The Hobby Horse

“I recently read an article recanting a story of a group of Padstow fishermen who were caught out in a terrible storm and how the poor souls were driven by gale force winds up through the Bristol Channel. The tale goe’s on to say that they made landfall at Minehead and were promptly taken in by the kindly folk of Quay town (now known as Quay Street in Minehead). After being dried, warmed and revitaled they stayed a while in the town and were witness to the annual ceremony of the ‘Hoss’. So impressed were they by this spectacle that on returning to Padstow they started they’re own hobby Horse tradition. And so today the parading of the Padstow horse has become a yearly event for which the whole village and many visitors turn out in celebration. They’re may be some truth in this fable or it maybe just a fiction, and who knows may be the Padstow Horse is a nod to the kindly folk of Minehead for looking after Padstow’s shipwrecked sons”.

This is an old May Day custom from the Quay, Minehead, Somerset, which has continued for hundreds of years. The custom is so old that there is no accururate record of its commencement. In fact, the origin is lost in mists of time. The Sailors Hobby Horse comes out on the eve of May Day, and for the first three days of the month dances and frolics freely around the streets. It attracts considerable interest locally and further afield. The Horse’s frame is made from withy sticks lashed together with tarred cord into the shape of a boat with a dome shaped head and a tin painted face. A mast is made fast to the head and spliced to the after end is a length of rope with a cows tail made fast. The whole frame, head and rope tail is covered with brightly coloured ribbons and attached and draped to the ground from the frame are sacks – brightly painted with different coloured rings. This is the so called ‘Horse’. The Horse weighs about one hundred weight. It is carried by one man and dances to the sound of melodions and drums, and if folk fail to give the ‘Horse’ a coin the ‘Horse’ aims its tail at them. The Sailors ‘Horse’ is accompanied by a drum which has a date inside it which dates back to the seventeenth century. It is legend that the original intention of the ‘Horse’ was to scare away Danes and others from the coast as invaders. It is an important custom that the ‘Horse’ proceeds from the Quay over the hill through Minehead Old Town, known as higher town, to arrive at white cross at 6 AM on May 1st. It is legend that on that day and at that time a Dane was killed there. Also on this day it is a custom for the ‘Horse’ to proceed to to Dunster Castle where the May Queen is crowned. On the third night there is a booting at Cher steps, on the outskirts of Minehead, when victims are caught in the street and are booted ten times by the heavy fore bow of the ‘Horse’ while being held by the arms and legs by two members of the crew. There is then a further penalty of the victim to dance with the ‘Horse’ while avoiding being lashed by the tail. The booting is then repeated in Wellington Square, in the centre of town, and it is here that the old ‘Horse’ takes his final bow of the festive season and after a light refreshment returns to his stable at the Quay until the following May Day eve. By invitation the ‘Horse’ and its attendants have appeared twice at the Royal Albert Hall, London, – The Commonwealth Institute, London, The Universities of London and Exeter, two of the World trade fairs, at Brussels in Belgium and Olympia in London, the television programme ‘Pebble Mill at one’ from Birmingham and the Assembly Rooms, Derby. The spectacle has also been filmed for television and other purposes on numerous occasions. Why not come to Minehead next May Day and see for yourself? Those connected to the ‘Horse’ give their services freely and money collected and donations received are disbursed to Minehead Mencap and the Minehead Branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

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