Terre Celtiche Blog

Poor old horse: winter hoodening

Leggi in italiano

The ritual begging of mummers accompanied by the hooden horse (winter hoodening) was a tradition in the British Isles. Samhain (the New Year of the Celts) ended on 11 November with a pagan festival still practiced in the early Middle Ages, to which the Church superimposed the feast of Saint Martin. (see first part)


The soulers and the wassailers or more generally the gangs of young people who went around the farms as beggars during the winter festivals were once (and still today) accompanied by the hobby horse.
The spirits of the Earth who govern fertility were depicted as a horse and associated with the young women not yet married (fertility carriers). An even more Celtic connotation is the identification of the “hobby horse” with the Goddess Mare (the Earth Goddess): we find it in the myth of the Welsh goddess Rhiannon and the northern Italian goddess Epona.

For the Celts the horse was a sacred animal, a symbol of royalty and attribute of various deities.
Symbol of wealth and buried together with his master (or worthy of a ritual burial if he fell in battle) the white one was raised by the Druids and used for prophecies and sacrificial rites.
Totemic animal for many Celtic tribes that take its name, its flesh was taboo except in particular ritual times. 



Historical references to the hobby horse date back to the late Middle Ages (early 1500s) with traces still in the Victorian era: in 1803 the presence of a horse made with the skin of a stallion with a man spraying water on the crowd is documented.
In the Middle Ages the “cavallino” was a character of the cheerful brigade of Robin Hood and was connected with the fertility rituals of the spring festival and the May dances, but also with the Christmas celebrations.
Some scholars trace the ritual back to pre-Christian celebrations connected with the Beltane Celtic festival. But equally numerous are the references to the winter rituals of Samhain.
In the ritual of hoodening a man wears a blanket or a white sheet that covers him entirely and carries a horse’s head on a stick, most commonly a wooden head with jaws with hinges so that it can be maneuvered to open and close ( once a real horse skull). Sometimes a burning candle is placed in the skull with very disturbing effects.

hooden horse


At Samhain in Ireland, appalling parades took place in the countryside and in medieval villages, led by Láir Bhán (the white mare) followed by a band of young men waving horns and asking for offers for Muck Olla.
William Hackett  wrote (1853): ‘It is not many years since on Samhain’s eve, 31st October, a rustic procession perambulated the district between Ballycotton and Trabolgan, along the coast. The parties represented themselves as messengers of Muck Olla, in whose name they levied contributions on farmers; as usual they were accompanied by sundry youths, sounding lustily on cows’ horns; at the head of the procession was a figure enveloped in a white robe or sheet, having, as it were, the head of a mare, this personage was called the Láir Bhán, “the white mare,” he was a sort of president or master of ceremonies. A long string of verses was recited at each house. (from here)

winter hoodening
by Niamh Ní Ruairc


winter hoodening in Wales

Mari Lwyd, or “Y Fari Lwyd” (in English Gray Mare) is the Welsh version of the hooden horse. Tradition still practiced in central and southern Wales, in particular at Llantrisant and Pontyclun at New Year. The mask consists of a horse’s head (a real skull) with a movable jaw and disquieting eyes made from two pieces of green bottle, decorated with colored ribbons and carried on a pole by a person hidden under a large white cloak. The beggars stop to sing in front of the doors of the houses and call the mistress and challenge her in a pwnco (a challenge in verse). The victory of the singing challenge allows the beggars to enter the house to eat sweets and drink beer.
As can be seen in the illustration by Paul Bommer, the landlady is holding a broom and does not want the group to enter because it is a bringer of disorder. In fact, once the company was entered, the mare would go around the room chasing the women; the mare is clearly a monstrous and otherworldly creature that must be appeased with some offerings and sometimes a small child could calm the beast with a treat.

Wel dyma ni’n dwad
Gyfeillion diniwad
I ofyn am gennod i ganu
Os na chawn ni gennad
Rhowch wybod ar ganiad
Pa fodd mae’r ‘madawiad, nos heno
‘Does genni ddim cinio (1)
Nac arian iw gwario
I wneud i chwi roeso, nos heno

Here we come
Dear friends
To ask permissions to sing
If we don’t have permission,
Let us know in song
How we should go away tonight
I have no dinner
Or money to spend
To give you welcome tonight

1) if the people were defeated in the poetic battle, Mari Lwyd claimed the right to stay at dinner with all her followers. Alternatively they offered a glennig (a small tip), a glass of glaster (water and milk) or beer.


