Speculating on the origins of the Galloway horse is a process that is fraught with the issues besetting any contemporary breed enthusiast, since the whole concept of a “breed” is a very modern one and it probably did not cause medieval horse breeders any sleepless nights. A good horse was a good horse, valued for purpose rather than ancestry, and described by gait, or height, or even color or size, but principally by function.
in The Horse in Premodern European Culture, ed. A. Ropa and T. Dawson
What do Fregus, Robert the Bruce, and Shakespeare’s Pistol have in common? These disparate individuals, who are either completely fictional (as Talbot’s characters) or partially fictionalized (Fregus is based on a an actual Scottish ruler, but was turned into the title hero of an Arthurian romance by Guillaume le Clerc, while Robert the Bruce, arguably, became the protagonist of Scottish myth-making effort under the skillful pen of Barbour) share one important element. All of them rode – and valued – what has been known as the best breed of the north, the Galloway horse.
Of course, it was not a breed in Fregus’s lifetime, and the formation of horse breeds was in its infancy when Talbot was writing his plays, but Galloway nags were already famed for their hardiness, endurance, and, most of all, their speed. These little horses (possibly even ponies, by modern standard), became extinct in the nineteenth century, and have been forgotten by most of the world. Yet, as Miriam Bibby notes, there is genetic evidence that the Galloways stand at the origin of the English Thoroughbred, the fastest horse in the world. Although most documentary evidence concerns the three foundation sires of the English Thoroughbred, all three Arabians, the mares should not be neglected. What is more, recent genetic analysis shows that the speed gene in the Thoroughbred does not originate from the Arabian genetic material but from the local one.
Could the Galloways, who valiantly supported Fregus on his adventures, gallantly bore Bruce into battle, and was immortalized by Shakespeare, be accountable for the speed of the legendary Eclipse and, indirectly, for the emergence of the modern horseracing industry?
There are many chapters in the history of the Galloway that are yet to be written, and Miriam Bibby made a remarkable step towards the writing – and partially rewriting – the history of this neglected breed. In a single chapter, she takes the reader from the world of Arthurian romance, generated in the thirteenth century and set in the fictional universe of Scotland, which lay in the margins of the Arthurian realm, through the medieval historical Scotland and into the early modern Britain of the Plantagenets. In all of these settings, the Galloway, praised by Froissart and Guillaume le Clerk, by Talbot and the author of the lyrics praising Robert Bruce, is recognized as the supreme local mount.
Of all the contributions to the Horse in Premodern European Culture, I was very much fascinated by this somewhat eclectic study, and for two good reasons. The first is that I am Arthurian scholar myself, so reading about horses mounted by Arthur’s knight is always. of particular interest to me. The second, and very personal reason, is that I own an ex-racing Thoroughbred horse, born in South Wales, who, at the venerable age of nineteen, shows no signs of slowing down (thanks God!). Thus, learning more about the breed’s history and the possible link between Galloways and the English Thoroughbred was very intriguing, although Miriam does not dwell on this aspect for long, as it is well beyond the chronological and thematic scope of the article.