“That’s a horse of a different colour,” stated Dolly Harney one evening recently in her Select Lounge. I can’t remember what she was referring to, but the phrase itself got me thinking. I could feel the old Conway cognitive mills begining to grind beneath my hat, and a myriad of horse-phrases galloped across my mind.

I’m not a great aficionado of horses, but I don’t entirely agree with Ian Fleming’s quip about horses being uncomfortable in the middle and dangerous at both ends (it would perhaps seem that the esteemed author didn’t excactly ‘bond’ with his trusty steed). I’m more inclined to agree with the picturesque ancient Arab saying, ‘the wind of heaven blows between a horse’s ears’.

There are horses for courses, of course. But then again there might not be, if it is a two horse race. In that event, it could be altogether a horse of a different colour. Foinavon was grey, I think. And he emerged from an even greyer mist at Beecher’s Brook to win the Aintree Grand National. Some say he hid in the shrouds of mist, and made only one circuit of the course.

Subterfuge or not, Foinavon pulled off one of the greatest upsets in racing history, winning at sixty-six to one, according to Johnny Begley, who claims to have backed him. Anyway, he was a bit of a dark horse, wasn’t he?

It was the subterfuge of the Trojan horse, otherwise known as ‘the wooden horse of Troy’, that led to the cautionary phrase, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’. It seems the Greek army was often worth a trick or two.

When Croton Greeks were outnumbered three-to-one by the rival city army of Sybaris, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, some one came up with the amazing strategy of playing loud music at the advancing enemy. Someone had remembered that the horses of the Sybaris were famed for being trained to dance to music Still, one imagines the Greek soldiers were more than a bit nonplussed at this strange order to play dance music on their flutes. No doubt they were as surprised as any when all of the Sybaris horses started dancing and threw the cavalry into confusion. Faster and faster played the flutes, and faster and faster danced the horses, thus allowing the Crotonian Greeks to complete an unlikely military victory. No doubt, when the music stopped, the Sybarians had to face music of a different sort. Or so the story goes.

Horse-racing has been big business since the earliest days of the Roman Empire, and probably long before that. The notorious mad emperor, Caligula, built a stall made of marble within which stood a manger made of ivory, and all for a stallion named Incitatus, and then he went even further by granting the horse the status of senator (Mister Ed, eat your heart out).

That senatorial appointment, needless to say, met with strong disapproval among the Senators themselves, who no doubt, knowing their Caligula, had nightmarish visions of an equestrian takeover of the Senate while they were ‘put out to pasture’, so to speak.
Nowadays, top racing horses get our modern equivalent of marble stalls and ivory mangers. ‘Stars’ such as Arkle enjoyed the limelight, having twice consigned Millhouse to second place. SL Crawford’s painting of Arkle, Red Rum, and Desert Orchid, three of the greatest steeplechasers in history, hangs on the wall of my living-room. It is captioned ‘We Three Kings’.

Other horses had less pampered lives, as we’ve seen from the plethora of WWI horse articles and documentaries following upon the success of the film ‘War Horse’. And then there was the fictional work-horse in George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, which was rewarded, not with ‘grass years’ but a one-way trip to the glue factory.

I’ll leave you with the thought that Anna Sewell’s much-loved ‘Black Beauty’ paved the way for a greater understanding of animal welfare.

Read Dan Conway every week in Ireland’s Own