by Frank E Earp
Here are two stories of the believed power of witches over horses. The witch has long associations with the animal. There is a condition that horses sometimes get which leaves them sweating and their manes and tails all knotted. When such an animal is found in its stable, they are said to have been ‘hag-ridden’, – ridden by a witch on her nocturnal travels. There is or was another group who had a genuine power over horses. They were the ‘men’ who spent their working lives with horses and who were also members of a secret society known by various names. Some called them ‘Horse Witches’, but they are better known as ‘Horse Whisperers.’ They had no fear of the female witch and were often called to counter-act their magic. One of these stories contains a classic encounter between a Horse Whisperer and a witch I’ll leave the reader to decide which one.
The Ploughman and the Witch: Just to the north of Nottingham there once lived a rich farmer. His farm was very large and it took many servants to run the house and to work the land. Near to the farm was a wood and in that wood was a little wooden hut. The hut was the home of an old witch. Now the farmer was a very cautious man and knew the ways of witches. He did not want her to interfere with the running of his farm. He had instructed all his servants and farmworkers that if they saw the witch, they must be courteous to her and if she should ask for anything, they must give it to her straight-away.
One day, at the ‘Martinmas Fair’ he hired a new Ploughman. The first thing the farmer did when the man arrived for work the next day was to instruct him on how he must behave if he met the witch. “Yes master” replied the man, touching his forelock with his knuckles. But under his breath he said to himself “I’ll not gi t’owd gel nowt!” (well he was from Nottingham). A few days latter the farmer sent the Ploughman to plough the ‘top-field’ which ran beside the lane leading to the wood where the witch lived. When it came to 12 o’clock, the Ploughman took a brake. After giving both his horses a nosebag of oats, he sat himself down by the field gate to eat his ‘ploughman’s lunch’. He had taken but a few bites of his bread and cheese when the witch came by. She leaned on the gate and called to him “Will yo giz some of your snap mester?” Without even looking up or turning round the Ploughman replied “I’ll gi thee nowt mi duck. Yo can ‘bugger off’!” With a grunt of indignation and a snarl of rage, the old women went on her way. But she did not go far before she turned and stood ‘stock-still’ staring at the Ploughman from behind a thorn bush. In a little while, the Ploughman finished his lunch and went over to his horses which were standing nearby. Try as he might, he could not get them to move. Both seemed rooted to the spot. The Ploughman instantly knew what was wrong. He was aware of the witch staring at him from behind the bush. Without turning round the Ploughman called out, “If I gi thee what’s left o’mi snap will thee let me oss’es go?” The witch agreed the bargain and when the Ploughman had handed over the meagre scraps, she released his horses and he was able to finish his days ploughing. That night in his bed the Ploughman hatched a plan as to how he could get his revenge on the old witch. Next morning he mounted one of his plough horses and rode it bare-back to the witch’s hut. When he arrived he dismounted and knocked three times on the door. After a short time the door opened a crack and a voice from inside called out “Who’s there?” “Come out mother and I’ll tret thee to a ride on mi oss.” replied the Ploughman. “Very well”, came the answer from behind the door, “But first let mi put on mi gown and buckle mi shoes and I’ll be out!”. As soon as the Ploughman had mounted his horse the witch rushed out of the hut in the form of a great hare and sprang onto the horse’s back. The terrified animal bucked wildly but the Ploughman managed to hold onto its main with one hand and with the fist of the other hit the hare full on the head. The hare fell to the ground stone-dead. Happy with his work, the Ploughman rode back to the farm. Never again would he have to share his ploughman’s lunch.
The Carrier and the Witch: There was once a Carrier who regularly plied his trade on the road between Mansfield and Nottingham. One day whilst travelling towards Mansfield he met an old woman on the road. She asked him if she might have some of his pipe tobacco. “No!” said the Carrier, “I have none to spare. You must buy your own as I have done”. The old women said nothing more and passed on by. The Carrier urged his horses to move forward, but they stood rooted to the spot. No matter what the man did, he could not get the horses to move. The Carrier did not know what to do, so he climbed from the seat of his waggon and sat himself down on a stone by the side of the road. Sometime latter a stranger coming from Nottingham, saw the Carrier still sat on the stone with his head in his hands and troubled look on his face. “What’s wrong friend?” said the man to the Carrier. The Carrier quickly gave his story and told how the horses still would not budge. “Well!” said the man. “You are a fool! The old women was obviously a witch and you must know that you must give a witch whatever she asks for. Because you have not done this she has bewitched your horses. Listen to me and I will tell you how to brake the spell. You must go to the witch and ask of her a favour. When she grants it, you must scratch her with a needle and draw blood.” The man agreed to look-after the Carrier’s waggon and horses, so the Carrier set-off to find the witch. But first he stopped at the nearest cottage to ask to borrow a needle and directions to the witch’s home. Fortunately the witch’s cottage was not far away and when he reached the door the Carrier knocked and when the witch answered he said, “I have a needle and no thread. Pray good dame, can you spare an ‘happeth’ of thread?” The witch went off to get the thread and when she returned she handed it to the Carrier. “Give me your half-penny!” she demanded. As he placed the coin in the witch’s open palm, the Carrier used the pin to scratch her arm from the elbow to the wrist. Before the witch had time to react, the Carrier turned and ran back down the road towards the waiting stranger. He had not gone far when he saw in the distance the man leading the waggon and horses along the road. It appears that as soon as the Carrier had scratched the witch the horses had set-off on their own. The spell was broken.