Did you know that... (28) The Korean pony: equine wickedness
By Robert Neff
In the accounts of early Western visitors to Joseon Korea (1392-1910), the pony was one of the most popular subjects. Their diminutive size belied the sheer strength and sure-footedness they possessed. The ponies, always stallions, were only about 10-12 hands tall and were able to carry huge loads of up to 200 pounds (90 kilograms). One American traveler wrote:
“My travelling steed was a singular-looking, shaggy little beast, equipped with a very aged saddle, and from his appearance and that of his companion, who was already loaded up with my baggage to a height that looked dangerous, no one unacquainted with the Korean pony could have expected to find them fully equal to the task before them.”
While the ponies were lauded for their strength, they were feared for their viciousness — especially by foreigners. American missionary, Lillias Underwood, declared them to be the most “self-willed, spoiled, obstinate, quarrelsome, uncertain, tricky and tough little beasts as ever carried a load.” A Canadian visitor echoed her thoughts and declared them the “equine wickedness in the Realm of the Morning Calm.”
One early visiting English missionary was terrified of his mount. “As soon as the creature saw me approaching to mount, it reared and kicked furiously, and opened its mouth and flew at me like a tiger.” He was only able to mount after the pony’s eyes had been covered with a bag. In defense of the pony it might be mentioned that the English missionary was a very large and heavy man.
British explorer Isabella Bird Bishop traveled extensively through Korea on horseback and was never able to really befriend her mount. Every attempt to show it kindness was met with “teeth and heels.”
Westerners weren’t the only ones who feared the ponies — so did the ponies’ handlers. American author Jack London, who visited Korea during the Russo-Japanese War, recounted a tale of a Korean handler who would not check the shoes of his pony because he was afraid of the animal. His employer, a European, grew so exasperated that he pushed the handler out of the way to do it himself. The pony promptly rewarded the European with a kick. The European stubbornly got right back up and again reached for the pony’s foot. Again, he was rewarded with a kick. This went on over and over again. The European eventually wore out the pony and was able to check the hoof — but it was a costly victory.
The European should have adopted the Korean blacksmith’s method. In the late 1880s, a visiting American newspaper reporter wrote:
“Sometimes horses are shod by being strapped up to poles, so that only two of their feet can rest on the ground, and the band which goes around the belly holds the horse up while he is shod.” Other times “the pony was first thrown to the ground, and his four legs were tied together so that he couldn’t possibly kick.”
Missionaries were generally very forgiving of the trespasses of man and beast, but one Canadian missionary seemed to take devilish delight at the harsh treatment the ponies received by the blacksmiths.
“I love to see the pony shod, see him pinioned teeth and nail, in one hard knot, lying on his back under the spreading chestnut tree, with the village smithy putting tacks into him that brings tears to his eyes.”
The Korean pony had such a notorious reputation that several were exhibited at the combined Sells Brothers Famous Roman Hippodrome and S. H. Barrett’s Monster World’s Fair held in Galveston, Texas on November 9, 1889. They were advertised as “genuine Bun Yip or Devil Horses from Corea.”
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.