Majestic Monuments: Exploring Britain’s Chalk Horses

Across Britain, horses have been sculpted into chalky hillsides, creating striking white horses visible from great distances. The South West of England boasts more white horses than any other region globally, thanks to its chalk-rich soil and undulating terrain that makes it ideal for viewing this rural art.

Contrary to common belief, most of Britain’s chalk horses are not prehistoric; the majority of those visible today were carved within the last 250 years bar the Uffington White Horse.

Embedded into the hills of Britain are 16 official white horse figures, known as geoglyphs—large designs crafted on the ground using elements of the landscape. Numerous other figures have been lost over time, as they require regular maintenance to preserve their shape, along with smaller replicas. There is even a specific term coined to describe the art of carving white horses into chalk uplands: “leucipotomy”.


Geoglyph and Leucipotomy

The terms “geoglyph” and “leucipotomy” refer to different concepts within the realm of large-scale landscape art. A geoglyph is a large design or motif created on the ground, typically by arranging or removing natural materials like stones, earth, or vegetation.

Aerial view of the “Condor”, one of the geoglyphs of the Nazca Lines, which are located in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru.

These designs can depict various shapes, including animals, humans, geometric patterns, or abstract forms. The term “geoglyph” is broad and encompasses any large ground design, regardless of the materials used or the cultural context.

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Famous examples of geoglyphs include the Nazca Lines in Peru, which depict various animals and shapes, and the Uffington White Horse in England. Geoglyphs are made by removing the top layer of soil or arranging stones to create contrast with the surrounding landscape, making the designs visible from a distance or from above.

An aerial photograph of the Cerne Abbas Giant

Chalk Upland Areas

In contrast, leucipotomy specifically refers to the art of carving white horses into chalk upland areas. This involves creating large, stylized horse figures by cutting into the chalky soil of hillsides. The term “leucipotomy” is narrow and applies only to the practice of creating these specific white horse figures in chalk landscapes.

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Leucipotomy involves cutting away the topsoil to expose the white chalk underneath, creating a striking contrast with the surrounding vegetation. The figures often require regular maintenance to remain visible, including clearing vegetation and re-chalking.

The Alton Barnes White Horse is a chalk hill figure of a white horse located on Milk Hill some 1,000 metres north of the village of Alton, Wiltshire.

While all examples of leucipotomy are geoglyphs, not all geoglyphs are examples of leucipotomy. Geoglyphs represent a broad category of large ground designs, and leucipotomy is a specialised form within that category, focusing on the creation of chalk horse figures.

Geoglyphs can be made with various materials and in different cultural contexts around the world, whereas leucipotomy is specifically associated with chalk landscapes in Britain.

Origins and Antiquity

These iconic chalk horse figures are primarily located in Southern England and they are etched into the landscape, forming part of the region’s heritage.

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The most ancient of these figures is the Uffington Horse in Oxfordshire, believed to date back to the late Bronze Age, around 1000 BCE. Unlike later chalk horses, which tend to be more stylised, the Uffington Horse is characterised by its elongated, abstract form.

Sattelite view of the Uffington White Horse

This unique design, stretching approximately 110 metres, suggests it held significant cultural or spiritual importance for the local communities. The figure was created by digging deep trenches and filling them with crushed white chalk, ensuring its visibility from great distances.

Closeup shot of a few chalk lines of the Uffington White Horse.

Scholars have long debated the purpose of the Uffington Horse. Some theories suggest it served as a territorial marker or a tribal emblem, symbolising the identity and unity of the local people.

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Others propose that it had astronomical or religious significance, potentially aligning with solar events such as solstices. The meticulous maintenance of the figure over centuries indicates its enduring importance through the Iron Age and into the Roman period.

Roman Occupation

As Britain transitioned through various historical periods, the creation of new chalk horses appeared to decline, particularly during the Roman occupation and the early medieval era.

However, the tradition saw a resurgence in the early modern period, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. This revival can be linked to a growing interest in Britain’s ancient past.

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During this period, several new chalk horses were carved into the hillsides, such as the Westbury White Horse in Wiltshire, believed to date from the late 17th century but possibly replacing an older figure.

The Cherhill White Horse, created in 1780, and the Alton Barnes White Horse, carved in 1812, are further examples of this renewed enthusiasm. These newer figures often reflected the aesthetic preferences and cultural contexts of their time, frequently commissioned by local landowners or notable community members.

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The precise origins of each chalk horse are challenging to pinpoint due to limited historical records and the diverse motivations behind their creation. Nonetheless, these figures have evolved beyond their possible original purposes, becoming cherished landmarks celebrated for their artistic and cultural value.

