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The enduring sights of The Ridgeway’s two chalk horses at Hackpen and Uffington are symbolic of an admiration of horses dating back thousands of years and still going strong today….read on below to find out more.

Thanks for contributions to this Top 50 from J Bridger and S Green.

Banner image credit Hedley Thorne.

The chalk horse stretching 110m (360 feet) across White Horse Hill near Uffington is a unique highlight of The Ridgeway. The striking landmark suggests horses were significant to the Iron Age people who first created it, as do horses shown on coins of that time which are also some of the earliest coins to appear in Britain. One Ridgeway coin, shown in the photo gallery, which dates back to around 130-75BC shows a rider with a flowing cape on a horse with a wheel behind; perhaps pulling a cart or carriage.

It may be that the leaping Uffington horse was created as a Sun Horse to pull the sun through the sky during the day and then descend into the ‘underworld’ overnight in a perpetual cycle. The ‘Trundholm sun chariot‘ from Denmark illustrates this idea and is shown in the photo gallery. Standing on Dragon Hill around mid-winter, the horse on the brow of the hill appears to track the movement of the sun as it rises over the hill and later sets over Wayland’s Smithy long barrow. In this way, The Ridgeway may have been a processional east-west route linking the chalk horse to the older long barrow.

Wayland’s Smithy has many horse-related myths attached to it; the most well-known being that Wayland, the Anglo-Saxon blacksmith God, will shoe your horse if you leave it overnight at the barrow with a coin on the entrance stone.

Various metal items from harnesses to brooches have been found around The Ridgeway indicating how people have lived with horses for thousands of years in the area – for pulling (agriculture and transport), for riding (pleasure and warfare) and for meat, milk and manure. One example, shown in the photo gallery, is a cast copper alloy Roman military phalera (horse harness) mount dating to 3 AD. Another example from the Portable Antiquities Scheme is a medieval gilded spur from the 14th century which shows a lot of use.

The earliest evidence comes from Gatehampton near the River Thames where archaeologists have found evidence to suggest people during the Upper Palaeolithic period hunted horses, as well as other animals, at this river crossing point which acted as a natural pinchpoint. Wild horses once roamed Britain and Europe but domesticated horses from Iron Age and Bronze Age sites indicate that they originated from the Eurasian Steppes and so came into Britain with migrating people.

The pinnacle of domestication is the thorough-bred racehorse and the Valley of the Racehorse centred around Lambourn, just south of The Ridgeway, is famous in the history of the sport in this country. It is said that the Romans introduced the idea of racing with horses and its importance was secured through the interest of royalty over the years. Some say that the ‘unbeatable Eclipse’ was bred and trained at Kates Gore near East Ilsley, where the Duke of Cumberland, brother to George II, had stables in the 18th century. Later in the 19th century, the champion racehorse Lord Lyon was trained in the area too.

There are only three stables in East and West Ilsley today but Lambourn is home to over 30 prominent racing stables. The Lambourn area is known as ‘The Valley of the Racehorse’ with its famous gallops preparing Derby, Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle winners. It all began with the racehorse owner and breeder William Craven, 3rd Baron, who started the Lambourn Racehorse meetings on his property near Ashdown House in 1731. Over the years, racehorse courses have come and gone across the area, as well as training gallops – a detailed history of the area is described with photos on this website created by Lambourn enthusiasts. Watching racehorses pounding along the gallops or walking back steaming to the yards is a special early morning sight around The Ridgeway, although some Ridgeway visitors expressed views during the 50th anniversary that it was a ‘cruel sport’.

One of the most loved horses in the history of horse racing in the UK was trained at East Lockinge, near Wantage. Best Mate (1995 – 2005) won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times and his sudden death while racing made front-page news. A bronze statue of him can be seen at his training ground.

Another impressive horse racing story from The Ridgeway relates to Jenny Pitman who was the first female trainer to win a Grand National (in 1983) and had horses at Lambourn and Hinton Parva. She was the first winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award for ‘outstanding achievement in the face of adversity’ in 1999 in recognition of her suffering cancer.

Today, The Ridgeway is popular as a place for recreational horse riding and carriage driving with various events including trekking, endurance, pleasure and fundraising rides. The Ridgeway and connecting off-road routes are a welcome escape from roads busy with traffic – ‘a place to be at one with their horse and to see and hear the flora and fauna’. A historic routeway known as Old Street is a particular favourite with its soft grassy uphill surface; an ‘ideal spot for a canter’.

Notes: More information about Wayland’s Smithy and chalk marks such as the Uffington White Horse is available in other Top 50 entries.

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