After what feels like years of attending schooling shows, mastering those lower level tests, you’ve finally decided that you’re ready. You’re feeling confident about your ability to not embarrass yourself at the rated shows, so you’re going to do it – you’re going to join the United States Dressage Federation, and you’re going to start working towards your medals.
You submitted an application to join, and it seemed easy enough. But one night, as you’re about to lay your head down to sleep, you see it. There’s an envelop on your pillow. How did that get there? You left your mail in a giant pile on your dining room table, you don’t bring it into the bedroom. You reach out to quickly swat it away, but you notice its surprising lightness. Curious now, you open it up. Inside, is a single thick, black hair. A horse hair.
After some quick whispers with your barn friends, you find out it’s an invitation to be initiated. You’re been accepted into the USDF, but you must complete the rituals. You asked what they are, but no one will answer.
You do find out what you’re supposed to do, though. At the strike of midnight, you enter the dressage arena at A, this time without a horse. You proceed up center line, and halt at X, setting down your offering of wine. There, you wait.
A commanding voice booms out from the darkness, telling you to close your eyes. You do, and you hear shuffling around you. Moments later, you are blindfolded.
Chanting begins around you. “All King Edwards Horses Carried Many Brave Fighters.” It’s repeated over and over. Then it abruptly halts, and the commanding voice begins peppering you with questions.
“Describe tracking up.”
“At what level can a double-bridle be used?”
“What is the best numerical score a rider can receive?
You answer them as fast as you can, your voice shaking with nerves. Finally, the questions stop.
“Well done, initiate. But now the final part. You must swear an oath to dressage’s greatest powers.”
After a brief pause, your blindfold is tugged off, and in front of you is a giant framed poster of Charlotte Dujardin, riding Valegro.
“Don’t touch it, I had it autographed,” says the masked rider holding it. “You must now swear to the highest power that you will keep our secrets of dressage. You will promise to keep them safe, and then you will receive the power.”
You nod, and recite the vows, bonding you to dressage forever. The group around you nods enthusiastically.
You are then handed a folded paper, with the key to dressage contained on it. After a moment, you open it, hands trembling, to find out what the secret to dressage is.
On the paper, poorly printed from an image clearly found on google, is the training scale. The watermark of the website is still stamped over it.
“You have the power now!” The groups cheers around you, drinking wine and pulling out their small portable coolers for snacks.
The Horseman’s Word
It sounds like fiction, but it’s based on truth. There was an actual secret society of horseman, called The Horseman’s Word. Secret societies were popular (and possibly not so secret) after the success of one of the most well known, the Freemasons. They were started as a craft guild for stone masons, but over time filled with aristocrats and artists, becoming a fashionable society of political movements, gossip, and rituals. With the popularity of the Freemasons, many new groups were formed, copying their basic structure, and, of course, their many rituals.
The Horseman’s Word was one of these groups. It was started as a labor union for plowmen in northern Scotland. It was formed in the 1830’s, as draft horses took over from oxen in being the primary working farm animal. With the rise of the draft horse, there was an immediate need for men who could control these huge horses.
The organization was formed like many labor unions – they wanted to protect the craft, receive fair wages, and ensure they would be cared for when they could no longer work. They promised their members were highly qualified to work the plow. And, of course, they wanted to protect their own interests as best they could. Plowmen didn’t own the horses, the harnesses, or the land. They wanted secure positions, without worrying about being replaced by the next random person who said they could drive a plow.
So the Horseman’s Word portrayed themselves as a mystical organization that contained secret powers over horses. They let people believe that they alone had the secrets to controlling horses. They put on a good show, too. They would have demonstrations were they were able to completely halt horses in their tracks, unable to move until they were released from the spell. They were able to tame unruly horses, and control them with just a whisper. They had strange rituals that were frightening to outsiders. To many people, they did seem to be magical.
Since this did actually work pretty well for a while, consider that maybe this is a pretty solid strategy. Perhaps you could get ahead in your own career by saying you have magic powers and doing a few demonstrations? Just a thought.
