Posted in John Anstie, Peace & Justice, Poems/Poetry

Battle Horse

[I’ve heard Ekphrasis* described as one of the ugliest words in the English language. In writing this poem, I would like to try and make it ironic]

In this, another war poem, at the same time I both celebrate and mourn the destiny of millions of horses in the front lines on World War 1. Here, I may talk about a strong stallion with great heritage from the same lines as pure bread battle horses that served knights of old before war became so mechanised.  The first world war was the turning point between the old and new ages of war, in which the military cavalry masters of the old order clashed with the new; and the result was an unmitigated armageddon, an unprecedented tragedy of slaughter in blood and mud … there is no undue irony in this great stallion’s story, insofar as it’s consequences, though its life is spared, its mental health is not, like so many human members of the armed forces who serve on or near to the front lines, who physically survive but who are consumed, through trauma, by some degree of mental illness.

Her gentle hand enwrapped his nose
and pulled it to her face.
Behind his nostril, where there is
the very softest place,
she kissed him tenderly and smelt
the scent of peerless blood
that coursed his veins and caused his mane
to tremble with a power
that came from generations of
highbred aristocracy.
This kind of power was visible,
it rippled like a lake
that caught a sudden gust of wind,
and shimmered, glistening.

He’d knightly strength for greater things
and so it proved to be.
A friend of friends, an officer,
had visited to see
and beamed at his magnificence
there was no doubt for him
that this beast was set to ride
for glorious history…

…until his inglorious return,
a sight that broke her heart.

His eyes had depth of understanding
she knew too well. Their look,
injected as they were with fear,
but not the normal kind
– the kind that came from healthy gallops
over his favourite fell.

No. This fear, its source was made …
(what she saw then choked her eyes)
… made from inner visions of
an unspeakable kind of hell;
mud-filled craters’ stench of death,
through endless shock of shell, but
unshakeable loyalty to his charge
despite his spirit’s knell.

In time the empty frame that stood
motionless in the field,
with timeless care she tended him,
though never fully healed
the scars that stiffened weary spirit
that caused him so much pain,
but filled with love and trust once more
the noble steed regained
a hint of what he used to feel:
excitement for the day,
security in his domain,
where once he held full sway;
desire that burned in his dark eyes
to lead her in his way
back to the stable where he’d sink
his nose in soft sweet hay.

– John Anstie

© 2012,2013 introduction and poem, John Anstie, All rights reserved
Illustration ~ Lonely by SylwiaS Digital Art / Photomanipulation / Surreal©2009-2013 SylwiaS

Ekphrasis or ecphrasis, from the Greek description of a work of art, possibly imaginary, produced as a rhetorical exercise, and is a graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art.

John_in_Pose_Half_Face351bhS0cThKL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_JOHN ANSTIE (My Poetry Library and 42) ~ is a British poet and writer, a contributing editor here at Bardo, and multi-talented gentleman self-described as a “Family man, Grandfather, Occasional Musician, Amateur photographer and Film-maker, Apple-MAC user, Implementation Manager, and Engineer.  John participates in d’Verse Poet’s Pub and is a player in New World Creative Union. He’s been blogging since the beginning of 2011. John is also an active member of The Poetry Society (UK).

product_thumbnail-2.phpJohn has been involved in the recent publication of two anthologies that are the result of online collaborations among two international groups of amateur and professional poets. One of these is The Grass Roots Poetry Group, for which he produced and edited their anthology, “Petrichor* Rising. The other group is d’Verse Poet Pub, in which John’s poetry also appears The d’Verse Anthology: Voices of Contemporary World Poetry, produced and edited by Frank Watson.

Petrichor – from the Greek pɛtrɨkər, the scent of rain on the dry earth.


“Life is short and art long, the crisis fleeting, experience penniless and decision difficult” ~ Hippocrates. As a young man, John was sporting and fit. It was then as much his recreational therapy as a cappella harmony singing, music, walking in the hills and writing is now. Playing Rugby Union for over twenty years, encouraged in the early days by a school that was run on the same lines and ethos as that famous Scottish public school, Gordonstoun, where our own headmaster had been as a senior master. This gave shape and discipline to a sometimes precarious early life. His fitness was enhanced not only by playing rugby, but also by working part time jobs in farming, as a leather factory packer and security guard, but probably not helped, for a short time, selling ice cream! His professional working life was spent as a Metallurgical Engineer, Marketing Manager, Export Sales Manager, Implementation Manager and Managing Director of his own company. Thirty five years spent, apparently in a creative desert, raising a family, pursuing a career and helping to pay the bills, probably enriched his experience, because his renaissance, on retirement, realised a hidden creative talent as a writer of prose and poetry. He also enjoys music, with a piano and a fifty-two year old Yamaha FG140 acoustic guitar. He sings bass in three a cappella harmony groups: as a founding member of a mixed voice chamber choir, Fox Valley Voices and barbershop quartets. He is also a member of one of the top barbershop choruses in the UK, Hallmark of Harmony (stage name of the Sheffield Barbershop Harmony Club), who, for the eighth time in 41 years, became UK Champions in 2019. He is also a would be (once upon a time or 'has been') photographer with drawers full of his own history, and an occasional, but lapsed 'film' maker. In his other life, he doubles as a Husband, Father, Grandfather, Brother, Uncle, Cousin, Friend and Family man. What he writes is sometimes autobiographical, often political, sometimes dark and frequently pins his colours to the mast of climate change and how a few humans are trashing the Earth. In 2013, he published an anthology of the poetry (including his own) of an international group of poets, who met on Twitter in 2011. He produced, edited and steered the product of this work, "Petrichor Rising", to publication by Aquillrelle. His sort of strap-line reads: “ iWrite iSing iDance iChi iVolunteer ”

