Secrets of The
In the candlelit barn the blindfolded novices knelt in a circle.
Their left feet were bare and their left hands raised. Also present were senior members of
the Society, one of whom (the 'minister') stood within the circle. He made the novices
swear they would never reveal by spoken or written word any of the secret knowledge to be
imparted to them.
The first Horseman, they were told, had been Cain. And
there were certain verses from the Bible which, when spoken backwards, would summon the
Devil to their aid. Then to each one was whispered the Horseman's Word - a special word of
power which would give them complete mastery over all horses.
A stench of sulphur and a cacophony of alarming noises
heralded the arrival of the Devil. The novices were directed to shake his hand, whereupon
they found themselves holding a cold wet hoof. The blindfolds were removed to reveal a
terrifying figure in animal skins and wearing a horned mask.
Such was the initiation ceremony into The Society of the
Horseman's Word in N.E. Scotland. Its heyday was in the 1870s, but it had a strong
following until at least the 1930s. It is thought to still exist in Orkney and other
remote parts of Scotland. It was one of the societies that kept alive the highly valued
secrets of the Horse Whisperers.
The Whisperers were powerful throughout rural Britain until the advent of farm machinery
and motor transport. Their skill was held in high regard. And individuals who possessed
the Word were much sought after.
They formed themselves into Masonic-style guilds with secret handshakes, passwords and
salutes. And they were particularly strong, not only in N.E. Scotland, but also in the
rich farming lands of East Anglia. It was there that the Whisperers' secret phrase of
power was said to be 'sic iubeo' - thus I command.
In From Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson recalled her childhood in rural
Oxfordshire in the 1880s. She remembered how the village blacksmith, Matthew, would deal
with difficult horses when they came to be shod. He had only to put his hand on the mane
and whisper a few words in the ear. It was generally believed that he possessed some charm
which had power over them, and he rather encouraged this idea by saying when questioned,
"I only speaks to 'em in their own language."
In fact, the 'whispering' was often used as a distraction to impress and mislead
bystanders. The calming of the horse was probably more due to the soothing effect of
In the novice Whisperers' oath, the blacksmith and the farrier
were exceptions to the injunction against sharing secret knowledge. This was no more than
recognition of the very central position they held with regard to all questions of
Skilful handling was at the root of the Whisperers'
art. In fact, the Word given to initiates may not have had magical power at all. But
rather it was a symbol of the close bond or identity between man and horse. It was lived
rather than used, symbolic of a relationship. A good handler possessed 'horse-sense' or
shrewd knowledge of horse psychology.
Allied to this, the old horsemen used techniques based on
the horse's keen sense of smell. Obnoxious substances placed in front of the horse or on
the animal itself would make it refuse to move. This was known as 'jading' a horse. The
belief in supernatural agency was encouraged by the horsemen to protect their knowledge.
It was this ability to make a horse stand still as if bewitched that earned them the name
Most jading substances were organic. They included,
for instance, stoat's liver and rabbit's liver, dried and powdered up with 'dragon's
blood' (the code name for a red-gum resin from a sort of palm-fruit). Then there were
aromatic oils to 'draw' or attract. These were often used in taming wild or vicious
horses. The tamer would smear his forehead with the oil, then stand up wind of the animal.
One such consisted of a mixture of oil of origanum, oil of
rosemary, oil of cinnamon, and oil of fennel. But there were other drawing substances
which could be hidden about the horseman's person. These included such attractive tit-bits
as sweet-scented cakes and gingerbread.
The jading and the drawing substances could be used in
conjunction to achieve total control over the horse. The East Anglian folklorist, George
Ewart Evans, describes many such occasions when this took place.
In The Pattern under the Plough, he tells of
one cunning old man who used to jade a horse while pretending to feel its fetlocks. The
horse's owner would be unaware of the jading substance which the old fellow had in the
palm of his hand. The result, of course, was that the horse could not be persuaded to
When he wanted to release the animal, the old man
simply had to repeat the performance with a substance in his hand that would neutralise
the first smell. But in order to impress bystanders, he would lift one of the horse's
front hoofs, tap it sharply a few times with his knuckles and say, "Right! He'll go
Farmers could consider themselves ruined if they gave
offence to such a person. The Whisperer could smear a jading substance across the
threshold of the stable, for instance, making the horse refuse to come out.
