“Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people” – W.C. Fields

A phantom horse is a horse, of course.

I’d really prefer not to be run to ground by a prehistoric ghost horse.  Until recently, I wasn’t even aware this was a possibility.  Live and learn.  Or rather live and hide under your bed, assuming there are no other monsters there.  Now, I have nothing against equines, having worked on horse farms in Illinois and Wisconsin during my misspent youth.  The horses you interact with on a working horse farm are far different than those sleek racehorses, finely-groomed family pet horses, muscular beer-cart pulling Clydesdales, or emotional support ponies.  What you get on a horse farm are “schooling” horses, which are critters used to teach novices to ride without falling off, groom without getting kicked through a wall, and how to muck out a stall.  As one would expect when forced to endure the fumbling of inexperienced riders, you will not find a more cantankerous segment of the species.  Of course, when I developed this opinion, I was unaware that an angry, prehistoric ghost horse was an option.  My taxonomy obviously needs some revision.  In the late 19th Century, a certain Captain Beauclerk of the British 10th Regiment of Foot reported a bizarre chase involving the menacing specter of just such a horse.

Historically, His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot (also known as the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment) were a bunch of hardcore Redcoats.  In the American Revolution they fought at Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Battle of Long Island, the Invasion of Manhattan Island, the Battle of Germantown, the Battle at Monmouth Courthouse, and the defense of Newport and Quaker Hill, eventually returning to England in September, 1778.  After fighting in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, in 1842 the 10th were reposted to India where they continued to be bloodied in the First Anglo-Sikh War, the Relief of Multan in 1849, the Battle of Gujrat in February 1849, the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion in 1857, and the failed first relief of the Siege of Arrah.  Either these were some seriously tough hombres or someone bore them a homicidal grudge.  And Captain Beauclerk was one of these hardy souls.  When Beauclerk first joined the Regiment, his commanding officer was one Colonel Onslow.  Eventually both Beauclerk and Onslow returned to their civilian lives.  Beauclerk settled in in London, while Onslow retired to the family manor (Eastover Hall) at the base of the Chiltern Hills 30 miles northwest of the city.  Onslow and Beauclerk stayed in touch.  Onslow longed to see his comrade again and invited him to Eastover for the Easter holiday. As further inducement, knowing Beauclerk’s interest in psychical research (albeit from a skeptical perspective), Onslow told him Eastover Hall was haunted.  What self-respecting ghost hunter could resist such a temptation?  Looking forward to seeing his old friend, Beauclerk set out for Eastover on Good Friday.  Beauclerk described Eastover at the time he arrived.  Certainly seemed like the kind of place that might endear itself to the average ghost.

The grounds of Eastover Hall were extensive; but, in the ordinary sense, far from beautiful. To me, however, they were more than beautiful; there was a grandeur in them — a grandeur that appealed to me far more than mere beauty — the grandeur of desolation, the grandeur of the Unknown. As we passed through the massive iron gates of the lodge, I looked upon countless acres of withered, undulating grass; upon a few rank sedges; upon a score or so of decayed trees; upon a house — huge, bare, grey and massive; upon bleak walls; upon vacant, eye like windows; upon crude, scenic inhospitality, the very magnitude of which overpowered me. I have said it was cold; but there hung over the estate of Eastover an iciness that brought with it a quickening, a sickening of the heart, and a dreariness that, whilst being depressing in the extreme, was, withal, sublime. Sublime and mysterious; mysterious and insoluble. A thousand fancies swarmed through my mind; yet I could grapple with none; and I was loathe to acknowledge that, although there are combinations of very simple material objects which might have had the power of affecting me thus, yet any attempt to analyze that power was beyond — far beyond — my mental capability. The house, though old — and its black oak paneling, silent staircases, dark corridors, and general air of gloom were certainly suggestive of ghosts — did not affect me in the same degree. The fear it inspired was the ordinary fear inspired by the ordinary super-physical, but the fear I felt in the grounds was a fear created by something out of the way — something far more bizarre than a mere phantom of the dead (O’Donnell, 1913, p149-150).

