For some centuries, Christmas time in East Kent was marked with a curious tradition. Sometimes on Christmas Eve or on Boxing Day, houses in certain villages would be visited by the hooden horse.

The hooden horse tradition is strikingly strange to modern sensibilities. The usual arrangement appears to have included a “waggoner,” who would carry a whip and lead the “hoodener,” a man draped in sackcloth and bent over, carrying a wooden horse head on a staff. In the 19th Century, a popular accomplice of these two was “Mollie,” usually a young man dressed in women’s clothes who would sweep the lane in the wake of the hooden horse. Sometimes, a “rider” would accompany this trio. Often, the hooden horse group would be accompanied by musicians playing tunes on a concertina, accordion, cymbals, or tambourine.

Walmer 29th March 1907
A troupe of hoodeners from Walmer Court Farm in Walmer, Kent, 1907. Accessed via Wikipedia.

The troupe would travel from house to house, where the “rider” would attempt to clamber onto the back of the hooden horse, and the “waggoner” would snatch at the hooden horse’s bridle, shouting “whoa!” “Mollie” would caper about the yard, and if the group was invited into the house, “Mollie” would reliably chase any girls and frighten any children within. The comedic antics of the hooden horse will proceed for some time, before the troupe moves off to another house.

Deal 1909
A hoodener in Deal, Kent, 1909. Accessed via Wikipedia.

The history of the hooden horse is shrouded in mystery. Percy Maylam wrote a 1909 book (The Hooden Horse) to memorialize and record what was a vanishing tradition during his time. Of the hooden horses he observed in the 1880s and 1890s, none of the operators could speak to the historicity of the tradition. Written accounts of the practice date back to 1807, and speculation as to its origins has come in many forms. Early 20th Century writers guessed that it might be connected to pre-Christian sacrifices to Odin, but subsequent writings have dismissed that idea. It is likely an independent mid-winter tradition, but nobody knows when it began.

Sare (Thanet) June 1905 WIth improvised broom
A troupe of hoodeners from Hale Farm in St. Nicholas-at-Wade, Kent, 1905. Accessed via Wikipedia. The photo, taken at the request of historian Percy Maylam, includes the “Mollie” character.

The practice of hoodening essentially went extinct following the turmoil of World War I. After World War II, a modernized revival of some hoodening practices was incorporated into cultural festivals in Kent, in order to preserve some of the lost tradition. Although it’s no longer a Christmas tradition, the hooden horse lives on in several communities in Kent.

Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail


If you are at all familiar with the village of Middleburg, you have likely seen iconic images of the Middleburg Hunt and hound parade in the snow. It just doesn’t feel like the holiday season has begun in this region until Christmas in Middleburg takes place on the first Saturday every December. The celebration brings people from far and wide to enjoy this spectacle as well as the traditional afternoon Christmas parade with brightly-colored floats, a variety of horse-drawn vehicles, and other animals. Even Santa Claus arrives on a four-in-hand.

Although we did not experience a magical snow this past Saturday, there was no shortage of holiday cheer for the festivities. Partnering with the National Sporting Library & Museum, Colonial Williamsburg’s Director of Coach and Livestock Paul Bennett brought and drove the historic city’s Wythe Chariot, a highlight of the parade.

Partnering with the NSLM, Colonial Williamsburg made a special appearance in the Middleburg Christmas Parade on December 2, 2017, with the recently-restored Wythe Chariot driven by Director of Coach and Livestock Paul Bennett.

The royal blue livery brought to mind a wintry, 19th-century French print in the NSLM’s collection…

(after) Henri d’Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat (French, 1817 – 1859), La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons: Hiver (one of a set of four), hand-colored aquatint, 21 ½ x 30 ¾ inches, engraved by Jazet, Paris; published by Goupil et Vibert, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman R. Bobins, 2012

Subtitled Hiver (Winter), the hand-colored aquatint is one of a set of four in the series, La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons (The Life of a Gentleman in All Seasons). First published in 1846, each print depicts a different season of carriage driving in France. The original paintings from which the engravings were made were by Henri Auguste d’ Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat, a French sporting and animal artist.

(after) Henri d’Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat (French, 1817 – 1859) La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons: Hiver (Detail)

The snowy scene shows two postilions, each riding the near post-horse of a double team at a fast pace. (It is typical to ride the left horse of a pair since horses are trained to be mounted from the near side.) The riders are wearing the unmistakable rigid boots of their profession to protect their legs from being injured. Posting was a common mode of transit in England and on the Continent before trains. Postilions were hired through postmasters and traveled from post house to post house, on successive legs of a journey. Tired riders and horses were replaced as needed along the way.