Examples of Chalk Horses in England

The Cherhill White Horse

The Cherhill White Horse is the third oldest of the white horses in Britain

The Cherhill White Horse is a hill figure located on Cherhill Down, approximately 3.5 miles east of Calne in Wiltshire, England. Dating from the late 18th century, it ranks as the third oldest among several white horses in Great Britain, with only the Uffington White Horse and the Westbury White Horse being older. The figure is occasionally referred to as the Oldbury White Horse.

Historical Background

The Cherhill figure was initially carved in 1780 by Dr Christopher Alsop, from Calne, achieved by removing the turf to reveal the underlying chalk. Initially, the dimensions were 165 feet (50 m) by 220 feet (67 m). Dr Alsop, who served as Guild Steward of the Borough of Calne, earned the nickname “the mad doctor.”

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It is reported that he orchestrated the creation of the horse from afar, using a megaphone to direct the work from below Labour-in-Vain Hill. His design was possibly influenced by his friendship with George Stubbs, an artist renowned for his horse paintings.


Since its creation, the Cherhill horse has undergone several restorations. In 1935, it was treated with a mix of concrete and chalk, and a clean-up occurred in 1994. A significant restoration took place in 2002, led by the Cherhill White Horse Restoration Group, which involved resurfacing the figure with 160 tonnes of new chalk, redefining its outline, and adding shuttering to secure the chalk.

This work received a £18,000 grant from the National Trust. Today, the horse features a compacted chalk surface with well-defined edges.

The Cherhill White Horse

Historically, the horse had a glittering eye made from glass bottles, inserted neck-first into the ground by Farmer Angell and his wife in the 19th century, though these were lost by the end of that century. In the 1970s, a local youth centre project replaced the eye with new glass bottles, but these too eventually vanished. Currently, the eye is made of stone and concrete and is elevated above the surrounding chalk surface.

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In 1922, M. Oldfield Howey remarked on the horse’s condition, noting its need for maintenance post-Great War and mentioning that a local lady had offered to restore it. Traditionally, the Lord of the Manor was responsible for its upkeep.

During the coronation week of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937, the horse was illuminated, with the initials “GE” displayed in red lights above it, powered by a generator at the hill’s base. The display alternated between the red letters for five seconds and the floodlights for ten seconds, creating a striking visual effect.

The Osmington White Horse

The Osmington White Horse, a hill figure in Dorset carved in 1808 in honor of King George III.

The Osmington White Horse is a significant hill figure located near the village of Osmington in Dorset, England. Carved into the limestone of Osmington Hill, this geoglyph depicts King George III riding on horseback and is a notable landmark in the region, visible from the sea and often associated with the king’s frequent visits to the nearby town of Weymouth.

Historical Background

The Osmington White Horse was created in 1808, and it is believed that its design was intended to honor King George III, who helped make Weymouth a popular resort destination. Unlike other chalk horses that typically face left, the Osmington White Horse is unique as it faces to the right. Legend suggests that this orientation was actually a slight towards the king, implying that he was turning his back on Weymouth, though this interpretation is debated.

Description and Dimensions

The figure measures approximately 280 feet (85 meters) long and 323 feet (98 meters) high, making it one of the larger hill figures in England. The horse is designed with King George III riding atop, marked by the depiction of a crown and a regal posture. The entire figure was originally cut into the limestone and infilled with chalk, creating a striking white silhouette against the green landscape.

Restoration and Maintenance

Like many chalk figures, the Osmington White Horse has required regular maintenance to prevent overgrowth and erosion from diminishing its visibility and definition. Over the years, various restoration efforts have been undertaken to preserve its appearance.

Part of the Osmington White Horse

In 1989, the figure was extensively restored to improve its proportions and visibility. More recently, in 2011, a major restoration project was spearheaded by the BBC programme “Countryfile” in collaboration with local volunteers and organisations, where tonnes of new chalk were added to enhance its profile.

The Westbury White Horse

The Westbury White Horse

The Westbury White Horse is one of the most iconic hill figures in Britain, carved into the steep slope of Bratton Down, near the town of Westbury in Wiltshire, England. This striking geoglyph, which depicts a large, stylized horse, is part of a tradition of chalk figures that adorn the English countryside, particularly in Wiltshire.

Historical Background

While the current Westbury White Horse is believed to have been created in 1778, it likely overlays an older figure, possibly dating back to the Iron Age or Saxon times. This earlier figure could have been similar to the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, suggesting a long-standing tradition of creating hill figures in this region.

Westbury White Horse in 1772 (Top) and as re-cut in 1778 (Bottom) as illustrated by Plenderleath.

The redesign in 1778 was led by Mr. George Gee, a local steward, who modernized the figure to its present form, giving it a more sophisticated and recognisable horse shape compared to the abstract form of the ancient Uffington Horse.

Description and Dimensions

The Westbury White Horse is approximately 180 feet long and 170 feet high. The figure is cut into the chalk hillside, with the exposed chalk providing a striking white contrast against the surrounding green terrain. This visibility ensures that the horse can be seen from many miles away across the Wiltshire countryside.

