Left: Approaching the fowl with stalking-horse. Right: Shooting with the stalking-horse. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

The frequent mention that is made by old writers of the device of the stalking-horse for the approach to wild-fowl, shows how much more abundant than at present the ducks, &c., must have been. In As You Like It, the Duke says of Touchstone, "He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under presentation of that he shoots his wit." The line "Stalk on, stalk on, the fowl sits," occurs in Much Ado About Nothing. The following sentence is from a sermon by Bishop Hall:— "Here one, if he can have no other ground, will make religion a stalking-horse to his covetous and ambitious intentions; it is Bellum Domini," a sacred war, that he wages for the reducing of heretics to the imity of the Church, or punishing their perfidiousness."

Though at the present day not likely to be referred to by a contemporary writer as an object with which most would be acquainted, it would seem to be better known to our American cousins. In the "Essay on Pope," by the author of the "Biglow Papers," occurs this passage: — "Milton was willing to peril the success of his crowning work by making the poetry of it a stalkinghorse for his theological convictions."

Mr. Harting gives a quaint description of this ancient device from the "Gentleman's Recreation," by Grervase Markham. It is as follows: — "Sometime it so happeneth that the fowl are so shie there is no getting a shoot at them without a stalking-horse, which must be some old jade trained up for that purpose, who will gently, and as you will have him, walk up and down in the water which way you please, plodding and eating on the grass that grows therein. You must shelter yourself and gun behind his fore-shoulder, bending your body down low by his side, and keeping his body still fiill between you and the fowl. Being within shot, take your level from before the fore part of the horse, shooting, as it were, between the horse's neck and the water Now, to supply the want of a stalking-horse, which will take up a great deal of time to instruct and make fit for this exercise, you may make use of any piece of old canvas, which you must shape into the form of an horse, with the head bending downwards, as if he grazed. You may stuff it with any light matter; and do not forget to paint it of the color of an horse, of which the brown is the best. It must be made so portable that you may bear it with ease in one hand, moving it so as it may seem to graze as you go."

In the "Privy Purse Expenses of King Henry VIII." are various entries referring to stalking-horses, all of which appear to refer to the live animal; and there is one entry relating to the stalking-ox. In Lacroix's excellent work [1595] occurs a representation of a stalking-horse of the date of the fifteenth century. It is a fac-simile of one of the curious miniatures in the illuminated manuscript of Gaston Phebus III., Count de Foix, and bears the title, "Comment on peut porter la toile pour trahir aux bestes." We gather firom M. Lacroix's remarks on the illustration, that the same device is in use at the present day in France, with the sole exception that the form of a cow is now preferred to that of a horse.

Like all contemporary authors, Gaston Phebus carefully directs attention to the moral side of "la chasse." "In hunting," says he, " one avoids the sin of laziness, for he who flees the seven mortal sms, according to our faith, should be saved; then the good hunter will be saved." An amusing, if not strictly logical statement of the case.

That the stalking-horse was anciently employed in partridge-shooting we have the testimony of Willughby's "Ornithology" (1678), referred to in Douce's "Illustrations of Shakspere." Idstone alludes to its use in the pursuit of woodcock, and quotes a Mr. Dobson, who writes that they also used a small kind of mongrel setters, bastardised through a dozen crosses, and broken by means of starvation and hard blows. As soon as the dog was set, the operator unslung his stalking-horse from his shoulder, and immediately commenced walking quickly round the dog, contracting his rounds every time. He thus describes the cock sitting terrified at the phenomenon of the stalking-horse whirling ever around him: "He sits squatted like a toad, with eyes prepared to take the horizon in." [195-99]

Related Material


Robertson, H. R. Life on the Upper Thames. London: Virtue, Spalding, & Co., 1875.Internet Archive digitized from a copy in the University of Toronto Library.

Last modified 7 May 2012