where they are and how they came to be

  • Mention “white horses” to most riders, and they’ll correct you by saying that the vast majority of seemingly white horses are actually gray, usually born dark and becoming grayer as they get older. However, there is another type of white horse that has remained the same color for millennia. Around Britain, the shape of horses has been carved into the chalky hills, creating tall white horses visible for miles around. The South West of England has more white horses than anywhere else in the world, thanks to the chalky soil and rolling terrain that makes it so good for viewing this rural art. And contrary to popular opinion, most British chalk horses are not prehistoric – the majority of those we can still see today were cut within the last 250 years.

    Carved into the hills of Britain, there are 16 official white horse figures – known as geolyphs, large designs formed on the ground using elements of the landscape. There are also many others that have been lost over the years as they require regular maintenance to keep their shape, as well as small replicas. There’s even a word coined to describe the art of carving white horses in the chalky highlands: “leucipotomy.”

    Uffington White Horse: The Prototype

    The oldest of all Britain’s chalk horses is the Uffington White Horse, located in Oxfordshire on the Berkshire Downs near the Ridgeway, and now owned by the National Trust. The figure, which can be seen 20 miles away as a landmark in central England, is an abstract stick horse carved into the chalky ground. It is 110m long and, in its abstract stick-like form, is considered a masterpiece of minimalist art.

    Archaeologists believe the Uffington horse dates back to the Bronze Age, nearly 3,000 years ago. They knew it was ancient because it is mentioned in manuscripts from the 11th and 12th centuries, and the shape of the horse is similar to coins from 2,000 years ago and Celtic art. However, archaeological dating – using a technique of dating the quartz layer in the trenches making up the form – shows it to be more towards the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age.

    No one knows exactly why these original horses were first made. Its strategic position on the Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest road which links other Bronze Age landmarks such as forts and burial mounds, means it could be the symbol of an ancient tribe staking land rights. Legends abound, such as the horse’s ongoing connection to King Arthur, the idea that the horse can move or dance during the night, or a major life-changing event. And if you want to make a wish, you have to stand near the horse’s eye, close your eyes and turn around three times…

    It’s a feat the Uffington White Horse has endured for thousands of years. If left to their own devices, grass and weeds will grow on the geolyph, as well as time gradually eroding the chalk. In the past, regular cleaning – or “scrubbing” – probably had a religious or pagan significance or an excuse for a festival, and there is historical documentation of it dating back to the 18th century. Nowadays the National Trust and English Heritage organize an annual clean-up event with volunteers.

    The Uffington White Horse is believed to date back to the Late Bronze Age

    The Eight White Horses of Wiltshire

    Some say 13 or 14, some say just seven, but the general consensus is that the county of Wiltshire has eight iconic chalk horses that we can still see today. This is far more than other counties, and is why the white horse is known as the unofficial symbol of Wiltshire (the extinct bustard being the official symbol).

    The ‘Westbury Horse’, on Westbury Hill, Bratton Down, is the largest and oldest, and probably dates from the 17th century although it was restored in 1778. It is realistically trained – apparently on top of an older, more stylized horse which may have originally been carved at the same time as that at Uffington as it is a Neolithic site. This place may have had several incarnations of chalk horses as historians believe a horse was carved here in the 1600s to commemorate King Alfred’s victory at the Battle of Ethandun at Bratton Camp in 878 after JC, and its origins are obscure.


    The Westbury White Horse is the oldest of Wiltshire’s Eight Chalk Horses

    There are others in Cherhill, Marlborough, Alton Barnes, Hackpen, Broad Town, Pewsey and – most recently – Devizes. The latter was sculpted in 1999 to celebrate the millennium and is the only horse in Wiltshire to face right.

    The biggest white horse

    While these chalk-hewn hill figures are found primarily in the South West, the Kilburn White Horse of Yorkshire is the northernmost version. Unlike most of its southern cousins, the Kilburn horse is carved from limestone, not chalk, and therefore needs artificial whitewashing (either with lime or chalk shavings).

    Kilburn holds the title of largest white horse by area. It was carved into a hill in 1857 at Roulston Scar in the North York Moors National Park thanks to a local businessman, Thomas Taylor, who designed and financed it after being inspired by the Uffington prototype. It was cut by village schoolmaster John Hodgson and his team of volunteers. On a clear day the Kilburn Horse is visible up to 45 miles away in North Lincolnshire.

    Kilburn White Horse of Yorkshire

    The Kilburn horse is the largest white horse in the UK

    Another limestone horse was carved in the hills near Weymouth, Dorset, in 1808, the Osmington White Horse. This depicts King George III riding his horse Adonis, and some say that as he is shown riding away from Weymouth he was not welcome there. Others say he was a regular visitor to the town and made it Britain’s first seaside resort. Either way, the Hill-Cut version needed a facelift before Weymouth hosted the sailing events at the 2012 Olympics.

    The Osmington White Horse at Weymouth

    King George III is pictured riding away from Weymouth – this figure was restored in 2012 for the Olympics (the sailing was held in Weymouth) when the King’s descendant Princess Anne came to visit

    Although white horses are seen as badges of identity, proud landmarks in the British hills, during the war most horses were covered with branches and greenery to prevent them from being used as navigational aids for German bombers.

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    The Westbury White Horse will get a facelift later this year

    Being constantly covered in gray hair, battling stable stains, and spending hours washing and re-washing the same section

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