The white horse is a famed symbol of Wiltshire and these silent hillside sentinels can be found across the county. These colossal artworks were created by removing the topsoil to reveal the brilliant white chalk beneath, which forms the shape of the horse.
There were once twenty four such hillside carvings in Britain, with thirteen found in Wiltshire, as the chalk downs found in the county made it an ideal place for their creation. Today eight Wiltshire white horses are still visible while the others were either lost or became grown over and are no longer visible.
Most of them date from around the last 300 years, though the origins of some are harder to establish. Only the more abstract and minimalist Uffington white horse in Oxfordshire is known to be prehistoric, and has been dated back to 1200-800 BC.
The oldest horse in Wiltshire is in Westbury (shown above) and has a somewhat mysterious heritage. The current white horse was cut in 1778 over a smaller chalk horse figure, the only surviving image of which dates to 1772, showing a figure facing the other way. It is not known how long that previous figure was there, however the newer version is believed to have been created to commemorate an anniversary of King Alfred's victory at the nearby Battle of Ethandun in 878.
This Westbury carving most likely then inspired the Cherhill white horse, which was created in 1780 near the village of Cherhill just east of Calne. Designed by a Christopher Alsop, known as the ‘mad doctor’, his design may have been influenced by the work of his artist friend George Stubbs, famous for his paintings of horses.
Over the following century, these chalk white horses began to pop up all over the county as other towns and communities wanted their own version. They have come to symbolise various aspects of Wiltshire's rural heritage, inspiring local unity and regional pride. They have also served as navigational aids for travellers and have been featured in numerous works of literature and art.
You can now get hold of a Cotswold Poster Co interpretation of this landmark, commemorating the Cherhill white horse in the style of a vintage travel poster.
Maintaining these figures is an ongoing challenge and the money still spent on this today shows how people continue to value them. Volunteers and organisations dedicate considerable effort and resources to preserve and restore the horses, as erosion and weathering can take a toll on the chalk surface. Regular cleaning and periodic restorations ensure that these iconic figures continue to grace the Wiltshire landscape for generations to come.