horseman's word

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In the days when experienced horsemen were skilled and valued agricultural workers, many believed in their ability to control horses in mysterious and magical ways, reputedly by whispering a secret word into the animal's ear. In particular, they claimed they could handle any horse and make it come to them (‘drawing’ the horse) or more spectacularly could reduce a horse to immobility (‘jading’ it) which no power on earth could shift until the horseman himself released it. In Scotland, there is evidence of these horse-workers being inducted into a sort of secret society, but although there is similar evidence of the belief in individuals possessing such powers in England, right into the 20th century, they were apparently less formally organised than their Scottish brethren (Hutton, 1999: 61–4). Descriptions of the horseman's powers are particularly prevalent in East Anglia, although there are scattered references to other parts of the country, but the material is often deliberately vague and ‘mysterious’, and usually couched in terms of traditional tales rather than hard evidence. George Ewart Evans's work sheds the most light on the subject. He maintains the horseman's real power was based on a knowledge of certain preparations of herbs and oils which acted powerfully on the horse's sense of smell. His informants, however, believed that the power came with possession of a particular toad or frog's bone, gathered in a certain way, and then treated in a special secret manner, which gave the name ‘Toadmen’ to the individuals with the power.

A particular breed of toad was sought (the natterjack, or bufo calamita, according to one of Evans's informants). It was killed and hung on a whitethorn bush for 24 hours to dry, and then buried for a month in an ant-hill to remove the flesh. At the next full moon, the skeleton was placed in a running stream, where one particular bone should float upstream. The participant must watch it carefully, and ignore the terrible noises which will occur just behind him—on no account must he look round or he will lose to the power. The special bone is taken home, treated with particular oils, baked, and powdered, and this gives the bearer power over horses (and, in some versions, pigs and women). Evans also describes an alternative preparation based on the ‘milt’, which is an oval-shaped lump of fibrous matter found in a foal's mouth immediately after it is born. The ritual convinced the horsemen, and was used by them to impress others, that they were dealing with evil powers or the Devil himself, and thus the power they gained was both mysterious and dangerous, and their own reputation as horse-handlers was enhanced.

Evans's theories on the horseman's word as a relic of an ancient horse fertility cult are unconvincing, partly because the sources he quotes such as Margaret Murray and Robert Graves are themselves highly suspect, but there is little doubt that the horse knowledge concerned dates back a long way. It is possible to separate the outward form (the business with the toad) from the essence (the use of herbs and oils to gain power over horses), and, paradoxically, we know much more about the former than the latter. The use of toads and frogs in ways similar to those described here are found in other old cures, and indeed its essence is parallelled in a passage in Pliny (Natural History (ad 77), XXXII. xviii) who writes of a particular frog's bone which cools boiling water and another which makes oil appear to boil and is effective, amongst other things, in keeping dogs at bay. Reginald Scot (1584) shows that the idea of a bone with special powers, and its connection with water, was known in England at that time. Nevertheless, the earliest notices of horsemen possessing such powers are given by Davidson—in 1648 in Sussex and in Renfrewshire in 1664. It is clear that still further work needs to be done on this subject.


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