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Poor Old Horse

[ Roud 513 ; Master title: Poor Old Horse ; TYG 60 ; Ballad Index ShH85 ; VWML CJS2/10/2583 , TFO/1/31/33/1 ; Bodleian Roud 513 ; GlosTrad Roud 513 ; Wiltshire 661 , 663 , 933 ; Mudcat 9960 ; trad.]

This ceremonial song is from Cecil Sharp’s Folk Song for England. A shanty with the same name, Poor Old Horse, is Roud 3724.

Shirley Collins recorded a two-verse fragment of Poor Old Horse in her two-day session in London in 1958 for her 1960 LP False True Lovers. She and Alan Lomax noted:

[This] is a landlubber relative of the familiar sea shanty:

Say, old man, your horse will die,
And I say so and I hope so,
And if he dies I’ll sell his skin,
Poor old horse.

There can be no doubt that the land-variant, which Sharp found as a part of the hobby-horse drama in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire, is older by far. The hobby horse, an important actor in British springtime ceremonies, is a fantastic and sometimes terrifying mask which covers the entire body of the dancer. The horse-dancer goes the round of the community, often on May Day, alternately dying and being revived by his companions, symbolising the death of the old year, and of the fertility of the earth. These spring-time antics of the hobby-horse, which still amuse tourists in certain remote districts of western England, are a genuine survival of ancient pagan fertility rites. That a horse-mask dances in Britain on May Day is one more evidence of the importance of the horse-cult, widespread in all Europe thousands of years ago. Therefore, this charming little comic fragment, which Sharp had taught to all the school children in Britain, is a gentle breath of a pagan fertility rite that once upon a time was a compound of magic, religion, comedy and sex.

Dave and Toni Arthur sang Poor Old Horse in 1969 on their Topic album The Lark in the Morning. They noted:

Frank Kidson declared in his usual categoric way, that Poor Old Horse is a purely humanitarian view of the fate of old worn-out horses. But in fact, in at least three counties, in Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, and Wiltshire the song was an integral part of the Christmas Ritual performed by parties of mummers, with one of their number disguised roughly as a horse. Celebrated in Kent is the Hooden Horse, banned in 1834 for creating havoc among the elderly people, but now resurrected, (it accompanies the East Kent and Ravensbourne Morris Men). The notion of the sacred luck-bringing, even world-creating horse (or bull, ram or billy-goat) is spread throughout the primitive world. In Britain, the ancient Celts had their horse-rituals, and the idea was reinforced by invading Norsemen. There are still plenty of evidences to be seen, from the great Uffington White Horse to the fiery, fecund, May-day Padstow ’oss in Cornwall. Minehead has its town hobbyhorse, and in Wales at Midwinter the baleful Mari Llwyd appears with the dancer carrying a beribboned horse’s skull. In Cheshire, the mild-eyed souling horses of Antrobus are famous. Not forgetting the horse-headed man engraved on a bone, found in Pinhole Cave, Derbyshire, the only palaeolithic representation of a human figure discovered in England. The words sung here are from Alfred Williams’ Folk-Songs of the Upper Thames. The tune was sung at the Westmorland Festival of 1902 by a Mr Barber, and noted by Frank Kidson, one of the Folk Song Competition judges. It appears in Folk Song Journal No. 5.

Roy Harris sang Poor Owd ’Oss in 1972 on his Topic album The Bitter and the Sweet. A.L. Lloyd noted:

All over Europe at Midwinter the animal guisers come out, one disguised as a totemic beast—goat, ram, deer, horse, stork even—surrounded by a rowdy company of raggletaggle dancers, singers and noisemakers, down-at-heel descendants of the ancient animal gods and their attendant spirits. They sing for good luck and the price of a pint outside the cottage windows. The theory that the custom is originally Scandinavian is unconvincing. Wales has been great on horse-guising. See too Nottinghamshire, where Miss M.H. Mason collected the basis of Roy Harris’s version (he added bits from Miss C. Freeman. of Cuckney, Notts, who remembers the custom from her childhood, attached to a Christmastide folk play, and who provided the form of the opening dialogue). Detached from custom, the song has had a brisk life on innumerable broadsides, and has even turned up in the form of a sea-shanty.

