At Heathrow Airport in England, a 300-foot red carpet was stretched out to Air Force One and President Bush strode to a warm but dignified handshake from Queen Elizabeth II. They rode in silver 1934 Bentley to the edge of central London where they boarded an open 17th century coach hitched to six magnificent white horses.
As they rode toward Buckingham Palace, each looking to their side and waving to the thousands of cheering Britons lining the streets, all was going well. This was indeed a glorious display of pageantry and dignity. Suddenly the scene was shattered when the right rear horse let rip the most horrendous, earth-shattering, eye-smarting blast of flatulence, and the coach immediately filled with noxious fumes.
Uncomfortable, but maintaining control, the two dignitaries did their best to ignore the whole incident, but then the Queen decided that was a ridiculous manner with which to handle a most embarrassing situation. She turned to Mr. Bush and explained, "Mr. President, please accept my regrets. I'm sure you understand that there are some things even a Queen cannot control."
George W., ever the Texas gentleman, replied, "Your Majesty, please don't give the matter another thought. You know, if you hadn't said something I would have assumed it was one of the horses."
This much is true: In November 2003, President G.W. Bush paid a formal state visit to England, where he stayed at Buckingham Palace, banqueted with Queen Elizabeth II and speechified alongside Prime Minister Tony Blair on behalf of U.S.-British solidarity. At no point did Mr. Bush accompany the Queen in a horse-drawn carriage, however, let alone misspeak himself in the manner quoted above. This charming anecdote, which circulated widely in the wake of Bush's ceremonial trip, is not only apocryphal; it is, in fact, a joke, and an old one at that.
"[A] tale is told," New Zealand columnist Duncan Campbell recently wrote, "of an elderly British royal of last century alighting from a carriage when the horse suddenly produced a ripsnorter. 'Sorry about that, ma'am,' said the coachman. 'That's quite all right,' responded Her Highness. 'I thought it was the horse.'"
As Campbell's version of the vintage quip illustrates, it can be told in more ways than one, though the standard set-up calls for a visiting head of state riding in the company of a royal personage, as above, or as in this example:
Did you ever hear about the time Queen Elizabeth had to share her horse-drawn carriage with Idi Amin, and one of the horses farted very loudly?Queenie voice: "So sorry about that, you must excuse us"Idi Amin, grinning like mad (well, he WAS): "That's all right, Your Majesty, these things happen. I thought it was the horse."
Among the Queen's alleged coach companions in variants handed down through the years have been the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Prime Minister of Australia, the Prime Minister of Canada, Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic, and sundry other dignitaries foreign and domestic. Nor was G.W. Bush the first American President to be singled out as the butt of it. The following version collected on the Internet, for instance, cites Bush's immediate predecessor:
One day President Clinton was visiting Queen Elizabeth and she decided to take him for a tour of London in the Royal Carriage. Now the carriage was being pulled by six Royal Stallions and one of them suddenly passed gas. It sounded like a twenty one gun salute it was so loud. The smell permeated the inside of the carriage and the Queen was totally devastated."I apologize profusely for the terrible smell inside the carriage", she said."Oh, that's alright", said the President, for a minute there I thought it was the horse."
And this variant names Ronald Reagan:
The Queen of England decides she wants a Kentucky thoroughbred in the royal stable, so she calls President Reagan, who decides to meet her in Lexington, Kentucky.When they get there, they decide to go for a ride. They're just pulling out of the barn when the Queen's horse's tail goes up and "Lbbttt!" — out comes a monstrous fart.The Queen says, "I'm so embarrassed!"Reagan says, "You shouldn't be! I thought it was the horse!"
In spite of the fact that it is so often framed as such, the joke isn't fundamentally about the commission of an incourtesy in the presence of royalty. Rather, it shines a light on phenomena far more universal and mundane: human inhibitions pertaining to certain dread bodily functions. We find the motif rendered in its most basic form in the 1972 Patrick O'Brian novel Post Captain, in which a drunken midshipman named Babbington transports a plainspoken lady in the back of his horse-drawn cart:
The horse slowed to a walk — the bean-fed horse, as it proved by a thunderous, long, long fart."I beg your pardon," said the midshipman in silence."Oh, that's all right," said Diana coldly. "I thought it was the horse."
I leave you with an actual paragraph from the obituary of Brigadier Sir Gregor MacGregor, 23rd Chief of Clan Gregor, published in the Daily Telegraph, April 15, 2003:
A good horseman, MacGregor was once passing in front of the band when his mount noisily broke wind. "Sorry about that, Brigade of Drums," he called out. "That's all right, sir," a piper retorted. "We thought it was the horse."
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