Who hasn’t heard of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)? Also known as Napoleon I, the great leader was born in Corsica and quickly made a name for himself during the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799. He rose-up through the ranks to command the new ‘Republic’ of France in 1799, transforming it, he crowned himself Emperor in 1804. He had great plans for himself and the nation of France, and as a shrewd and cunning strategist and commander he expanded his empire. However, he got greedy and his plans to invade and overtake Russia in 1812 were met with disaster, and he was exiled and went to the Island of Elba in 1814. A year later he gained power again in the Hundred Days campaign, but lost it all at the Battle of Waterloo, and was sent into exile on St. Helena where he died at the age of 51.

Atop Marengo, Napoleon was painted for posterity by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon Crossing the Alps painted by Jacques-Louis David. The horse in the painting is Marengo.

Crossing the Alps, artist Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon on the Arab stallion Marengo.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (also known as Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass or Bonaparte Crossing the Alps) is the title given to the five versions of an oil on canvas equestrian portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1801 and 1805. Initially commissioned by the King of Spain, the composition shows a strongly idealized view of the real crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps through the Great St. Bernard Pass in May 1800. The rearing white Arabian stallion vividly captured the public image of the Emperor, spreading the spirit of the French revolution throughout Europe; the oil on canvas image excited the peasants and terrified the nobility of all the Royal Houses on the continent.

Marengo carried the Emperor in the Battle of Austerlitz, Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, Battle of Wagram, and Battle of Waterloo. He also was frequently used in the 80-mile gallops from Valladolid to Burgos, which he often completed in five hours.

As one of fifty two horses in Napoleon’s stud, Marengo fled with the rest of the High Command when it was overrun and the stables raided by the successful Russians troops in their counter offensive in 1812. The horse survived the retreat from Moscow and remained with the French High Command right up until the stallion was captured in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo by English forces commanded by William Henry Francis Petre, 11th Baron Petre.

Was Napoleon a skilled horseman?

Realistic painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps by Paul Delaroche in 1885

Realistic painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps by Paul Delaroche in 1885

Napoleon was not a skilled rider. The French Emperor was born into a large family of minor nobility on the Island of Corsica. His father was not wealthy, and the family did not own a horse. So Napoleon did not grow up knowing how to ride.

The boy might had hopped on a donkey a few times, but learning the fine art of equestrian skills was not part of his early childhood. He did, however, see horses being used in parades and as part of regal spectacles. The sight would have impacted the boy, and made the idea of owning and riding a noble horse a status symbol. Napoleon was not an impressive child as he had a big head, puny body and skinny legs. Throw in a persistent hacking cough and he was the brunt of many jokes as a young student, but he was energetic and tough.

Years later, when Napoleon was in the École Royale Militaire in Paris, he did take some riding lessons, but because he took his final exams a year early, the three years required to turn a cadet into a real ‘cavalier’ meant that he never completed the riding sessions. Consequently, his unsophisticated rough and tough riding techniques never improved, and stayed with him all his life.

Napoleon was not a wealthy man, and his pay from his military service was just enough to cover his rent, buy pens and paper for his essays, letters, political pamphlets, and to help his mother and four brothers and three sisters at home in Corsica. A horse wasn’t part of his life, so he often walked long distances to get to where his regiment was stationed, often 20 miles or more.

As Napoleon gained a reputation for displaying courage and clever tactics he was soon given command of a French artillery force,  and so of course he required some horses on which to inspect his troops on the battlefield. Napoleon preferred lightly boned Arabs or Barbs over the more popular Thoroughbreds used by most other military leaders. He liked the smaller horses because he could mount them without help, and the ones he chose to ride had been trained to perfection. But once he was in the saddle his poor horsemanship was glaringly obvious; he grabbed the reins and bunched them in one hand, his toes pointed south, he slouched over and moved so much in the saddle that he wore holes in his breeches. However, while his posture and position might had elicited giggles from onlookers he was absolutely fearless galloping his horses over any terrain, getting back up and on after numerous falls, and riding up to fifty miles a day if needed. He also preferred stallions.

Napoleon realized that a well mounted cavalry was essential to his army and his success. The Duke of Wellington of England by contrast did not favour the cavalry divisions, and though the bravery of his mounted men has never been in question, Napoleon’s cavalry were well trained by comparison and their prowess was what made his army a conquering war machine.

Napoleon Fostered Cavalry and Horse Racing in the new French Republic

We can also credit Napoleon Bonaparte with re-opening many of the stud farms that had been closed during the revolution, for creating 30 stallion centres, three riding schools and for encouraging the sport of horse racing as he hoped that bloodlines would improve as breeders competed to create faster horses. He can also be given credit for his enlightened attitude towards some age old customs such as docking tails. He would not allow horses with docked tails to be bought for himself or for the cavalry as he realized that horses get irritated and annoyed when they cannot swish flies away with short tails.

Napoleon himself kept a stable of 80 horses that he used for his personal use along with carriage horses but over his lifetime records show that he probably owned and used over 150 horses.

Marengo, a nimble Arabian Stallion, was Napoleon’s favorite horse.

Marengo, bred in EgyptMarengo, 1793–1831, was Napoleon’ favourite war horse and was imported from Egypt as a six year old in 1799 after the Battle of Aboukir. It is believed that he was bred at the well-known El Naseri Stud. He would prove to be reliable and incredibly tough despite being just 14.1 h.h. and would often take part in 80 mile gallops in around five hours’ time.

He was wounded eight times before being captured in 1815 during the Battle of Waterloo. William Henry Francis Petre, 11th Baron brought him back to England and the horse was considered a real prize when sold to Lieutenant-Colonel Angerstein of the Grenadier Guards.  Marengo stood at stud at the age of 27, but was not successful as a stallion and didn’t sire any notable racehorses or even any winners.  The horse died at 38 years of age, an incredibly long life considering what he had lived through.

Marengo missing Napoleon, James Ward painting

WARD, James Marengo 1824 Oil on canvas Private collection

During his life in England, Marengo was a star attraction at public events. Marengo was displayed at exhibitions in Pall Mall and was shown alongside Napoleon’s saddle, bridle and boots.  His battle scars along with the bullet that stayed in his tail were mentioned along with the Imperial crown and letter N that were branded on his hind quarters. The artist James Ward created a powerful painting of Marengo with nostrils flared looking out to sea mourning his master, and he later sold thousands of these images as lithographs, which were art prints made by drawing on limestone with waxy crayons, and then applying ink onto the stone and printing the image onto paper. In this manner the first ‘colour prints’ were achieved and Marengo was a popular print, framed and displayed in many English homes in the late 1820s.

Marengo was also featured on a set of four prints featuring himself, The Duke of Wellington’s horse Copenhagen, George III’s Adonis, and a Cossack charger.

Marengo skeleton - Arabian stallion, Napoleon horseToday, parts of Marengo are still on display. After the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London, when the Captain sits down to lunch. In front of him he will see one of Marengo’s hooves covered with a polished silver lid. When the item (a snuff box) is not in use on the table, it sits on the nearby sideboard. On the lid is the inscription that reads, Hoof of Marengo, Barb charger of Napoleon, ridden by him at Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, in the campaign of Russia and lastly at Waterloo. This hoof was presented on April 8, 1840 by J.W. Angerstein Captain Grenadier Guards and Lieutenant-Colonel to his brother officers of the Household Brigade.

Marengo’s other two hooves are on display with his preserved skeleton at the Waterloo Gallery at the National Army Museum in Chelsea; his fourth hoof and skin are missing, and as of this writing have still not been found.