Muckram Wakes sang Poor Old Horse in 1983 on their Trailer album A Map of Derbyshire. They noted:

S.O. Addy, in a paper entitled Guising and Mumming in Derbyshire published in the Journal of the Derbyshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, 1907, writes: “In various places in North Derbyshire such as Norton, Eckington and Dronfield, a number of men used to go round with ‘the old horse’ on Christmas Eve. The body of the man who represented the horse was covered with cloth or tarpaulin, and the horse’s head was made of wood, the mouth being opened by strings. When the men reached the door of a house, the ‘horseman’ got under the tarpaulin and they began to sing.”

Then follows a prose conversation among the mummers. The conclusion is that the horse gets a new lease of life and attempts to worry a blacksmith who is called upon to shoe him. Addy adds, “I have been told by an old man in Eckington that, formerly, the mummers used to find out where an old horse was buried and dig its head up.”

Similar customs exist in Yorkshire, according to Henderson, Folklore of the Northern Counties, where the Christmas mummers carry with them an image of a white horse, and in Lancashire where the horse is known as “Old Ball” and is performed at Easter. One dictionary definition of ball is “a white-faced horse”. Easter performance could have been a 12th-century throwback, when the Anglican Church began their year on 25 March.

The horse was intended to personify the aged and changing year. The year, like a worn-out horse, had become old and decrepit, and as it ends the horse dies but is resurrected again. Repeating the horse from house to house suggests that it was a piece of magic intended to bring welfare to the people in the coming year.

Ancient races could not be sure that the setting sun would rise again, neither a new year would follow an old.

Ian Giles sang Poor Old Horse, with words collected by Alfred Williams and a tune by Tom Bower, on Magpie Lane’s 1994 Beautiful Jo album Speed the Plough.

Cockersdale sang Poor Old Horse in 1998 on their Fellside CD Wide Open Skies. They noted:

Another of the songs which we learned for [Sid Kipper’s ‘Lateral History Programme’ for BBC Radio 2]; this one was found by Graham [Pirt] from the Northumbrian tradition. Although there are variants of this song found around the country the tune of this version is very characteristic of those found in other Northumbrian songs.

John Kirkpatrick et al sang Poor Old Horse on the Folkworks project and subsequent 1998 Fellside CD Wassail!. He noted:

This song was originally attached to a Christmas play—The Old Horse Play—that was reasonably widespread at the turn of the century in Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and has still not entirely died out. Ceremonial performances of the song, with a horse’s skull suitably decorated, can be found to this day in North Yorkshire. In the last verse the singer holding the skull kneels down to symbolise the death of the horse. As with the wren, we take the horse’s strength to keep us going through the coming year.

The song was taken up and widely distributed by broadside printers, so that it has been found all over the country even where the accompanying play is quite unknown. This is a jumble of some of the many variants.

Calennig sang Poor Old Horse in 2000 on their WildGoose CD A Gower Garland, released in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of Phil Tanner’s death. They noted:

Horse’s Head customs were known across Gower (see Brandy’s Song on the same album). This version comes from Mumbles, where the Bowden family have kept their Head for 140 years. It used to go out regularly in the week before Christmas, and was back on the streets again at Christmas 1999 after several lean years in which Len Bowden found it difficult to raise voices for a choir. The Mumbles Horse also makes an appearance at special local events, beautifully decorated by Len’s wife Lorna. Mick [Tems] learned the song from Len’s mother, Marjory Bowden, in 1976, five years before her death.

Crucible sang Old Horse in 2005 on their WildGoose CD Crux. They noted:

We absorbed Old Horse over many a well-oiled late night session in the company of Dr Simon Heywood. This version was collected from a traveller by East Yorkshire singer and fiddler Jim Eldon.

Pete Castle sang Poor Old Horse as the title track of his 2006 CD Poor Old Horse. He noted:

Collected by S.O. Addy c.1888 in Sheffield / North Derbyshire [VWML TFO/1/31/33/1] . The Christmas play to which this used to be attached was found nationwide. It’s closely related to, and sometimes muddled with, the Derby Ram / Old Tup.

Kate Rusby sang Poor Old Horse in 2008 on her CD Sweet Bells.

Pete Coe sang Poor Old Horse on his 2010 CD Backbone. He noted:

In South Yorkshire, North Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire there’s a Christmas play “The Old Horse”. It’s a brief, riotous visiting ceremony, the horse often being made from the skull of a real horse painted red and black, killed and brought back to life. The song also circulated independently from the ritual, and this version is based on the one collected by Cecil Sharp in 1904 at Langport, Somerset, from C. Shire who appropriately, was a blacksmith. I’ve added a few bars of the old music hall tune Down the Road, “… woe mare, woe mare, you’ve earned your little bit of corn.”

