Look over the struggle for freedom,
Trace your present day strength to its source.
You’ll find that man’s pathway to glory
is strewn with the bones of the horse.
All too often do the realities of any given subject or condition escape us as we go about our daily rounds, reconstructing the world in endless reiterations of our previous experiences. I remember the first time I sat on a horse when I was only nine years old with the smell of the animal and the dusty leather against its skin clogging my nose. The indefinable and far less describable magic of the tack-room, the curry comb and the saddle blanket wove a spell that has held me lovingly ever since. Nevertheless, when I began to study properly riding in college (the first time), I was unprepared for the realities of interacting with an animal of that size on a day to day basis. I was forced to abandon previous misconceptions of what a horse and rider are and should be. I am far happier for it.
I have since met many a man who has fancied himself a latter-day knight because of his proficiency with some sort of weapon or adherence to some code of ideals, but few if any had ever worked with horses for any amount of time. Working with horses is not like handling any kind of tool. It is an encounter with a thing so utterly inhuman as to set any man of the modern world back on his ontological haunches. There is an immediacy and an illinguistic dimension to joining into a partnership with a horse that I regret has largely been lost from the modern mind. What is worse, that highly idiosyncratic experience is now largely marginalised as being either backward or somehow irrelevant, even unimportant. How blind. How idiotic. How tragic.
The very word ‘chivalry’ has ‘cheval’ – the horse – at its heart. Prior to our unhappy and infelicitous industrialisation, this kind of interaction with the profoundly inhuman was at the heart of the human experience, and the knight was its most elevated form. In Gaelic culture the horse was associated with kingship. In Norse culture it was often devoted to Freyr, the Priapus-like god of fertility and prosperity. In Greek culture as well as most other Indo-European cultures, the horse was associated with the Sun and Moon, motivating the endless cycles of days and nights in a dioscuric round of darkness and light. Master of the highest moral, ethical, military, and economic resources, the knight sat at the pinnacle of society; but he sat on a horse. I thus have a hard time considering any man knightly unless I see him comfortably and gently working with a horse.
How much more involved then is a Gaelic understanding of knighthood: ridireachd – the art of the rider? If we were to constrain ourselves to a purely historical understanding, then we would be forced to see this as a devolving of the word into a simple transposition of equitation, yet there is more at work here. This inhuman element so often dismissed by the modern mind as a marginal thing ever pushed further away by double panes of glass and air conditioning was central to the Gaelic mind prior to the collapse of its natural order. The sovereignty goddess and military habits so deplored by early modern Anglophone historians, no less the regal associations borne by the horse itself, all point toward the importance of the interaction of the human with the inhuman. The viability of a Gaelic lord was manifested by his ability to secure prosperity for his people through interaction with the wilds – usually in the form of raiding for cattle. To master a horse – not control or dominate, but cooperate so fully as to guide every movement – was to further manifest the ability to work with the great mysteries of the wild.
Small wonder that the horse was a kingly gift.