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Horses in Britain

Horses have been in Britain for at least 700,000 years and there is evidence that prehistoric Britons were hunting horses for food at least 10,000 years ago.

By 4,500 years ago, horses had been domesticated by ancient British tribes and within a thousand years they were being used in battle.
 
Throughout the Iron Age, horses and chariots were included in the grave goods of high status individuals. This reflected the significance of horses as symbols of wealth and power.
 
The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain 1,600 years ago was attributed to Hengist and Horsa, whose names translate to “Stallion” and “Horse”. Whether these figures were real is uncertain, but their names suggest that the Anglo-Saxon association between horses and status was as well defined as that of the Britons that they displaced.
 
In Britain horses have played a vital role in farming, transport, recreation and warfare. This only changed after petrol engines became widely used in the 20th Century.
 
The traditional significance of the horse is not entirely lost today. Many ceremonial occasions use mounted guards or horse-drawn carriages and folk festivals often include a Hobby Horse, such as the Penglaz in the Mazey Day celebrations in Penzance.

Winged horses and bowed strings

Dances at ritual festivals such as the May Day parade with the Deptford Jack-in-the-Green are often accompanied by the violin. Like most stringed instrument bows, the violin’s is strung with horsehair.  

Traditionally, white horsehair is used for the violin, viola and ‘cello bows, while the double bass bow has black hair. The bow with the bass viol by Martin Voigt made in 1726 and displayed in the Art of Harmony exhibition is a rare survival, as a bow matching a specific instrument of that era. 
 
In the Music Gallery there are stringed instruments and bows from Europe, Africa and Asia. The technique of playing stringed instruments with a bow is thought to have originated among horse-riding communities of Central Asia in the 10th century.
 
Some instruments themselves are strung with horsehair, as well as their bows.

The Nigerian goge with its horsehair strings is displayed in the Music Gallery, as is the Mongolian horse head fiddle, the morin huur that is a Royal Loan to the Horniman Museum. Legend says that a winged horse named Jönung Khara Mori was magically transformed into the first morin huur after death. Its head ornamented the top of the instrument, and its tail and mane became the sounding strings.