The primary ritual was the initiation, which was similar to the fictional dressage story. Plowmen would be invited to initiate by finding a single horse hair on their pillow. They would go to a remote barn or field in darkness for the ceremony, and be blindfolded. There would be a master of the ceremony to lead, asking questions, or leading in oaths to the organization.
There was a religious aspect, too, although it was really more anti-religion. Initiatives might have to read passages from the bible backwards. They would swear an oath to Lucifer, and shake his coven hoof, which sometimes was a goat’s leg, but other times represented by a branch covered in fur.
Everyone there was reminded of the punishment that awaited them if they spilled the secrets of the organization or broke their vows. And then the initiate would get the ultimate secret: the word that gave them the power over all horses.
Then it was time to party. Drinking, songs, jokes and toasts were all heavy parts of their get togethers.
At the end of the night, the initiate would be given an oatcake, with instructions to sleep with it in his armpit. In the morning, he could feed it to a horse, and it would grant him power over the horse.
Having control over horses was a big part of their mystical appeal. They created potions that gave them power over horses, made out of things like dead shoats and herbs.
It’s hard to say what other rituals they had, as there were no records of their meetings, and no officials would ever go on record to answer questions.
So what exactly was going on here? Did these ploughmen actually have some mystical ability that gave them greater control over horses?
Well, the truth of it may either disappoint or provide assurance – There was no magic involved – their abilities were simply based on understanding horses, meaning anyone who took the time to learn about horses would have their powers.
The “Word,” which was said to have the secret to horses, was reportedly “Eno,” which is simply “One,” spelled backwards. Their secret was to be one with the horse – to understand it on all levels, to emphasize with it, and treat it as their teammate. They believed horses would only work for them if they acted together, as one.
Without betraying any secret, it may be said that the real philosophy of the horseman’s word, consists in the thorough, careful, and kind treatment of the animals, combined with a reasonable amount of knowledge of their anatomical and physiological structure.Former Ploughman, author of “Eleven Years at Farm Work: Being a true tale of Farm Servant Life (1879)
That may be well and good for the plowing, but what of the supernatural feats? How did they stop horses in their tracks, unable to move forward?
Most of these magical tricks are said to have been caused by a horse’s sense of smell. In a technique called “Jading,” a foul smelling substance was placed in front of, or on the horse itself, which would make the horse refuse to move forward. I haven’t seen anyone try this, ever, so I have no idea if this actually works or not.
They also did the opposite, by using sweet smelling things to bring horses to them, a technique that most owners are familiar with. Bribing our horses into loving us is a time honored tradition.
Other mystical happens had much more ordinary realities. Often uninitiated plowmen would be having difficulties with their horses, being unable to control them at all, and the organization would promise they had the secret. But the real secret was that older members had been putting tacks in that horse’s harness, causing it to be in pain every time it was asked to work. After joining the organization, the horses would miraculously start behaving.
The Eventual Decline
In our world, it might be hard to imagine these men being viewed as mystical, but back then, literacy rates weren’t high, and knowledge of horses was passed much slower, only from person to person, and not in vast, consumable vessels like books or the internet. But as literacy rates grew, horsemanship knowledge also grew, and The Word did start using books from well known horseman at the time to supplement their knowledge.
The organization spread throughout Scotland and into parts of England, but it was not as popular there. The group gradually became more of a men’s club, less focused specifically on plowing, and more on just the general well being of their members. In 1930’s, when tractors replaced the horse-drawn plow, the group began to dwindle.
The last known official activity of the group was in the 1990’s, existing simply as secret society for horse lovers. Does it still exist now? There’s no way of knowing unless someone steps forward.
Nowadays, we have plenty of different horse societies, but not quite at the level of claiming magical powers over horses – although who’s to say they don’t exist, because they might just be secret. Or, maybe they have a public facing side, and then a super secret, invitation only, doubly secret mystical side, too. I’m looking at you, United States Dressage Federation. I base this on absolutely nothing, but they totally seem like they’d be up to something magical that they are keeping hidden.
What do you think? What organization do you think has a secret side, and why do you think it’s the USDF?