Here we have another in the ‘ten‘ series – ten songs with horses as the subject. You might think there would be dozens and for all I know there are – but I certainly spent some time looking. That said the horse is an American icon; emblematic of the west, freedom and in this context man’s best friend. The relationship between man and animal should be grist for any songwriter’s mill.
1 Emmylou Harris – ‘Ballad of a Runaway Horse”.
This is a Leonard Cohen song, ‘Ballad of the Absent Mare’, somewhat revised from the original at the request of Jennifer Warnes, and it is unusually temporal for a Cohen song – I can’t really see him on a horse? The landscape is vividly drawn and the lyrics as poetic as ever.
Warnes relates: ‘I was recently asked to write something about, ‘Ballad of the Runaway Horse’, Tell them its not about a horse a friend advised, tongue in cheek. But Leonard was a member of a teenage band called the Buckskin Boys. Maybe his song is about a horse, I don’t exactly know. Best to ask Leonard’.
‘Now the clasp of this union who fastens it tight / Who snaps it asunder the very next night / Some say it’s him some say it’s her / Some say love’s like smoke beyond all repair’.
2 Cowboy Junkies – ‘A Horse in the Country’
Written by Michael Timmins and relating the story of early marriage, the loss of love and the saving grace that is the horse in the country. Everyone has become their Mum and Dad and the only relief is that horse and the thought that one day you might ride away.
‘It’s not that I don’t love him anymore / It’s just that when I hear him / Coming through that front door / My heart doesn’t race like it did once before / But I’ve got a horse out in the country / I get to see him every second Sunday / He comes when I call him / Yeah, he knows his name / One day I’ll saddle up / And the two of us will ride away’,
Ouch – you certain it’s just a horse?
3 Ray LaMontagne – ‘All the Wild Horses’.
Lamontagne obligingly gargles a whole dry river bed before giving us this lyric about horses tethered with tears in their eyes. A song about the loss of freedom and a request to let things that are free remain so. It’s a perfect pared-back mood piece with strings that work well and a few words that say a lot. I found at least three potential versions of that line about a ‘man’s weight’ – presumably the sense is that no one will ride this horse?
Mr the Mountain – what a great name!
‘May no man’s touch ever tame / May no man’s reins ever chain you / And may no man’s weight ever lay afraid your soul
4 The Rolling Stones – ‘Wild Horses’.
One of the most if not the most memorable Stones songs dispensing with their typical sleazy strut. Gram Parsons was in the mix and recorded it before the Stones. Jagger seems to have been coy about any emotional baggage that might be attached to the lyric, Richards declares it to be about wanting to be away from a life on the road. The lyrics are nothing special, the harmonies totter around a bit – and yet it’s something of a masterpiece. Check out on YouTube just how many funerals this song has accompanied. It means an awful lot to an awful lot.
‘Wild horses / Couldn’t drag me away / Wild, wild horses / We’ll ride them some day’
5 Lyle Lovett – ‘Which Way Does That Old Pony Run’,
Here’s another puzzle – a man heading back East to escape the life of luxury knocking that old trope of, ‘Head West Young Man’, right on the head. He can surely only be in California. Who wouldn’t want to leave there?
‘So this good life you know I must leave / Your new car / And your colour TV / But what’s riches to you / Just ain’t riches to me / And if you’re staying out here / Then I’m headed back east’.
6 Townes Van Zandt – ‘Buckskin Stallion Blues’.
Some similarities to a particular Lyle Lovett song here and some varied images about horses, boats and love and where each of them might take you. This was released in 1987 as far as I can gather as was Lovett’s, ‘If I Had a Boat’, – so who can say and does it matter – both are fine songs?
‘If I had a buckskin stallion / I’d tame him down and ride away / And if I had a flyin’ schooner / I’d sail into the light of day / If I had your love forever / Sail into the light of day‘.
7 The Byrds – ‘Chestnut Mare’
According to McGuinn “It’s an adaptation of Peer Gynt’s chase of the reindeer, or whatever it was, you know, like through the nether lands’. Or is it a rather creepy song about possessive love and it’s extremes, how easily it all ends and how much time can be spent trying to recapture it? That’s its strength – it’s evocative of so much.
‘I’m going to catch that horse if I can / And when I do I’ll give her my brand / And we’ll be friends for life /
She’ll be just like a wife / I’m going to catch that horse if I can’
8 Randy Newman – ‘Riders in the Rain’
Here’s a man who in his pomp could write the backside off 99.9% of his contemporaries before he took Hollywood’s dollar (and even then he shines). It seemed like his art became more comfortable as did his physique – however here he offers a pastiche of all those cowboy songs whilst at the same time making it sound authentic rather than caustic. Now that’s funny, but nothing less than we would expect.
‘Oh, my mother’s in St. Louis / And my bride’s in Tennessee / So, I’m goin’ to Arizona / With a banjo on my knee’.
9 Johnny Cash – ‘Tennessee Stud’.
A picaresque tale of a horse, its rider and their adventures through the years – before they return home to his sweetheart (and the horses) whips her evil father and brother and settle down to live happily …. etc etc. It’s fun and of its time! Mr Cash is seen looking like the avenging angel – though those dogs are hardly the hounds from hell and a bit of a spoiler.
‘The Tennessee Stud was long and lean / The colour of the sun and his eyes were green / He had the nerve and he had the blood / There never was a horse like the Tennessee Stud’
10 Bruce Springsteen – ‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’
Springsteen’s songs are not usually hard to fathom and his occasional gems are latterly leavened by some fairly ordinary writing that tends toward the anthemic rather than the profound (am I the only one who found the biography hard going and much overpraised?) Losing yourself in one way or another in order to forget a lost love is fairly standard practice. A rather hackneyed image rescued by the vocal and the strings – and the horses.
‘The only thing up here I’ve found / Is tryin’ to get you off mind / Is like chasin’ wild horses, chasin’ wild horses / Chasin’ wild horses, chasin’ wild horses’.