The Long Riders' Guild

Snippets, Captain Scott's meat-eating horse, alongside Captain Lawrence Oates in Antarctica.

Polar Ponies


CuChullaine O’Reilly


When asked to describe outstanding horses that influenced the course of human events, many might think of fleet Thoroughbreds grazing in England’s peaceful green fields or the renowned horses that dwelt in Arabia’s blazing desert. Few would believe that the most astonishing equine explorers in history were found in the frozen corners of the world, nor that it was from those obscure and hostile places that the seeds of modern equestrian exploration sprang.

With his obsession on sport, modern man’s equestrian amnesia has unfortunately caused him to forget the astonishing meat-eating horses of Tibet who carried Long Riders across 19,000 foot high Himalayan passes, the robust Yakut horses who carried explorers through minus 50 degree weather and the courageous Siberian horses who helped man reach the South Pole.

The story of how these horses are connected to the modern Long Riders’ Guild begins with the father of equestrian cold weather exploration.

Siberian Treasures

In 1893 a renowned British explorer and Long Rider, Frederick George Jackson made an equestrian journey which changed history. He used remarkable Russian horses to make a 3,000 mile winter crossing of Siberia.

The life of this renaissance man of exploration reads like a chapter out of a 19th century Boy’s Own adventure novel. Born in England in 1860, Jackson was awarded a medal for bravery at a young age when he plunged into the icy waters of a Scottish loch to rescue a girl from drowning. Yet this adventurous rolling stone couldn’t be contained in England. Having ridden across a wild part of Australia on his Brumby, Rattlesnake; sailed across the Atlantic on a whaler; and in his spare time read medicine at Edinburgh University; Jackson decided to travel across Siberia.

The frozen heart of that country is Yakutia, a vast, sparsely populated area which contains the infamous “Pole of Cold.” The coldest temperature in the northern hemisphere was recorded there, a bone-breaking minus 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the man-killing cold, the Siberians routinely made equestrian journeys along the great post road which crossed that portion of the Russian empire.

Jackson originally planned to use reindeer to make his winter journey across Siberia, but was urged instead to change to native horses. His decision to incorporate equine strength was based upon the fact that the Siberians had a centuries old tradition of winter-time horse travel. This unique equestrian culture was made possible by the incredible Yakut horses.

These horses are able to survive because they have specialized hair which has a unique core that greatly increases its insulating charac­teristics. Additional insulation is provided by a sub-dermal layer of fat. Plus, the Siberian horses have the ability to alter the rate of their respiration, thereby helping them to further adapt to extremes of cold weather.

Thanks to the success of his Siberian expe­dition, in 1894 Jackson was asked to head an international expedition whose goal was to explore Franz Josef Land, a remote archipelago located north of Russia in the Arctic Ocean.

Polar Ponies

While Jackson did take dogs when he went to Franz Josef Land, he also brought four Siberian horses with him to explore this inaccessible part of the world, thus setting the stage for an incredible set of equestrian events that would involve Antarctica and the Arctic Circle.

During Jackson’s journey in Franz Josef Land with his robust horses, it was minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet he travelled “night and day” for twelve days with a sledge weighing 700 pounds, covering 240 miles along “abominable tracks.”

“And such are the courage and stamina of these hardy little Russian horses that although we had only given them two rests of two hours each during that time they were full of spirit at the end.”

He later writes, “We had travelled 470 miles in seven and a half days; and I think this speaks volumes for the little Russian horses. We had two sledges, and one horse to each sledge; we went at a spanking pace nearly the whole way, yet they trotted into camp as fresh as paint.”

In his book, A Thousand Days in the Arctic, Jackson recalled how one of these animals, a mare named Brownie, “appears to be doing very well on her miscellaneous diet. In addition to her regular feed of Spratt dog biscuits and hay, she shares the scraps left from our meals with the dogs, and very frequently helps herself to their polar bear meat, and shows a fondness for picking at bird skins lying around the hut.”

English Long Rider Frederick George Jackson, whose Siberian mare, Brownie, ate polar bear meat.

Besides introducing horses into cold weather exploration, Jackson contributed to Polar history in another manner as well. His idea of using private funding liberated explorers from the necessity of relying on official government handouts.

Thanks to the influence of Jackson’s journeys, further horse journeys into the frozen north were to follow.

