In folk tradition, horses were regarded as very vulnerable to supernatural attack; in particular, their night sweats and exhaustion were interpreted as due to hag-riding by witches or fairies, from whom they must be protected by holed stones. Their tendency to shy or refuse to move on, for no visible reason, was (and still often is) attributed to a psychic awareness of the presence of evil, for example in haunted spots and those where blood has been shed. It was also thought that they could be immobilized, tamed, or rendered restive by people with magical power; one of the recurrent tales about witches and cunning men was that they would keep a horse spellbound by a word. In some regions, notably East Anglia, men particularly skilled in working farm horses had secret ways of controlling them, apparently by a mixture of magical ritual and material means such as substances whose smell attracted or repelled them (see Horseman's word, and toadmen).
   Horse skulls are occasionally found under floorboards in old buildings, for instance at Thrimby Hall (Bedfordshire) in 1860, and in Bungay (Suffolk) in 1933. It is tempting to see this as magical house protection, but the explanation given by the householders was that they improved the acoustics for home music-making, and this is supported by Irish and Scandinavian instances where the resonance of a horse skull was thought desirable in churches and threshing barns (Merrifield, 1987: 123-6). On the other hand, the purpose of a horse skull with two boar's tusks embedded in its jaw, found in the wall of an 18th-century house at Ballaugh (Isle of Man) can only have been protective (Folklore 100 (1989), 105-9). Several horse bones were found between two courses of brick of a 16th-century cottage in Histon, and a leg-bone under the foundations of stables of a 16th-century inn in Cambridge (Porter, 1969: 180-1).
   The Norfolk writer W. H. Barrett remembered seeing a skull laid down in 1897, when he was six. He and his brother were sent to a knacker's yard to buy a horse's head for their uncle, who was building a Methodist chapel in Littleport:
   When the two boys returned with it they watched the workmen dig the trench for the foundations and then saw their uncle carefully mark the centre of the site by driving into the ground a wooden stake. The men gathered round while the uncle uncorked a bottle of beer, then the horse's head was placed in the bottom of the trench, the first glass of liquor from the bottle was thrown on it, and, when the rest of the beer had been drunk, the men shovelled bricks and mortar on top of the head. It was explained to W. H. Barrett that this was an old heathen custom to drive evil and witchcraft away. (Porter, 1969: 181).
   See also hair (animal), hobby horse, horse brasses, horseshoes.
   ■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 201-2, 305-6; Radford, Radford, and Hole, 1961: 193-8.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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