Andy Turner learned Poor Old Horse from Maud Karpeles’ book of English folk songs collected by Cecil Sharp, The Crystal Spring. He sang it as the 22 September 2013 entry of his blog A Folk Song a Week.

This video shows Jon Loomes singing Poor Old Horse in January 2015, a version he learned from the singing of Jim Eldon:

Lucy Farrell sang lead vocals on Poor Old Horse on The Furrow Collective’s 2015 EP Blow Out the Moon. She noted:

I was drawn to Poor Old Horse in Songs of Man by Norman and Stracke initially because of the byline: “Humans are not the only creatures who are maudlin. Here is a case of ‘equine self pity’.”

Rakoczy sang Poor Old Horse in 2020 on her Talking Cat album Frontrunner, an exploration of the image of the horse in British folklore. It was recorded by the above mentioned Jon Loomes. She noted:

Collected by Jim Eldon from singers at Appleby horse fair, and part of the rich song tradition of British Travellers. Not necessarily a song about horses.

Ellie Gowers sang Poor Old Horse on her 2022 album Dwelling by the Weir. She noted:

Since the age of 13, my weekends have been spent helping out with horses. One in particular, Thomas, is currently thriving at the age of 38. He’s a grumpy, stubborn, very cheeky, chap; always on the look out for food. A song about equine self-pity and old-age fragility, this was inspired by one of the songs collected by Cecil Sharp when he visited Ilmington in the early 20th century.

Martin Carthy also used three Poor Old Horse verses for the song Old Horse on his 1982 album Out of the Cut.


Shirley Collins sings Poor Old Horse

My clothing was once of a linsey-woolsey fine,
My mane it was sleek and my body it did shine.
But now I’m getting old and I’m going to decay,
Me master frowns upon me and thus they all do say,
“Poor old horse.”

My living was once to the best of corn and hay
As ever grew in England, and that they all did say.
But now there’s no such comfort as I can find at all.
I’m forced to nab the short grass that grows against the wall,
“Poor old horse.”

John Kirkpatrick sings Poor Old Horse

Oh, it’s a poor old horse that’s come knocking at your door,
And if you please to let me in I’ll serve you well, I’m sure;
But me legs are late so low from running so many a mile,
Over hedges, over ditches, over gates and over stiles,
Poor old horse.

Once I was a young horse and in me youthful pride,
Me mane hung over me shoulder and me body did brightly shine.
But now I’ve grown so old, me natures does decay,
Me master he looks down on me and this I’ve heard him say,
Poor old horse.

Once all my feeding was the best of corn and hay
That e’er grew in the corn fields or in the meadows gay;
But now I’ve grown so old and scarcely can I crawl,
I’m forced to snap at the shortest grass that grows along the wall,
Poor old horse.

Once all in the stable I was kept so fine and warm,
To keep my limbs from aching and to keep me free from harm;
But now I’ve grown so old, to the fields I have to go,
Let it hail or rain or sunshine, let the wind blow high or low,
Poor old horse.

Oh you’ve eaten all my hay and you spoiled all my straw,
You’re neither fit to ride upon nor neither fit to draw,
You are old, you are cold, you are lazy, dull and slow,
So he’ll hang him, whip him, stick him, to the hounds will let him go,
Poor old horse.

Oh, my hooves are now so hollow that were once so smooth and hard,
And my legs were scarcely carrying me bones into the nearest yard;
And my hide to the huntsman so freely will I give,
And my body for the hounds for I’ll rather die than live,
Poor old horse, poor old horse,
Poor old horse, let him die!

Kate Rusby sings Poor Old Horse

We’ve got a poor old horse,
He’s standing at your door,
And if you’ll only let him in,
He’ll please you all I’m sure,
He’ll please you all I’m sure.

Now that he’s grown old
And nature doth decay,
My master frowns upon him now,
These words I’ve heard him say,
These words I’ve heard him say.

Now that he’s grown old
And scarcely can he crawl,
He’s forced to eat the coarsest grass
That grows against the wall,
That grows against the wall.

This poor horse was once young,
And in his youthful prime
My master used to ride on him,
He thought him very fine,
He thought him very fine.