Horse Whisperers possessed two important talismans or fetishes that could be used in
connection with jading and drawing. These were the milt and the frog's bone.
The milt is a piece of fibrous matter on the tongue of a
colt when it is still in the mare's womb. It is usually swallowed by the colt when it is
born, but old horsemen were careful to extract it immediately after the birth. It is
thought to have something to do with the formation of the horse's tongue.
horsemen simply carried it as a charm. But George Ewart Evans says it had very little
effect on its own. It was mostly used in conjunction with the drawing oils as an
allurement. Of greater importance was the frog's bone. In fact, it was usually the
bone of a toad. And possessors of this talisman were known as 'Toadmen'. The bone itself
was forked like a wishbone (possibly the pelvic girdle or breastbone). It resembled the
V-shaped band of horn on the underside of a horse's hoof which is called the 'frog'. So
there was imitative magic at work here, both in the verbal and visual sense.
The ritual of acquiring it was almost as important as the object itself. In fact, it is
said to have originally been part of the Whisperers' initiation ceremony.
After it was killed, the frog or toad was left on a
whitethorn bush for 24 hours to become hard and dry. It was then buried in an anthill and
left there for a month. At the end of that time there was only the skeleton left. This was
taken to a running stream at full moon and tossed onto the water. The horseman had to
watch carefully until a little crotch bone separated itself from the rest and floated
against the current. It was this bone which was kept.
Sometimes it was powdered and mixed with jading substances.
But in most cases it was used whole, cured with the same repelling substances, wrapped in
linen and hidden about the horseman's person. The horse was jaded by being touched in the
pit of the shoulder with it. He was released by being touched on the rump.
In his novel The Moon Stallion, (serialised on BBC television), Brian Hayles
introduced the character Todman, a stablemaster who is a 'horse warlock'. He enacts the
frog's bone ritual in order to make a talisman to charm the Moon Stallion. His name was a
corruption of 'Toadman'. Importance was placed on the ancient association between the
horse and the moon. It may be noted that the crescent moon is a frequent motif in horse
The connection between the two is with the cultivation and
fertility of the soil. In Greek mythology, the moon was linked with the goddess Demeter,
the 'earth mother'. Her Roman equivalent was Diana, the name chosen by Mr. Hayles for the
blind heroine of his story.
It was mainly gypsies who kept alive the ancient skills of
the Whisperers when farm work no longer relied on horsepower. It has been said that no
people were more skilful at the curing or disguising of a sick horse. And few knew more
about horse psychology. There are still one or two of the great traditional Horse Fairs,
such as at Appleby in Cumbria, where such knowledge may be seen in practice.
The old farmers were sometimes taught these skills in
their youth. Dan Wickett, who died in his native Cornwall in the 1960s, had worked as a
ploughboy and was said to have been given the Word.
The darker side of the Whisperers' art may not be entirely
forgotten. A contemporary of Wickett was Charles Walton. He had worked as a ploughboy in
Warwickshire at the turn of the century and was thought to possess the skills of the
Whisperers. He was well known as a practitioner of many old rural crafts, and was
suspected of witchcraft. It seemed to be fear of his occult powers that made someone drive
a pitchfork through his throat at Lower Quinton in 1945.
The horse has made something of a comeback in recent years.
It is mainly through the popularity of riding. But attempts have been made to re-introduce
it as a draught animal on some farms. The skill of horse-drawn ploughing is still judged
at rural competitions. And horse breeding is big business.
It may be that horse-handlers who possess the Word
will feel encouraged to pass on their knowledge. So a new generation may yet inherit the
legendary skills of the Horse Whisperers.
Copyright © Peter Bayliss
View My Guestbook
Sign My Guestbook
Website Copyright (c) 1997 by
Peter Bayliss. All rights reserved.