The Man-Eating Horse of Lucknow

In the early 1800s, when India was under the rule of the British East India Company, two English observers rode in a buggy through the city of Lucknow. The streets were deserted. Since Lucknow was a populous city and it was broad day, the men couldn’t at first understand where everyone had gone. They saw only a few people in the distance, running away from the street the buggy traveled. Then they came upon a citizen who was not running away. She lay on the street, her face chewed to a pulp, her body so bludgeoned as to lose its human shape, her hair clotted with gore.

The men rode on, passing the closed doors and windows of houses. The next human being they encountered was a young man, also battered and bitten to death. Finally they saw a soldier standing on a roof. He told them the “man-eater of Lucknow” was to blame. This horse, it was reported, had already killed a number of people; his reputation had spread across the region. Now, as they spoke with the soldier, the Englishmen suddenly saw the animal itself—a big bay stallion rushing down the road. In its mouth it shook a dead child.

When it saw the Englishmen’s buggy, it dropped the child and galloped toward them. The horse pulling their buggy so was frightened they could hardly control it, but they managed it well enough to escape into an iron corral. The stallion arrived. They saw that its head was slathered with blood; clots clung to the hair of its jaws. It tried to kick through the fence, its iron shoes ringing against the iron bars, but the men and their horse were safe inside. It gave up this particular quarry. As it trotted away, it passed through an arch where soldiers had set an ambush. They managed to lasso and muzzle the stallion and lead him into a pen.

He was now the property of the king, who immediately made use of him—as entertainment. The king’s men used a mare to lure the stallion into a fenced courtyard. Then they introduced a tiger. The tiger quickly killed the mare, but hesitated to attack the stallion. After some careful stalking, the tiger sprang. The horse was too quick; he ducked his head and neck to miss the killing bite, though the tiger managed to slice the flesh of his haunches before he was kicked away. A second spring brought the same result. This time, however, the stallion’s iron-shod kick broke the tiger’s jaw, and it refused to try again. The attendants allowed it to return to its cage.

The king had not had his fill. He ordered another tiger released into the courtyard. This one had already been fed. It had no interest in the formidable horse and could not be provoked to fight, even when the attendants prodded it with hot pokers. It, too, was allowed to return to its cage.

Now the king ordered three water buffalo brought in. Water buffalo are generally harmless, but when enraged, they can kill people and even tigers. In the courtyard of the king, however, the buffalo weren’t enraged. They seemed merely puzzled. The stallion looked them over for a few moments. He approached and sniffed at one of them. The buffalo stood with their heads together, like dull-witted counselors conferring. The stallion turned his back on them—and kicked. His hind feet pounded the flesh of the nearest buffalo. It seemed merely annoyed, but the king was delighted. He announced that the “man-eater of Lucknow” had earned his life with his courage. After that, the stallion lived as an exhibit at the king’s palace. Visitors to the town stopped to see him. He was kept in a large cage so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone else.

Was this stallion really a man-eater? I doubt it. Horses aren’t designed to eat meat. They will eat it when especially hungry or, it seems, from idle curiosity. One, for example, was spotted eating a chicken. People have even fed them on blood in a misguided belief that this will make them stronger or faster or more aggressive when used in war. What it really makes them is less healthy; their stomachs are built for grasses and other vegetation. It’s far more probable that the “Man-Eater” of Lucknow merely killed people by biting (as well as kicking). Horrified witnesses mistook its intentions. It surely meant to kill, but not to eat.

This kind of aggression is not typical of horses, but it has precedents. Horses readily kill when they feel threatened by, for example, unfamiliar dogs. Another cause of aggression is abuse. In one case, a man who whipped his pony found himself bloodied with kicks and bites. The pony attempted to bite the man on the face—very much as the victims in Lucknow were bitten. In this case, the man escaped before the pony could finish him. No one knows what abuses the Man-Eater of Lucknow may have endured at the hands of humans.



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