I recently put together a very quick mix of materials relating to the ‘Society of the Horseman’s Word’, a sort of rural, quasi-Masonic trade union that was particularly active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The most commonly regarded element of the lore of the society is the use of the ‘toad bone’ or ‘frog bone’ to control horses. The mix includes material from interviews with two of George Ewart Evans’ informants who provided material for his classic book Horse Power and Magic, as well as a few brief lines borrowed from ‘traditional witch’ Andrew Chumbley’s ONE: Grimoire of the Golden Toad (see also the recent publication of his The Leaper Between).
To accompany the mix, I have appended my transcription of an article that originally appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette, January 31, 1896. This article is unusual in that it was written by an initiate to the Society willing to speak publically about the ‘secret science of horesemanship’.
THE SECRETS OF THE “HORSEMAN WORD.”
By A NORTH-COUNTRY JOURNALIST.
I FOLLOWED the plough from boyhood, until I had attained my thirtieth year, and it was during that interesting period of my life that I took the necessary oath, and was duly initiated into the secret art of horsemanship. The event took place in my case in an old barn situated in a mountain. pass in the county of Aberdeen, my native shire. Seven men were present — for at such ceremonies there must always be an odd number, lest, Judas-like, one should prove unfaithful — and sentinels having been set to ensure strict privacy my eyes were blindfolded, and I repeated the oath, which is of too terror-harrowing a character to be reproduced here. It was midnight, and weird sounds were borne on the blast, the neighing of distant horses and the clanking-of chains being distinctly audible. When asked if I desired, to shake hands with the Prince of Darkness humbly declined that honour, and I also refused to mount a huge black horse vhich I had never before seen, although I knew every nag in the country for miles around. It was then explained to inc how the secrets of horsemanship became known, and why the art was confined almost exclusively to the county of Aberdeen. I was taught the clasp of the hand, indicating how one brother of the craft can recognize another, as well as the numerous signs by which they may become known to one another at a distance. We then partook of refreshment in the form of whisky and oatmeal bread and cheese, for several of the men had walked many miles to the “swearing-in.” After the feast we all lay down among the straw in the darkness and the
MYSTERIES OF THE ART WERE REVEALED TO ME.
The law of kindness was first inculcated, and in the case of refractory animals I was taught where, when, and how to act. That night I learned, for the first time in my experience, that when a wicked horse is being chastised he makes a sign when he yields to man. It is, however, only sworn horsemen who know this secret, with the result that many a noble animal is spoiled for life, as unskilled men continue to flog until their passion cool, or their strength fail. I was instructed how to deal, if alone, with horses addicted to biting, kicking, and other malpractices — for in the northern counties of Scotland there are many wicked horses, from the circumstance that the farmers have no fallow land to work in the summer season, and the horses get into high condition by going idle for several months at a stretch. In the event of a horse refusing to proceed with his load I was told how to make him, and, should he have acquired the pernicious habit of bolting, I was shown how to bring him up, if in harness, or even if riding on his bare back without saddle or bridle.
MANY SEEMINGLY IMPOSSIBLE THINGS
were made clear to me. Those who have had anything to do with horses must have observed that when a wound is caused by either collar or saddle, or by the result of an accident, the hair, on the healing of the wound, almost invariably grows the antithesis of the natural colour, that is to say, the presence of white hair on a black or bay horse marks the scar of a former wound. Well, now, the secrets of the “Horseman Word” — for by that appellation the secret society under note is known — enables its possessor to resort to treatment which will make the hair grow its natural colour; and thus leave no trace of a wound. Still more remarkable, perhaps, is the circumstance that a good horseman can make the hair grow on any part of a horse’s body — usually the knees — on which, having been so often bruised by falling, the skin is permanently destroyed, and a white scaly substance gives place to hair.
Some years after I had forsaken the ploughtail for the pen I was wont, in my morning strolls in the rural districts of Northumberland, to meet a boy driving a donkey to town with two small barrels of milk slung across the back of the animal. Both its knees were white and hairless, and the idea occurred to me that even a donkey might make a fit “subject” for the exercise of a secret art. Having told the lad to go along the road, and wait at a point named until I overtook him, I soon found what I wanted among the dew-bespangled grass by the wayside, and applied it to the knees of the donkey. I repeated the operation on the following morning, and this application brought away the hard scurf by which the skin had become encrusted, and a few days later I was rewarded by seeing hair growing as thick and glossy as on the back of a seal. I admit that the antidote required for such a purpose cannot be obtained, except when the dew is falling in the evening, or before it has vanished in the morning. I have just been thinking since I sat down to write this article, that if I could make the hair grow on the damaged knees of a donkey, where it had not grown for years, it was just possible that what I gathered among the dew might possess the virtue of making hair grow on the. bald heads of men! Should I be in the flesh next summer, I will put it to the test, and if I am right in ms surmises, I shall, as a matter of course become a millionaire.
One of the simplest things in the art of the “horseman word” is to make a mare give birth to a piebald foal. No horseman, however skilful, can make a mare give birth to a white foal, or to a black or bay one, at will — except as a matter of chance. But what he can do is to infuse spots and bands of white into the natural bay, or black, as the case may be, thus making what is designated a piebald.
A HORSE THAT DISLIKED WORK.
I was once a ploughman on a farm in Forfarshire at which the farmer had a weakness for investing in the purchase of spoiled horses, and one day he came home with a powerful animal which he had purchased for a crown-piece. The beast absolutely refused to do any manner of work, declining to draw even an empty cart. The threshing-mill was driven by horse-power, and recourse was had in an emergency to yoke the newcomer in the mill along with five other horses, but the animal held back with all his might and as the farmer urged the others to drag the defaulter round the mill course the harness was wrenched over his head and we were obliged to set the obstinate.animal free. At midnight the same day I entered the stable alone, and having harnessed the horse I led him into the courtyard, and thence to the mill course and yoked him in the ordinary manner. He seemed to be a good deal alarmed and snorted loudly, and when I told him to go on he did precisely the opposite thing, plunging backwards with all his weight. The next moment and he leapt as high in the air as his trappings would permit, and dashed round the course in-full gallop. In two minutes he was white with foam, and as he swept round and round the noise made by the wheels and pinions of the empty mill awoke the echoes of the night. I carried a whip, as every horseman ought, but I did not touch the animal with it, nor did I touch him even with my hand. He stood when I told him, and trembled very much, casting glances around him in evident terror. I spoke kindly to him, and followed me closely to the stable. The farmer’s wife had a strange tale to tell in the morning. She had, she said, been aroused about midnight by hearing a rumbling sound like distant thunder, and on looking from her bedroom window had seen a huge white horse galloping round the mill course! The farmer objected to the horse being again yoked in the mill, in consequence of the expense entailed by the breakage of harness, but I assured him that the animal had turned over a new leaf; and would thenceforth do as he was told — and he did. I am almost certain that the farmer’s wife knew more about that night’s work than she cared to tell, because when I left the farm several months later, she placed her band on my shoulder and whispered in my ear “Will the big black horse behave himself when you are no longer near?” “Yes,” I replied, with a smile, ” o long as his harness is allowed to hang in the shadow of the window in the eastern gable of the stable.”
Such are a few of the uses to which the secret science of horsemanship can be turned, although I could give scores of incidents all coming within the province of the wonderful. When a young man I spent many a night in the stables in the winter season and the fields in the summer months, for like other arts, a man’s skill in horsemanship is commensurate with the pains he takes to attain excellence.