A strange phenomenon has been sweeping through rural Britain, creating alarm in stables and meadows up and down the country. Small plaits are being found in the manes of horses.
The plaits set the online forum of Horse and Hound magazine buzzing with speculation about who could have been out at night, catching sometimes intractable horses and bothering to braid a few strands of their manes, an activity which at first seemed as innocuous as it was inexplicable. However, Devon and Cornwall police took a more suspicious view, suggesting that the little plaits were ‘tags’ inserted by thieves. “Similar incidents,” they said, had “occurred throughout the counties where horses are likely to be followed by the criminals returning at a later date and stealing the affected horses.” The public was urged to be vigilant and to report instances of plaiting. Reports duly arrived from places as far apart as east Hertfordshire and St Just in Cornwall, while horse owners in west Dorset and Somerset were waking almost daily to find that plaits had appeared in the manes of their horses.
This particular police theory gained momentum when a horse was reported as stolen from the Guildford area in Surrey and then found abandoned outside the port of Holyhead, with a plait in its mane. But the initial panic this caused among some Horse and Hound readers was quickly followed by incredulity. One post pointed out that in an incident in Portardawe, Swansea, the so-called taggers must have gone through a yard, “past the owner’s house to the stables in front of the house, all without waking the three dobermans!!!!” Others wondered why these ‘thieves’ preferred painstakingly to tag horses with plaits when it would have been somewhat easier, and more reliable from a thieving point of view, to photograph them.
However, according to a posting by the ‘Official Horse Watch’, it turned out that there had been no theft of a horse in Guildford. Someone was simply stoking hysteria. In fact, there have been no reported thefts of ‘tagged’ horses. But the plaits are still appearing. What can they be and where do they come from?
Confident postings soon appeared on the forum, attributing the plaits to natural causes, such as the action of wind and of entangling brambles and such. Howls of protest ensued: no one whose horse’s mane had actually been plaited doubted that the plait was artfully and intelligently wrought. “My husband… spent a good 20 minutes trying to brush it out and couldn’t; the yard manager and I then spent 30 minutes unweaving it,” reported one indignant rider. “We were confused as to how it could have been woven the way it was. After doing all that, I still had to cut her mane; it was clear someone had plaited it”.
“When one of my horses’ manes was plaited,” Harriet Laurie told West Dorset’s Bridport News (3 Dec 2009), “it took me some time to unpick and the wind had whipped it into a sort of dreadlock, but underneath were three strands neatly plaited.” Moreover, one of the plaited horses was “very hard to catch and was very flighty and was wearing a full rug…” Ms Laurie knows of “about 12 horses that have had it done”.
What do the Dorset police say? Sergeant John Bleasdale of Bridport threw his hat into the ring: “The fact that we have experienced plaiting in October coincides with Pagan rituals,” he is quoted in the Marshwood Vale as saying. “I would also stress that we have not had any horses reported stolen as yet, and therefore this would support the Pagan theory.” PC Tim Poole, quoted on the Isle of Man website, is more hesitant: “There doesn’t seem to be any pattern, but we’d love to get to the bottom of it.” He adds that he has had ‘intelligence’ from the Avon and Somerset police that mane-plaiting is a gypsy trick which, says PC Poole – clearly a fair man – “it may or may not have been.” He then plays his ace: “But we have some very good information from a warlock that this is part of white magic ritual and is to do with ‘knot magick’… the fact that this rash of plaiting coincides with one of their ceremonial times of year adds weight to the theory.” One posting even commends the stoicism of the witches, who would have had to brave electrified fences around remote fields in high winds and lashing rain in total darkness – all to plait the manes of horses which were frequently difficult to manage at the best of times. Echoing the policemen, Ms Laurie – who is web mistress for the Shipton Riding Club – remarks that some of its worried members “have mentioned Satanic ritual”, while others have asserted “that this is what gypsies do to identify horses they later want to come back and steal”. No gypsy, it seems, has been consulted on the truth or otherwise of these claims; but ‘pagan witch’ Phil Robinson was. He was justifiably gloomy: “Some people play at Satanism and this may be related to people messing about, but it is worrying if people think it is related to paganism – we have a bad enough press as it is.”
