Nobody really knows when or why a chalk horse was carved onto the side of Bratton Downs, below the iron age Bratton Camp. The current version has evolved over the past two centuries into its rather literal shape today. An 18th century engraving shows an earlier horse, smaller and facing the opposite direction. It’s believed a still older one predated that one, perhaps back to around 1200 AD, possibly to commemorate the victory of King Alfred over the Danes which is thought to have happened nearby in 878. That would make it the second oldest chalk horse in Britain, after the Uffington Horse. But while there is documentation to show that a white horse, or some other creature existed at Uffington, there is none that trace the Westbury Horse with that kind of lineage. It’s entirely possible it came along in the 18th century, either as a heraldic emblem or even related to the practice of building follies.
However, Janet and Colin Bord in the book Mysterious Britain recount a legend that it dates back to the time of Bratton Camp, an iron age earthwork immediately adjacent to the White Horse of Westbury. It’s believed that like the Uffington Horse, it might have originally been a dragon, and indeed the earliest white horse at Westbury was thought to have a beak-like nose.
The Bords make the case that it was created in an age where there was a more spiritual tie to the earth and nature, and that’s a lovely thought. If so it’s certainly been a lasting tribute to those people. The horse is visible for miles across much of Wiltshire, and has become one of the symbols of that country.
Today rather than chalk it’s poured concrete to save the trouble of keeping the chalk clean of brush. Which is a shame in a way, because I can’t help but believe that that kind of communal experience, if there’s any truth to Janet and Colin Bord’s story, would be some echo of that distant past.