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Horseman's Word

The Horseman's Word was a secret society operating amongst horse trainers, blacksmiths, ploughmen, and other horsemen in Scotland from the 18th century until as late as the 20th century. They taught horse whispering and other magic, and like the Horseman and Toadsmen of East Anglia, they were believed to have been taught to control horses by a secret word, as well as by use of scented substances, or by the use of a toad's pelvis bone.

The initiation rituals into the society incorporated a number of elements such as reading passages from the Bible backwards, and the secrets included Masonic-style oaths, gestures, passwords and handshakes. Like the similar societies of the Miller's Word and the Toadsmen, they were believed to have practiced witchcraft. In East Anglia, horsemen with these powers were sometimes called Horse Witches.



File:Highlands lowlands.png
Lowland-Highland divide
Shire draught horse, of typical draft conformation

The Horseman’s Word was a trade union formed in Northern Scotland in the late 18th century whose goal was to protect horse trainers and ploughmen, along with their trade knowledge, from the threat of an encroaching economic system in which the resources for production were becoming privately owned and wages and prices for goods and services were being taken out of the skilled laborers control and put into the hands of large farm owners.[1] The formation of the Horseman’s Word also coincided with the draft horse becoming the primary working animal in the farming areas of Northern Scotland. As a result, the ability to raise and control these animals became a valued skill and people possessing this ability were in high demand. This created a desirable form of well paid and respectable work.[2] The trade union, aside from protecting trade knowledge, wanted to ensure that the men engaged in this profession were efficiently trained and that the quality of their work was consistently good and that the remunerations for that work were appropriate.[3]

Initiation Ceremony

The Horseman’s Word borrowed much from the Miller's Word initiation ceremony where bread and whisky were given as pseudo sacraments and the inductee was blindfolded.[4] Like the Miller's Word, throughout the society's meetings they imbibed alcohol, sang songs, and told jokes that mocked traditional morality and Christianity.[5] The members of The Horseman’s Word did however add their own designs in the form of passwords and oaths as well as rites of initiation.[6] It has been speculated that these initiation rituals could have been influenced by the witches sabbat, absorbed directly from Scottish folklore or from published accounts of witches and their ceremonies.[7] The witch trials had ended not long before so many of the details of these trials would have been known to them.[8]

Prior to the initiation ceremony the candidate, often a ploughboy, was told to come to the barn where the ceremonial procedures were to take place, normally held between 11pm and 1 am. Once at the door he was blindfolded and taken before the master of ceremonies, who was often an elder ploughman.[9] As in Masonic rituals there was then a prearranged and established exchange of questions and answers that was to be given.[10] In the case of the Horseman's Word and the Miller's Word this exchange was often a parody of catechism.[11] After this was completed the inductee was then asked to seal the pact and shake hands with the devil, which would often be a branch or pole covered in animal fur.[12]

The Word

After the candidate completed the initiation ceremony he was then given a word that was supposed to give him power over horses. So aside from being a secret society "The Horseman’s Word" was actually a spoken word. This secret word, which varied by location, was said to have magical and mystical qualities which would allow the keeper of the word to possess the ability by merely whispering it to bring horses under their complete control.[13] Apart from gaining knowledge of the secret word more practical information and techniques about controlling and training horses was also passed on to members of the society. These methods were kept secret and done in such a way that the horseman maintained their reputation as having unique and even magical power over horses.[14]

Techniques and Secrets of the Horseman's Word

Until the initiation ceremony and induction into the society and the receiving of the word, the horseman who were not members of the society but potential candidates would have trouble with horses. This would often be caused by older ploughmen who were members of the society tampering with their horses. They would put things like tacks under the horse's collar to cause it to behave irrationally.[15] This would be unknown to the potential candidate as the techniques for training and controlling the horses were not yet given to him. Most of these techniques were based on the horse's sharp sense of smell. Foul substances placed in front of the horse or on the animal itself would cause it to refuse to move forward. This technique is known as jading and is still used by horse trainers today. There were also pleasant smelling things that were used to make a horse move forward or calm down. If the substance was an oil it could be wiped on the trainer's forehead, they would then stand in front of the animal and the smell would draw it towards them. This practice was often used in taming unruly horses. There were also pleasant smelling and inviting materials, such as sweets, that the horseman could keep in their pocket in order to calm, attract, and subdue a crazed horse.[16] Keeping these techniques secret, along with the myth that there was a word that only the horseman knew that gave them and them alone power over horses helped guarantee their reputation, prestige, job security, and pay. The same type of logic and protection of trade secrets can be seen among modern magicians who keep their tricks secret and only share them with other members of their trade.


  1. Raphael Samuel, People's History and Socialist Theory (Routledge, 1981), 88.
  2. Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford University Press, 2001), 62-63.
  3. Ibid., 62.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 8.
  6. Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, 62.
  7. Ankarloo and Clark, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, 8.
  8. Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, 62.
  9. James Porter, "The Folklore of Northern Scotland: Five Discourses on Cultural Representation" (Folklore, Vol. 109 1998), 1-14.
  10. Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon, 62.
  11. ibid.
  12. Ankarloo and Clark, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, 8.
  13. Peter Kerr, Thistle Soup: A Ladleful of Scottish Life (Globe Pequot, 2004), 11.
  14. Society Meetings. (Folklore, Vol. 82, No. 1. Spring, 1971), 88.
  15. Porter, The Folklore of Northern Scotland, 6.
  16. Society Meetings, 88.


  • Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
  • Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Kerr, Peter. Thistle Soup: A Ladleful of Scottish Life. Globe Pequot, 2004.
  • Porter, James. "The Folklore of Northern Scotland: Five Discourses on Cultural Representation." Folklore, Vol. 109 (1998): 1-14.
  • Samuel, Raphael. People's History and Socialist Theory. Routledge, 1981.
  • Society Meetings. Folklore, Vol. 82, No. 1. (Spring, 1971): 88.

Further reading

  • Evans, George Ewart: 'The Horse in the Furrow' (Faber 1960).
  • Henderson, Hamish "The Ballad, the Folk and the Oral Tradition" in Cowan, Edward J. (ed.), The People's Past. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1980. ISBN 0-7486-6157-3
  • Pennick, Nigel 'Folk-Lore of East Anglia' (Spiritual Arts & Crafts Publishing 2006) ISBN 0-9551184-2-5
  • Fernee, Ben (ed), "Society of the Horseman's Word"


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