One hundred years ago, the rural Virginia community in western Loudoun and northern Fauquier counties was undergoing a transformation. The interwar period was a period of renaissance for foxhunting and equestrian sport, both in the United Kingdom and the United States. From Leesburg to Warrenton and anchored in Middleburg, a new community was evolving: Virginia’s Hunt Country.

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“Leesburg, 1922.” National Sporting Library & Museum, Archives Collection, MC0033, “Middleburg-Leesburg Photograph Album.”

The NSLM mission lists three functions: to preserve, promote, and share the contents of our collections and the subjects contained in them. None of these functions is truly independent of one another, but a great deal of emphasis is placed on preservation when it comes to the Library’s collections. A fantastic example of why we emphasize the importance of preservation is a photograph album in the Library’s archival collections.

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“Middleburg Hunt Cup, 1923 — Dr. Burke won.” National Sporting Library & Museum, Archives Collection, MC0033, “Middleburg-Leesburg Photograph Album.”

Almost every photo in the album is unidentified. Most of them are fading away. Aside from balancing contrast to enhance visibility, the images in this blog post are unaltered snapshots of the album’s contents.

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Unidentified Photo. National Sporting Library & Museum, Archives Collection, MC0033, “Middleburg-Leesburg Photograph Album.”

Photos are decidedly horsey, and show an enthusiastic sporting community, and snapshots of everyday life. We have no idea who took or collected the photos, but most images are in or around Middleburg in the 1920s.

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“Springfield, 1911.” National Sporting Library & Museum, Archives Collection, MC0033, “Middleburg-Leesburg Photograph Album.”

Identification for albums like this can be tricky. Most all of the images are pasted directly to the album paper, and it’s impossible to remove the prints without destroying them.

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Unidentified Photo. National Sporting Library & Museum, Archives Collection, MC0033, “Middleburg-Leesburg Photograph Album.”

On close inspection, it appears the rider is wearing jodhpurs, a short-sleeved shirt, and a necktie. Competition attendees drove out in their Model T Fords, lined up in the background.

The pressure to preserve is immense with a collection like the NSLM’s. As objects deteriorate, unique glimpses at history could be lost.

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Unidentified Photo. National Sporting Library & Museum, Archives Collection, MC0033, “Middleburg-Leesburg Photograph Album.”

An image with advanced fading: an unidentified rider wearing a dapper straw hat.

The photographs in this album are only a fraction of the total photographic images in the NSLM collection. The best hope to preserve these images would be scanning or high-resolution photography before the originals deteriorate. This album is one of hundreds of objects in the NSLM collection awaiting digital preservation. We’re already making plans for securing the resources and equipment to preserve these kinds of objects so they can be enjoyed online.

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Unidentified Photo. National Sporting Library & Museum, Archives Collection, MC0033, “Middleburg-Leesburg Photograph Album.”

A pony race? Mostly boys, but there appear to be two young girls lined up as well. Photo discoloration has crept into the edges of the photo.

Overall, this mysterious album contains dozens of unidentified photographs. Of the few with identification, the oldest photo dates to 1911, with most images likely from the 1920s. This was a period of growth for Middleburg and its surrounding community, as the town developed into a hub of sporting activity. Both the Middleburg Hunt and Orange County Hunt worked to develop their foxhunting territories, building up relationships with landowners and replacing barbed wire fencing with stone walls and chicken coop jumps.

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Unidentified Photo. National Sporting Library & Museum, Archives Collection, MC0033, “Middleburg-Leesburg Photograph Album.”

Eager sportsmen from urban centers in the northeast began migrating to Middleburg to enjoy sports that were being crowded out by expanded development. Seasonal visitors took the Southern Railway train line from the nation’s capital to The Plains before trekking on horses or on wagons to Middleburg.

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Unidentified Photo. National Sporting Library & Museum, Archives Collection, MC0033, “Middleburg-Leesburg Photograph Album.”

Another image with advanced fading, this one of an unidentified woman wearing the unmistakable fashion of the 1920s.

The sporting tradition of Hunt Country lives on, and thousands of visitors still come to Middleburg in the hopes of experiencing the excitement of the world of equestrian sport. As these new audiences encounter these sports, the preservation element of NSLM’s mission makes it possible to promote and share these pieces of history.


