Myth Or Fact: In Statues, The Number Of Feet The Horse Has Off The Ground Indicate How The Rider Died

Common wisdom has it that in equestrian statues, the number of hooves lifted into the air actually reveals the fate of the rider:

  • Two feet off the ground: the rider died in battle
  • One feet off the ground: the rider was wounded in battle and was later on died as a result of those wounds
  • All four legs are on the ground: the rider survived all the battles and died of unrelated causes

This is so popular throughout the world, it looks like it’s some sort of code among sculptors. But is this the case though? Does the number of feet the horse has off the ground indicate how the rider died?

Let’s find out. (the article continues after the ad)

LITERATURE

The first thing someone has to do when fact checking this kind of stuff, is to study the relevant literature. Well, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we couldn’t find any specific reference that connects the portrayal of the horse in equestrian statues with the death of the rider. One would assume that if this was indeed a code in sculpture, someone could have easily found this on textbooks and other relevant documents. However, we didn’t.

What we did find, was the very interesting book From Marcus Aurelius to Kim Jong-il, the story of equestrian statues throughout the ages. In it, author Kees van Tilburg, makes the first attempt since 1899 to compile a list of all the equestrian statues in the world in a single book. So, our website contacted Kees for a comment. Here’s his reply:

“About the meaning of the number of feet of the horses off the ground, I can be short. Under the heading ‘Nonsense stories about equestrian statues’ on page 105 of my book From Marcus Aurelius to Kim Jong-il:
“A nonsense story coming up from time to time is that a statue contains a code whereby the rider’s fate can be determined by noting how many hooves the horse has raised. For example one hoof raised indicates wounded in battle, two raised hooves death in battle. Needless to say, even if such a code ever existed, almost no sculptor respected it”.
But it must be said: it is a persistent story.”

That’s pretty convincing to me but before putting the last nail on the coffin of this myth, we decided to put the claim to the test. (the article continues after the ad)

 

PUT THE CLAIM TO THE TEST

By using this handy wikipedia article (List of equestrian statues) we were able to find equestrian statues from all over the world and see if this code applies in real life. Here are our findings:

  • Randomly selected statues from eighteen countries: 20
  • Statues in which hoof code holds true: 4
  • Statues in which hoof code does not apply: 16
For a full list of the statues and links to their pictures, click on this text.

Argentina, Monumento a Giuseppe Garibaldi: Statue has one leg raised – Giuseppe Garibaldi died of unrelated causes

Armenia, Monument to Gayk Bzhishkyan: Statue has both legs raised – Gayk Bzhishkyan didn’t die in battle, he was shot dead in 1937

Australia, Statue of King George V: Statue has all four legs on the ground – King George V was euthanised

 Bosnia and Herzegovina, Statue of King Petar I Karađorđević: Statue has two legs raised – Peter I of Serbia died of unrelated causes

 Czech republic, Monument of Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia: Statue has one leg raised – Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia was murdered in 935

✘ Georgia, Monument of Giorgi Saakadze: Statue has one leg raised – Giorgi Saakadze was accused of treason and was put to death in 1629

Greece, Monument of Alexander the Great: Statue has both legs raised – Alexander the Great died of fever

Greece, Statue of General Theodoros Kolokotronis: Statue has one leg raised – Theodoros Kolokotronis died of unrelated causes

Hungary, Statue of Sir Thomas Munroe: Statue has all four legs on the ground – Sir Thomas Munroe died of cholera in 1827

Iran, Statue of Nader Shah: Statue has both legs raised – Nader Shah was stabbed to death in 1747

Italy, Statue of Marcus Aurelius: Statue has one leg raised – Marcus Aurelius died to natural causes

Italy, statue of Victor Emmanuel II: Statue has one leg raised – Victor Emmanuel II died of unrelated causes

Japan, Statue of Prince Komatsu Akihito: Statue has one leg raised – Prince Komatsu Akihito died of unrelated causes

✘ North Korea, Statue of Kim Yushin: Statue has both legs raised – Kim Yushin died of unrelated causes

Luxembourg, Statue of Grand Duke Willem II: Statue has one leg raised – Grand Duke Willem II died of unrelated causes

The Netherlands, Statue of Saint MartinusStatue has all four legs on the ground – Saint Martinus died of unrelated causes

Peru, Statue of Simón Bolivar: Statue has both legs raised – Simón Bolivar died of tuberculosis in 1830

Portugal, Statue of Vímara Peres: Statue has all four legs on the ground – Vímara Peres died of unrelated causes

Switzerland, Monument to Alexander Suvorov: Statue has both legs raised – Alexander Suvorov died of tuberculosis in 1830

✘ Ukraine, Statue of Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny: Statue has all four legs on the ground – Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny died from wounds he suffered at the Battle of Khotyn

 

As you can see, the statues in which the hoof code does apply is the minority.

However, there is one location where this code mostly holds true and that is the Gettysburg equestrian statues. Almost all Gettysburg equestrian statues are loyal to this code but there is at least one exception: the statue of James Longstreet has one leg raised despite the fact that James Longstreet didn’t die from battle wounds.

 

VERDICT

This one is definitely a myth; the portrayal of the horse has nothing to do with how the rider died. I wish we could tell you more on the origin of the myth, but we couldn’t find anything specific. A wild guess is that it did originate in the Gettysburg equestrian statues and from there spread throughout the world but, again, this is just a speculation.

We close this article with Kees van Tulburg’s words on the portrayal of the horse, as we find it far more important that the hooves code: An equestrian statue may be dedicated to the rider, but the portrayal of the horse is no less important. Both have to be in harmony with each other. In a good equestrian statue, one should recognize the character of the rider from the way the horse has been sculpted. For instance, a horse at rest gives a sense of authority to the rider. A rearing horse combines well with a dynamic rider.”

If you like what you read then you will definitely love this one: Myth Or Fact: Did Charlie Chaplin Lose A Charlie Chaplin Impersonation Competition?

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Main Article Photo: WikimediaWikimedia, Wikimedia
Photoshop: I’m A Useless Info Junkie
Sources: Equestrian Statue Code | List of equestrian statues | In statues, does the number of feet the horse has off the ground indicate the fate of the rider? | Equestrian statues

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