The Hooden Horse

In the town I used to live in, there was once a pub called the Hooden Horse, sadly now renamed to something much less interesting. I was reminded of this at an exhibition at Maidstone museum on Hooden Horses. Hooden Horses? Well, briefly…

Hoodening is a rural folk tradition unique to East Kent, England. Going back a few hundred years, in the week or so running up to Christmas, groups of farm labourers would dress up as various characters and go from door to door requesting money, cake and beer. One of the characters would be the Hooden Horse, which was an artificial horse’s head made of wood, with a jaw operated by string, on a wooden pole, held by one of the performers with his body covered in cloth – usually sacking. A sort of play was then performed in rhyme, a mixture of plot and satire, usually featuring a few local characters who would be well known to the watchers and might be the butt of jokes and scorn, as well as stock characters such as Molly, a waggoner, and the Mayor. And of course the horse (him)self, invariably called Dobbin. There would also be music performed on whatever might be available – accordions, fiddles, drums or whistles.

The relationship to Morris dancing and Mummers is hard to avoid and, like these traditions, has been revived in modern times by enthusiastic traditionalists.

A photo from the early twentieth century

A modern Hooden Horse

Another early twentieth century photo.

There are many other traditions in Britain involving what is known as ‘animal guising’, where men or women take the guise of an animal, the Padstow ‘obby ‘oss being perhaps the best known of these. The performance on May Day in Padstow, Cornwall, invariably draws large crowds.

On the left, a Hooden horse, and on the right a Mari Lwyd, the ‘skull horse’ of Welsh tradition. Although unconnected (as far as I know) the Welsh had a similar tradition, also taking place around Christmas and New Year. Skull horses are to be found in other parts of England, however, including Yorkshire.

Stag guising is another old tradition – possibly older than horse guising. It was certainly in existence during medieval times and survives today in the form of the Abbots Bromley Horn dancers, Staffordshire, who perform carrying reindeer antlers on poles on the Monday following ‘Wakes Sunday’ in September. Wakes Week became a tradition in industrial Northern England when factories and mills closed down for a week for maintenance giving the workers a holiday. This began in the early nineteenth century, but before this the ritual presumably took place at a different time of year.

The exhibition is on until 17th July 2023 and there is a link to their site here.

15 thoughts on “The Hooden Horse

  1. I had a ‘hobby horse’ when I was a kid, but it was nothing like these. I’d not heard of any of these traditions; they’re quite interesting. I laughed at your description of “enthusiastic traditionalists.”

    I was quite struck by the second photo. It reminded me of many tribal masks I saw in Liberia, like this one. Clearly, there are archetypes that endure.

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    1. I don’t suppose the hobby horses of childhood had much to do with animal guising, although who knows where the idea originally came from? The ‘obby ‘oss might have aquired the name from the toys, though. It would be interesting to know how long children had been playing with, although I guess that’s something we’ll never find out.

      Archetypes indeed. I was going to add a bit about the Abbots Bromley horn dances, in that although I’m sure there’s no direct connection, archaeologists have unearthed red dear skulls with antlers from 11,000 years ago at a place called Star Carr in Yorkshire which have had eye holes cut through and would have been used as masks, presumably for ceremonial purposes.

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    1. I think they were / are a lot of fun. Whatever the origins of these things, they all seem to end up as rather raucous fun with eating and drinking and heaven knows what else gets dragged in. I think our ancestors would take any and every opportunity to let their hair down that they got.

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  2. I’ve never heard of hoodening, but then, if it only exists in your neck of the woods, it’s not surprising, really. I love the photos depicting the hooden horses from those traditions. Is that one in the photo a real horse’s head, or is it made of something else? I can imagine it’s a real horse’s skull – eew! Where do you find all these old but interesting photos, Mick? I love Morris Dancers. Just occasionally, we have a group of people dancing in their traditional costumes in our town. They have such talent and are a joy to watch. What are mummers, though, please? I couldn’t even guess at that one. Thanks for an interesting post, Mick.

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    1. The Mari Lwyd will be a real skull, the same as the horn dancers use real horns. And the pictures are all from the exhibition in Maidstone.

      Mummers are another tradition probably closer to Hoodening than folk dancing, although there are elements of both in their displays. In fact, Guisers are an alternative name for them. Mummers perform ritual plays and, like the Hoodeners, there are characters that always appear like St George, a Turkish knight, and the ‘old ‘oss. Just from that, you can see there is a certain amount of crossover and no doubt sometime in the past they were the same thing.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading about these old traditions – Morris Dancing and Mummers I’ve heard of, but certainly not Hooden Horses. It’s good to know some folks try to keep the old traditions alive – they help keep people connected to the land, which I think is very important. Thanks, Mick!

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  4. That’s such an interesting thing to know. Many traditions of different cultures are same with little alterations. As in Punjabi culture children go door to door to collect lohri in form of money or eatables or woods all are welcomed.

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