In Kent the Heningening groups have returned (in the villages of San Nicola-a-Wade, Nether Hale, Sarre), in particular the tradition is very rooted in San Nicola-a-Wade where the hooden horse is called Dobbin, an old man poor horse exhausted by the labor of work: a sort of “sacred representation” is staged with various characters and songs; once the teams of hoodening went from house to house with musicians and the clatter of bells: the horse was accompanied by a group of peasants, one who holds the reins (the tamer), the other who carries a basket of fruit an another on the back, there is also “Mollie” or the “old lady” who carries a broom. Here the master knocks and as soon as the door is opened the horse kicks and scares, opening his mouth wide, while Mollie fucks the feet of one who has opened the door.. (see more)

The Horse regularly appeared through the year at, especially in Midwinter (Hallowtide, the Twelve Days of Christmas, et al). The Horse was a man dressed as an animal, covered in blanket and carrying a horse’s head, with reins, on a pole. The head was sometimes wooden but usually a real horse skull – hinged jaws allowed the mouth to snap open and shut. Along with other young men the horse ‘galloped’ and visited houses as a ‘lick-bringer’. This was not always successful and in 1839 at Broadstairs a woman was so terrified coming face-to-face with the ‘horse’ she died of fright. The custom was subsequently forbidden by local magistrates.
In East Kent Hoodening took place at Christmas. The Horse had a wooden head and sometimes a lighted candle was placed in the mouth. Farmworkers walked with the horse, one leading it by the reins or a rope and carrying a whip, and another worker light enough to ride on the horse’s back. A third known as Mollie or Old Woman was in female attire and carried a broom or besom.
In Reculver, only men who had worked with horses during the year were allowed to partake.  (in “A Dictionary of British Folk Customs” di Christina Hole, 1995 from here)


YG 60 ; Ballad Index ShH85 ; VWML CJS2/10/2583 , TFO/1/31/33/1 ; Bodleian Roud 513 ; GlosTrad Roud 513 ; Wiltshire 661 , 663 , 933 ; trad.]

There are many versions of the song, which was a part of the Mummers play, who staged the death and resurrection of the horse

My clothing was once of a linsey-woolsey fine,
My mane it was sleek
and my body it did shine.
But now I’m getting old
and I’m going to decay,
Me master frowns upon me
and thus they all do say, “Poor old horse.”
My living was once to the best of corn and hay
As ever grew in England,
and that they all did say.
But now there’s no such comfort
as I can find at all.
I’m forced to nab the short grass
that grows against the wall,
“Poor old horse.”

We’ve got a poor old horse,
He’s standing at your door,
And if you’ll only let him in,
He’ll please you all (1) I’m sure (x2)
Now that he’s grown old
And nature doth decay,
My master frowns upon him now,
These words I’ve heard him say (x2)
Now that he’s grown old
And scarcely can he crawl,
He’s forced to eat the coarsest grass
That grows against the wall (x2)
This poor horse was once young,
And in his youthful prime
My master used to ride on him,
He thought him very fine (x2)

1) in the verse the song is highlighted as a begging song with propitiatory ritual

This version is only a fragment and the initial part is missing in which the mummers / soulers ask to be welcomed at home

Shirley Collins from “False True Lovers” 1959
Kate Rusby from Sweet Bells 2008

Paying off the dead horse: sea shanty version



On the streets of Padstow, a small fishing port in North Cornwall on the mouth of the Camel River, now a tourist destination, each May Day is celebrated with the Obby Oss Festival (continua)

http://www.hoodening.org.uk/hoodening-history1.html http://paulbommer.blogspot.it/2010/12/advent-calendar-22nd-mari-lwyd.html http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/cy/279/

Pubblicato da Cattia Salto

Amministratore e folklorista di Terre Celtiche Blog. Ha iniziato a divulgare i suoi studi e ricerche sulla musica, le danze e le tradizioni d'Europa nel web, dapprima in maniera sporadica e poi sempre più sistematicamente sul finire del anni 90 tramite il sito dell'associazione L'ontano [ontanomagico.altervista.org]

Lascia un commento

Il tuo indirizzo email non sarà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *

Questo sito usa Akismet per ridurre lo spam. Scopri come i tuoi dati vengono elaborati.