Indian Fighters on the Ice

In 1901 and 1903 two American expeditions also explored the Arctic Circle, both of which used Siberian horses. The second attempt was led by a talented photographer named Anthony Fiala. The equestrian needs of that expedition were handled by veterans of the 2nd US Cavalry. These former Indian fighters “led the expedition in mounted drills and exercise rides on the Arctic ice.”

Fiala noted that upon landing on the ice, the horses stampeded with joy.

Once again the horses proved to be of immense help. Fiala praised the horses for pulling 800 to 1200 pound sledges and concluded that unlike the dogs, the ponies did not need to be urged to keep up with the column.

“On smooth ice dogs travelled faster but as soon as they struck rough going the ponies out distanced them easily. The men driving the dog teams were tired out at the end of a day’s march by the constant exertion in helping the dogs pull their loads up grades but it was seldom required for the ponies, so that their drivers arrived stronger.”

Siberian ponies being exercised in the Arctic Circle by US cavalry veterans.

Fiala concluded, “The ponies were less troublesome than the dogs.”

To the South Pole

With these equestrian expeditions serving as a background, and thanks to positive personal experiences with his own meat-eating horses, Jackson encouraged Sir Ernest Shackleton to also use horses in the latter’s bid to reach the South Pole. When the Irish explorer set out to explore Antarctica in 1907, Shackleton took ten Manchurian horses, thereby creating an exceptional chain of equestrian events which led from Siberia to the Arctic Circle, and then south to Antarctica.

Though it was later learned that horses will eat seal meat, Shackle­ton had no way of knowing this prior to his departure. In need of dietary advice, the sailor turned horse explorer sought assistance from the army. What he found may surprise modern riders.

The British military high command was aware that horses could consume meat-based rations under certain circumstances. The grassless ice fields of Antarctica would certainly have qualified.

To overcome the horse’s need for grass-based bulk feed, Shackleton arranged to purchase ten tons of compressed fodder consisting of oats, bran and chaff. He also took a large stock of corn. Yet upon the advice of the British military equestrian establishment, Shackleton decided to enhance his horses’ normal diet with a special meat-based supplement known as “Maujee Ration.” This was a distinctive type of equine pem­­mican developed at Aldershot, one of England’s most important military establishments.

Shackleton set off for the South Pole with three comrades and four of the original ten horses. Each of the Manchurian horses pulled a twelve-foot sledge carrying an average of 650 pounds. Like Jackson before him, Shackleton praised his horses.

He wrote, “compared to the dog, the pony is a far more efficient animal, one pony doing the work of at least ten dogs and tra­vel­ling a further distance in a day……It was trying work for the ponies but they all did splendidly in their own particular way.”

The harsh weather and unforgiving terrain caused the men and horses alike to struggle through the cold and snow. But Shackle­ton made a startling observation. The horses preferred to eat the meat-based ration rather than the traditional fodder. They even threw corn out of their nosebags, scattering it on the ground, in anger at being denied the Maujee ration.

On November 6, 1908, Shackleton first noted, “They all like the Maujee ration and eat that up before touching their maize.”

A few days later, both men and horses had begun taking special notice of the meat-filled horse food. On November 9, Shackleton wrote, “Tonight we boiled some Maujee ration for the ponies, and they took this feed well. It has a delicious smell and we ourselves would have enjoyed it.”

Because of the dangers and hardships of the journey, three of the gallant horses had to be put down on the outward journey. Never­the­less, Shackleton, his men and the remaining horse, Socks, pressed ever onward towards the South Pole.

On December 3, 1908, at 7 p.m., Sir Ernest Shackleton, his three human companions, and their sole remaining pony, Socks, pitched camp – and made history.

Because the four men and the sole surviving horse were "tired and hungry, we made a good dinner which included a cupful of Maujee ration as an extra.”

By sharing the Maujee ration, Shackleton and Socks became the first known horse and human to consume meat together.

Shackleton's meat eating Siberian horse, Socks.

Socks the Manchurian pony holds a special place in equestrian history for two reasons. No other horse ever came as close to reaching the South Pole and he is the first recorded horse to have shared a meat-based meal with his master.

Sadly, neither Shackleton nor Socks gained the South Pole. On December 7, Socks fell into a “black bottomless pit.” Had Socks not died, a meat-eating horse may well have helped Shackleton reach the South Pole.

Shackleton and his men marched on for an additional month, coming remarkably close to their elusive geographic goal, before being forced to turn back. He had opened the door to a noteworthy series of events – a dual equestrian exploration of Antarctica by Great Britain and Ger­many, both of which also employed meat-eating horses.

