key pattern bar

Hobby Horses and Associated Rites

Russell Williams

Shakespeare once lamented: "For O, for O, the hobby-horse is forgot", but there are at least two places in England where that is not true. Hobby horse festivals are May festivals wherein a hobby horse — a costume warn by a single person and bearing only the vaguest of resemblances to a horse, dances through the town and performs various rituals. They are spiritual relatives of other nature-based British folk customs such as the Abbots-Bromley horn dance and morris dancing.

For the last several years, the Bay Area NROOGD has usually included an obby oss (as it is spelled and pronounced in Padstow) in our Beltane ritual. Some may have wondered at the appearance of this strange creature that is called an oss even though it looks nothing like a horse. And what of its antics, splashing the passersby with water and catching women under its skirt? In this article I'll focus on two of hobby horse festivals in particular because they are among the best known, and because I have attended both of them.

Where are they

At one time many towns all over England had hobby horses, but few are left today. The best known is of course in Padstow, in Cornwall. Another old oss still dances in Minehead, on the Somerset coast near Cornwall. Some of the hobby horse festivals were discontinued within the last century or so; the Salisbury hobby horse now resides in a museum.

How old are they

In the last two decades, seeing the great tourist trade that Padstow draws every May, some towns have begun creating new hobby horse festivals. A town neighboring Minehead even began a hobby dragon May festival in the 1980s. I won't discuss these modern revivals further.

Written records only go back about 150 years for both Minehead and Padstow, but the local residents claim great antiquity for them and folklorists generally agree that they are remnants of ancient May Day festivals. The earliest known mention of hobby horses is a mid-16th century reference to them in association with morris dancing.

What do they look like

The Padstow oss (of which the NROOGD oss is a faithful replica) is a black disk about 5 feet in diameter with a hole in the middle. The disk is worn on the shoulders of a man, with his head through the central hole. A black circular skirt is attached to the rim and reaches to the ground, hiding the man's body. A tail hangs from one point on the rim of the disk, and a "mouth" with beard on sticks is held out from the opposite side. The mouthpiece is called "snappers" or "mappers". On the man's head is a conical black hat with a red and white (or blue and white) designs drawn on it.

The Minehead horse (they don't call it an oss in Minehead) looks rather like a small rowboat inverted over a man's shoulders with a hole for the man's head, and a large hump behind the head. The Minhead horse's mask is large and round, with colorful painting and ribbons on his tall hat. Multicolored ribbons are fastened all over the horse's body.


Minehead History

Conflicting origin stories are a standard feature of folks customs. Some claim that the Minehead festival is in commemoration of the wreck of a ship, but the most widely accepted origin is that of a spring fertility festival.

From an 1830 description:

A number of young men, mostly fishermen and sailors, having previously made some grotesque figures of light stuff, rudely resembling men, and horses with long tails, sufficiently large to cover and disguise the persons who are to carry them, assemble together and perambulate the town and neighbourhood, performing a variety of antics, to the great amusement of the children and young persons: they never fail to pay a visit to Dunster Castle, where, after having been hospitably regaled with strong beer and victuals, they always receive a present in money; many other persons, inhabitants of the places they visit, give them small sums, and such persons as they meet are also asked to contribute a trifle; if they are refused, the person of the refuser is subjected to the ceremony of booting or pursing; this is done by some of the attendants holding his person while one of the figures inflict ten slight blows on him with the top of a boot; he is then liberated and all parties give three huzzas: the most trifling sum buys off this ceremony, and it is seldom or never performed but on those who purposely throw themselves in their way and join the party, or obstruct them in their vagaries. This custom has prevailed for ages, but what gave rise to it is at present unknown: it probably owes its origin to some ancient custom of perambulating the boundaries of the parish.

At one time a May Queen and King were chosen and crowned, and the May Queen rode the horse. The horse used to have attendants called "Gullivers", who also dressed up and wearing a ribboned hat. The Gullivers would solicit contributions from passersby and even walk into houses to demand donations. This custom was discontinued when an angry householder got into a brawl with the Gullivers and was killed.

Minehead today

The festivities start on "warning night," the night before May 1 (unless that day falls on a Sunday, in which case it's held on the Saturday). The "sailor's horse" starts at a supposedly secret place near the quay. Actually, the year I attended, they wheeled it up on a cart in plain sight and left it sitting in front of the Old Ship Aground inn. A group of musicians -- drummers and accordion gather and begin playing. They then proceed about a half a mile along the waterfront to the Hobby Horse inn, with a small number of people following along. The song they play has no words and they call it "the Hobby Horse Song", but it's a widely- known old tune called "Soldier's Joy".

