Medieval Separator

Secrets of The Horse Whisperers

medieval separator

     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.

Plow Horses
       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 Matthew's touch.

        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 horse-control.
       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 of 'horse-witches'.
        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 move.
       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 now."
       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.
     Some 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 trappings.
     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

Medieval Separator


View My Guestbook                 Sign My Guestbook        


Medieval Separator

Website Copyright (c) 1997 by Peter Bayliss. All rights reserved.