Tuesday, May 19, 2015

White-born Horses of Hanover (take 2)

I reworked and expanded my piece on the Hanoverian Whites for the Fresno State Graduate Symposium this month. It's much easier to follow, and seems to have been a hit, so here it is:

          The vast majority of equestrian history, like equestrian practice, is contained in oral accounts; Many of these histories have been written down over the centuries, but even the all mighty written source must be closely interrogated, as it only repeats commonly held mythologies. Equestrians revel in mythology, and unquestioned absolutes abound. They are repeated, recorded, and renewed from generation to generation. These mythologies primarily revolve around origin stories and criteria for purity; Though clearly flawed and immensely biased, these stories are worth considering both for what they can tell us about equestrian culture and material, and for the hints they can provide regarding avenues of trade and societal commonalities. Today I will address white horses, particularly the White horses of Hanover; the assumptions that have been made about them, and how those assumptions can be challenged. I would like to employ a truly interdisciplinary approach- in this case, the intersection of text, art, and genetics- in order to evaluate unreliable mythologies.

Thomas Sully, "The Passage of the Delaware," 1819

         What color was George Washington’s white horse? Ask that question at any horse barn across the United States, and you will receive a unanimous answer: “He was GREY.” Go to Europe, and the question will be “What color was Napoleon’s white horse?,” but the answer, invariably, will be the same. “He was Gray.” If you suggest otherwise, you will be informed, firmly and thoroughly, that you are wrong. Both variations of this question are used to “test” strangers, and decide if they are knowledgeable or novices.

François Gérard "Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz" 1809

         To illustrate this phenomenon:  I had the opportunity, many years ago, to train for a week in Ireland [at Calliaghstown Equestrian Centre]. There were dozens of kids in the barn’s summer camp program, from Ireland, England, France, and even a handful from Germany. I’m sure every last one of them could have ridden circles around me, despite being half my age. At lunch the first day, they surrounded me en masse. The ‘leader,’ who was also one of the oldest at all of fourteen, stepped up, stared me in the eye, and very seriously enquired if I knew what color Napoleon’s white horse was.    And let me tell you, being surrounded and stared at intently by a mob of tweens is surprisingly intimidating! But… I knew the correct answer. “Gray, of course!” They all giggled and relaxed. From that answer on, I was accepted, and they all gleefully shared the “secrets” about their favorite ponies.
Lippizan mares with foals

          The reason that this particular question can be used as a litmus for newcomers at horse barns is that there is no such thing as a white horse. Or… so conventional wisdom says. If a horse looks white, they are in fact grey.  Grey horses are born with normal dark coats (like these foals), but quickly grey out, often appearing completely white by the age of 6 or 7 (like their mothers here).
          I find particularly interesting that it is George Washington and Napoleon who are the subjects of this pop quiz. Both men purportedly owned horses bred at the Herrenhausen stud farm in Hanover. One of the strains of horses bred at Herrenhausen during their lifetimes was known as the Wiessgebornen, or literally white-borns. By simple definition, they cannot have been grey, because grey horses are born with dark coats. This odd tidbit makes it possible that the unfailing answer of “Grey!” for the horses of both George Washington and Napoleon could be wrong.

         The heraldic symbol of Hanover is the white horse. Because of this, it is not surprising that when Sophia of Hanover*, mother of George I of England, founded the studfarm at Herrenhausen in 1714 she chose to establish a “breed” – and I use that term loosely- of visibly white horses. As the “white horse” pop quiz suggests, a horse that looks white may not actually be white, geneticly speaking.
         This “white horse” pop quiz question persists despite a multitude of modern examples of non-grey, white-appearing animals. This is because most of these modern horses aren’t white so much as they are ridiculously heavily marked. What this means is that one of more of what are called “paint” patterns have become so extreme that the entire animal is a giant white spot. Occasionally, these markings will be so extreme that the entire horse looks white. These are called “maximally marked paints.” Because of this, the handful of people who have looked at the puzzle of Hanover’s “White Born” horses have assumed that they, too, where maximally marked paint horses. The answer was so obvious that the question has been dismissed, and the “White Born” horses have been de-mystified.
         I, however, believe this assumption was made prematurely. Because these early Hanoverian horses are better known for their use in England, having first been imported by George I, primarily English sources have been consulted. And, again, because the answer was so “obvious,” there seemed no reason to dig further. A brief look at German sources has provided a very different possibility. That the White horses of Hanover were not grey is clear, due to their light coats at birth. That they were not maximally marked paints, as has been assumed,  is suggested by two facts which are agreed upon by a number of 19th century German Veterinary Manuals, Horse Breeding Treatises, livestock lists, and even encyclopedias. The first of these facts is simply that if you breed two of these Hanoverian White-born horses together, the foals will all be born white like their parents. Paints, however, (like these) tend to have wildly different expressions with each generation. The second fact, which again seems to have been universally accepted, is that their eyes were always dark. Horses with large amounts of paint markings, however, tend to have blue eyes (like this).