20 thoughts on “Battle Horse

  1. Oh my I felt this…I can just see him standing a shadow of his former self, like so many traumatised. As a child I spent time with a beautiful strong horse that was very much traumatised not by war but severe ill treatment, this poem very much described him. What a sensitive touch to bring this out…beautiful and sad. Wonderful writing.


    1. Thank you for saying so. It is one thing to press the ‘Like’ button, another to make a comment, particularly that you can directly relate to this poem and understand it.


  2. This reminds me of Sam, the gentle Percheron at Old World Wisconsin, where I work. His scale is massive; he is a descendant of those European war horses, brought to the New World as draft horses. His life is pretty stress-free, his nobility intact. He eats clover and sweet grass from the outstretched hands of visiting children. Swords into plowshares….. thanks for this gripping poem!


  3. Your poem contains such feelings of touch and scent and it brought to mind the death of a friend’s eldest son. A battle tried survivor and victim of mental ilness from the war. Suicide. It would seem that with better treatment upon returning that he could have lived. The sweetness of hay was not to be his.


  4. This might sound a bit emotional and disingenuous, it is not meant to. I read this late last night on my baby iPad, and could not really comment. I thought a couple of things. The first being that this poem is the best poem that I have ever read. It is so about love and kindness, goodness really. I could feel that soft spot, smell that wonderful horse smell. I grew up with horses and they are the one thing in my wonderful life that I have long missed – terribly, terribly. The first horse that we had was a US Army horse and a NYC Police horse. He was very old. His name was Rival. You gifted me today – thank you.


  5. John, this got me right in the gut. That horse stands as a symbol of all that is wrong with war. I have a deep sensibility to horses (was once told that they are one of my totems). Right now I want to take my dogs for a walk and stop by the horses just across the street from our community and talk to them.


  6. Thanks to everyone for their lovely comments. I had an idea there’d be some lovers of our equine friends across the pond, but didn’t think this would stack up against the kind of war poetry that speaks of the waste of human life. I think that all life is sacred and should be protected at all costs.


    1. Thank you Niamh. I guess ’tis one of the poet’s goals to bring on the tears, for the good of the human race, even though most who read this are writers and poets and who, therefore, already have compassion (and passion) built into their nature. Wouldn’t it be great to bring tears to the eyes of a corporate sociopath, of a billionaire, to help them realise they are fortunate to have been born with their genes, their background, as opposed to being born of a bin man in Jakarta, or a war and famine stricken part of Africa … yes, we dream.


  7. John, a beautiful and profoundly touching poem and homage … I have read of the travesty committed against the equine race during WW I with horror and the same happened in both wars with dogs … the American dogs ultimately being “put down’ in Europe rather than incuring the expense of bringing them back to the U.S. or finding homes for them in Europe. Apparently we have no sense of gratitude to or reverence for these, our companions on this earth. We should remember the cost of war to them and other innocent non-human animals and to the environment … who could count the trees and bushes lost, the land and waters poluted. The travesties like the Bagdad Zoo. So heartless and heart-rending.

    Thank you for another wonderful post in the spirit of “Bardo.”


    1. Jamie, your writings and encouragement do me, and all of us here on the Bardo, proud. Thank you.

      And yes, you are right, by extension, all living things are badly affected by war. It could be argued that both first and second world wars were justified in defence of our shores, in defence of Europe, against expansionist dictators, but the means by which particularly WW1 was managed is beyond justification. And the German soldiers who suffered and died were equally manipulated into action by those dictators, not to mention the plight of those men and women called up on the side of the allies in both wars …


  8. Last year my husband and I went to see the play “War Horse,” and it was gut wrenching. Your poem is a very powerful piece that brings to mind the poster we had on our walls when I was growing up–“War is not healthy for children and other living things.”


      1. The play was so well done. I got started as a storyteller through my work as a puppeteer, and the puppetry in that play was masterful, artful, and innovative. I hope you and your wife get to see it.


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