Saturday, April 30, 2011


My takeway from the Royal Wedding was neither the bride nor the groom nor even the queen, but thanks to Suzanne in Calgary, I was introduced to the Drum Horse.  The Drum Horse is a huge heavy horse, pinto and feathered, that is calm enough and strong enough to carry on his back two sterling silver kettle drums, plus the player, in the midst of a military mounted band through cheering crowds, guided only by foot signals.  Drums, of course, are as old as bagpipes, which are as old as skins and breath, and the combination is a potent and intimidating wall of sound, especially when advancing on horseback.  (Well, I must admit I’ve never heard of a horseback piper.  One has to walk.)
Big Shire horses were necessary for knights in armor weighing so much that the knight could hardly walk, much less get onto a horse for a jousting match without help.  But once up and armed with a lance, the knight was the tank of cavalry units, mowing down everything.   Shire horses inevitably were taken to the British fairs for competition -- Brits LOVE competition and the resulting meritocracy justifies some of the hierarchical class system that otherwise rots from wealth and sloth.  Modern dog breeders who fall in love with ostentatious display and uniqueness to the point of freakishness are examples of competition gone wrong.  Competition among WORKING dogs is the true virtue of the practice because it results in useful animals.  
At some point in the history of the Drum Horses a “rule” was invented that required all the horses of the regiment to be the same solid color.  This is still the practice in horse drills and is seen in the matched teams of carriage horses in BBC costume dramas and the Budweiser Clydesdales.   Now back at the fair all piebalds (black and white) and skewbalds (any other color and white) were excluded.  But the men loved their piebald Drum Horses, so big and bold, and so they were kept as unique goliaths.  Here’s a Rudyard Kipling tale about this moment in time:  (“The Keel Row,” one of the songs mentioned, is on YouTube in various versions.  “Take Me to London” has not been traced to its source.)  One could read this story in terms of the arrogance of important people versus the resourcefulness of ordinary folks in educating such big heads.  Or you could read it as a defense of the unique, an argument against standardization, and an illustration of the usefulness of humor.
The fact that big pinto horses were less desirable to the judges at county fairs (who were no doubt upperclass gentry) meant that they were suddenly displaced and cheaper.  Some say that’s when they became the favorite of gypsies who traveled the country in vans and loved all things gorgeous.  A strong, bright horse gentle enough for a child to take out to graze, calm enough to cross a town full of threatening dogs with bolting, was a perfect animal for them.  And so the “Drum Horses’ are bred into slightly smaller versions as “gypsy horses” or “van horses.”  About a decade ago these kinds of horses became irresistible to people who love classic breeds of domestic animals and now there are associations.
In fact, there is a boutique ranch in Seeley Lake, Montana,  with a Drum Horse stallion named “Taliesin” which is in Welsh, “Radiant Brow.”  (Story at   There’s a horse in the story, but it’s no Drum Horse.)  The splendid stallion in Seeley Lake is homozygous.  That means the genetic allele, or section of chromosome that codes for the characteristics of a Drum Horse -- size, color, long straight mane, long straight feathers up the cannon bones of the feet -- are the same on both sides of the chromosome.  There can be no recessive change from the formula except through true mutation.  You cannot buy the horse, but you can buy his offspring.
If you cannot afford that, Breyer puts out -- among their other horses -- a hard plastic collectible version of a Drum Horse and there are porcelain figurines to be found.  Not just handsome works of art, but also carrying stories and song so that any inquiry from a curious person can be answered with at least an hour of entertainment by a fireplace with a wee drop of something appropriate.
Out west in the days of stagecoaches and long horse-drawn supply columns, we’ve known about the wheel horse, which is a dependable strong horse harnessed in the row next to the wheels and willing to follow a leading horse. Maybe you didn’t know that many horses are like Brit aristocracy and like to have their own way, which is a good trait in a horse race because it drives them to get out in front but not such a good trait if there is a group task requiring strength and reliability.   Of course, the trick is to get the right horse into the right task, which is a matter of experience over time, not something that can be seen at first glance.
One could observe that the present Queen of England, harnessed with her consort Phillip, has been a wonderful wheel horse, drawing the coach of state right on through bursting bombs and roadside tragedy.  Churchill was more of a Drum Horse, full of courage and poetic ferocity with drumbeats of rhetoric.  Diana, was, of course, a beautiful race horse, the kind with enough heart to keep running even on a fractured bone.  You can imagine your own assignments for the princes: Charles, William, Harry.  (Oh, I love a sorrel horse and Harry loves the cavalry charge!)
But I think I’ll use the morning’s exploration of history and metaphor to write a story about a Drum Horse who somehow ends up on the old Blackfeet range and is used for carrying a pow-wow drum.  The venue will undoubtedly be the railroad horses who dragged into place the gravel and ties for the roadbed of the Great Northern.  Maybe the horseback warriors in other places depended on mustangs, but the Blackfeet always appreciated a big strong “flashy” horse.  I suspect there is enough shared genome with Lippizaners for me to claim that when the pow-wow drum is pounded, the horse will dance in perfect time, a rhythm as old as skins and breath.

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