Classic poems about horses selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
What are the best poems ever written about horses? Below are our ten suggestions, following previous posts in which we’ve picked some classic cat poems, dog poems, and poems about mice and other rodents.
Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 41 from Astrophil and Stella.
Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance
Guided so well that I obtain’d the prize,
Both by the judgment of the English eyes
And of some sent from that sweet enemy France;
Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance,
Town folks my strength; a daintier judge applies
His praise to sleight which from good use doth rise …
Written in the early 1580s, Astrophil and Stella is the first substantial sonnet sequence in English literature, and sees Sidney exploring his own life-that-might-have-been with Penelope Rich (whom he turned down), through the invented semi-autobiographical figures of ‘Astrophil’ (‘star-lover’) and ‘Stella’ (‘star’). Sonnet 41, which begins ‘Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance’, may have been inspired by a real-life tournament at Whitehall in May 1581, and sees Astrophil attributing his success as a jouster and horseman to Stella, who ‘Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.’
John Bunyan, ‘On the Horse and His Rider’.
There’s one rides very sagely on the road,
Showing that he affects the gravest mode.
Another rides tantivy, or full trot,
To show much gravity he matters not.
Lo, here comes one amain, he rides full speed,
Hedge, ditch, nor miry bog, he doth not heed.
One claws it up-hill without stop or check,
Another down as if he’d break his neck.
Now every horse has his especial guider;
Then by his going you may know the rider …
Bunyan (1628-88) is perhaps best-known for The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is sometimes called the first English novel. In ‘On the Horse and His Rider’, beginning ‘There’s one rides very sagely on the road, / Showing that he affects the gravest mode’, Bunyan contrasts the horse with its rider.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Undertaker’s Horse’.
The eldest son bestrides him,
And the pretty daughter rides him,
And I meet him oft o’ mornings on the Course;
And there kindles in my bosom
An emotion chill and gruesome
As I canter past the Undertaker’s Horse …
This 1885 poem belongs to Kipling’s early career, but sees him musing upon his death, and death in general: observing the horse which carries corpses to their final resting-place, Kipling wonders whether one day this same horse will deliver him to his grave, or whether he will outlive the creature.
William Henry Ogilvie, ‘The Mourners’.
Ogilvie (1869-1963) was a Scottish-Australian poet and horseman, so given these twin achievements he had to feature on this list of the best poems about horses. ‘The Mourners’ expresses Ogilvie’s hope that when a great horse dies, a host of ghostly horses gather around its grave to mourn for it, much as humans mourn for each other. ‘When all the light and life are sped…’ ‘The Battered Brigade’ is another classic horse poem by this great horseman-poet.
Alfred Noyes, ‘The Highwayman’.
This popular poem was first published in 1906, and remains a favourite poem for many readers – in 1995, it was voted Britain’s 15th favourite of all time. It’s a narrative poem that is also a love story and a tragedy, and begins with the titular highwayman riding to an inn to see the woman he loves, Bess.
Philip Larkin, ‘At Grass’.
A fine early poem – Larkin completed it in 1950, when he was still in his late twenties – ‘At Grass’ sees Larkin reflecting on old racehorses which are ‘put out to grass’. Do memories of the races they won fifteen years ago ‘plague their ears like flies’? Well, these retired racehorses have ‘slipped their names, and stand at ease’.
Ted Hughes, ‘The Horses’.
Beginning with the Hopkins-esque line ‘I climbed through woods in the hour-before-dawn dark’, this poem by the twentieth century’s foremost English nature poet is about Hughes watching a team of horses as light comes to the world at dawn, and reflecting on how different the animals look at such a grey and forbidding time of day.
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘The White Horses’.
Specially commissioned to celebrate the chalk horses carved into the Wiltshire hills, ‘The White Horses’ contains the coinage ‘leucippotomists’ – fans and students of the white horses carved into the landscape. This poem isn’t easily found online, but it is included within the Prezi presentation (publicly available) which we’ve linked to above.
Anonymous, ‘The Grandest Foal’.
The author of this poem is unknown, but it’s one of the most popular horse poems, about the joy of owning a young horse but also the pain of losing the horse when it’s still a small foal. It’s likely to bring a tear to the eye of any horse-fan.
Edmin Muir, ‘The Horses’.
perhaps the best-known poem called ‘The Horses’ is the masterly post-nuclear poem of 1956 by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959). Muir tells us about a war that lasted seven days and ‘put the world to sleep’. Barely a year (‘twelvemonth’) later, ‘strange horses’ came. Muir then immediately goes back to the immediate wake of the war, when humans were first confronted with a silence so unnerving and new that even listening to the sound of their own breathing made people afraid.
Then the horses returned. People were scared of the horses at first, because they had turned their backs on the creatures, but eventually they approached them and rediscovered their relationship with them, a relationship based on ‘servitude’ (the horses are, after all, put to work in the fields) but also, more positively, ‘companionship’. The return of the horses signals the ‘beginning’ of a new way of life for the survivors in this post-nuclear landscape. We have analysed this moving poem in more detail here.
If you enjoyed these classic horse poems, check out our pick of the greatest bird poems, these classic poems about all kinds of animals, and this fine posy of poems about flowers. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – our favourite of all of the poetry anthologies available.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.