(after) Henri d’Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat (French, 1817 – 1859), La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons: Hiver (Detail)

The carriage depicted is a shooting phaeton, a four-wheel open carriage with room for four passengers, game, and a compartment with ventilation under the seat to transport gun dogs.  Snow flies up from the wheels as the sportsmen return from a successful day afield. The gamekeeper, bundled up in a fur coat with a powder flask at his side, points to a village in the distance. A huntsman and the gentleman holding a shotgun enjoy a cigar while the fourth companion wearing a buttoned-up frock coat and a brimmed cap, crosses his arms, bracing himself against the cold. A gun dog peeks out from the gentleman’s lap blanket while another alert dog is at the front of the carriage. The vehicle is filled with a mixed bag  – a plentiful variety of hare, pheasant, duck, partridge, snipe, and stag – and game bags hang from the back.

Although it’s not a one-horse open sleigh, the scene conjures a line from the classic American melody, Jingle Bells. “Dashing through the snow…”  Carriages, wheeled and sleighs alike, are icons of a long-gone era, but still strongly resonate with the sentiment of the season. Thank you to our friends at Colonial Williamsburg for journeying to Middleburg and “making spirits bright.”

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at

As the days shorten and holiday lights start glinting in window panes, it is easy to reflect on the events of the past year. Thanksgiving Day urges each of us to consider what we are thankful for; to celebrate our achievements and to show gratitude to those who help us accomplish them. As a nonprofit, NSLM has a great deal to be proud of, and even more to be thankful for.


To our Members

Thank you to our 600+ members. Members give each year to support our mission to preserve, promote, and share the literature, art, and culture of equestrian, angling, and field sports. Every now and then a new member will say, “I’m only a $50 member, I don’t help very much”, but the opposite is true. Our Individual and Household members make up the foundation of our membership base, and each membership counts! Our concerts, programs, and events depend on all of our members- Thank You.


To our Ambassadors and Volunteers

Though the Ambassador program only began about a year ago, it has grown to include nearly 30 individuals. Our Ambassadors are members who actively recruit in the community. Some pour wine at events, others volunteer in the Library, and still more bring new friends and members to the NSLM every chance they get. Thank you to all of our Ambassadors for your special interest and the passion you spread!

Volunteer Jeri Coulter welcomes visitors to an Open Late concert, May 2017

To our Partners and Sponsors

It may take a village to raise a child, but it can take a whole town to raise a Museum and Library. Our partners and sponsors – both in and outside of Middleburg- support some of our most successful programs year-round. Sponsors like Middleburg Common Grounds and the Sidesaddle Cafe support educational programs through in-kind donations, while fellow nonprofits like the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Artists in Middleburg collaborate with us for dynamic events. We belong to a tremendous network of supportive and active organizations- Thank you all!

GM reads
An Evening with George Morris, sponsored by Beverly Equestrian, September 2017

To Viewers like You

Have you visited the Library or Museum this year? Have you browsed our website or library catalog? Are you reading this blog post? Thank you! Every opportunity to interact with you, the viewer, is an opportunity for us to spread our mission and to tell you more about us. Every Facebook ‘like’, every Yelp review, and every email is appreciated. Keep them coming!


 Are you looking for a way to give thanks?

Become a member today, or make a one-time tax deductible gift to NSLM!

Thank You!


Anne Marie Barnes is the Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM). Her passion for museum work began shortly after graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in History from James Madison University. Between her expeience working at the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center and the Washington Heritage Museums, she has done everything from designing summer camps to formulating major fundraisers. Have a question? Contact Anne Marie by e-mail



It’s hard to believe the Thanksgiving holiday is here already and our exhibition The Horse in Ancient Greek Art will be with us for just 2 more months. This hit show has brought in lots of visitation, field trips of all ages, and group tours from all over. We are thrilled with the great response! If you haven’t seen it yet, you have until January 14th! If you have seen it, and you can’t get enough of ancient horses and fantastic Greek art, here are some fun facts. With so many tours coming through, we get a lot of great questions and get to share some fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits.

Entrance to The Horse in Ancient Greek Art exhibition at the NSLM. On view until January 14th.

Here are just a few of the top FAQs.

