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.
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.
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.
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.
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