Here is a “fact” that people occasionally still pass on – If you ever see a statue of a person riding a horse, allegedly you can tell how that person died by the hoof position. If the horse is rearing (with both front hooves in the air), this means that the rider died in battle. If only one front hoof is lifted, it means that the rider was only injured in battle and may or may not have died of his wounds later on. Lastly, if all four hooves are on the ground then the rider died outside of battle of an unrelated cause.
This idea is a myth. At no time were there any official documents or testimonies from actual sculptors to support this fact. The whole notion is based entirely on a few random observations of statues that support the myth. Sure, there are plenty of them out there, but there are also many others that do not.
This statue of Andrew Jackson by Clark Mills located in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. shows the horse with both front legs off the ground, suggesting that the rider died in battle. However, Andrew Jackson died of old age at 78. Clark Mills was one of the most renowned American sculptors of his time so he would likely be aware if this supposed statue code existed.
Truth be told, this piece of folklore is probably more predominant in America than anywhere else. It is even possible that the entire myth started after the Battle of Gettysburg. Numerous statues were erected in honor of the men who fought in that battle and a lot of them support the myth.
The best place to disprove this notion is Washington, D.C. since it has more equestrian statutes than any other city in the country. You can find plenty of statues that lend credence to the myth, but also plenty that disprove it (including the aforementioned statue of Andrew Jackson). In the end, it’s all a matter of statistics. Since nobody has ever thought to make a statue of a horse jumping on one leg, there are only three possible choices for equestrian statues. Moreover, these three choices cover all possible death scenarios of the riders depicted. Since each statue has a 33% chance of getting it right, it’s no wonder that so many of them exist that make the myth believable.
Europe has its own sculpture myth. If a statue (or, more likely, a grave cover) of a knight has his legs or arms crossed, this means he took part in the Crusades. However, the same problems prove that this is nothing more than a myth – there are statues of knights with crossed legs who we know didn’t fight in the Crusades and vice versa. Moreover, there are also grave covers of women with crossed legs (and they certainly didn’t fight in the Crusades), as well as statues of knights who lived hundreds of years after the Crusades.
Again, this myth seems to be mostly localized, this time in England. This is where the bulk of the cross-legged grave covers and statues can be found. However, England didn’t take part in a lot of Crusades; it was mostly continental nations like France and the various Italian territories.
Bonus Fact: At a height of 131 ft (40 m), the statue of Genghis Khan at Tsonjin Boldog is the largest equestrian statue in the world. The horse is sitting on all four legs which should indicate that Genghis didn’t die in battle (if the myth were true). We actually cannot say whether this is accurate or not since Genghis’ cause of death is not known. Some sources claim he died in battle, others from injuries sustained after falling off a horse and some claim he died of illness. In theory, all three possible positions could be applicable. Not that it would matter anyway since the statue is made of steel. Supposedly, the code only applies to stone and bronze statues.
- There is a myth that a code for equestrian statues specifies how the rider died
- If the horse is rearing, it means the rider died in battle. If only one front leg is up, the rider died later of injuries sustained in battle. If the horse is sitting on all fours, the rider did not die in battle.
- There is no evidence to support this idea. There are plenty of statues that follow these rules, but also plenty that don’t.
- Another older myth is that European statues of knights with arms or legs crossed show that the knights fought in the Crusades. Again, it’s not true for the same reasons.
- If you want to see the biggest equestrian statue in the world, head on over to Mongolia to see the statue of Genghis Khan.
Featured image courtesy of Francois Philipp via Flickr.