Horse Superstitions: In Great Britain and America

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.

horse superstitions

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 then 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.

“The Kelpie” by Herbert James Draper, 1913. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Several horse superstitions involve dreams. One superstition was that if a white horse appeared in a dream for three successive nights it indicated an elderly person would die. However, if three white colts appeared, it meant a young person would die. Sometimes the dreams 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.”[1]

Various white horse superstitions were also prevalent in America. One was that whenever you saw a red-headed girl a white horse would soon appear. According to The Des Moines Register there were traces of this belief cropping up throughout history, perhaps linked to Lady Godiva and her naked ride through the streets of Coventry, but no positive evidence as to how, when, or where the superstition originated could be given by the paper. Still it did not stop it from reporting on this superstition in an 1896 article:

“Popular games were founded on the idea that wherever and whenever a red-head girl was seen, there also would be seen a white horse. Throughout the entire country, from Maine to California, this superstition or myth has grown into a common saying, frequently the occasion of much ridicule and of no little embarrassment to the red-headed girl.

The idea beyond the saying is rational enough. White horses are relatively scarce. So also are red-headed girls. Therefore, the two might naturally be supposed to be in conjunction. No saying is so ridiculous as not to obtain some believers, but no superstition can last long with out some actual signs behind it.

The saying of the red-headed girl and the white horse has stood the test of time remarkably well. Indeed, it is surprising how many persons — skeptical at first — have come to firmly believe this saying, after they have observed for themselves the curious coincidence which it involves.”[2]

Lady Godiva’s naked ride through Coventry. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A similar report of red-headed girls and the appearance of white horses had earlier swept Chicago and was reported in 1887 by The Smokey Globe in Jerome, Kansas:

“The red-headed girl and white horse superstition has taken a deep hold in Chicago. … One realist fellow says: ‘It is a phenomenon that, in my opinion is easily explained by the fact that white horses are more common than girls with red hair, and a person can hardly look anywhere on the streets without seeing a white horse, and he may look a long time for a red-haired girl. It is to be hoped that this subject will not arouse public attention to such an extent that the poor lassies who had not the choosing of color for their hair will be compelled to disguise themselves with wigs or remain indoors until the excitement has subsided.'”[3]

Although Napoleon Bonaparte is known to have a superstitious belief about being guided by a lucky star, he apparently had no horse superstitions that he believed in even those related to white-legged horses. Some of these white 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.”[4]

Some people also mistakenly thought that white-footed horses had weaker hooves than horses with darker ones. Similar 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.”[5]

Sometimes unusual or grey colored horses had superstitions attached to them. For instance, piebald 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.”[6] 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.

Piebald horse. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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. Exactly how the superstition began was unclear, but the Gaylord Herald in Kansas provided these suppositions:

“The horse shoe of old was held to be of special service as a security against the attacks of evils. The virtue may have been assigned, perhaps, by the rules of contraries, from it being a thing incompatible with the cloven foot of the evil one; or form the rude resemblance which the horseshoe bears to the rays of glory which in ancient pictures were made ot surround the head of saints and angels, or finally, from some notion of its purity, acquired through passing through the fire.”[7]

Back in Lancashire residents there claimed horseshoes had the “power of destroying, or preventing, witchcraft.”[8] The horseshoe in Scotland was supposed to be thrown over the left shoulder if you wanted to secure good luck during the approaching month. Moreover, at one time it was also considered lucky to take a horseshoe to sea and plenty of sailors placed them on the ship’s masts as a horseshoe was thought to turn away a storm. Horseshoes also supposedly chased away evil spirits and served as potent charms against “freaks and fancies.”

The Deerfield Valley Times of Wilmington, Vermont reported that the horseshoe superstition still strongly existed in parts of that town in 1893:

“Junk dealers find it profitable to keep horse shoes in stock for sale to dwellers in the tenement house region, where a horse shoe over the door is still not uncommon. If all the money drawers of small shops could be rummaged enough horse shoes could be found to supply half the equines in town. The superstition is that the shop will do a good business so long as the presence of the horse shoe is known only to the shopkeeper. One recent rainy afternoon a neatly dressed girl, daintily picking her way across Fifth avenue at Twenty-eight street, suddenly stopped, stooped, picked up a wet and dirty horse shoe, tucked it away under her waterproof and went on in smiling anticipation of good luck.”[9]

The absence of a horseshoe was also known to create bad luck. 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, the prediction was that bad luck would follow.

Horse's Right Fore and Left Hind Foot with Horseshoes, Author's Collection

Horse’s right fore and left hind foot with horseshoes, Author’s collection.

References:

  • [1] Bergen, Fanny Dickerson, ed., Current Superstitions, Vol. 4, 1896, p. 71.
  • [2] “The Girl with Red Hair,” in The Des Moines Register, 1 March 1896, p. 19.
  • [3] “Red Heads and White Horses,” in The Smoky Globe, 1 October 1887, p. 3.
  • [4] Dyer, Thomas Firminger Thiselton, English Folk-lore, 1878, p, 113
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] “Street Superstition,” in Hartlepool Mail, 13 May 1893, p. 3.
  • [7] “The Horseshoe Superstition,” in Gaylord Herald, 20 October 1881, p. 1.
  • [8] “Horse-Shoe Superstition,” in Burnley Express, 1 Apr 1899, p. 3.
  • [9] “The Horse Shoe Superstition,” in Deerfield Valley Times, 12 February 1892, p. 7.

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