         So, if they weren’t grey, and probably weren’t maximal paints, what does that leave us?
Appaloosa. Now, if any of you are familiar with that term, you might be a little surprised. Another name for Appaloosa is Leopard Spotted, and they tend to look something like this:

Although this mare and foal have slightly different expressions, neither could be confused with a white horse.

Tresaison Harlem

         This little guy looks pretty “white,” right? He is neither grey, nor a maximal paint. He is what is called a “fewspot appaloosa.” Homozygous appaloosas – horses that have two copies of the appaloosa spotting gene, rather than one copy like the previous picture of the mare and foal- appear white or mostly white from birth (like this guy). They tend to forget their spots.  This guy is a Knabstrupper, a modern Danish breed. The German branch of the Knabstrupper registry still lists Weißgeborene – the term historically used for the white horses of Hanover- as a current option for coat color registration. The current registry uses this term for what we would call a fewspot appaloosa. So, as it turns out, this answer, too, seems a little obvious.
         Those same 19th century German Veterinary Manuals, Horse Breeding Treatises, livestock lists, and encyclopedias, as well as a 1906 interview with the “oldest retainer” at the Herrenhausen stable all suggest that the White-born horses of Hanover were originally from Denmark, home of the modern Knabstrupper. While the Knabstrupper studbook itself was not established until 1812, a century after the establishment of a breeding program for white-born horses at Herrenhaus, the Knabstrupper was an effort to recreate a type that had been popular in the 17th and 18th centuries- the same time in which the Weissgeborn type of horse was being developed at Herrenhausen.

James Ward "Adonis" 1823

I would like to end with this lovely painting of Adonis, a White-born Horse of Hanover. Adonis was born is 1784, and in 1791 became King George III’s primary mount. – though supposedly the stud manager liked him so much he was reluctant to give him up, even to the king. Although (this work) was not painted until 1823, it is very likely that the artist, James Ward, had met Adonis, and absolutely certain that he had met several other White-born horses from Hanover. James Ward had been appointed as the official painter to George III’s son –who would become George the fourth- in 1794, and there are a number of accounts that Ward ‘borrowed’ White Hanoverian horses from the Royal Mews to use as models. James Ward painted a wide variety of horses in meticulous detail, and has been renowned for his realism. The reason I mention this, is these dark spots. I would love to be able to examine the original of this painting, but it unfortunately has been sold to an undisclosed private collector, for just shy of half a million dollars. All of the reproductions, however, have these same spots. They are not shadow, but distinct mottling on his sheath and testicles. And this is a trait used to confirm that a horse does, in fact, carry the appaloosa gene.

In the case of the White-born horses of Hanover, even a cursory examination of the evidence leads to the questioning of cherished assumptions. Identifying the simple biological possibilities allows us to evaluate the accepted mythology, and consider what avenues of further inquiry are most likely to be fruitful. These biological possibilities can lend credence to parallel mythologies regarding contact between historical areas, give depth to known associations, and suggest connections that may have been overlooked.

Epilogue: The most famous "white" mounts of both Washington and Napoleon were taxidermied, and  are clearly grey. Both men had a fondness for hotbloods. Napoleon preferred small desertbreds (ever wonder why the perspective is always strange in paintings of him? His mounts were apparently significantly shorter than any of his servicemen's horses). Washington preferred partbred 'English' horses, i.e. early thoroughbred crosses. While Washington may have owned a horse from Harrenhauens, it was more likely a Cream than a White, though even this is only rumor. Napoleon briefly controlled Herrenhausen, and so owned both Creams and Whites, and used them extensively for coaching, but there is no record of him riding them. The horses bred at Herrenhausen tended to be on the large side for the period, and so Napoleon probably had little interest in riding them.

*I am not yet certain that it was, in fact, Sophia and not her son or grandson. Even a century out, the accounts are vague and conflicting. However, it does seem to have been her; all accounts that suggest that it was George I or George II leave out Sophia of Hanover's known contributions to Herrenhausen. They may simply be unwilling to place such accomplishments at the feet of a woman.


  1. Thank you for posting your paper! I greatly enjoyed reading it! I found it fascinating. Not being a horse person, I didn't know a white horse might not actually be white!

  2. Thank you! It was fun to research, too.

  3. The date of 1823 usually given for Ward's Adonis is its date of publication. It had been, prior to today, the earliest date I found given (1842 is also used, being when it was finally exhibited at the Royal Academy). However, today I found a note in in Sporting Magazine vol. 27 (1805) about this painting: "we have never seen a more correct and spirited production." Adonis would have been 19, and James Ward being already with the Royal Academy it is almost certain he saw this individual animal, and possible he was able to have him "sit" for the painting.