As with ‘panics’ down the ages, all the usual suspects are present and correct: people who are ordinary, but hoaxers or ‘thieves’; people who are outsiders, such as gypsies; people who are extraordinary, such as witches or ‘Satanists’. The next step is supernatural – I expect to hear of funny lights hovering over fields where plaiting has taken place. There was also an intriguing paragraph in the Marshwood Vale citing a report from “a member of the public in Somerset” who described “some well-dressed Irish men in a silver people carrier… visiting properties to sell various things or offer services… They are well-known horse thieves targeting horse owners, stealing their trailers and using them to steal horses.” Is it me, or do such ‘Irish men’ begin to sound a bit like the Men in Black of UFO lore, with their shiny limousines? Or, better perhaps, the old Bogus Social Workers – vaguely menacing strangers who turn up in the vicinity of nefarious goings-on, but who are unfailingly ineffective.
A small, thoughtful voice on the Horse and Hound forum belonged to one Robin Bellamy: mane-braiding, he noted, has been associated in North America with Bigfoot or Sasquatch. Plaits appear in horses’ manes where one of these creatures has been sighted and where their footprints are found nearby. Lisa A Shiel claims exactly the same thing, according to a review of her book Backyard Bigfoot. Meanwhile, in South rather than North America, a smaller creature has been credited with mane-braiding. In 1925, an English schoolteacher called Aime F Tschiffely (I’m saying nothing), was travelling on horseback from Buenos Aires to North America. One morning in the Columbian (sic) Andes he noticed that one of his two horses had its mane plaited. “I tried to undo it,” he wrote in Tschiffely’s Ride, “but found it tightly knotted. I asked the boy, Victor” – this was his Ecuadorian mozo (“boy” or servant) – “if he knew anything about this or if he had done it, and he immediately told me ‘El Duende’ had been with the horses during the night… It appears that El Duende… is a dwarf who lives in deep canyons and desolate valleys, where he can often be heard crying like a baby or, when he is in boisterous mood, making noises rivalling thunder. Natives firmly believe that he is very fond of horseback riding; but being so small, is unable to sit on the horses’ back, so he sits on the animal’s neck, making stirrups by plaiting the mane in such a way as to be able to put his feet in it.”  Duende is a complex and untranslatable word, but one of its meanings is what we would call ‘fairy’.
We need not, of course, travel to the New World to find precedents for mane-plaiting. Shakespeare would have been in no doubt as to who is responsible:
… that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night
as Mercutio mentions in Romeo and Juliet (I, iii, 88–9). More usually, however, it was not Mab, Queen of the Fairies, herself who was responsible, but one of her humbler subjects. But there is no mention in our modern accounts of the horses being tired and sweaty in the morning, as if they had been ridden during the night – a common feature of fairy lore, this, and something horse owners might look out for.
The fairy who is perhaps most persistently associated with mane-plaiting is the lutin of Normandy. “He takes great care of the horses, gallops them at times and lutines their manes, i.e. elfs or plaits and twists them in an inexplicable manner,” writes Thomas Keightley in The Fairy Mythology Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries (1870). The folklorist Gary R Butler has noticed that lutins went over with the French settlers to Newfoundland where they “stole horses at night and braided their manes”. 
Some of our modern horse owners seem to be ignorant of elementary precautions. What on Earth are horseshoes put up over stable doors for, if not to protect the animals from joyriding – and no doubt mane-plaiting – by the iron-hating fairies? There are other methods too, which vary from county to county: a helpful Horse and Hound posting tells us that in Herefordshire fairies were kept away from the horses by a birch tree, decorated with red and white rags, and leant up against the stable door. The one thing you mustn’t do, according to the French-Newfoundland tradition, is undo the fairy plait. It brings very bad luck. Shakespeare agreed:
This is that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes…
So, memo to Pony Clubs everywhere: just leave those plaits alone, eh?
1 Quoted in Bacil (sic) F Kirtley: “Unknown Hominids and New Word Legends” in Western Folklore, vol xxiii, April 1964, no 2.
2 Butler’s essay is in Peter Narváez, ed: The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (New York, 1991).