Young’s Brewery is quitting Wandsworth. Its drays, loaded with casks and drawn by shire horses which also did a stint pulling the lord mayor’s coach, were still on the streets when we moved there in the 1960s. They won’t return. But troops of horses of the Household Cavalry, which woke us when we lived off Portobello Road, can still be encountered on their early morning journeys across London. The smell of horse announces the ambling excursions of pairs of mounted police in the streets around King’s Cross, and mounted rangers keep an eye on Wimbledon Common. There, or anywhere in the home counties which has a spare paddock or two and a bridleway, you are likely to meet strings of ponies or a lady rider who will nod down agreeably to pedestrians and offer a living illustration of de haut en bas and even of noblesse oblige.

No amount of social levelling can remove the fact that you have to look up to a woman on a horse. Cobbett said the best way to see the country was from a horse. Equestrian monuments give short generals dignity. Once mounted, Frederic Remington’s scruffy cowboys and Indians become brothers to the riders on the Parthenon frieze. No one else has the authority of a man on a horse, except perhaps a man in a tank – which is, of course, what the Household Cavalry now ride into battle.

Wealthy young men who would once have spent a fortune on matched carriage horses or a string of hunters buy Ferraris or Lamborghinis. But put them in the driving seat and people will, perforce, look down on them. It is not surprising, not even an anachronism, that horses and horse-drawn coaches lead ceremonial parades. Nothing has been found to replace them. Money helps horses keep their exclusivity. Olympic equestrianism is so expensive that even Zara Phillips had to find a sponsor. Racing, riding, carriage driving and polo are the sports in which the queen, her consort, her children and her grandchildren have made a mark. The symbolism of man controlling beast, and of the leader sitting above the led, is still powerful.

I have never ridden a horse, but the sight of one still stops me in my tracks. I can see why they have a special place in art. Stubbs established a refined, modern look for horse paintings in the 18th century. Apart from the rearing Whistlejacket, and a couple of pictures of horses being attacked by lions, his are sedate, well-groomed beasts, usually seen in profile. Only occasionally, as in Hambletonian Rubbing Down, do you feel his horses could be too much for their riders. Delacroix was one of those who carried on painting horses that rear, twist, bite and kick, a tradition which goes back, via Rubens, to Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari. That kind of movement – the aesthetic is, I guess, what is tamed and formalised in the evolutions of the Spanish Riding School – can be found in Géricault’s work, too. But it is in his pictures of English racehorses in action that Géricault’s originality emerges. He knew horses well (he had several riding accidents), and his Stubbs-like powers of observation go along with a Romantic fierceness that matches the spirited, nervous physicality of the subjects. Follow that route, casting off the fierceness, and you get to Degas’s horses and jockeys – as gawky and as suggestive of movement as his dancers. Baroque horses, with round rumps and heavy, arched necks are as far from the lithe bodies of racehorses as the bodies of human wrestlers are from those of human sprinters. In the agonised horse’s head in Guernica and the upward-reaching heads in Marino Marini’s sculpture, the horse as a symbol of untamed power gives a departing scream. So while you can see horses in London, you see only a little of what made people want to paint them and of the kinds of animal they had in mind.

In Chantilly, north-east of Paris, one should be able to see more. The landscape was shaped over more than three centuries for and by riders. The straight bridleways which cut through the forest expect cantering horses, not walkers. On a satellite image the ovals, ellipses and circles of racetracks are as noticeable as the symmetry of the gardens, waterworks and canal Le Nôtre laid out in the 17th century. On a map the overprinted information for tourists shows almost as many equestrian centres as picnic tables. According to the website, the Chantilly training centre is the largest in the world, with 240 kilometres of bridleways, 12 of jumping tracks, 2600 thoroughbreds, 800 jockeys and 99 trainers.

The town, like Woodstock, beside Blenheim Palace, is gathered round the gates of a palace – or rather two palaces, for the 186m-long stables are grander than most country houses, bigger indeed than the 19th-century château itself. They were built to a design by Jean Aubert for the seventh prince de Condé in the early 1700s. He believed he would be reincarnated as a horse. That story, which wanders from guidebook to guidebook, seems to offer as good an insight as one is going to get into the prince’s mind. In their heyday the stables housed 240 horses and more than five hundred hounds. Now they contain the Living Horse Museum, the non-living part of which has the comprehensive, disjointed inconsequentiality of an old-fashioned provincial museum. There is at least one room dedicated to almost any horse topic you can think of: toys, saddles, harness, breeds, carriages, famous horses, postcards (more than two thousand of them), paintings which illustrate changes in the riding style of jockeys, the points to look for in a racehorse and so on.

Eventually you come to the horses themselves, about thirty of them, stabled in loose boxes. They form a representative but by no means complete collection – there is nothing on the scale of a shire horse. Even so, you get a sense of the malleability of the species. Limits – if you except the odd miniature Shetland pony – are set only by the need to match the stature of the horse to that of a rider; breeders of dogs have pulled much more extreme variations out of the canine genome. If you get to the museum at the right time you can take in a live demonstration of the ways riders make horses do what they want. For me, just looking at them standing quietly, eating or drinking, was a greater pleasure, maybe because the coherence of the parts – the articulation of bone, muscle and sinew, which can make a horse beautiful – is masked by the forces that rider and harness put on the animal. When a horse is made to bow or rear on demand the sight of the weak controlling and directing the strong is striking, but its natural fluidity of movement is broken. The young women who ride the horses and look after them passed us on their way back from the display. Even dismounted they, like the horses, seemed a cut above us. Halfway to the status and dignity of Houyhnhnms.

In The Guermantes Way, a footman announces that Mme de Guermantes won’t be going to the princesse de Parme’s party because she will be catching the five o’ clock train to Chantilly and spending a couple of days at the duc d’Aumale’s palace. Just over a century later the country house she stayed in has become the museum you walk across to from the stables.

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