The historical connection between chariots and British Native Ponies has crossed my desk a few times recently. The first came when I was reading Dent and Machin-Goodall’s book, A History of British Native Ponies. “The effect of Roman occupation on the peaceful use of the horse in Britain was wholly constructive… The most startling development was in racing… The technique of chariot driving was a British specialty, preserved here much better than in Gaul, and British drivers and grooms were much in demand throughout the empire. Moreover, throughout the empire also, the size of chariot horses was very small. British ponies 12 or 13 hands high, despite what Hollywood tells us to the contrary, were the ideal chariot team, four abreast, very often over obstacles….” (1)
More recently I received from my friend Eddie McDonough an article about an excavation in Yorkshire where a chariot was unearthed. Three significant finds were associated with the chariot. First, there were coral stones embedded in the vehicle, indicating that the chariot belonged to someone of high status. Second, the chariot was unearthed from a burial mound that contained the body of a woman. Further investigation revealed that her face was deformed on one side. A mirror accompanied the body, and it is speculated that the woman was a queen. Finally, a replica of the chariot was constructed, and in the process of construction a mystery about a chariot’s suspension system was solved. It had long been wondered how the drivers of chariots stayed in their vehicles while navigating over rough ground. Clues from the Wetwang excavation and from Roman coins suggested a solution, and sure enough a very serviceable vehicle resulted from the experimental reconstruction. It was tested by being hitched to two ponies and driven over rough ground. (2)
Last weekend I was in Saratoga, Wyoming doing work for a client. On the drive there I was reminded of my only direct experience with chariots. On Valentine’s Day in 2004, we attended a chariot race in Saratoga. The chariots weren’t pulled by ponies, but by two racehorses. The race was conducted on flat ground, and there was just a single passenger. I was amazed to learn that there was an entire circuit of winter chariot racing in that part of Wyoming. The photo shows a race in progress.
(1) Dent, Anthony and Daphne Machin-Goodall. A History of British Native Ponies, J.A. Allen Publishers, 1988, p. 48-49.
© Jenifer Morrissey 2011