The secrets of the horsemen

The Clydesdale was the favoured breed of draught-horse in Buchan. Today Clydesdale horses stand between 16 and 18 hands, 163183 cm at the shoulder, and can weigh up to 1000 kg. In the past they were somewhat smaller, but they were always formidable, and had the potential to be very dangerous if mismanaged. They were usually worked in pairs, so the the potential danger was doubled. Ploughmen were famous for their abilities to govern their horses, and the common explanation was the magical effect of the Horseman's Word which whispered into its ear calmed and made the most recalcitrant horse amenable.

It seems that the Horseman's Word was mostly a misdirection: Horsemen used a variety of techniques to control the animals they governed (Lyon 2003). The anatomy of the head of a horse gives a clue to one of the main avenues for controlling the horse: a horse's head is mostly nose, and the sense of smell is extremely developed, evidence that olfactory stimuli are important in all aspects of the horse's behaviour from the finding of mates to the avoidance of predators. As well as the usual olfactory sense, horses also possess the vomeronasal organ which is connected by different neural pathways to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that controls reproductive behaviour directly, and with it the state of arousal of the animal.

The vomeronasal organ is affected by pheromones, chemicals exuded by horses, and other kinds of animals, as a consequence of their reproductive condition or of other states such as fear. A mare in oestrus exudes pheromones in her urine. The pheromones are detected by stallions in the Flehmen response in which the horse draws back its upper lip and exposes the sensors of the vomeronasal organ to the air. The effect of detecting the pheromones is to increase the arousal of the stallion directly.

In effect the horse has two distinct senses of smell, the usual one that we share with it, the one that alerts it to the presence of food, or enemies; the second one, shared by some other animals, but not by humans, alters its physiological state directly. By analogy, the second sense causes the horse to feel frisky, or quiet, or sexually aroused, automatically, caused by the pheromones, and without the horse smelling anything at all in the normal way.

Without understanding the physiological mechanisms of the senses of smell of the horse, by trial and error, the horsemen discovered naturally occuring aromatic substances that could affect the vomeronasal organ and influence the behaviour of horses and make them governable. The whispering of the Word was the pretext by which the horsemen could approach the horse closely and present a scent, often smeared on his own body or forehead, to influence the horse.

By using agents that influenced the horses' sense of smell horsemen could reist, a horse causing it to refuse to move forward, to leave its stall, to allow itself to be collared. Without apparently communicating he could draw the horses in a field to him. He could calm a wayward horse, bed down his pair at night, and manage horses with apparently magical efficiency not through the magic word, but through the lore, accumulated by generations of horsemen, and transmitted by the Society of the Horseman's Word. Much of this knowledge must, inevitably, have been lost to us with the departure of draught horses from daily use in farms; that which is recorded is largely due to those of the last generation of horseman who broke their oath to keep secret from all outsiders the mysteries of the Society of the Horseman's Word; and we can be grateful to them, and glad that they did.

(Revision date: Wednesday 31st October 2012)