Chalk Horses – One is 3000 Years Old

Painting or drawing on the walls was one of man’s earliest forms of communication, expression and recording.

In Britain, you can find medieval wall paintings uncovered in ancient rural churches that date back more than one thousand years, right through to scenes and signatures drawn on buildings by airmen during the Second World War, still about if you look hard enough.

Drawing on the landscape is an altogether different and more significant form of expression and, in some cases, several thousands of years old. Known as geoglyphs, there are officially sixteen white horse figures in the UK now, but many more have been lost over the years.


What is a Geoglyph?

The Nazca Lines in Peru. This photograph shows a depiction of a hummingbird

A geoglyph is a large design formed on the ground using natural features of the landscape. It is usually longer than 13 feet, and the design is created by utilising elements of the landscape which are long-lasting such as stones, earth, gravel, and in this case, chalk.

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Some of the most famous geoglyphs are the Nazca lines in Peru. These were created between 500 BCE and 500 CE by people making shallow incisions or depressions on the desert floor, removing pebbles and exposing different earth.

The south of England has a number of equine and human figures cut into the chalk hillsides, including the Uffington White Horse, the Cerne Abbas Giant, the Westbury White Horse and the Long Man of Wilmington.

Cerne Abbas Giant

If the term ‘geoglyph’ describes the image, then the process of creating it is leucipotomy, sometimes also spelt with a double ‘P’. This just means the ancient art of turf cutting.

The Chalk Horses of the Southwest of England

The southwest of England has more white horses than anywhere else in the UK, and indeed the world, and this is because of its chalky soil and the rolling landscape, which makes it such a suitable easel for this type of rural art.

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Contrary to popular opinion, not all geoglyphs are ancient, and the current chalk horses, bar the Uffington White Horse, were mostly cut in the past 250 years.

The Uffington White Chalk Horse

This is the oldest of all the chalk horses in Britain and is located on the Berkshire Downs in Oxfordshire on land now owned by the National Trust. The figure has excellent visibility and can be viewed from twenty miles away. The design is 110 meters long and is abstract, almost stick-like.

Uffington White Horse
The Uffington White Horse is prehistoric

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Archaeologists believe the Uffington Horse dates back around 3,000 years to the Bronze Age.

It is mentioned in 11th and 12th-century manuscripts rather helpfully, and the design also matches the shape of a horse used on coins from 2,000 years ago and in several representations of Celtic art.

Archaeologists have been able to date the horse to the Bronze Age using a process called archaeological dating which examines the layers of quartz in the trenches that make up the design. This puts the Uffington White Horse around the end of the Bronze Age towards the beginning of the Iron Age.

The Other Wiltshire White Horses

Of the remaining white horses, the Westbury Horse on Westbury Hill, Bratton Down, is the oldest, dating from the 17th century, although it was restored in 1778.

white chalk horse
First mentioned in 1742, possibly carved a century earlier, to commemorate King Alfred’s victory over the Vikings in AD878. Credit: Mike Faherty

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It is formed over the top of an older, more stylised horse that could date back as far as the Uffington Horse, as this is a Neothlic site. Historians believe another horse was carved here during the 1600s to celebrate King Alfred’s victory in the Battle of Ethandun at Bratton Camp in AD 878.

The other horses are at Marlborough, Alton Barnes, Cherhill, Hackpen, Broad Town and Pewsey, with a very recent addition at Devizes.

The Devizes Millennium White Chalk Horse

The horse at Devizes was designed by Peter Greed and carved in 1999 by around two hundred local people (and some heavy machinery) to commemorate the impending millennium.

It is unique in that it is the only Wiltshire horse facing towards the right, although there are three others in different locations in the British Isles.

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Peter Greed was one of the pupils at Devizes Grammar school tasked in 1954 with researching the old Devizes horse, and he drew up plans for re-creating it.

The Devizes Millennium White Horse is based on an earlier design of another white horse known as the Devizes White Horse or, locally, The Snobs.

The plan remained just a pipe dream until 1998, when Sarah Padwick, who had recently moved to the town, wrote to a local paper suggesting that a hill figure should be cut on Roundway Down to celebrate the millennium.

A local tenant farmer offered land owned by the Crown Estates Commissioners, who also gave permission. The 1954 design was resurrected, and it was decided to use a reversal of this template so that the new horse faced to the right.

