Traditions of the Horse

To make him Stand

To make him Lie

To make him Hup

To make him Hie

The British Isles have a long history associated with the equine, within our four countries and outlying isles evolved nine native pony breeds and three Heavy (or Draught) breeds,  the reputations of which have travelled the world over making them much sought  after.  Within it’s fields they have tilled the land, drawn or carried goods and people along leafy lanes and busy city streets, from the backs of brave warhorses great battles have been fought and won – or lost, they have been with us through leisure and work, thick and thin, hard times and good. The horse has been irrevocably tied to British life for several thousand years.

Our ancestors created the imposing carved Chalk horses the oldest of which is the Uffington White Horse which dates back to the bronze age – some 3000 years ago. Again, like Stonehenge, we can only guess the exact reasons but certainly the implication of a 110  meter long carving cannot fail to make an impact for all who saw it, although interestingly the Horse can only be seen from across the valley..or from the sky. He shares his hill with the earthworks of a Castle and several burial chambers,  The header picture here is purely artistic license on my part! Not more than a mile from the Horse at Uffingon is Wayland’s Smithy, an ancient barrow where Wayland himself is said to shoe any horse if it is left tied to the stones along with a silver coin or two. Wayland of course is associated with  Tubal Cain – (the First Blacksmith, mentioned in the bible)  in certain magical traditions.

Dieties associated with horses are also remembered here. Epona needs no introduction! Protector of all creatures equidae she was brought to our shores by the Romans but she certainly would have found an enthusiastic welcome and perhaps absorbed earlier localised dieties. Rhiannon, well known by readers of the Mabinogian is often depicted riding her shining White Horse.

During May many ‘Obby ‘Osses (hobby horses) are dusted off and brought out to dance and parade from village to village (usually via pub to pub lol) – these are various stylised horse based puppets, some with a horses’s skull, and operated by a man. They join the May rites, and maidens are chased and caught by the ‘Oss. In Padstow in Cornwall the earliest mention of the ‘Oss is early 18th century.

No one quite knows when the first horse was tamed and ridden but there exists evidence of chariot use from 2000 BCE. One can only wonder if the same thrill that tingles in the heart of experienced horse people and casual admirers alike at the sight of a galloping horse could have worked it’s magic and  influence on prehistoric man, what drew him to give up hunting this beautiful animal and instead to catch it, gentle it and eventually ride it?

What power must this innovative step have had on his social status? Certainly within the western mindset the rider of a horse is immediately elevated above the mundane. A figure to command respect no matter how unpreposessing the horse he sits on is!

Ask many parents of small children – girls especially and a ‘phase’ they go through is asking for a pony, or riding lessons but the pony usually appears on a list of presents sooner or later, even in families with no tradition or contact with horses. The subtle power that Horse exerts comes through from an early age!

The draw of Horse is within the british mindset, somehow we elevate them from not just ‘work’ or ‘livestock’ but like those other prized animals the dog and cat they are seen as companions and allies. Britons have never eaten horse flesh and something within our common psyche still rails at this, to many ancient races within this land they were Sacred. To many modern pagans they still are.

No great surprise then that a country so steeped in magical lore has a vast amount of it dedicated and influenced by the noble Horse. The ancients – Celts,  Romans, Vikings and Saxons have all, in their turn arrived on our shores and had an influence on the local equine breeds. The vikings recognised  the hardiness of the Shetland and Highland ponies and in exporting them to the  newly discovered Iceland they become foundation stock for the Icelandic Horse, an animal intrinsically linked to the myths and belief systems of that land. The Romans brought us horseshoes tied on with leather – the Celts – who believed that they rode to the next life on horses when death claimed them, were the first to nail shoes to the hoof to protect it.

Horseshoe protection

A horseshoe is one the best known talismans for luck, having become so popular and ingrained in the public mindset that gold, silver or plastic ones are regularly presented to a new Bride and Groom. Regional differences detail whether a shoe should be hung point up or down (or sideways for the Witch to emulate a crescent moon!) what now is mostly being forgotten except within magical lore is the understanding that the luck only comes from a cast shoe or one that comes to you by chance and doubly lucky if the horse it came from should be white! (or rather grey since horses are never white – I’ll leave you to figure that one out 😉

Many fans of the beautiful Heavy horse breeds flock to see the Best Decorated Horse class at agricultural shows, the plaited ribbons with the flights, the plaited and beribboned tail, the horse brasses that adorn the gleaming harness all have their origins in the superstitions and magical lore of the countryside. The ribbons were to ward of negative influences (usually witchcraft) and the brasses talismans of luck and protection with various designs becoming popular including crescent moons and suns. These items are still collected but finding originals is becoming harder.

