Monday, January 31, 2011

A Horse's Ass in the Saddle, with Henry Alken

by Stephen J. Gertz

"There's nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse," Sir Ronald said. But Lord Reagan never rode Flossie, upon whose back my insides were pureed and my outsides left as an ugly  palette of hematomas. Of my bones and sinews the less said the better.

But I get ahead of myself, as I would soon get ahead of the horse.

I am nothing if not a gentleman, and what is a gentleman if not a skilled horseman, I ask? And so, accompanied by my faithful companion, Sancho, I went for a relaxing ride in the country just outside of London where we could walk, trot, and gallop our steeds without fear of moving violations amidst the clamor and clutter of the City. Traffic's a bugger, Jack.


We mounted our horses at the stable. I was immediately dissatisfied: While the stableman looked on with bloody annoying amusement I attempted to move Flossie off the ten-penny piece she had stalled upon, alas to little effect. It was as if the coin was the last upon earth and Flossie a miser; the nag would not budge. Sancho's horse, apparently a precocious student of geology, was transfixed by the rocks in its immediate path. By the look of him, you'd think the horse a jeweler examining a gem; if the plug had asked for a loupe I would not have been thrown for one.

"Knights - View of the City Road."

Finally, we took off, knights on the City Road. And shortly thereafter, so, too, did the wind, almost taking us off our horses. "No more beans for breakfast," I flatulently noted to Sancho, whose horse, the geologist, looked back at him as if to say, "Hey, Stinky, lay off the Limburger!" The malodorous gale blew out our umbrellas, which we brought along to insure a full day of uninterrupted sunshine. Had we not brought umbrellas a monsoon would have surely engulfed us, its thumb on its nose with fingers wiggling, the universal sign for "na na-na na na!"

"The pleasure of riding in company.
One would stop if the other could."

Nostrils flared and offended our horses took off, alas and appropriately like  farts in a windstorm. We passed a lone gravestone. "The last guy to ride this scrag," I thought to myself as my life simultaneously passed before me. I swear, the horses levitated. Mine had its head to the heavens as if imploring the Creator, "Get this idiot off of me - pleeeze!" It was then that I lost all confidence in my ride, as I suspect Flossie lost all confidence in me. A horse with an opinion cannot be trusted.

"Symptoms of Things going Downhill."

Thus, we soon experienced symptoms of things going downhill, fast, the horses, apparently, of the opinion that, things heading in that direction anyway, the metaphysical should be equally met. While I struggled to get mine moving - the damned dobbin was gazing longingly into the distance as if seeing an end in sight that I was unfortunately blind to and could not enjoy - Sancho's couldn't keep his eyes off of the rocks on the ground in front of him, and I felt sorry for my compatriot: To be ignored in favor of the igneous is an ignominy not soon forgotten.
"The consequences of having plenty of company on the road."

How is it that one can be out in the middle of nowhere with not another human being in sight yet a drayman appears out of the blue, onto the ground, and directly in our path to vex us, throw our horses into a tizzy and us nearly off of them? It was as if our Lord, Jesus, had enlisted Loki, the Trickster, to make our day one for the scrapbook of woe. "You gents need a lift?" the drayman impertinently asked with a degree of evil glee usually associated with Satan collecting on a contract. My soul withered as I slipped my steed's withers.

"Preparing for the Easter Hunt (I shall be over Jack)."

"Whither thou goest?" I ruthfully thought afterward. The question was soon answered: right up to a fence. The horses would have none of it. Sancho's decided to tip-toe and take it one leg at a time. Mine, obviously still smarting from the hatchet-job the horse barber gave his tail (ouch!), tried to eject me from the saddle as he took wing over the barrier. My hat remains in mid-air in that spot to this day, testimony to my being scared stiff. The only part of me not stiff was my upper lip, which had  lost all tone, slackened, and now limply flapped when I tried to speak, making enunciation a challenge, to say the least. But since I couldn't say the least or much of anything else, the issue was moot.

"One of the comforts of riding in company."

We now come to the denouement of our equestrian jaunt into Hell in the hinterlands. Just when I thought that things could not get any worse, a bee landed on Flossie's anus, stung, and thence inspired her to perform a psychotic Highland fling that flung me over the high side and onto my backside. Swept up in the choreography, Sancho's horse joined Flossie, and the two performed a pas de deux worthy of Terpsichore,  if Terpsichore had four legs, a snout, and grazed on locoweed. Sancho bounced twice and rolled before coming to a full stop.

I thought of Shakespeare, Henry V: "When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes."

But the down-to-earth pains of reality stabbed my posterior, all romance bled-out, and I recalled the definition of horseback riding: "The art of keeping a horse between you and the ground."

And then: "Horse sense is what keeps horses from betting on people."

Finally: "Horse sense is what keeps amateurs from riding them."

If only I'd had any. Clearly, Bucephalus would be the death of us.

I grabbed my spare hat from mid-air, Sancho and I dusted ourselves off, swallowed our pride, and let the horses ride us home, total  collapse of our spinal columns a small price to pay for peace of mind.

ALKEN, Henry. Specimens of Riding Near London. Drawn from Life.
London: Published by Thomas M'Lean...,1821.
First edition (second edition, 1823). Oblong folio.
Printed title and eighteen hand-colored engraved plates.
Tooley 52.

The Plates:

1.  One of the comforts of riding in company. H. Alken 1821.
2.  Symptoms of Things going downhill. H. Alken 1821.
3.  The pleasure of riding in company. One would stop if the other Could. H. Alken 1821.
4.  Preparing for the Easter Hunt (I shall be over Jack). H. Alken 1821.
5. The Consequences of having plenty of company on the Road. H. Alken 1821.
6.  A thing of the last consequence. H. Alken 1821.
7.  Delighted. S. Alken del et sc. Augt. 1, 1821.
8.  Perfectly satisfied. S. Alken del et sc. Augt. 1, 1821.
9.  Dissatisfied. S. Alken del et sc. Augt. 1, 1821.
10. Surprised. S. Alken del et sc. Augt. 1, 1821.
11. Displeased. S. Alken del et sc. Augt. 1, 1821.
12. Terrified. S. Alken del et sc. Augt. 1, 1821.
13. 'Taste - View near Knigtsbridge. Drawn and Engraved by S. Alken Septr. 1, 1821.
14. Lords - View in Hyde Park. Oct. 1, 1821.
15. Yeomanry of England paying a visit. H. Alken del et sc. 1821.
16. Fancy - View near Grays Inn Road. Drawn and Engraved by S. Alken Septr.1, 1821.
17. Folly - View near Acton. Drawn and Engraved by S. Alken Septr. 1, 1821.
18. Knights - View in the City Road. Oct. 1, 1821.

Henry Alken (1785-1851) was an English painter and engraver  known primarily as a caricaturist and illustrator of sporting subjects and coaching scenes, with an eye often cocked to the follies of human behavior.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

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