Are these things really that old? Some look brand new!
Yes! The objects on view in this show really are 2,800 – 2,300 years old. It’s hard to imagine an object (especially a ceramic vase) lasting that long, but it’s true. All have undergone some sort of conservation treatment during their lifetime. Some feature a burnished, shiny surface, which gives the illusion of looking “new” (especially when under museum display lights).

How in the world do they survive that long?
Fired pottery is surprisingly durable. Sometimes vessels are discovered by archaeologists in one piece, for example if they are found in tombs. But usually they are found in fragments and are carefully reassembled by restorers.  In Black-figure and Red-figure vase-painting, the artwork is actually created with thin layers of watered down clay called “slip”  that was baked in during the firing process. Some areas turn black in the kiln, while other areas keep the rich red and orange colors of the terracotta clay. Pigment was sometimes added afterwards, but it often doesn’t survive as well as the fired clay decoration.

Attributed to the Malibu Painter/C Painter, Black-figure Siana Cup, ca. 570-565 BCE, Private Collection, Virginia.

Some vessels show their history more than others. The base of this Siana Cup has holes from repairs that were made during ancient times. The Greeks used metal staples to hold together broken pieces of valuable pottery. Modern restorations use special glues.

Why are there Satyrs here? I thought they were goats?
Many people are familiar with the Roman form of Satyrs, which were part human and part goat. But for the Greeks, whose culture and mythology came earlier, Satyrs were human-horse hybrids. They had a horse tail, horse ears, and sometimes hooves. Both versions were companions of Dionysos, the God of Wine, and were generally crude, lewd, and trouble-making.

Black-figure Shoulder Lekythos, ca. 540-530 BCE, Private Collection, Virginia. The procession on this vase shows Dionysos on a mule, with satyrs raising their hands and singing.

Where are the saddles?
The Greeks rode bareback or sometimes with saddle cloths. Saddles with a solid frame, called a tree, did not appear until the 2nd or 1st century BCE. Solid stirrups, made of bronze or iron, were developed later in China around the 3rd century CE. Until then, various types of saddle pads or tree-less saddles were used, sometimes with cloth or leather toe loops.

So, how did the Greeks mount their horses with no saddles or stirrups? The author Xenophon suggested getting a leg up or using a spear to vault on.

Attributed to the Wraith Painter, Black-figure Droop Cup, ca. 530 BCE, Private Collection, Virginia. This scene shows a mounted jockey, flanked by judges, athletes, and spectators. The red line on the white horse may indicate a saddle cloth.

Does the NSLM own any of these ancient objects?
Sometimes people are surprised to learn that the answer to this question is actually no. This exhibition is made up of loans from other museums (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Tampa Museum of Art, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, and Indiana University) and private collections. Ancient art is a new and exciting topic for us here! Exhibiting these objects gives us an opportunity to expand the context of our mission and look at a much bigger timeline for the history of horses in art and culture.

All art is informed by the art that has come before it. Part of what we do with our programming is help make connections between early works and modern examples. For instance, did you know that Nic Fiddian-Green, the creator of Still Water, was inspired by the classical sculptures of horses on the Parthenon Frieze?

Nic Fiddian-Green (English, b. 1963), Still Water, 2011, hammered lead with copper rivets, 9 feet high, NSLM, Museum Purchase, 2013. (c) Nic Fiddian Green.
Marble relief, Slab XXXVII from the North Frieze of the Parthenon: procession of horse-drawn chariots, 438-432 BCE © The Trustees of the British Museum

After it closes here in Middleburg, The Horse in Ancient Greek Art will travel on to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, our co-organizers of the exhibition, where it will be on view February 17 – July 8, 2018.





Recently I spent some time working with a bestiary compiled in 1607 by Edward Topsell.  The short version of its title is The Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts, the the full title does an admirable job of summarizing the contents:  The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes : Describing the true and lively figure of every beast, with a discourse of their severall names, conditions, kindes, vertues (both naturall and medicinall), countries of their breed, their love and hate to mankinde, and the wonderfull worke of God in their creation, preservation, and destruction : necessary for all divines and students, because the story of every beast is amplified with narrations out of scriptures, fathers, phylosophers, physitians, and poets : wherein are declared divers hyerogliphicks, emblems, epigrams, and other good histories, collected out of all the volumes of Conradus Gesner, and all other writers to this present day.