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

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“‘The Winnah’ Alligator – Horse of Iron” was the inscription that sporting artist and illustrator Paul Brown chose to describe Alligator, the bay gelding that he noted won not one, not two, not three, but an unbelievable FOUR steeplechases after various jockeys fell and remounted.  The 1928 West Hills Plate, 1929 Maryland Cup, 1930 International Cup at Grasslands, and the Millbrook Hunt Steeplechase are annotated in the lower margin of one of Brown’s illustrations for his book, Ups and Downs (1936). The artist sketched some of Alligator’s gravity-defying crashes and wins for the book as well as his earlier publication, Spills and Thrills (1933), and his captions present entertaining and informative details.

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Paul Desmond Brown (American, 1893-1958) The “Winnah,” 1936, pencil on paper, inscribed:  The “Winnah” Alligator – Horse of Iron – | Fell   Millbrook  – and won | ”        Maryland – ”       ” |” Grasslands – ”       ” | ” or Lost Rider at West Hills and won  | Paul Brown ’36. Donated by Boots Wright in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Richard E. Riegel, 2013.

The first race was for the West Hills Plate, the seventh annual meet held on Long Island on November 10, 1928. Brown’s drawing shows jockey Frederic C. Thomas going over the horse’s head at the first fence, swinging underneath its neck, and desperately trying to hold on before losing his grip. “An exhibition of indomitable courage was witnessed here this afternoon,” noted the next day’s article in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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Paul Desmond Brown (American, 1893-1958) Alligator hit 1st, 1933, pencil and ink on paper, inscribed: Alligator hit 1st – Freddie Thomas started nose dive – caught mounts neck – swung under it – horse stopped – Freddie remounted – and won – West Hills Plate, West Hills 1928. Donated by Boots Wright in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Richard E. Riegel, 2013.

Alligator won the thirty-first running of the Meadow Brook Cup with Lyman Wright up in 1929 without a fall. Brown’s exquisite illustration of the race held on sportsman F. Ambrose Clark’s estate captures a pivotal moment described in an article in the September 29, 1929 The Baltimore Sun: “…Hackenthorpe stayed with his rivals three-quarters of the way, but when the famous stone wall appeared again Hackenthorpe did not have enough left to get over and the race was left to Alligator and Reel Foot.”

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Paul Desmond Brown (American, 1893-1958) The Hole in the Wall, 1933, pencil and ink on paper,  inscribed: The Hole in the Wall – Alligator, Reel Foot, Hackenthorpe – Lyman Wright, Bill Streett, Charlie Cushman up – how they drove for the gap in the 12th – Alligator won the race – Reel Foot was 2nd – Hackenthorpe fell Meadow Brook Cup 1929 Donated by Boots Wright in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Richard E. Riegel,  2013.

Brown did not illustrate Alligator’s famed April 1929 Maryland Hunt Cup win in his books, but the wife of the horse’s trainer Harry Plumb found it worthy of a poetic tribute. Plumb was also the father of one of Alligator’s jockeys, Charles T. Plumb:*

From out the ruck / Of many a name, / “Alligator” / He raced to fame.

The Maryland Hunt! / The ‘CUP’ the prize: / “They’re off” the cry, / And then, surprise….

At number-two fence, / That timbered rail, / Alligator fell: / “Too bad” they wail.

But ‘blood’ will not tell / In man or beast. / And fame is made /At racing feast….

For quick as a flash / From starting gun, / Alligator’s up…./ And starts to run.

The ‘field’ out there / In front so far: / A hopeless chase / For this great star.

But fence by fence, / By hand and ride, / Alligator / In glorious stride

Picks up the loss / And leads them all / He wins the race: / “Hurrah” they call.

She continued with a description of a repeat performance by Alligator:

Then, once more, this / “Thorobred Crack” / Surprised the fans / At Grasslands track:

Fencing so clean / With jump and stride. / His praises sung / On every side.

But here, again, / This grand horse fell, / Next fence at last, / Pell-mell! Pell-mell!

Then up again / ‘Tis writ as history, / He galloped on / To cheers and victory.

