The horse in Anglo-Saxon mythology is an extremely significant symbol. ‘Horsa’ – from which we derive the modern word ‘horse’ – was the semi-mythological leader of the Anglo-Saxons who landed near Ebbsfleet, on the Isle of Thanet in the 6th century and so the white horse became the symbol of Kent.
In ancient times these figures would be made by revealing the underlying chalk. There are approximately 17 chalk horses on the hillsides in England that can be seen from afar. The Westbury White Horse is a hill figure on the escarpment of Salisbury Plain.
The Westbury Horse by Eric Ravilious (1903-42); Private Collection
Great British horse artists
The racehorse is seen as symbolic of British colonial and post-colonial history. Great British horse artists from the last few centuries include Alfred Munnings and George Stubbs.
Mambrino, 1779 by George Stubbs(1724-1806) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images
The Pink Jockey by Munnings (1878-1959) / Yale Center for British Art/ Bridgeman Images
The mythology of the white horse
White horses have a special significance in the mythologies of cultures around the world. They are often associated with warrior-heroes, with fertility, or with an end-of-time saviour.
From earliest times white horses have been mythologised as possessing exceptional properties, transcending the normal world by having wings (Pegasus from Greek mythology), or having horns (the unicorn). Most of the famous ‘white’ horses that we think of were in fact greys. For example, Napoleon’s favourite mount, Marengo and the most loved racehorse of recent years, Desert Orchid.