Maybe it’s the fact that I spend a lot of time and effort on reading about urban legends, but sometimes you just know one when you hear it. There’s just something about the way it starts that makes you go, “Here we go.” They usually start with “Have you heard X?” or “A friend told me Y.” but the best is when someone tells you something that would be impossible to look up at that second and is unspecific enough to make it unverifiable anyway. The kicker with these however is that even though they are making vague claims, they still vehemently defend it. And when they are proven wrong, they just have to say “Well that’s what I heard.” Of course, as I said before, not everyone has the time to look this stuff up (although most of the examples I give here take me less than 4 minutes to confirm as being either true or false) but y’know what’s even better than *sounding* right? Actually looking it up so you can BE right!
In this episode, I am sitting around with my coworkers enjoying a lunch at a pub when I haul out some pictures I took of some local statues. One such statue featured a person on a horse. This sparked the following statement:
“I heard that the amount of hooves in the air in a statue of a person on a horse tells you if they were wounded or died in battle. Like, if there is one hoof up, that person was wounded but if 2 are raised, that person died in battle”
Claim: There is some manner of “code” between people who make statues that dictates how many hooves are raised on a horse (if featured). The number of hooves in the air will correspond with the level of injury that person sustained in battle (roughly).
My immediate response: “It seriously sounds like you are reading off some kind of urban legend template”
Results of research: FALSE
“A common belief is that if the horse is rampant, that is with both front legs in the air, the rider died in battle. If the horse has one front leg up, the rider was wounded in battle or died of wounds sustained in battle, and if all four hooves are on the ground, the rider died of causes other than combat.”
There are plenty of examples where this “code” turns out to be accurate but almost as many that go against the legend thus proving it false.
Of course I couldn’t go back to that person and just point them to a single page. So consider this: Gen. Simon Bolivar was a pretty big deal in the Spanish American war of independence. He was president of 5 different countries, one of which is NAMED AFTER HIM (a “big deal” is an understatement). It might not surprise you then that he’s got a lot of monuments around this part of the world. In fact, after some cursory looking, I found at least a metric ton of statues and monuments dedicated to this man and as you can see by the link, the horse hooves are not at all consistent and sometimes he’s not even on a damn horse!
La Paz, Bolivia – 0 hooves
Caracas, Venezuela – 2 hooves
Ottawa, Canada – No horse
New York, New York – 1 hoof (I think… the pictures don’t show that back hoof clearly enough… it may be slightly raised)
You get the idea. If there really were some kind of code for equestrian statues, surely there would be consistency for a single person. He didn’t die 3 different ways did he? No, in fact he died of TB, no where near a battle.
This site concentrates on all the statues in Washington, DC, USA. You’d think they could be consistent within a single city. But they are not.
When you think about it, it would be pretty ridiculous for every single artist in the world adhering to such a stringent code. Artists are the types to follow rules, and given the amount of sculptors from different parts of the world, it would be hard to see how they all got together to teach each other this rule.
And in fact, there is at least one example I have found of a single artist making 2 equestrian sculptures that do not match the rule. Herman Wilhelm Bissen made an equestrian statue of Bishop Absalon with two legs raised. He also sculpted Frederick VII with one hoof raised. Both men died outside of battle of natural causes or disease.
Lastly, on a personal note, I have a nice picture of Queen Elizabeth II’s statue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. She is sitting on a horse with all 4 legs down and yet she is still alive.
So let’s see… this rule isn’t consistent between subjects, between artists nor between subjects of the same artist. And given that there are only a certain combination possible of horse hooves in contact with the ground and deaths associated with battles, it stands to reason that coincidence between a few statues is the better explanation.
This coworker was probably just quoting someone else he heard and never really thought about it, but who ever actually started this line of reasoning and tried to defend it is probably a victim of a fallacy of accident where instances that back up your claim are brought up, while conflicting evidence is discarded.