I have heard that the number of legs a horse has in the air in a statue indicates how the rider died. According to what I have understood:

  • 2 legs in the air: rider died in battle
  • 1 leg in the air: rider died by wounds made in battle
  • 0 legs in the air: rider died by any other reason

Is there any truth in this, or was it a tradition at any point or place?

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    Should this stay here or move to Skeptics SE? – DVK Dec 29 '11 at 15:19
  • I have heard this before in the context of statues of famous persons, it's probably ok to dismiss it from a historical context. – MichaelF Jan 1 '12 at 15:53
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    Are there any equestrian statues with all four hooves in the air? – Samuel Russell Dec 7 '14 at 23:40
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    That is for being carried off by a giant roc. – Oldcat Mar 12 '15 at 23:31
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    Please do preliminary research before posting Snopes disproved this years ago; wikipedia also has a section on this myth. – MCW Apr 21 '16 at 11:12

TL;DR: No such code, but most equestrian statues at Gettysburg happen to match it by chance.

From http://www.snopes.com/military/statue.asp:

The hoof code mostly holds true in terms of Gettysburg equestrian statues, but there is at least one exception. James Longstreet wasn't wounded in this battle yet his horse has one foot raised.

enter image description here (illustration from Longstreet page)

The article has a pretty good list of statues that do and don't match the "tradition".

Short version of the article -

  • Plenty of statues do follow this rule, but plenty of statues don't, even in Washington which has plenty (only 10 out of 30 are "correct").

  • No sculptor seems to be aware of this rule.

  • The odds of "correct" horse posture is 1 in 3 (remember Washington DC count above?), so all the "confirmations" of the rule are just statistical flukes that our brain are trying to make a pattern out of.

A separate investigation also reveals a negative: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1093/in-statues-does-the-number-of-feet-the-horse-has-off-the-ground-indicate-the-fate-of-the-rider

  • No sources confirming the rule in sculpting related textbooks

  • A historian for the U.S. Army Center of Military History also dismissed the story as a myth.

  • Of 18 surveyed statues of famous people: 8 are "correct", 8 are "wrong", 2 are "not enough info about the person's death".

  • Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of the most famous sculptors of his day, had 1 equestrian statue match the "code" and another one that did not.

  • As far as Gettysburg - which seems to be the origin of the myth:

    • "Gettysburg: The Complete Pictorial of Battlefield Monuments by D. Scott Hartwig and Ann Marie Hartwig (1988)" has 478 monuments and memorials, of them only 6 freestanding horse riders. They all match deaths/survival at Gettysburg.

    • However, General John Sedgwick's horse has all four feet on the ground, despite the fact that he was later killed in battle!

      enter image description here (source: Civil War Wiki.net)

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    Like many urban myths, it is actually true, aside from all the exceptions... – T.E.D. Oct 9 '12 at 14:45

Peter the Great died due to disease. Peter the Great

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    Pretty much everyone dies "due to decease" – mgkrebbs Dec 31 '11 at 19:10
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    @mgkrebbs - making fun of spelling of someone for whom English is not a first language says a lot more about you than the person you are trying to make fun of. – DVK May 27 '12 at 17:16
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    @DVK: I wasn't making fun of any one. I was pointing out the pun for everyone, and included a dictionary link for those who missed it because of a lack of English knowledge. – mgkrebbs May 27 '12 at 19:24
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    Funny comments are best made with the addition of either the [humour] tag or smilies. ^_~ – Sardathrion - against SE abuse Oct 5 '12 at 12:24
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    @Sardathrion But that kills the humour. – quant_dev Oct 5 '12 at 12:27

Is there any truth in this, or was it a tradition at any point or place?

It is an urban myth. Although I would have liked it to be true. It was discussed on the quiz show QI and on snopes.

  • And the downvote was because??? – Stefan Oct 5 '12 at 10:15
  • Good point about the formatting, have fixed it up! – Stefan Oct 5 '12 at 12:18
  • Thanks - I did not realise URLs could be formatted like that! – Stefan Oct 5 '12 at 14:06
  • You are welcome. We can clean comments up as well. – Sardathrion - against SE abuse Oct 5 '12 at 14:07

I believe it to be fact, rather than fiction/myth. In the cases where the legs raised or not, does not correlate with the subject depicted, I believe it to be the artist's portrayal being devoid of said guidelines. There are many equestrian statues worldwide, and some countries are stricter and abide by this more so than others. I hate to break the news to you all, but Gettysburg is not the center of the universe! We cannot come to a conclusion on such broad a spectrum when we don't have all the facts. Also, no matter how much research you do on the internet, there are so many countries out there that censor most, if not all the information that is shared about them on the internet, that it is impossible to come up with a solid answer on many things. I was born in one of these non-democratic countries, and as a child, was taught about the meaning of the equestrian statue meaning, and every statue I saw, was true to its meaning. I moved to another country in my younger years, and again, was shown other examples of this, again, true to its meaning, and finally, moved to the states, where everyone colors outside the lines, and then criticize and discredit everything for being different than what it should be. Don't get me wrong, I love living in the US of A! I love being able to be free, and am grateful to have gotten the opportunity to be part of this beautiful country. I also know that because I have lived in other countries were freedom is not an option, I can appreciate this freedom more so than a person who was born here and takes it for granted. The point I am trying to make is.... Don't discredit this as a myth if you don't have all the facts, and don't think you have all the facts just because you found a website that supports your misguided belief.

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    While the opinions are valuable, they would have been far more valuable if they had been supported by evidence beyond the anecdotal. I'm always going to find the well researched answer more persuasive. – MCW Apr 20 '15 at 0:39
  • @Mark While I too would like specific and documented evidence, I think personal testimony is stronger than anecdote. – andy256 Apr 20 '15 at 5:16
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    "the artist's portrayal being devoid of said guidelines." - Who is supposed to have created these guidelines? Who is supposed to enforce them? As you say there are many equestrian statues worldwide created over many hundreds of years in different cultures. Why would anyone expect them to all obey a single set of guidelines for how a horse stands? – Steve Bird Apr 20 '15 at 12:27
  • I'm downvoting this (which is something I almost never do), due to it being a nigh-unreadable wall of text, in addition to some of the other problematic issues mentioned previously. I'll happily rescind that vote if some formatting and supporting links are added. – T.E.D. Apr 22 '15 at 19:41
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    Useless personal opinion. You are not believable on this subject and so your personal opinion is worse than meaningless. – Stuart Allan Jan 20 '16 at 14:45

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