Society Of Horseman’s Word
By the early 19th century horses had established themselves as the providers of animal power on the farms of northern Scotland, replacing oxen and ponies, and consequently anyone who was skilled in horse husbandry could command a premium. Although they did not own the land or the ploughs or horses those who had the ability to control horses embraced and were protective of this new technology.
A series of clubs developed both in Scotland (the Horseman’s Word) and eastern England (Society of Horsemen) to act as quasi trade unions, as co-operative veterinary services and repositories of equine knowledge and expertise. In parts of the country only a brother of the Society was allowed to work with horses.
As well as being protectionist, not unlike the mediaeval City guilds, the Society modelled itself on Freemasonry, none more so than in its bizarre and elaborate initiation ceremony. These would be held in an isolated barn or stable at the dead of night usually when there was a full moon. The High Horseman, seated and holding a cloven goat’s hoof in his hand would preside over proceedings. The postulant would be stripped to the waist, blindfolded and spun round to disorientate him. Then aping the catechism the High Horseman would ask the postulant a series of questions to which he would respond.
The initiate would then be made to kneel, the blindfold would be removed and he would be asked to swear a vow to keep the Society’s secrets. Then the group would recite the Horseman’s Creed which inter alia listed the punishments for breaking the vow. One surviving from Angus lists such dire punishments as having their heart ripped out by two wild horses, their body quartered and swung on chains. You get the picture.
Once all this was accomplished the initiate would be asked to seal the pact and shake hands with the devil aka the cloven goat’s hoof. The formalities over, the initiate was given the Word which was supposed to have magical and mystical powers. Simply by whispering it into the nag’s ear it was supposed to bring it under their complete control. The proceedings finished with a ceilidh and the consumption of whisky which the initiate had to provide.
Some sport was had at the expense of the poor initiate. Having sworn his oath and committed never to revealing the Word he was often commanded to write it sown. If he did so, thus breaking his oath, he earned himself a flogging across the knuckles or back.
Once a member, the secrets of horse husbandry were revealed to him. Old horsemen were not above playing tricks on those outside the Society such as putting tacks on the inside of horse’s collars or putting foul substances in front of or behind the nag, causing the horse to act irrationally. Of course, the old stager would be able to demonstrate his proficiency by calming the animal down. As one critic of the Society noted in 1879, “without betraying any secret, it may be said that the real philosophy of the horseman’s word, consists in the thorough, careful and kind treatment of the animals,, combined with a reasonable knowledge of their anatomical and physiological structure”. Makes sense really.
Literacy and the wider usage of horses sounded the death knell for the societies as protectionist clubs although at least one Society existed in northern Scotland into the 1990s.