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.
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.
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.
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.
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