Hooden Horses are a purely East Kent tradition. They were recorded during the last part of the last century but only in the area to the east of a line from Folkestone to Whitstable. They were associated with the carters and ploughmen on the farms during the period before Christmas. They would make up a wooden representation of a horses head on a pole about 4 feet long. The lower jaw would be hinged and operated by a pull cord that would make the jaws slap together. Suspended from the head was a hessian covering which covered both the pole and the operator who would have to adopt a very bent posture so that the horse had a proper back. The long pole assisted in this as it rested on the floor and gave the poor man some respite.
The carters etc would take the animal around the big houses of the parish just before Christmas. They would be accompanied by a series of characters including a Carter to control the horse, who was often extremely unruly, not to say malevolent, a rider and a betsy (man dressed as a woman). A short play or performance followed. Whether it was done because it was "traditional" or because it was a good way of getting money and drink at a time when work was often short, is difficult to say but collect they certainly did.
"If ye the hooden horse does feed
throughout the year thou shall not need"
This was extremely well documented by a local historian by the name of Percy Maylem in 1909, who realised that the tradition was dying out and set out to record as much information as possible as possible. He even set up photographic sessions of all the teams still in existence. To ensure that the information was preserved he published all the information in a book using the best possible archival techniques which means that the books are as good as the day they were produced.
The photos of the horses Maylem was able to find between 1904 an 1909 can be seen here
The fate that Maylem predicted soon overtook the Hoodeners and little was heard about them until just before WWII when a copy of the horse from Sarre appeared at a Folk Dance Festival at Aylesham in Kent. (This horse was apparently adopted by Ravensbourne Morris Men in 1947). In the early 50's several of the old horses were discovered and there was a lot of interest in the local Folklore Society. Barnett and Olive Field who at that time were members of the local International Folk Dance Group investigated the tradition and found an example of an old horse at Walmer(now in Folkestone Museum) but not much else. He constructed a copy of the horse from Deal which had been shown in Maylam's book. This made its appearence at the 1953 Coronation celebrations in Folkestone. It soon became associated with East Kent Morris as well as the local handbell ringers.
In 1959 a second horse was constructed by two members of the side, (Arthur Hunt-Cook who constructed it and Derek Usher who did the carving) which was christened Invicta after the emblem of Kent. He has a white, much more horse-like head than the traditional Hooden Horse which is normally brown and flat sided. He has been accompanying EKMM ever since. These days he has adopted a much more upright gait as he is more inclined to dance with the men as well as collect. He has become known in recent years for his attraction to the Mayors of East Kent. Personally I think its because he's a stallion who can't spell!
Over the last 45 years there has been a massive increase in the number of Hooden Horses in Kent including at St Nicolas at Wade In 1998 when The Whitstable Hoodeners performed at the Ship Inn at Sandgate at a Wake for Martin McKenna of Sandgate Hoodeners they ended up with 3 horses in the play. (Their own, The Sandgate horse and Invicta.)
East Kent Morris Men can be contacted via The Bagman Roger Bryan on 01303 268290 or The Squire Pete Thomas on 01233 637705 or on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sandgate Hoodeners can be contacted via Doug Quinney.on 01303 275258
St Nicolas at Wade can be contacted at St Nicolas at Wade
There are similar tradition in various parts of Europe. See for example the Lajkoning from Poland. Mari Llwyd in Wales and Padstow Obby OssThere are more pictures of this years celebrations (2002) at padstow here T
This page continues to grow and any comments or feedback would be very welcome.
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Page Updated on 21st April 2000