Many superstitions originated long ago when early man was attempting to understand nature. He used superstition because he wanted to control his environment and didn’t understand that reason and knowledge were better tools. Superstition was fear based, and it relied on luck or magic to explain the unexplainable. Moreover, these superstitions were passed from generation to generation. Among the superstitions were some associated with horses. Horse superstitions existed in relation to supernatural horses, horses that appeared in dreams, white-legged or white-footed horses, and unusual colored horses. Even the gregarious horse’s shoes became part of superstitious beliefs.
Among the interesting horse superstitions were those to the kelpie, a malignant and otherworldly spirit that inhabited Scotland’s lochs and pools. It was claimed that the kelpie would assume the form of a horse to lure hapless, innocent travelers to ruin. Using his supernatural abilities, the kelpie would plunge through a flooded river and make it to the other side safely. This would convince unsuspecting travelers that the way was safe. They would follow and be swept away in the churning waters as the kelpie’s triumphant laughter rang in their ears at having seduced and deluded the traveler with his fiendish trick.
Several superstitions involved the horse and dreams. One superstition was that a white horse appearing in a dream for three successive nights indicated an elderly person would die. However, if three white colts appeared, it meant a young person would die. Sometimes dream superstitions conflicted with one another. For example, some people believed that dreaming about a black horse was the foretelling of an approaching wedding whereas other people believed it was “a sure sign of death.”
There were also numerous superstitions related to white-legged horses. Some of these horse superstitions were good and others bad. For instance, it was considered lucky to own a horse with fore-legs that were equally “white-stockinged,” but if one fore and hind-leg on the same side were white, it was unlucky. In the neighborhood of Stokeinteignhead the following rhyme about horses with white legs was popular in the 1800s:
If you have a horse with four white legs, Keep him not a day;
If you have a horse with three white legs, Send him far away;
If you have a horse with two white legs, Send him to a friend;
If you have a horse with one white leg, Keep him to his end.
Some people also mistakenly thought that white-footed horses had weaker hooves than horses with darker ones. Similarly to white-legged horses, white-footed horses also had superstitions associated with them and it indicated bad or good luck, as demonstrated in the following rhyme:
One white foot, buy a horse;
Two white feet, try a horse;
Three white feet, look well about him;
Four white feet, do without him.
Sometimes unusual or grey colored horses had superstitions attached to them. For instance, pie balds horses were popular with the London wayfarer. Where the idea came from is hard to say although one newspaper noted that “possibly the notion is akin to that which is so old … at home and abroad as to the magpies, whose foretelling vary according to the number in which they are seen, and the pied markings of horse and bird are very similar.” It was unclear if skewbald horses offered the same sort of luck, but unquestionably to some people the piebald did. Additionally, marrying couples often used grey horses to whirl them away from the chapel, possibly due to the belief that grey horses offered protection against the evil influences of witches.
Sometimes the color of the horse had nothing to do with good or bad luck. In fact, many horse superstitions involved the horseshoe rather than the horse. For instance, Lanchasire residents claimed horse shoes had the “power of destroying, or preventing, witchcraft.” The horse shoe in Scotland was supposed to be thrown over the left shoulder if you wanted to secure good luck during the approaching month. At one time it was also considered lucky to take a horseshoe to sea. Horseshoes also supposedly chased away evil spirits and served as potent charms against “freaks and fancies.” The absence of a horseshoe could create bad luck too. It was said if you didn’t put a horseshoe — one that had been worn by a 2-year-old filly — in the butter churn, witches would take your butter. Moreover, if a bridegroom did not carry one in his pocket, it was predicted bad luck would follow.
- Bergen, Fanny Dickerson, ed., Current Superstitions, Vol. 4, 1896
- “Horse-Shoe Superstition,” in Burnley Express, 1 Apr 1899
- “Horsey Superstitions,” in Cornishman, 10 June 1880
- Laing, Jeanine M., Notes on Superstition and Folk Lore, 1885
- Marriage Superstitions, in The Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 21 Aug 1886
- “Street Superstition,” in Hartlepool Mail, 13 May 1893
- “Superstitions,” in Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 20 Apr 1899
- “Superstitions,” in Hampshire Telegraph, 24 Jun 1893