It's almost Halloween! Are you dressing up your horse? If so, I'd love to post a picture for us all to admire! Please send pics to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include any names and photo credits you'd like mentioned.
Tomorrow, on Halloween, I'll be posting the Haunted House of the Horse, a blog guaranteed to frighten. Right now though, we'll talk about something tamer-- old mare's tails. I mean, old wives tales. There are almost as many superstitions about horses as there are breeds of horses! That's not surprising, considering the powerful associations we have with horses. For brevity's sake, I'm going to omit the racing-related ones. So here we go:
Faerie (or Fairy) Knots
Some days, your horse appears from the pasture with an elaborately twisted knot in her mane. Throughout history, people have believed that this was the work of spirits or fairies, and that a horse thus marked was either blessed or cursed. Now we know it's just the wind, of course... right?
Coat Color & White Legs
Europeans long believed that crossing a white horse's path was unlucky, and a horse's stockings predicted its future:
"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."
However, Bedouins, the nomadic horse warriors of the eastern deserts, believed that a four-stockinged horse was lucky... provided the white markings didn't extend above the knee in front, and the fetlock in back. For them, the unluckiest horses were those without any white hairs, and duns without dorsal stripes. They had such an extensive catalog of superstitions about markings, fur patterns and colors, horse fortune telling was an art form in itself.
Here in the USA, cowboys often say that a red mare will be crazy or mean.
Horseshoes are always considered lucky, but no one seems to know why. It may be because they were traditionally made of iron, which is said to ward off faeries and evil spirits. Or, Saint Dunstan may be responsible; he was supposed to have defeated the Devil by nailing a horseshoes to his foot, wrangling from him the promise never to cross a doorway with a horseshoes nailed above it. Whatever the reason, we hang them above our doors and touch them for luck.
Not all horseshoes are lucky, however; they must have actually come off of a horse. Some say that only the owner of the shoe, not a finder, can have the luck. The luckiest shoes come from the rear leg of a grey mare. Different countries disagree about whether to hang a shoe "upright" like a "U," so that the luck "doesn't run out," or "downwards," so that the luck pours into its owner.
White, Striped & Black Hooves
You may have heard an old horseman say that white hooves are weak hooves. This is just a plain old falsehood. There have been plenty of studies showing that, structurally, a white hoof has no less integrity than a dark one. I think that cracks and chips tend to show up more on white hooves, making them appear to be weaker. However, I totally subscribe to the superstition that striped hooves are the strongest (despite no evidence for that either!).
Whorls and Swirls
It's not just the Bedouins that believe a horse's personality can be determined from his markings. Many people today, including prominent racehorse owners, also cling to this idea. There are many types of whorls (pics here) but no one really agrees on what they mean. Only one thing seems true for all believers: a horse with two whorls on its forehead will be more difficult. In fact, I once had someone decline to buy a mare from me, partly because the horse had two whorls! Read more here, here and even here (a Horse and Rider article).
Some people believe horses with a blue eye (or eyes) tend to be crazier. I think this may just be a result of too many backyard-bred colored horses with no manners thanks to their owners... but on the other hand, I've never met a blue-eyed horse I liked. I owned one once, and he tried to kill me multiple times. Still, there's absolutely no evidence that blue-eyed horses are crazier. However, there is evidence that some blue-eyed horses are more prone to eye problems.
A horse with little pigment (pink or white eyelids) will be more sensitive to the sun. It just so happens that horses with light-colored eyelids usually have blue eyes too. Cancer, eye problems and photo-sensitivity (blinking and tearing up) are more likely. Someone tell this to cremello breeders! If you've got a pale-skinned horse, use a UV-protective flymask to keep the sun off of him.
On the left: A horse with pink skin, more sensitive to light.
On the right: a horse with grey/black "eyeliner," less sensitive.
The eye color itself doesn't matter as much.
You may have heard it's bad luck to change a horse's name, though some say this only applies to barn names, not show names. This superstition probably originated from sailors, who thought it was terribly bad luck to change a ship's name.
Leading a Horse to Water
"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." That phrase, or versions of it, has been around since at least 1175. Now that's a superstition that sticks-- probably because it's true! Scientists studying endurance horses now believe that heavy sweating actually makes a horse less likely to drink. This is because during light sweating, the body loses water and sodium levels elevate, triggering a thirst response-- but during heavy sweating, a horse loses as much salt as water, and no thirst response is triggered.
Of course, the phrase does have a double meaning, implying that someone may be too stupid or stubborn to take what is offered.
My own personal superstition is that you can't say the word "home" during a trail ride, especially on the way home. Do so, and you'll shortly have a fractious horse on your hands. You can say "back to the ranch," "the barn," or any equivalent, just not "home!"
Do you have any personal superstitions?