The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes by Edward Topsell (1607).  The gift of Thomas E. Marston

Edward Topsell was an English cleric who authored several books.  Today he is best remembered for his zoological works.  The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes was published in 1607, and he followed it up with The History of Serpents in 1608.  In 1658 the two works were published as a single volume, The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents.  

Topsell was an archival researcher.  He didn’t venture out into the field and make first hand observations.  Rather, he mined historic accounts for information and compiled the results.  The list of authors consulted is several pages long.  He relied heavily on Conrad Gessner’s, Historiae Animalium (1551-1558), but we also see Aristotle and Pliny among his sources.  The result of all this research is a large collection of entries on a wide variety of animals.  Each entry includes a description of the animal and its behavior, where in the world it can be found, and how it relates to man.  Frequently these entries are accompanied by illustrations.

Horse (p. 282-435)

Many of the animals covered would have been well known to Europeans.  In general, these entries contain reasonably accurate  images and data.  Some, such as that for the horse, are quite extensive, and indeed these sections about horses and other equines, hounds, and big game animals, such as various deer, are the reason this book is in the NSLM collection.

Occasionally his descriptions or the accompanying images seem a bit… off.  For example the abilities attributed to the squirrel strike me as a tad inflated.  He reports that the squirrel’s tail is used by the animal as a sunshade and umbrella, and that it also functions as a wing, noting the tremendous jumps it makes between trees without sinking, or from great height to the ground without injury.  Ok, I can perhaps understand that, but then the entry goes on to say… “The admirable witte of this beast appeareth in her swimming or passing over the waters… to pass over a river, shee seeketh out some rinde or smal barke of a tree which she setteth upon the water,  and then goeth into it, and holding uppe her taile like a saile, letteth the winde drive her to the other side…” (p. 658).  I’m certainly no expert on squirrel behavior but this seems highly unlikely to me.  And then there’s the accompanying illustration.  This is the fiercest squirrel I’ve ever seen!

Squirrell (p. 657)

The hedgehog appears as expected in its portrait, however its fighting abilities are described in a surprisingly offensive light.

Hedg-Hog (p. 277)

“The hedghog rowleth upon the serpent piercing his skin and flesh, (yea many times tearing the flesh from the bones) whereby he scapeth alive and killeth his adversary, carrying the flesh upon his speares, like an honorable banner won from his adversary in the field” (p. 279).

Cat (p. 103)

His description of the cat rings true.  “Once cattes were all wilde but afterward they retyred to houses wherefore there are plenty of them in all countries…  It is needelesse to spend any time about her loving nature to man, how she flattereth by rubbing her skinne against ones legges, how she whurleth with her voyce, having as many tunes as turnes, for she hath one voice to beg and to complain, another to testifie her delight & pleasure, another among hir own kind by flattring, by hissing, by puffing, by spitting, insomuch as some have thought that they have a peculiar intelligible language among themselves” (p. 105).  However, Topsell also recounts the legends that cats steal ones breath at night, and that they are often the familiars of witches.

Nearly all of the entries include recipes utilizing parts of the animal to create cures for a wide variety of diseases.  Everything from headaches and psoriasis, to epilepsy and the bloody flux might be vanquished.

Asse (p. 20)

For example the ass can help us with tooth trouble and baldness.  “The poulder of an asses hoofe burned and beaten, laide in vineger and made in little bals, and one of them put into the mouth and there held, helpeth the loosnesse and paine in the teeth.  There is a collection of certaine hard matter about an asses legges, called Lichen, which if it be burned and beaten and put into old oyle, will cause haires to grow out of baldnes, and it is of such force, that if is be applyed to a womans cheek, it will produce the same effect…”(p. 27).

In addition to real animals, Topsell includes a number of mythic animals and monsters.  He tries to give us the same sort of information on these as he does for the other animals but largely ends up recounting physical descriptions, legends, and rumors about these beasts, their behavior, and methods of dispatching them.

Judging by the number of authors contributing to the unicorn entry, these magical equines were widespread at one time.  One thing they all agree on is that the unicorn may be subdued by a virgin.  Beyond that information differs.  Their horns can be used in a wide variety of medicinal tonics, and if one is made into a cup, it can either detect, or neutralize poison depending on the account one believes.

Unicorne (p. 711)

The Mantichora is supposedly a variety of hyena.  “This beast or rather monster (as Ctesias writeth) is bred among the Indians, having a treble row of teeth beneath and above, whose greatnesse, roughnesse, and feete are like a lyons, his face and eares like unto a mans, his eies gray and collour red, his taile like the taile of a scorpion of the earth, armed with a sting, casting forth sharp pointed quils, his voice like the voice of a small trumpet or pipe, being in course as swift as a hart; his wildnes such as can never be tamed, and his appetite is especially to the flesh of man” (p. 442).

