conveyed as the horse and dog begin to touch noses; the horse’s curiosity evident in its pricked ears and mild expression. The greyhound’s own curiosity engages the horse’s attention in a sort of animal ‘conversation piece’.

Stubbs painted many similar variations on this theme, mainly without a human presence; and in each, dog/s and a horse relate with each other. We see this for example in Bay Horse and White Dog’ of c. 1777, and ‘Bay Hunter with Two Spaniels’ of 1777.

These many similar works are testament to Stubbs’ interest in interspecies friendships and it’s been said of him that ‘In the scale of affections Stubbs brought to his art, horses came first, dogs ran a close second, while the human presence registered, where it registered at all, as a very distant third.’ Consequently, he gave animals “the beauty, strength, and dignity ordinarily reserved for the human figure”.

In Australia, the realism of Stubbs and Vernet segued into Victorian era ‘narrative’ painting with a populist or nationalist agenda and this style remained powerful into the Impressionist era.

George Stubbs, ‘A Grey Hunter and a Groom and a Greyhound at Creswell Crags’ 1762-64.

Stubbs, George; A Grey Hunter with a Groom and a Greyhound at Creswell Crags; Tate;

The best work we have in Australian Impressionism involving humans, horses, and dogs is arguably Tom Roberts’ ‘A Break Away’!, in which we see a sheep dog bowled over as it races across the steep terrain with the boy on the horse to head off a stampede of thirst-crazed sheep careening down to a dam.

Roberts has here expanded an individual act of bravery – on the part of horse, dog, and human, to stand for an aspect of national character. What interests us here from an animal studies viewpoint is how the horse and dog are headed in the same direction, apparently helping each other in the crisis.

Roberts codes them both as ‘indispensable’ to the work of the stockman. And the fact that they are paired together makes this an important ‘dog + horse image’ in the history of Australian art.

Tom Roberts, A Break Away! 1891.

Tom Roberts, A Break Away! 1891. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

Shifting up to contemporary times, our Facebook newsfeeds daily show endless examples of dog-horse relationships that are often tender and funny. Perhaps one reason why these interactions so fascinate us is because deep down, we know the two species are not really evolved to be friends. One is predator, the other is prey yet in daily life we bring them together and expect them to put aside their instincts and get along with each other.

Therefore, it’s up to us to manage the relationships safely and with an awareness of the basic needs – the ethogram if you like, of both.

As Aristotle wrote: “Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods”.

Training is key here, as is having reasonable expectations, since though horses and dogs easily form ‘buddy’ relationships, it’s down to how the individuals are introduced to each in safe ways. Sadly, some horse and dog combinations are just are not going to buddy up. Both equine and canine at the introduction need at least a basic training confirmed, and early, safe, monitored and supervised exposure is key.

Fortunately, both species are very social, and known to make friends outside of their own kinds. Elissabetta Palagi has recently published some new research on horses and dogs and noted how they use the same facial expressions during play. Horses and dogs according to surmises, can and do play together when friendships are forged, and they use very similar body language, bowing and bouncing, open mouths, chasing, twisting and turning, and even ‘smiling’.

When I observe dogs and horses mingling in art, I often get a sense that I am witnessing a set of larger ideas about friendship itself. In the paintings we’ve seen here, it’s this bond that links us all together; canine, equine, and Homo sapiens. Forming friendships is not a uniquely mammalian phenomenon but it’s one of the most important ones we have all have in common.

A friendship is a bond that’s not about sexual reproduction, it’s not even immediately about survival; rather, it’s about familiarity, affection and pleasure and touching; it’s about opposites attracting.

Friendships seem able to transcend all kinds of hard-wired responses in both dogs and horses, and where would we all be without it? As Aristotle wrote “Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods”.


This article first appeared in the March-April edition of Horses and People magazine. You can purchase this issue in Digital Format, and also order the Print Edition