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Horse sense

Horse senseGeologist and science writer Nina Morgan reveals how horse power drove the early geologists

Geoscientist 19.5 May 2009

Headstrong horses should certainly be considered among the great unsung heroes of science. Not only did they provide the 'motive power' for many a geological journey. Some, it seems, even became geologists in their own right.

In a life and letters biography of her father, William Buckland's daughter, Mrs Gordon, recalls his favourite old black mare. The horse, she noted, "soon learnt her duty, and seemed to take an interest in her master's pursuits; for she would remain quiet, without any one to hold her, while he [Buckland] was examining sections and strata, and then patiently be loaded with the specimens collected. Ultimately she became so accustomed to the work that she invariably came to a full stop at a stone quarry, and nothing would persuade her to proceed until the rider got off, and examined, or, if a stranger to her, pretended to examine, the quarry."

Horses imitated geologists in other ways too. Writing from Ireland in August 1835 to his sister Anne, John Phillips describes 'geologizing' with a horse that insisted on stopping at every pub. "Sedgwick & Murchison made me stop with them en route to see a Limestone Quarry & a funny trip it was," he wrote. "The Car (a [illegible word] which by the by is a capital thing for geologizing) was drawn by a tired horse, which in this warm weather would stop at the Whiskey Houses for water. In one case the driver contested this point & the beast would not stir a step forward, so he turned her round & backed her for 100 yards & still we could not conquer but were obliged to give the water." Water, presumably, being the equine code word for 'Guinness'.


The story about Buckland's horse appears in The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland, D.D. F.R.S by Mrs Gordon, published by John Murray, London 1894. The quote from the letter from John Phillips is one of a series of 234 letters from John Phillips to Anne Phillips preserved in the archives of the Hope Library at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) ( I am grateful to the Director of the OUMNH for permission to quote from the letter, and to the librarian Stella Brecknell for all her help with this project.

  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG). For more information visit the HOGG website at:]