The horse dances down the street, occasionally trapping a bystander against a wall and butting him or her with its prow, soliciting contributions; for women it may dip its head and tap them with its feather. Anyone who fails to give a contribution may get lashed by its "tail" (a long rope). The attendants also solicit contributions from the crowd. When the party reaches the Hobby Horse Inn, everybody stops in and drinks.

On May Day, the horse dances through the town, meeting with and battling the "town horse", and the horse still goes to Dunster Castle, though today the castle belongs to the National Trust. In previous years, the horse went to a well outside the village where a play was enacted, but the well has been closed and the horse no longer goes there.

On May 2 and May 3, the horse again dances through the town. The evening of May 3 is "Bootie Night", when victims are caught and "booted" by the horse's prow 10 times while held by attendants, and then must dance with the horse while trying to avoid being lashed by the horse's tail.

Each day the horse party is up early and ends the day in a tavern drinking; the last evening is said to be particularly rowdy.


Padstow History

The Padstow oss is of course also a May Day custom, but there are various other origin stories, such as the oss being invented to scare off invaders. Minehead residents claim that the origin of the Padstow oss is that sailors who came to Minehead from Padstow stole it. At least as of eight years ago, there was very little historical data I could find, either in libraries here or in the town libraries at Padstow and Minehead. The annual occurrence of common village festivals was just not something that people saw fit to write much about; folks customs are often only written about when some latter-day folklorist starts wondering where they came from.

Padstow today

"All out of your beds for summer is a-come unto day." Padstow May day festivities. Monday, May 1, 1989. The original old 'oss O.B. will once again gallop forth on all twos from its stables at the Golden Lion at 11:00 carried by Brian De Bato, great grandson of colonel W.DeBato, and teased by Willy McOwen, grandson of old maestro Mac McOwen. Master of ceremonies Cobbler "anyrate" Roberts will lead the 'oss, supported by the most multifarious moduli of musicians ever mustered on the banks of the Camel, comprising accordians, drums, bones, mouth organ, etc., around the town, returning to its stable. At 1:30 PM, the 'oss and its merry followers begin the ascent of Mount Lodeneck, savouring the odd pasty en route before descending to the depths for more perambulations. 6:00 PM: After tea (comprising of pedicure, grooming, and oiling the parts), the 'oss will leave the stable for its final oscillations around the maypole and harbour, and culminating in a sad farewell at dummits. We fare you well and wish you all good cheer. Old 'oss for ever. Text from the 1989 Padstow "old oss" poster

Just before midnight on May 1, people gather in the town square around the maypole, and proceed to the Golden Lion Inn, and exactly at midnight they begin singing the "night song", waking the keeper of the Golden Lion. They then proceed through the town waking up various other residents by singing under their windows:

Rise up, Mr. Jones, I know you well and fine,
for summer is a-come unto day.
You have a shilling in your purse and I wish it was in mine
In the merry morning of may.

The next morning at 10:00, the Old Original Oss (O.B. – nobody knows why it says O.B. on his cap) comes out of the Golden Lion with the teaser, and they begin dancing through the streets, surrounded by the crowds and the red oss team, singing the "day song", this time with music and drums, which consists of most of the same verses as the night song, plus the slow "Oh where is Saint George" part. During that part of the song, the oss and his party sink to the ground, only to spring up again when the beat picks up.

The teaser has a decorated club, and he and the oss dance together, having previously rehearsed. The oss may mimic or mirror the teaser's movements, or they may dance independently. Some teasers just dance, others make slow, ritualistic movements. From time to time, the oss catches women under its skirt and rub soot on them as a luck and fertility charm. In past years the oss would also stop and "drink" from a bucket, possibly flinging water onto the onlookers.

There's also a second blue or peace oss who makes similar rounds (the blue oss came on the scene within the last century and at one time was the "temperance oss", but they thought better of it after WW1 and made it the "peace oss"). The children also make a smaller oss.

Changes, Differences, and Similarities

Evolution of the Hobby Horse

The two horses have changed to become less similar over the years; this may suggest that they had a common origin.

The Minehead horse no longer has a tall conical cap, he has lost his snappers, and the hump in the back has gotten larger. The hump grew a few years ago because the structure was weakening and needed additional reinforcement.

The Padstow oss's snappers weren't evident the year I was present. With the dropping of the Minehead horse 's conical cap, they look less alike than they used to, and given the changes that have occurred since records have been written, it's impossible to guess how much they may have changed in the years before that, but in many ways (appearance, presence of attendants in the form of Teaser or Gullivers, etc.) it seems that they used to be considerably more alike than they are now.