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The Devizes Millennium White Horse is located on Bank Field, at Roundway Hill, on the outskirts of the town about the hamlet of Roundway.

By September 2008, it was barely visible, and the Devizes Millennium White Horse Committee were looking for funds to restore it. However, the Probation Service via the Community Service Group took on the project of cleaning and maintaining the horse regularly.

The Largest White Horse

The most northerly white horse and the largest is located in Kilburn in West Yorkshire. This horse is cut into limestone and not chalk, so it is artificially whitened with whitewash or chalk clippings to produce the colour.

white chalk horse
Kilburn White Horse. The underlying rock is fairly bright limestone but it soon turns grey on being exposed to the weather. Credit: Colin Grice

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The Kilburn White Horse is the largest in the UK by its surface area, and it was carved into a hill at Roulston Scar in what is now the North York Moors National Park in 1857.

Designed and financed by a local businessman, Thomas Taylor was inspired by the Uffington horse. On a clear day, the Kilburn Horse can be seen as far away as North Lincolnshire. It doesn’t have the Uffington horse’s minimalist lines, and this equine has some odd conformation! 

Horse and Rider

It’s a fair observation that none of these horses are carrying riders, but another limestone horse near Weymouth in Dorset, the Osmington White Horse, was purposely created in 1808 with a jockey.

white chalk horse
Osmington White Horse This figure of horse and rider was created in 1808. The rider represents King George III, a regular visitor to nearby Weymouth, Dorset.

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This shows King George III riding a horse called Adonis, and local legend has it that he is depicted riding away from Weymouth as he was not welcome there.

This image is one of the four white horses in the British Isles facing to the right. It was fully restored in 2012 when Weymouth hosted the Olympic sailing events.

Myths and Folklore

Because no one knows why these horses were first drawn into the landscape, their presence has been the subject of centuries of fascination and speculation.

Because of its strategic position on the Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest road, which connects other Bronze Age forts and burial mounds, some suggest that the Uffington White Horse may be an ancient symbol of land rights.

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Others connect the horse to King Arthur with a fable that the horse may move or dance during the night around the time of some significant life-changing event. If you want a wish to come true, stand near the horse’s eye, close your eyes, turn around three times and wish!

Horse Care and Stable Management

Grass and weeds quickly invade the barren chalk, and the weather has an impact too, eroding the surface.

white chalk horse
Westbury White Horse by Night. The army lit up the newly repainted white horse in November 2006 for one night only. Credit: Steve Garner

Many of the white figures were regularly cleaned or ‘scoured’, and this process has been associated with both religious and pagan rituals with documentary evidence available from the 18th century.

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Nowadays, the Uffington White Horse is cared for by a team of volunteers organised by the National Trust.

The Misnomer of the White Horse

Rather like all the numerous pubs that share the name, the phrase ‘white horse’ is something of a misnomer as there is no such thing as a white horse.

White horses are always called grey and are born dark bay (brown), black or chestnut – their coats lighten with age.

Young horses under the age of ten are often dapple grey – a light grey coat with more minor round markings which are dark grey or black and beloved by rocking horse designers – or still quite a dark grey overall.

When these horses are teenagers, they are almost entirely white (or should that be grey!).

Ancient and Modern Graffiti

Many of the chalk horses were covered over during the war so that the Germans couldn’t use them as navigational aids. However, in 2012, the ancient White Horse of Uffington temporarily acquired a jockey.

This wasn’t Banksy but a publicity stunt by the bookmakers, Paddy Power, ahead of the Cheltenham Festival.

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A team spent six hours at night installing the rider using 200 meters of canvas cut into five separate pieces to make a jockey who was 110 feet tall and 200 feet wide. He would have caused some consternation in the weighing room!

The canvas was carefully pinned to the ground five feet from the original chalk horse using 500 tiny tent pegs to avoid damaging the horse.

However, the installation was not official, and the National Trust ordered its immediate removal, but any publicity is good publicity, and Paddy Power clearly achieved its aim.

The idea for the Uffington rider came from a tweet from one of their customers who asked if any fun or mischief was planned ahead of the festival. Suitably contrite, Paddy Power did also make a donation to the National Trust.

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