Certainly sounds like the setting for a juicy Scooby-Doo mystery.  Colonel Onslow inquired as to whether Beauclerk had felt any unusual sensations upon his arrival, which Beauclerk admitted to.  Apparently, a feeling of dread was a common occurrence amongst visitors to Eastover Hall.  The Onslows were generous hosts, and treated their guests to numerous entertainments. While other guests went to nearby Seeton and Dinsdale for the afternoon, Beauclerk elected to further explore the grounds where he discovered a rather creepy cave, where he thought he saw a pair of red eyes staring at him from the depths of the cavern.  Overcome by a wave of fear, he hurried back to Eastover Hall, relating his adventure to Onslow, who assured him that the cave was known to be one of the most haunted places on the estate.  A large cache of pre-historic horse bones had been unearthed inside.  Now remember, this is a guy who would merrily stand ramrod straight in a line as cannon fired directly at him.  Not exactly lily-livered.  Beauclerk never experienced anything in Eastover Hall itself, but did catch a glimpse of the glowing red eyes lurking outside his bedroom window that evening. Stalwart fellow that he was, he carried on with the traditional stiff upper lip.  The next day, Colonel Onslow and Captain Beauclerk went out riding to a picturesque village nearby.  On their return that evening, as they neared Eastover Hall, things got weird.

Standing on the crest of the eminence we had just quitted, and most vividly outlined against the enveloping darkness, was a gigantic horse, white and luminous.  At that moment our own mare took fright…We dashed downhill at a terrific rate, our mare mad with terror, and on peering over my shoulder I saw, to my horror, the white steed tearing along not fifty yards behind us. I was now able to get a vivid impression of the monstrous beast. Although the night was dark, a strong, lurid glow, which seemed to emanate from all over it, enabled me to see distinctly its broad, muscular breast; its panting, steaming flanks; its long, graceful legs with their hairy fetlocks and shoeless, shining hoofs; its powerful but arched back; its lofty, colossal head with waving forelock and broad, massive forehead; its snorting nostrils; its distended, foaming jaws; its huge, glistening teeth; and its lips, wreathed in a savage grin. On and on it raced, its strides prodigious, its mighty mane rising and falling, and blowing all around it in unrestrained confusion — a single slip, and we should be entirely at its mercy. Our own horse was now out of control. A series of violent plunges, which nearly succeeded in unseating me, had enabled her to get the check of the bit between her teeth so as to render it utterly useless; and she had then started off at a speed I can only liken to flying. Fortunately we were now on a more or less level ground, and the road, every inch of which our horse knew, was smooth and broad. I glanced at the Colonel convulsively clutching the reins; he was clinging to his seat for dear life, his hat gone. I wanted to speak, but I knew it was useless — the shrieking of the air as it roared past us deadened all sounds. Once or twice I glanced over the side of the trap. The rapidity with which we were moving caused a hideous delusion — the ground appeared to be gliding from beneath us; and I experienced the sensation of resting on nothing. Despite our danger, however, from natural causes — a danger which, I knew, could not have been more acute — my fears were wholly of the super- physical. It was not the horror of being dashed to pieces I dreaded — it was the horror of the phantom horse — of its sinister, hostile appearance — of its unknown powers. What would it do if it overtook us? With each successive breath I drew I felt sure the fateful event — the long-anticipated crisis — had come.  At last my expectations were realized. The teeth of the gigantic steed closed down on me, its nostrils hissed resistance out of me — I swerved, tottered, fell and as I sank on the ground my senses left me (O’Donnell, 1913, p157-159).

Beauclerk woke up at Eastover Hall, being medicated with brandy.  The Colonel had fallen and fractured his arm just shy of the manor house.  And of the fearsome white horse, not a trace could be found.  Captain Beauclerk, after a few drinks figured they ought to re-inter those prehistoric horse bones in the cave, just in case.  The bones were immediately reburied in their original resting place, and consequently the phantom prehistoric horse was never seen again.

Horses (or close megafaunic relatives thereof) have been around in England since at least 700,000 B.C., and us pesky hominids have been hunting them since 500,000 B.C. (spear damage was found on a horse shoulder bone discovered at Eartham Pit, Boxgrove).  That’s a long time to build up a lists of grievances against us monkeys.  No wonder the phantom horses hate us.  Although, we did make some nice pictures of them to demonstrate our awe, such as the 3000 year old, 360 foot long, white chalk drawing known as the “Uffington White Horse” in Oxfordshire.  Animal ghosts are not unprecedented, particularly cats and dogs, so horses aren’t that much of a reach.  One wonders why we don’t see more of them.  After all, animals far outnumber humans.  Despite the relative rarity of phantom prehistoric horses, it is prudent to add them to our list of existential threats, for as Ian Flemming said, “A horse is dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle”.

O’Donnell, Elliott, 1872-1965. Animal Ghosts; Or Animal Hauntings & the Hereafter. London: W. Rider & son, 1913.