Unlikely Equestrian Allies

Modern folklore delights in focusing on the intense polar rivalry which existed between the Norwegians, led by Roald Amundsen, and the English, led by Captain Robert Scott, with the former relying on dogs to pull their sleds, while the latter obstinately preferred to “man haul” their equipment across the ice. That story sold reams of newspapers in its day and continues to fuel a lucrative niche publishing industry today. This is an erroneous simplification of history perpetrated by pedestrians, one which overlooks an astonishing series of under- reported equestrian event.

Disregarded is the fact that this was not a two-horse race between two bitter nationalistic foes determined to champion different methods of travel. Prior to Scott’s departure for Antarctica, Germany and England were still on such friendly terms that it was agreed that explorers from both nations would simultaneously use horses, some of whom it was later discovered were meat-eaters, to try and meet each other in Antarctica.

This decision was brought about in 1912 when Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II authorized explorer Wilhelm Filchner to travel to the South Pole. The young German Long Rider had already made successful explorations across Central Asia, most notably when he rode alone through the Pamir Mountains, from Osh to Murgabh to the upper Wakhan to Tashkurgan and back in 1898.

Having received his nation’s commission to explore the southern most continent, Filchner journeyed to London in search of first-hand knowledge regarding polar travel. Here he was befriended by Captain Robert Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton, both of whom encouraged and helped the amateur Polar explorer.

After a series of meetings it was agreed that somewhere in the vastness of Antarctica, the Germans, led by Filchner, would locate the British team, led by Captain Scott, whereupon the two nations would exchange personnel before retiring to their respective camps on either side of the continent. Both expeditions were to use horses, in addition to sled dogs. The British also relied upon motor-driven tractors, and in extremis, man hauling.

Neither team leader realized at the time that both their expeditions would unknowingly rely on meat-eating equines in this effort. Nor was it known that the Norwegians were even planning on being anywhere near Antarctica, as Amundsen had announced he was trying instead for the North Pole. Therefore, if events had gone as planned, German and English equestrian travellers would have met as friends somewhere in the interior of the frozen continent.

Moreover, thanks to Filchner’s unexpected appearance in London, a significant moment in equestrian travel history soon occurred. This came about when Scott was preparing to leave England’s capital. His slow ship and her crew had already departed for Antarctica. Having concluded last-minute fund raising, Scott was now taking a train to the coast. There he would board a fast sailing passenger liner bound for New Zealand, where he would rendezvous with his expedition.

When Scott boarded the train, Shackleton and Filchner were waiting to bid their fellow explorer farewell.

Ironically, as the train pulled out of the station, Scott’s final words were aimed not at Shackleton, with whom he had shared many desperate adventures, but at his fellow equestrian explorer, Wilhelm Filchner.

“See you at the South Pole,” Scott yelled to Filchner, as the train pulled away from the London station.

South Pole Ponies

What is seldom remembered today is that, like Shackleton and Jackson before them, Filchner and Scott were also using Siberian and Manchurian horses to assist them in their push to the frozen bottom of the Earth.

Upon departing from London, Filchner returned to Germany, convinced that he and Scott were in agreement on an extraordinary plan which incorporated the themes of international cooperation, scientific advancement and horses. There had been no hint of commercial, national or personal competition.

Like Scott, prior to his departure Filchner had purchased Manchurian horses to explore Antarctica. Like Amundsen, Filchner also brought dogs. Filchner landed on the western side of the Antarctic continent via the Weddell Sea, where he unloaded the horses and dogs he had brought for his team's push to the Pole. One of these horses, Stasi, ate raw seal meat and dried fish.

Upon arriving, he was surprised to learn that because the dogs viewed the ship as a home, they had to be separated by force from the ship, unlike the horses who eagerly went ashore and “when they felt terra firma under their hooves; they bit, kicked and pranced from high spirits and joie-de-vivre.”

Filchner also remarked on the ease which his horses pulled sledges weighing 1,200 pounds.

“As draft animals the ponies achieved miracles.”

Unfortunately, the ice on which he set up camp was unstable and the expedition was unable to proceed.

German Long Rider Alfred Kling is seen riding one of Siberian horses that went to Antarctica.

Yet in stark contrast to modern dogma, which insists that it was a race to the Pole that pitted British man-haulers against more competent Norwegian dog sledders, there were in fact two equestrian expeditions, camped on different sides of Antarctica, at the same time, and they had planned to meet.

