The Hooden Horse

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The Hooden Horse.

No. That is not a spelling mistake. It is Hooden, not Wooden, although the horse’s head is made from wood, but that is not where it gets its name from. The Hooden Horse is native to Kent, specifically East Kent. More specifically the Isle of Thanet.


First a little background as to why the horse is so important to Kent, the white horse being the County Symbol, along with the Motto: ‘Invicta’.

It is believed the horse was adopted from the symbol used by the brothers Hengist and Horsa. They came from Jutland at the behest of Vortigern to defeat the Picts, they landed on the Isle of Thanet around AD446. After securing Thanet, they went on to take Kent and defeated Vortigern creating the largest population of Saxons in England. Their names mean 'Horse' in the Jutish language, hence the symbolism. Many of the Kentish place-names, such as Canterbury, Crayfourd, the River Stour and even Kent are of Jutish derivation.

The motto Invicta, itself, is interesting, being adopted from 1066 when William marched on London from Hastings. He attempted to march through East Kent, but was deterred when the locals set upon his army with branches and farm tools, forcing him to take the longer route through West Kent. The motto was adopted as it means Undefeated or unconquered. It also divided the County in two, with A Man of Kent coming from the undefeated Eastern side of Kent, and A Kentish Man being from the defeated Western side of Kent.

Added to this is the fact that Dover Castle also was neither besieged nor defeated but managed to gain concessions and did not succumb to primogeniture, maintaining gavelkind, where land was passed from father to be dispersed equally between sons.

The Hooden Horse.

But what of Hooding? Or hoodening as it became know, is Thanet's take on Guising (or disguising) which is performed in and around Derbyshire and Lancashire. Guising has been traced back to 690, although guising in its modern form dates back to the mid eighteenth Century.

Confused? Please read on, and hopefully all will become clear.

Hooden horse could be confused with the similar-sounding 'hobby horse' yet it isn’t anything like it. In fact, it is an East Kent tradition occurring East of a line drawn from Whitstable to Folkestone, but appears to be restricted to the Isle of Thanet and it’s immediate environs, from where it has spread since being revived. It was associated with farm field workers around the Christmas period, notably ploughmen and carters. It is believed they would carve a crude wooden representation of a horse’s head, possibly using discarded nails for eyes and a scrap of leather for ears. The head would be supported on a pole around 4’ (130cm) long. An old hop sack would be attached at the base of the head to hide the person operating it. Also connected to the head was a wooden hinged lower jaw that had a string attached to open and close the jaws. The pole would enable the head to be manipulated and swiveled, often in a slightly malicious fashion, to coax people to part with money, often through the gaping maw of the horse, resulting in a rapid smacking of the jaws, as if relishing the recent feed. This may have replaced the use of a horse's skull, which appears to predate Hoodening, and can still be found in certain traditions in the UK and amongst Morris sides.1.

The hooden horse in past times, would be guided by a carter, attached by reins, who was meant to control this unruly and often malevolent beast. There may also be a rider and a Betsy (still seen in many Morris sides today) which was a man dressed as a woman. The troupe would often be surrounded by children. It appears to have been traditional around the Christmas period for the Hooden Horse and troupe to go around the large houses of the Parish giving performances of short plays, or ‘wassails’ in the hope of getting food, drink and or money. The idea behind the ‘guise’ was to hide the identity of the players, as begging was frowned on, if not actually illegal, often being linked with vagrancy. However work would be in short supply during the winter months and so anything to tide the workers over the lean period had to be grabbed. Unfortunately, maybe through a reduction of farm workers due to mechanization, World War I and the conscription of horses, or just modern society, Hoodening died out and was only revived in the 1950’s when a Hooden Horse was found in Walmer, and a copy made. East Kent Morris adopted this as their mascot, and gradually other sides followed suit.

Historical Information.

The earliest mention of the hoodening custom is by Walcott, published by Edward Stanford, 1859:

(In Ramsgate)… a curious custom used to prevail called ‘going a hodening’, which consisted in singing carols, while a horse’s head (hoden) carved in wood was carried in procession; to the songs were added the ringing of hand-bells, and the snapping of the jaws of the hobby’.

Again, in 1861, mention is made of young men, grotesquely habited, on Christmas Eve, at Ramsgate and in the Isle of Thanet, come‘s hodening’ carrying a dead horses’s head upon a pole four feet long, snapping the jaws of the hoden together by pulling a string, while their mates ring hand-bells and sing carols.

And today?

On the Isle of Thanet in the town of Broadstairs, in the second full week of August, there is a Folk Festival that attracts a large number of people into the town. Figures vary as to the numbers but estimates place it as around 120,000, or the same number as the population of the Isle of Thanet! The festival symbol is The Hooden Horse, it being a unique traditional figure synonymous with the area. This has a black wooden head, with reflective eyes, leather ears and a snappy mouth, controlled by a string, which is used to collect money that falls into a small pouch concealed inside. The operative is shrouded in a black hop-sack to hide his identity. The operative wears black breeches, white socks and tagged garters. The Broadstairs Hooden Horse only appears during the week of the Broadstairs Folk Festival and this researcher believes there are 6, each of which has an official licence on the side of its head, stating ‘Official Beast’.

There are a number of revivalist Hoodeners in Kent, other than the team at Broadstairs Folk Festival.

Some have formed in the West, notably The Tonbridge Mummers and Hoodeners, formed in 1981, Ravensbourne Morris, in 1947, Hartley Morris, whose date is not listed, and Whitstable Hoodeners in 1980.

In East Kent, other sides are Birchington, Chislet, East Kent Morris, Sandgate and Sandling.

A Footnote

A footnote needs to be added for the Marsh Gate Inn, which holds a special fondness in this researcher's heart, being a hostelry that welcomed and promoted Folk events, especially its Boxing Day lunchtime Morris celebration. It has its own Hooden Horse, found in Hoath, close by, dated from 1900. So the demise of the Hooden Horse is not entire, and there are many Morris Sides who use farmed animal skulls in their sides, but it is good to see that this strange tradition, from a small, little-known Island on the South-East coast lives on.

1Morris dancing is a traditional form of dancing, performed in England, usually with six men, known as a side, with bells around the ankles, and handkerchiefs or sticks in their hands. They also have a uniform, often of white shirts, black or white knee breeches, and either a tabard or baldric, with rosettes and a hat. The latter is often bedecked with flowers and/or feathers and assorted 'trophy' badges. The origin of the tradition is still debated.

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