King Letsie III
King Letsie III

His Majesty King Letsie III

(Photo : Business Insider)


Most of our readers are aware of the ruling monarch of Lesotho, His Majesty King Letsie III and his love of horses. He has travelled the world following his passion, and will be the Honour Guest at the forthcoming Ready To Run Gallops at Summerhill (19th October) and at the Emperors Palace Ready To Run Sale (Friday 2nd and Sunday 4th November). But few, and in particular our international readers, are aware of the Royal Family’s deep history with horses. The Basutho people occupy the Mountain Kingdom to the West of us, and the founder of the nation as we know it today, was King Moshoeshoe I, who united his people into a single polity as long ago as 1822.

The nation was forged through the diplomacy and sheer weight of personality of the King from a number of tribes which had been displaced as a result of the largely disruptive wars known as the Mfecane, associated with the reign of King Shaka and the Zulus.

Us “Zulus” might be surprised to learn this, but in his magnum opus “A History of South Africa”, Frank Welsh described King Moshoeshoe as the most influential African leader of his era, and that’s saying something knowing that he lived in the time of King Shaka. Welsh specifically draws parallels between the two, so there’s no doubting the extravagance of the statement, yet the argument gains traction when we recall that the Basutho leader was not only a statesman and an influence for unity, but he was also a supreme militarist whose C.V. in that sphere included the annihilation of the Boer forces at Winberg. His triumphs extended to the British as well, in one case, following an attempt by Major Warden to solve by force the determination of the boundaries of his realm. The battle took place at Viervoet in July 1851, and ended in considerable losses (more than 150 killed) for Warden’s force. In December of the following year, Sir George Cathcart, who had fought against Napoleon’s armies in 1812/1813, now with a considerably superior force, was again completely defeated by Mosheoshoe, losing among other casualties, 27 of his British lancers. The Basutho light cavalry, which Sir George compared to the Cossacks he had served with, were a formidable enemy, showing more tactical prowess than Sir George. The undefeated Moshoeshoe, as skilled in diplomacy as in war, immediately offered to make peace. “You have chastised, and let it be enough: and let me no longer be considered to be an enemy of the Queen”, an offer which was gratefully accepted by the British. Without further interference, Moshoeshoe was then able to dispose of his old antagonists Sekonyele and Taaichbos, making himself the undisputed master of what is now Lesotho, independent of both Boers and British, as well as the local tribespeople around him.

Like the best breeders of the modern racehorse, King Moshoeshoe knew the value of good genes, and his people were demonstrably good with horses, as evidenced by the demolition job his light cavalry did on Cathcart’s forces. Under the King’s encouragement, the Basutho proceeded to develop a nuggety breed of their own horse, commonly known today as the Basutho pony; small, rugged, brave and wonderfully nimble, as it had to be in negotiating the mountain paths of its homeland. To this day, the Basutho people are the only indigenous African nation with their own breed of horse, though the Afrikaners also developed a fine stock animal in the Boerperd, the blood of which, when mixed with Arabs, has produced some of the finest endurance horses in the world.

Beyond their application as transport and war horses, the Basutho ponies played a pivotal role in the evolution of the South African polo horse, and many a famous polo-playing family, people such as the Yeats’, the Frasers, the Poultneys, and the legendary Watsons, forged their reputations on the back of these doughty little fellows. All of these families produced players of provincial class, with several of them aspiring to national honours. The Watsons in particular, have achieved the sort of heights you only hear about in places like Argentina, with no fewer than seven of them making the Springbok team. The original “bull” was Jock Watson, followed by his sons Jim, Kit, Derrick and Russell, while the present South African squad includes two more Watsons in Lance and Duncan. Jim and Russell have earned world renown as the most capped and the most accomplished players in our history, and they still persist in cross-breeding Basutho ponies with thoroughbreds as the sturdiest and most reliable of their mounts, or so it was when we last checked on them.