Indeed the amount of magical lore surrounding the heavy horse is a  study all on it’s own, probably because the populance relied so heavily on these animals for their basic survival. The Ploughmen held a unique position in agricultural society, a good ploughman was second only to the Farmer himself  in terms of local status and respect. Britain had the first type of horse welfare organisation in the Society of the Horseman’s Grip and Word which was concerned purely with the farm horse and his attendants and workmen. The society was secret and acceptance into it much like many of our modern magical traditions, a period of apprenticeship and then Initiation into the Mysteries. The opening poem here comes from the ‘Four rules of Horsemanship’ that the young plough boy had to learn before being accepted into the ranks. Hup and Hie are the words used to turn a horse left or right (when ploughing), and again are regional. Hup and Ho being another variation.

Horse people the world over will understand the very high standards the lad had to achieve – just being able to get the horse to turn and stop at his word wasn’t enough. The bond that grows between horse and handler or rider is something that is very difficult to explain to the non riders of the world. The bond between the plough men and their horses was remarkable, the entire team of man, plough and two horses weighing around 1800 to 2000 lbs had to work as one to get the best results for the farm.

Horse care was paramount and the standards of cleanliness of horse, stable and harness was scrutinised deeply by not only the farmer but other ploughmen, for  the assessment was from his peers, and only when they were satisfied would he be invited to join the Society. The lad (never Lass unfortunately) lived for the day he would find an envelope with a single horse tail hair within it on his pillow. Then he would be taken, at dead of night, to the yard to go through his Initiation rites. Only then would the full depth of knowledge be passed on to him, the tricks to make a horse go or refuse,  lore involving making of oils to that end, instructions on healing and of course the magical Word itself. It was said that he only had to whisper it in the ear of any horse and he could control even the most unruly animal.


Horse whispering as it is known now in modern media is not the same as that here in the British Isles. There are various tales about ‘cunning men’ and ‘horse men’ who were members of this society and every tale confirms that the practitioner would be locked in a stable with the horse for a time, and then knock or make it known he wanted to be released, and the horse would follow him and do his bidding – usually a complete transformation from the mettlesome animal it had been. Throughout the entire process the stable would remain silent despite the best efforts of those without to hear what was going on! These records come from hunt staff (hunting itself being steeped in magical lore) , race horse trainers and farmers, all pragmatic and down to earth types not given to flights of fancy nor – it has to be said – paying for nothing.

The farrier too had his magical secrets- the alchemy involved in metal work is something modern Magical tool makers harness.  Horseshoe nails are  powerful talismans with the Stang of Old Craft being shod with one, and a nail being particularly good for inscribing articles as well as a myriad of other uses. The water that the hot shoe is cooled in is carefully collected by wise Witches (this one makes sure the Farrier uses her own bucket not the one he carries with him and is happy to empty on the roots of the nearest tree!) as Thunder Water (not the same as moonshine whisky!!) is a very powerful ingredient. The water thunders to boiling point as the shoe is dunked in it, and tiny bits of iron are left making a potent mixture that will give a kick to magical workings.

Horseshoe nails hung on Ash

The well known holed stone called a ‘hag stone’ is still hung in many a stable, said to protect the horses from being ‘hag ridden’ by a witch on the way to her Coven meeting. Witch Knots found in the mane are other indications of interferance by us witches. The mane is twisted and tangled and sometimes partially plaited in a way that is very difficult to remove – trust me on that I’ve had to get several of them out of a pony I used to own. In these times where Witches are not feared in the same way they are now used for protection and good fortune.

Horse colour too plays an important part, true black horses are rare and they were often associated with things of the Underworld, A white horse is considered lucky or unlucky depending on where you come from. The two extremes of colour perform a balancing act between the ‘light’ and ‘dark’ within mythology and folklore.

I’ll leave this too long entry with a quote from Rupert Percy

‘Whenever we see charms or spells to repel witches we can bet that originally these were ancient charms to ward off malevolent spirits or bad luck made by Witches for protection‘ and ‘ wherever popular folk lore deems that something is evil, ghostly or connected to devils it usually means it has a strong link to the pagan past

Further reccomended reading on horse lore

White Horse – Rupert Percy (ignotus press – now out of print  but thoroughly worth getting if you can find it)

Ask the Fellows Who Cut The Hay

The Horse in the Furrow

The Pattern under the Plough ………. all by George Ewart Evans

EDIT – you’ve got to love technology! Please excuse the lateness of this entry, our PC died taking with it the first two drafts and the photos.


About okarnill

Just another british Witch who follows the path of the wise. Like millions of others I live my life the best I can within my Wiccan beliefs. I am also a horse rider, a dog trainer and an artist. My home is a sleepy village in the UK where I share my life with my partner and all manner of creatures, cats, dogs, horses, hens, rabbits, and much treasured wildlife.
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One Response to Traditions of the Horse

  1. Tana says:

    Awesome, I have to read your great post in detail later. I just jumped to the part with the horse shoe, because a friend gave us one as wedding gift – and it was a cast one! (The horse is white-brown, does that count? ;))
    Do you know any additional spells/things I should/can do with it, before hanging it over our front door?

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