– “Salute to a Great Horseman” by Elaine T. Plumb, The Chronicle, Dec. 31, 1948

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Paul Desmond Brown (American, 1893-1958) Dramatic, 1933, pencil and ink on paper, inscribed: Dramatic – I’ll say so – next last fence – Alligator fell – Waverly Star dog tired and went down in the mud too tired to get up – Charlie Plum wiped mud and blood from face – remounted – went on – won. Grasslands 1930. Donated by Boots Wright in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Richard E. Riegel, 2013.

Approximately 8,000 spectators witnessed the running of the grueling first International Cup held at the Grasslands Downs Course, TN, in 1930. Every single one of the seventeen entries either fell or pulled up. Brown’s sketch shows Alligator falling on his front knees going over the 25th jump and Waverly Star slipping.  “Charlie Plum [sic] wiped mud and blood from face – remounted – went on – won,” wrote Brown in the caption describing the nail-biting ending of the race.

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Franklin Brooke Voss, (American, 1880-1953) Alligator, 1929, oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches, Gift of the children of Peter Winants, Sr., 2009

Viewing American sporting artist Franklin Brooke Voss’s serene 1929 portrait of Alligator in light of Paul Brown’s illustrations with the horse’s striking career in mind –  is transformative. This is Alligator, “Horse of Iron,” and one of the most hardcore steeplechase horses that ever lived.

* Errata: The poem was previously incorrectly attributed to the wife of jockey and Meadowbrook Huntsman Charles T. Plumb.


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 cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org

“This beautiful animal, which, so far as I can ascertain, has now entirely ceased to exist, and concerning which the strangest legends and traditions are afloat, was, I think it may be positively asserted, of Andalusian blood.”

Henry William Herbert (1807-1858) chronicled the state of all American things equine in his massive two-volume work, Frank Forester’s Horse and Horsemanship of the United States and British provinces of North America (1857). The subject in this chapter was the mysterious Narragansett Pacer, the first truly American breed of horse. Like many inventions in the colonial world, the breed was devised through necessity in environmental conditions that were unknown in Europe.

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Saddlebred Yearlings At Willowbank Farm In Simpsonville, KY by Heather Moreton from Louisville, KY, USA. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Without a system of refined, easy roadways in America, colonial settlers were obliged to ride on horseback instead of using carriages. Riding horseback long distances could be brutally jarring, and it wasn’t long before colonists began looking for a horse with a smoother, more comfortable gait. The result was the Narragansett Pacer, named for the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. The breed emerged in mystery, including several wild legends detailed by Herbert:

“The legends, to which I allude, tell in two wise; or rather, I should say, there are only two versions of the same legend. One saying that the original stallion, whence came the breed, was picked up at sea, swimming for his life, no one knew whence or whither; and was so carried in by his salvors to the Providence Plantations; the other, evidently another form of the same story, stating that the same original progenitor was discovered running wild in the woods of Rhode Island.” Frank Forester’s Horse and Horsemanship of the United States and British provinces of North America (1857), volume II, page 67.

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Illustration from Frank Forester’s Horse and Horsemanship of the United States and British Provinces of North America (1857). National Sporting Library & Museum, acquired 1981, the gift of Mrs. William Pyemont.

Fanciful legends aside, it’s most likely that the Pacer was the product of import of Spanish, Irish, and British stock throughout the 17th Century and into the early 18th Century. Like several older European and Asian breeds, the Pacer’s feet of one side moved one after the other. This proved to be far more comfortable than a pounding four-time walk for riders spending hours in the saddle.

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American Saddlebred Bathing (2008). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1700s, the Pacer became the most popular breed in the American colonies and the fledgling United States. Good Pacers were sought for riding and racing alike, and George Washington owned several. According to legend, when Paul Revere embarked on his famous midnight ride, it was aboard a Narragansett Pacer.

Unfortunately, by the 1880s (and likely long before then) the Narragansett Pacer had gone extinct as a breed. In many ways, the breed was a victim of its own success. Pacers were heavily exported to the Caribbean in the 19th Century. The Pacer was also aggressively cross-bred with other breeds, leading to the demise of the original breed, but also making Pacers a major contributor to a new breed, the American Saddlebred. Although the Narragansett Pacer has been gone for over 140 years, its influence lives on in the many American breeds derived from it.


