For much of recent human history, horses were a vital part of our daily lives: essential on farms, for transport and communication, and in battle.
But for most of us, nowadays, horses are almost irrelevant economically and horse-riding is a hobby for a small number of people. Most of us will go days, weeks, even months – especially if we live in a city – without seeing a horse. Yet horses are still a vital and passionately beloved element of our stories and culture.
Many 21st century children will never ride a pony, most will never groom or muck out a horse, but they still love stories about them, and particularly stories about magical and mythical horses.
I know this because when I ask classes of kids about their favourite magical creatures, unicorns almost always top the list, usually followed by winged horses and centaurs (and kelpies, if I’m in a Scottish school) mixed in with dragons and werewolves.
Why is that? Why do horses still appear so regularly in our stories and our imaginations and why do horses lend themselves so well to being given magical attributes?
Is it because of their beauty? Their size, strength and speed? Is it because of their mix of gentleness (a horse’s lips taking an apple off your palm) and potential danger (you don’t want a horse standing on your foot, and you really don’t want a startled horse to kick you)?
Is it that they can plausibly play such a wide variety of roles in stories – wise guide, essential transport, symbol of wealth and power, friend and companion or threat galloping towards you – because they have played so many roles in our history.
Is it because the horse’s importance in many cultures, for much of our history, means they have starring roles in a vast variety of folktales, myths and legends from all over the world? (I tell horse stories from Persia, Ukraine, Gambia, Russia, Australia, Tibet, Greece … and sometimes even Scotland.)
Is it all the vivid ways that storytellers in the past have added little bits of memorable magic to horses: the horn of a unicorn, the wings of Pegasus, the shapeshifting mystery of a kelpie? Are we all dazzled by the amazing and lasting pictures those magical additions leave in our imaginations?
Is it because of the unique relationship between rider and horse, and their dependence on each other? (In many of the ‘horse and hero’ legends I tell, the way the rider treats the horse reveals their character and whether they really are a hero or a bully.)
Is it because a horse, magical or not, can plausibly be a genuine and multi-faceted character in a story, not just a plot point or a magical MacGuffin? (My favourite magical horses as a child were Bree and Hwin in The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis – talking horses who aren’t just modes of transport, weapons or possessions, but characters with goals, moments of heroism, and distinct voices. Those Narnian horses are the protagonists in the story just as much as the two human children.)
Is it that horses are a powerful symbol of freedom, of escape, of traveling the world? We might use buses or bikes now, but the horse’s four fast powerful legs still carry that promise of adventure and freedom.
Despite all the research I’ve done into horse lore and mythology, and all the time I’ve spent discussing magical horses with children, I still don’t have a definitive answer to why we love magical horses. Perhaps they mean something different to each of us…
But I am sure that I’ll be discussing fiery, winged, shapeshifting, horned, talking and ghostly horses with kids again next term. Because whenever I say ‘magical animal’, the horse, in all its mythical and folklore forms, is the animal that leaps straight into their imaginations.
I’m also sure that no matter how many wonderful magical horses there are in traditional tales, a class full of 10 year olds can always come up with a few new ideas to invent their own 21st century story-horses (laser eyes? snake’s tail? cat’s paws? time-travelling?) and to imagine their own unique adventures.
And I’m sure that even though real horses are no longer part of many of our daily lives, magical horses will star in our stories for generations.
Lari Don is a Scottish children’s author and storyteller. Her book, Horse of Fire, gathers her favourite ‘magical horse’ folktales myths and legends from all over the world, and is out in paperback now.