In a remarkable acknowledgement of how well these horses thrived in cold weather, upon the completion of his journey to Antarctica in 1912, German Long Rider Wilhelm Filchner, released his horses on South Georgia Island, allowing them to run wild on the Hestesletten (Horse Plain).

Death in Antarctica

While Filchner had problems, Scott was facing a disaster.

The English explorer was dismayed to learn that a rival team of experienced Norwegian travellers, under the leadership of renowned polar explorer Roald Amundsen, had landed in Antarctica. Thus, a three way national effort was now underway to reach the elusive South Pole.

Unlike Jackson and Shackleton, Scott took a different view on equine nutrition. He brought none of the high-energy Maujee ration for his horses, deciding instead to feed them compressed fodder made of wheat. He also gave the horses hot bran mash with either oats or oilcake on alternate days.

Despite their traditional diet of hay, oats, bran and oil cake, the equestrian report compiled after the English expedition concluded, “The nutritive value was insufficient under the conditions of sledging and the ponies became very weak and lost flesh markedly. So much so that in the ration for the Southern Journey a large proportion of oats and oil cake were incorporated. The total weight of the daily ration of these feeds was 11 pounds per pony per day. It was increased to 13 pounds per day and was still insufficient.”

Regardless of his well-meaning efforts, Scott’s horses “lost weight until they were just skin and bone.”

Even though they lacked the tasty Maujee ration, eyewitnesses recorded that at least one of Scott’s horses was an avid meat-eater.

“One of our ponies, Snippets, would eat blubber and so far as I know it agreed with him,” Cherry-Garrard wrote.

Another critical error involved Scott’s decision not to use horse snow shoes of a type long trusted in Arctic regions.

Historians are quick to praise Amundsen’s decision to use travel techniques and clothing which he adopted from the Inuit people who resided in the Arctic Circle. In stark contrast, the English explorers failed to equip all their horses with a type of equine snow shoe which had been successfully used in Scandinavia for at least 700 years.

These snow shoes were highly regarded by generations of horsemen in the Arctic Circle and Canada, so it was no surprise Scott would have taken them along, as he realized the odd discs had the potential to increase his team’s daily mileage. On the occasions when they had been fitted to his horses, he pronounced them a “triumph” and said they were “worth their weight in gold.”

Equine snow shoes left behind in Scott’s hut in Antarctica.

Yet they were not used. This colossal, fatal mishap resulted mainly from the prejudicial decision of the man hired as the horse expert and trainer for the expedition, Captain Lawrence Oates. Ironically, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his four companions might not have died eleven miles from safety on their return trip from the South Pole.  At their disposal was the equine key not only to have probably made it to the Pole and back in 1912 in safety, but quite possibly to have beaten Norwegian Roald Amundsen to it, and lived to tell the tale.

Mules and Penguins

The humble mule has many devoted fans. However few of them realize that their favourite animal also made exploration history in Antarctica.

Prior to his fatal departure to the South Pole, Scott had written to the British army authorities in India asking them to authorize the use of specially trained Himalayan mountain mules. In accordance with that request, seven of these skilled animals were shipped from India, down to New Zealand, and on to Antarctica. They arrived after Scott’s party had failed to return from their ill-fated attempt to beat Amundsen to the South Pole.

After having survived another cruel Antarctic winter, Scott’s remaining men set out in spring to try and find their missing leader. Once again the equestrian portion of that tale has been almost entirely deleted from popular cultural records.

In a unique report later published in England, the expedition’s second-in-command, Dr. Edward Atkinson, explained how he led the search party of men and mules which set out to locate Scott’s missing party.

Unlike the horses, previous to their arrival the Indian mules had been well trained to wear equine snow shoes. Atkinson wrote that the snow shoes worked so well that the mules were able to cross crevasses with them. The mules had also been equipped with tinted snow goggles and protective canvas hoods. With swiftness and ease the mules assisted the search party to find the bodies and belongings of the expedition members at their final resting place.

In the equestrian report later authored by Atkinson, he stated that “the mules covered nearly 400 miles and were in such good fettle they could have done it again…..They were obviously stronger and better trained than the ponies and would have done even better than the ponies and pulled longer distances.”

 Atkinson noted that when it came time for the English expedition to leave Antarctica, the perfectly healthy mules were killed rather than returning them to either New Zealand or India.

Indian mule meets Emperor penguins prior to setting off to find the body of Captain Scott.

With the death of Captain Scott, and the failure by the Germans to reach the South Pole, the curtain came down on the role of equines in Polar exploration history.

This is an extract from “The Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration,” written by CuChullaine O’Reilly.

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