I’ve never known any real horses. Sure, I’ve seen Thoroughbreds up close in the Saratoga Race Course paddock, and I have a faint memory of riding a pony at a family friend’s farm when I was young, but the horses I know best aren’t exactly horses at all: There’s Chiron, the centaur (half-horse, half-man), headmaster of Camp Half-Blood in the Percy Jackson books; Buckbeak, the hippogriff (half-horse, half-eagle), which Harry Potter rides in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban; and Pegasus, Hercules’ flying steed in the eponymous 1997 Disney movie.
Horses—and horse hybrids—have popped up in legends and myths for almost as long as there’ve been legends and myths. From Longma, the winged horse with dragon scales of Chinese mythology, to the many iterations of the unicorn, all the way up to Thestrals, horse-like beings created by J.K. Rowling that can only be seen by those who’ve witnessed death, it’s safe to say humans have, and have always had, some sort of deep-rooted connection to the horse.
The ancient Greeks had a particular fascination with horses, with the animals depicted in literature, art and religion—and used for travel, war and even racing. Much like today, horses were a symbol of class. “Horses were an important aspect of Greek life in general, and they’re very much associated with the aristocratic class,” says Leslie Mechem, lecturer of classics at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. “Mythology really only deals with aristocrats; every day, common people weren’t a part of it.”
These days, our “mythological” horses are the legends of Thoroughbred racing— Secretariat, Man o’ War and Seabiscuit—and ones that have recently won the Triple Crown or Travers Stakes. And you don’t have to be an aristocrat to enjoy them each summer at Saratoga Race Course. But as much as I love a trip there, my favorite horses will always be the ones in those fantastical, too-good-to-be-true books and movies from my childhood.