Restoration and Maintenance

Over the centuries, the Westbury White Horse has undergone numerous restorations to maintain its visibility and structure. One significant restoration occurred in the 1950s when the figure was concreted over as part of efforts to reduce the maintenance required by the traditional chalk infill.

An autumnal view of Westbury White Horse on the edge of Bratton Castle. CC BY 3.0

However, this alteration faced criticism for losing the authentic look and feel of the original chalk carving. Today, the figure is maintained by periodic cleaning and the addition of new chalk, ensuring that it remains a prominent feature of the landscape.

The Hackpen White Horse

Hackpen Hill White Horse

The Hackpen White Horse is a distinctive hill figure located on Hackpen Hill, near the village of Broad Hinton in Wiltshire, England. Carved into the chalk downs, this geoglyph is visible across the rolling countryside and stands as a testament to the region’s rich tradition of creating hill figures.

Historical Background

The Hackpen White Horse was carved in 1838 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria. It was created by Henry Eatwell, parish clerk of Broad Hinton for 30 years, and assisted by a local pub landlord, who both took on the project to mark the beginning of a new era in British history.

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The horse is relatively modern compared to some of its ancient counterparts like the Uffington White Horse, but it still follows the tradition of large, stylized figures that are characteristic of Wiltshire.

Description and Dimensions

The figure is situated on the northern edge of the Marlborough Downs, facing south towards the nearby road, making it easily visible to passersby. The Hackpen White Horse measures approximately 90 feet long and 90 feet high. Its design is simple and bold, with a compact and rounded form that differs from the elongated elegance of older chalk horses. This style reflects the 19th-century aesthetic and the practical approach of its creators.

Restoration and Maintenance

On the Hackpen Hill White Horse.

Like other chalk figures, the Hackpen White Horse requires regular maintenance to keep it clear of vegetation and its chalk surface refreshed. Local community efforts ensure that the figure remains a prominent landmark. Maintenance involves scouring the chalk and removing any grass or weeds that encroach on the figure, a practice that has been a local tradition for over a century.

The Alton Barnes White Horse

The Alton Barnes White Horse from the air

The Alton Barnes White Horse is a striking hill figure located on the slope of Milk Hill near the village of Alton Barnes in Wiltshire, England. This geoglyph is one of the many chalk horses carved into the hills of Wiltshire, but it stands out for its size and relatively recent creation date in the early 19th century.

Historical Background

The Alton Barnes White Horse was created in 1812, a period when the creation of chalk figures experienced a resurgence in popularity. It was commissioned by Robert Pile, a local farmer who paid £20 to John Thorne, also known as Jack the Painter, to design and cut the figure.

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Interestingly, John Thorne took the money but left the actual task of carving the horse to a local man named John Harvey. Thorne’s fraudulent act eventually led to his hanging for unrelated crimes, adding a layer of intrigue to the horse’s history.

Description and Dimensions

The horse is large, measuring approximately 160 feet (49 meters) in length and 166 feet (51 meters) in height, making it one of the larger chalk horses in Wiltshire. Its design is bold and somewhat simplistic, typical of the style of other 19th-century chalk figures.

The Alton Barnes White Horse is a chalk hill figure of a white horse located on Milk Hill some 1,000 metres north of the village of Alton, Wiltshire.

The horse is depicted in profile, facing to the left, and is designed to be viewed from below which gives it an impressive and imposing appearance against the green backdrop of the surrounding countryside.

Pranks and Vandalism

On April Fool’s Day in 2003 and again in 2014, pranksters temporarily transformed the horse into a zebra. In 2014, this effect was achieved by affixing black stripes made from plastic sheeting onto the horse, along with giving the figure a black nose.

Numerous photos were taken of the 2014 zebra transformation before the pranksters returned to the hill that evening to remove the additions, unlike in 2003 when the additions were left for the landowner Tim Carson to remove. In March 2008, the horse was subject to vandalism when pranksters added a penis to the figure.

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This addition, while amusing to passing motorists, caused concern for Tim Carson, who maintains the horse and was unsure if the damage would be permanent. A local newspaper humorously reported that the horse had been turned “into a stallion,” noting that it had “gained an extra ‘limb’.”

In October 2019, the climate change activist group Extinction Rebellion created a piece of “flash art” on the horse by placing an extinction symbol made from old T-shirts. Critics deemed the stunt “disrespectful” to the horse. Philip Whitehead, the leader of Wiltshire Council, criticised the act on Twitter.

However, others defended the temporary nature of the display. Extinction Rebellion clarified their intentions in a Facebook post, stating, “Let’s be clear, this was by no means an illegal act. We did not vandalise nor deface what is a beautiful chalk monument on the soil of our local community. We too love the White Horse, and it is because of that love that we chose to do it.” They assured that they intended to remove the symbol without leaving any trace by daybreak.

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.

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.