Evolution of the celebrations

From earliest times, the music for both celebrations has had a strong beat, loud with drums, and this remains. In Padstow, you can hear the thump of the drums throughout the town, even when you can't find either of the oss teams.

The Padstow song has evolved, changing significantly in the last century and a half, losing verses and merging the night and day songs. The words aren't printed consistently even today, with some versions saying "summer is a-coming today," but most saying "summer is a-come unto day" (whatever that means). A 1935 reference gives the cry of the oss party as "to we, hoss", used by the women to call the oss to them. The writer says that at that time, some were erroneously changing the cry to "wee oss", explaining "wee" as an ancient word. Today, the change is complete and the cry is given and printed on the oss party's shirts as "wee oss". Because of their fame and the fact that the customs are now written down, it's possible that they will change more slowly than they have in the past.

The Minehead celebration nearly died out after the turn of the century, but the keeper of the Minehead lifeboat almost single-handedly kept the custom going and revived interest in it; the contributions collected by the horse party now go to the lifeboat rescue fund. I spoke to one of the young men in the horse's party, and he said that when he as a child he didn't like the horse, and thought it was just a nuisance that woke him up on May day morning, but he says he "grew out of that".

The celebrations at both Minehead and Padstow have always been rowdy occasions for celebration, dancing, and drinking (as might well befit a Pagan fertility celebration), and over the years, more straight-laced members of the communities have objected on the grounds of this rowdiness, and of course on the grounds that the celebrations are Pagan.

With any supposedly ancient British Pagan folk custom, we should always consider the possibility that, like maypole dancing in most places, it is a romantic-era revival or creation. Most such celebrations were discontinued during Cromwell's rule. Of those begun in the generations after the Restoration, it's often difficult to tell whether they're any closer to being a continuation of an ancient Pagan rite than is NROOGD's Beltane obby oss ritual. (NROOGD Beltane 96 photos) I've been unable to uncover any evidence one way or the other about Padstow or Minehead — they may be ancient, modern (less than 200 years old), or a modern revival of a more ancient and widespread custom.

These celebrations are related to other "luck visiting" (going around wishing people well in exchange for donated money) and caroling (singing at them while you do it) customs. Wrenning at Yule time (carrying a dead wren in a box or house on a pole from house to house, singing requests for its funeral expenses) is a related custom, for instance. The fertility aspect is related to other guising customs, wherein the celebrants dress up as an animal to partake of the qualities associated with that animal. In this case, the horse is associated with fertility, and in both Padstow and Minehead it chases women. In Padstow, it is supposed to be good luck and fertility-inducing to be caught up under the oss's skirt – and get the blacking from its skirt onto you as proof. Similarly, the Minehead horse's tapping of women with its feather is a more subtle fertility blessing. In both cases the discontinued (as of 8 years ago) water motif is also associated with spring and fertility.

Nevertheless, the celebrations today don't have much overt Pagan flavor, and the "May Day" elements are scarce. In Padstow I saw only one explicit reference to spring: a lone "happy May Day" sign, though they do have a town maypole. The celebrations have the character of a typical small-town festival — they're a source of great civic pride (particularly in Padstow, where town records declare that "The bones of every Padstow boy are fired by the 'Obby 'Oss"). Even though no changes in the rituals have been made to accommodate the tourists, when I attended Padstow's May day, I felt some sympathy for Christians who decry the secularization of Christmas. The huge crowds who come to watch the famous custom and join the party make it impossible even to dance

Padstow and Minehead are fascinating preservations of Pagan customs, but if you go, don't expect an overtly Pagan holiday celebration — you'll have to look below the surface to see it. If you want to see how one of the most famous folk festivals in the English-speaking world has evolved, drop in on Padstow some May Day. If shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and a village blowing with trash from overload of its municipal services aren't your taste, check out the much smaller and quieter Minehead festival instead. Or, if you just want to dance and sing with the oss, try for a little luck from its skirts, and celebrate the coming of spring, then come to the Bay Area NROOGD Beltane!

For Further Information

There's a wonderful film on Padstow made by Jeanne Ritchie and friends in the 1950s before Padstow was "discovered". It's available on video -- check folklorist sources and the Revels catalog rather than Blockbuster. The Hobby Horse and Other Animal Masks by Violet Alford covers Padstow, Minehead, and other hobby horse festivals in Britain and on the continent, as well as other related festivals and customs such as morris dancing and the Abbots Bromley horn dance.

key pattern bar

This work is copyright 1998The Witches Trine and the author, 1997. All rights reserved.

Back to the Trine Sample Home Page
Back to the Trine Home Page
Back to Fairgrove Conjureworks