Decoding Military Horse Statues

horse statueHorses have faithfully served our country through countless battles, becoming an integral part of America’s military history. Top leaders are often depicted in statues, and they’re frequently mounted on horses. It’s long been said that military horse statues follow a certain “code” – but is it true?

The Military Statue Code

According to legend, and some ill-informed tourism guides, you can tell how the rider depicted in a statue died according to how many of his mount’s hooves are in the air. According to this code, if a horse has one hooves raised, the rider was wounded in a battle. A horse with two hooves raised means that the rider died in battle. If a horse has all four hooves on the ground, then the rider survived all of the battles.

It is possible that the code originated with the military horse statues in Gettysburg depicting the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, since most of those statues do hold true to the code. It is also possible that the code is the result of a hypothesis run wild – after noticing the consistencies amongst the statues in Gettysburg, word of the supposed code may have spread.

The Truth Behind the Code

So does the code hold true? Not exactly. While Gettysburg statues largely adhere to the code, other statues don’t follow the code at all. That the military horse statue code was invented and followed by sculptors is doubtful, given the number of statues, both modern and historical, that don’t follow the code.

In Washington D.C., America’s hub of history, many statues stray from the code. The statue of General Andrew Jackson, located in Lafayette Park of Washington D.C., was created in 1853. Jackson is depicted on a horse with both front legs raised, which, according to the code, should signify that Jackson died in battle. In fact, Jackson did not die in battle – he later died of tuberculosis.

One has to consider the physical limitations and practicality of adhering to the code, too. Sculpting knowledge and talent has certainly advanced, so sculpting a rider on a rearing horse would be no problem today. But 19th century sculptors faced different limitations and had different resources available to them, so sculpting a rearing horse would have presented far more of a challenge.

The code, while a romantic idea, can’t be relied upon. However, that doesn’t reduce the huge influence that horses have had on the military. After all, top military figures are depicted on top of a horse – the ultimate sign of nobility, honor, and power.

If you are taking a vacation this year to any of America’s historical sites, chances are you’ll see a horse statue.  Now you can be the “statue expert.”

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