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

Renaissance figure Leonardo da Vinci is famous for many things, from designing the first helicopter to painting the Mona Lisa. One of his most notable achievements was to capture human anatomy on paper, board, and canvas. From the Renaissance onward, science and art went hand in hand, especially in rendering the human form. Horses and other animals, on the other hand, were not always studied in so much detail.

George Stubbs (English, 1724 – 1806) was one of the first artists to use extensive equine anatomical study in his body of work. Stubbs was mostly self-taught, and he studied human dissection at York Hospital to inform his art. His fascination with anatomy then led Stubbs to published Anatomy of a Horse in 1766.

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George Stubbs (British, 1724–1806). Three plates from The Anatomy of the Horse, 1766. Plates: etching; 18 1/4 x 23 in. (46.4 x 58.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1953 (53.599.1bis)

The ability to convincingly capture individual horse conformation and motion on canvas eluded most artists of this time. Stubbs, in contract, was not only able to render a horse with paint, but to place the horse within the composition naturally and effectively.

 

George Stubbs, English, 1724 - 1806 (Artist); Hyena with a Groom
George Stubbs (English, 1724–1806), Hyaena at Newmarket with One of Jenison Shafto’s Stablelads, ca. 1765–7, oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 50 1/8 inches, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Paul Mellon Collection (image source: https://www.vmfa.museum/piction/6027262-132161010/)

Stubbs was made President of the Society of Artists in 1772 and elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1780; he exhibited for both groups.  Stubbs’ recognition, however, seemed to stall even though his skill was recognized far and wide. Animal subjects were relegated to a lower order than historic, figurative, and landscape art in a hierarchy long established by fine art academies and art critics. Stubbs continued to study and paint, but passed away with little fanfare in 1806.

George Stubbs - Whistlejacket, 1762 at the National Gallery London England
George Stubbs (1724–1806)
c. 1762,
Oil-on-canvas
292 cm × 246.4 cm (115 in × 97 in)
National Gallery, London

George Stubbs’ contributions to art do not rest solely in the “animal painter” genre. Though known for his sporting scenes, Stubbs’ dedication to realism and anatomy place him in the category of artists who, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo, seek the truth in art through science.

Want to know more about George Stubbs and British sporting art? Visit the National Sporting Library & Museum this Spring to see A Sporting Vision: The Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art from the from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,  a traveling exhibition organized by VMFA, on view April 13 – July 22, 2018.


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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 experience 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

A Brief Context

Mounted warfare played a critical role in European affairs of state from the 16th through the 19th centuries. Essentially all English works on horsemanship in that period applied directly or indirectly to the military, particularly the many works focused on the British light cavalry, or “light horse,” prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, by Joshua Reynolds. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

These works included broad treatises on the discipline, such as Robert Hinde’s The Discipline of the Light-Horse (1778) and Captain L. Neville’s A Treatise on the Discipline of Light Cavalry (1796), as well as narrower works on equitation, such as the Earl of Pembroke’s A Method of Breaking Horses, and Teaching Soldiers to Ride (1761, with subsequent editions) and William Tyndale’s A Treatise on Military Equitation (1797).

Pembroke’s Military Equitation

Henry Herbert, 10th Earl of Pembroke (1734-94), entered cavalry service in 1752, rose to the rank of general in 1782, and saw his influential treatise through four editions: A Method of Breaking Horses, and Teaching Soldiers to Ride (1761 and 1762), revised and retitled, Military Equitation; or, A Method of Breaking Horses, and Teaching Soldiers to Ride (1778 and 1793). It addressed “the wretched system of Horsemanship, that at present prevails in the ARMY,” a system that leaves men and horses unprepared “for want of proper instructions and intelligence in this Art.”

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The full-leather cover of Military Equitation by the Earl of Pembroke, 1778. National Sporting Library & Museum, Ludwig von Hunersdorf collection.