Mantichora (p. 441)

“His body like the body of a lyon, being very apt both to leape and to run, so as no distance or space doth hinder him, and I take it to be the same beast which Auicen calleth Marion, and Maricomorion, with her taile she woundeth her hunters whether they come before her or behind her, and presently when the quils are cast forth, new ones grow up in their roome, wherewithal she overcommeth all the hunters: and although India be full of divers ravening beastes, yet none of them are stiled with the title of Andropophagi, that is to say, Men-eaters, except only this mantichora” (p. 442).

In the new world there resides a beast known as Su.  “There is a region in the new-found world, called Gigantes, and the inhabitants thereof are called Pantagones; now because their country is cold, being far in the south, they cloath themselves with the skins of a beast called in theyr owne toong Su… The true image therof as it was taken by Theuetus, I have heere inserted, for it is of a very deformed shape, and monstrous presence, a great ravener and an untamable wilde beast” (p. 660).

Wilde Beast (p. 660)

“When the hunters that desire her skinne set upon her, she flyeth very swift, carrying her yong ones upon her back, and covering them with her broad taile:  Now forsomuch as no dogge or man dareth to approach neere unto her, (because such is the wrath therof, that in the pursuit she killeth all that commeth neare hir:) the hunters digge severall pittes or great holes in the earth, which they cover with boughes sticks, and earth, so weakly that if the beast chance at any time to come upon it, she and her young ones fall down into the pit and are taken.  This cruell, untamable, impatient, violent, ravening, and bloody beast, perceiving that her natural strength cannot deliver her from the wit and policy of men her hunters, (for being inclosed, shee can never get out againe), the hunters being at hande to watch her downfall, and worke her overthrow, first of all to save her young ones from taking & taming, she destroyeth them all with her owne teeth; for there was never any of them taken alive, and when she seeth the hunters come about her, she roareth, cryeth, howleth, brayeith, and uttereth such a fearfull noysome, and terrible clamor, that the men which watch to kill her, are not thereby a little amazed, but at last being animated, because there can be no resistance, they approch, and with their darts and spears wound her to death, and then take off her skin, and leave the carcasse in the earth.  And this is all that I finde recorded of this most savage beast” (p. 660).

If you’d like to check out Topsell’s information on your favorite animal or to take a look at some of the other monster entries just contact me and let me know.  I would be happy to get the book out of the rare book room for you.

SONY DSCErica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

“By means of a good telescope, a very distinct view may be obtained of the moon,” reads one of many short pieces that made up the 1882 edition of The Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack. The Almanack had been in print for decades by 1882, tracing back into the 1850s as a dispensary of moral admonition and humorous stories. “With the highest power, however, yet employed, no trace of any inhabitants has been discovered,” the article continued. “Though any large towns must have been seen, did such exist on [the moon’s] visible side.”

J. Gruber’s Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord 1856. National Sporting Library & Museum.

Despite the inevitable disappointment that the lack of habitations on the moon must have caused readers, almanacs were a staple of American popular literature in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Almanacs have been produced for centuries, dating back into the Middle Ages, with working theories on the earliest almanacs connecting them to Babylonian astronomers. Modern almanacs are known for conjecture on the weather, and for extensive handy reference charts. In the information age, the almanac is no longer a primary reference text, but the genre has continued on as a traditional publication. Poor Richard’s Almanack, produced by Benjamin Franklin, is a legendary title in the genre, and today’s most popular iteration is the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which has been faithfully produced since 1792.

The Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack was decorated by engravings that were recycled every year. The engravings depicted farm life throughout the year:

In the NSLM’s F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room we have several copies of minor almanacs (including The Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack from the 1850s to the mid-1880s and Richardson’s Almanac of Virginia and North Carolina from the 1860s) that give detailed insight into daily life for the era. The heart of the annual almanac was the provision of ready details and charts for the year. Generally, these charts covered the weather, important dates, phases of the moon and tides, or lists of government representatives. The other articles maintained the interest of the reader, and were usually humorous stories or practical advice:

A Fast Frigate.
Dave Constable says there is one advantage about old-fashioned frigates. They drag so much dead water behind, that if a man falls overboard on Monday, you need not stop till Friday, to pick him up again.

