Meet the globe-trotting 148cm cavalry horse, decorated by Queen Victoria for his bravery

  • In the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin — built in the 1680s for retired soldiers, but now home to the Irish Museum of Modern Art — a gravestone marks the final resting place of Vonolel, an immensely brave and special little horse.

    Named after a great Lushai chief, the grey was bought in Bombay (now Mumbai) in India in 1877 as a five-year-old and served for the next 23 years as the charger for the decorated Anglo-Irish Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, a Victorian-era general who became one of the most successful British military commanders of his time.

    Lord Roberts, aka “Bobs”, was only 160cm (just over 5ft) tall so was a perfect match for the beautifully bred Arab Vonolel, who stood just 148cm himself. The grey played a pivotal role in the relief of the Siege of Kandahar in Afghanistan and saw action in India, Burma and South Africa.

    A steed with great courage was needed by cavalrymen of old and Vonolel became an equine legend in his day. He was repeatedly decorated by Queen Victoria, receiving among others the Kabul medal and the Kandahar Star for bravery in battle, both of which he wore around his neck on ceremonial occasions.

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    This horse with tremendous fighting spirit travelled about 50,000 miles during his career without ever taking a lame step and when he passed away at the age of 27 at the Royal Hospital in June 1899, Lord Roberts was said to be heartbroken. Vonolel was buried in the rose gardens of the Royal Hospital with full military honours, and there is a painting of him, with “Bobs” on board, in London’s Tate Gallery.

    His gravestone reads:

    “There are men both good and wise
    Who hold that in a future state
    Dumb creatures we have cherished here below
    Shall give us joyous greeting when
    We pass the golden gate
    Is it folly that I hope it may be so?”

    >>With special thanks to the FEI and Louise Parkes.

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