Military Equitation outlines a program, including lessons, for training the military horse and rider, emphasizing both theory and practice. Unsparing in his criticism of current military horsemanship—after Xenophon, “horsemanship was buried for ages, or rather brutalised, which is still too much the case”—and of inept riding-masters, farriers, and grooms, he spares soldiers and remounts (military equines): their ignorance results from poor training and is therefore correctable. Reason and moderation, patience and gentleness, and simplicity of means are the proper tools for educating horses and soldiers alike.

In The Development of Modern Riding (1962), Vladimir Littauer noted that “Pembroke’s is a very small and unimportant book,” particularly when compared to the 18th century masterworks of dressage. Rather than dismissing Pembroke, however, Littauer was praising him as “a follower of the French school [of dressage who] was practical enough to suggest its considerable simplification for the army,” who successfully repurposed dressage for the military work at hand. What Pembroke did for the French school, William Tyndale did for Pembroke: he further simplified the simplifier.

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Plate from Military Equitation, Third Edition, by the Earl of Pembroke, 1778. National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of John H. and Martha Daniels, 1999.

Tyndale’s Treatise on Military Equitation

William Tyndale (17??-1830) was a landowner who performed regimental service in the late 18th century, notably as major and lieutenant-colonel in the 1st Life Guards. Tyndale’s first tract, Instructions for Young Dragoon Officers (second edition, 1796), was followed by A Treatise on Military Equitation (1797), published in one edition only. The latter was intended for “regimental riding masters” who may know horsemanship through experience but who cannot teach it effectively because they lack knowledge of its underlying principles.

Tyndale invokes Pembroke’s Military Equitation as “the best work of the kind in our language.” Like Pembroke, he believes that “the present system, which is much the same throughout the cavalry, is contrary to every principle of true horsemanship,” and that successful instruction of young men and horses demands reason, patience, and simplicity of means. Regarding Pembroke’s work, however, as “beyond the comprehension of those whom it is my wish to teach and reform,” Tyndale focuses on the practical application of principles of “true” horsemanship.

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A fold-out plate from A Treatise on Military Equitation, by William Tyndale, 1797, illustrating Tyndale’s plan for a military saddle of his “own invention.” National Sporting Library & Museum.

Tyndale also argues that the British predilection for hunting had caused the military to neglect formal dressageInstructors failed to retrain young recruits in “the method of riding which is necessarily adopted in regiments of cavalry, and which must be adopted by every individual” to prevent confusion—even chaos—in tight formation. Whether Tyndale was right or not, British writers in the next century would press the contrary case for hunting as ideal preparation for cavalry.

National Sporting Library & Museum Holdings

What will 21st century equestrian readers gain from these two treatises on military equitation? They will gain historical knowledge of an important moment in the evolution of horsemanship, and they will find principles and lessons applicable to their own riding. All readers, equestrian or not, will gain the opportunity to converse with two quick and practical 18th century minds and to school with two seasoned trainers of horses and men.

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Title page of the Earl of Pembroke’s book, 1752 edition, with a pasted plate on the facing page depicting the horse Sportsman.

NSLM holds eight copies of Pembroke’s treatise: two copies of the 1st edition, three of the 2nd edition, two of the 3rd edition, and one of the 4th edition. The 3rd and 4th editions call for seventeen plates, and NSLM’s copy of the 4th edition and one of its copies of the 3rd edition each contain the complete set. NSLM also holds a copy of the single edition of the rare Tyndale treatise, complete with its five called-for plates. The copies are clean and clear, and solidly and impressively bound.

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The 1752 edition of the Earl of Pembroke’s book, with the bookplate of the Earl of Lonsdale on the facing page.

A reader with access to NSLM holdings, in short, can experience these two works in their original forms—an experience providing not only textual authority and aesthetic pleasure, but also historical immediacy. Each copy carries its provenance in previous owner bookplates and signatures, auction and donor entries, and marginal notations. Travelers through time, these books carry the physical traces of their histories with them.


caramelloCharles Caramello is John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library & Museum and Professor of English at University of Maryland. He is working on a book called Horsemen, Horse Soldiers, and Grand Illusions. This blog is adapted from the Introduction to a dual edition of Pembroke’s Military Equitation and Tyndale’s Treatise on Military Equitation, completed at NSLM and forthcoming from Xenophon Press.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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