The Hagerston Town and Country Almanack, 1856

The Library’s copies of Richardson’s Almanac of Virginia and North Carolina offer a very different tone. These copies were printed during the Civil War, and list facts and information on the government and daily life in the Confederacy, such as postage rates:

Rates of Postage, Richardson’s Almanac of Virginia and North Carolina, 1864.

The 1864 edition contains no humorous articles and reflects in its offerings the somber trials in war-torn Virginia. Articles include instructions for how to prevent flies from wounds, how to make three dishes from a single beet plant, advice for crafting makeshift lamps from common animal grease, and directions for making shoes from squirrel skins tacked to plain boards. By the 1875 edition, Richardson’s Almanac had reintroduced humorous stories to begin the publication, and the recipes that hinted at the war’s impact had disappeared from from the publication.

Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail

In 1726, an elderly woman known to history as Janet Horne was paraded through the Scottish town of Dornoch, covered in tar, and burned for being a witch. Janet Horne was a generic placeholder name in Scotland for witches during the period, and this Janet Horne holds the distinction of being the last person executed for witchcraft in the British Isles. One of the curious things about the case was the nature of the accusations against Horne involved her daughter, who had deformed hands and feet. The townspeople accused Horne of having turned her daughter into a pony and ridden her to the Devil to have her shod. Though the daughter escaped the mob, Horne (who by most accounts was elderly and showing signs of senility) was caught and killed.

Verbrennung auf dem Scheiterhaufen. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

While casting about for an appropriately Halloween-themed blog post, I found a bevy of information about the connections between witches and horses. Accusations that purveyors of the dark arts were connected to horses abound — even into the 21st Century. A story reported in Blockula, Sweden in 1699 asserted that an army of witches had been accosting men in their sleep, putting an enchanted halter over their heads to turn them into horses. And in another case from Scotland, a woman named Margaret Grant claimed to have been turned into a pony by “evil-disposed persons” and forced to ride great distances.

Two witches smoking their pipes by the fire with a toad at their feet. From The History of Witches and Wizards (1720), Wellcome Library. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to these stories is a recurring, mixed account of the ghostly Nightmare, also called the Night Hag. As far back as the Renaissance, horse owners have reported visits of the Nightmare to their horses. Signs in the morning include the horse covered in sweat, exhausted, and a tangled mane, sometimes described as plaited by supernatural means. The phenomenon has been attributed to witches and pixies (who, being obsessed with mortal horses, steal them to ride at night), and in recent years, to Bigfoot or occult-obsessed horse thieves. So pervasive was the concern over the nightmare that Thomas Blundeville, in his 1564 book The Fower Chiefest Offices Belonging to Horsemanship, included an incantation (and directions for hanging naturally-perforated stones in the stable) to ward against the Nightmare. The incantation was touted by Blundeville as a practical way for horse owners to avoid having to pay a “false Fryer” to produce the warding spell.

The primary sign of the Nightmare is the fairy plaits in the mane. Although skeptics claim that a horse’s mane can easily become tangled on its own under correct atmospheric conditions, elaborate tales of unauthorized braiding have been reported.

“It was very generally accepted as an indisputable fact at that time that not only witches, but also certain malignant sprites who lived in the woodland gardens, occasionally assumed the forms of women clad in white raiment, who in this guise would haunt the stables when night fell. They carried with them tapers of lighted wax, and they used the drippings from these to tangle the horses’ manes into inextricable knots, to the great annoyance both of the steeds and of their grooms.”

The Horse in Magic and Myth, M. Oldfield Howley, National Sporting Library & Museum

The tying of knots as a spell is an ancient theory of witchcraft. It’s not a huge leap from fairy plaits to the Witch’s Ladder, a layered cord of knots, each with a separate intention of spell. Theories of various malevolent hexes were floated in the late 19th Century, a common one being that the Witch’s Ladder contained a death spell that could only be undone by finding and untying the cord.

Witch’s Ladder, from The Folk-Lore Journal Volume 5 (1888). University of Toronto. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

How do we interpret these reports of Nightmare and tangled manes? It could be that in an era where many more people were adept at handling horses, the propensity to “borrow” a turned-out horse for a nighttime ride was a more common practice. A sweaty, exhausted horse from such an exercise might have a tangled mane where an unauthorized rider held on to the steed. Or maybe there’s more to it: pixies, witches, or Bigfoot.

Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail