Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Old Horsey Terms

Studs, Mares, and Horses

by Sue Millard


You think you know this one, don’t you? So did I, and I was wrong.

I understood this word to mean a collection of horses. A stud could mean mares and a stallion for breeding purposes – “It was said of one sportsman that he came to Cheltenham with a wife and a stud of ten horses, and left it with ten children and his stud down to one – but the devil of a rider still!” (from Malcolm MacDonald’s novel about Victorian England, Abigail). Or else it was a stable full of riding horses. In North America the term “stud” often means just the male horse, a stallion – and also in “stud colt”, a juvenile male.

Consequently I was very surprised when I read in the Oxford English Dictionary that “stod” in Old English was a gender-neutral term that could mean any horse, and certainly not just a male. It comes from the Scandinavian roots of English; and in modern German Stute means a mare! There is an old farm in Cumbria not far from where I live that is called “Studfold” – an enclosed field where a herd of mares was kept. “Stud” is recorded around 1000AD as the group term for a number of horses in single ownership, or kept in one place.


Having given my understanding of the “stud” a considerable whack, the Oxford English Dictionary repeated the trick when I looked up “mare”. This is an even older term that is, you guessed it, another gender-neutral term for a horse, and so, again, not exclusively the female. If you have read the Lord of the Rings, you may recall Gandalf being told that the grey horse Shadowfax is “one of the mearas”. Tolkien was using Old English, as he did with quite a lot of other words that he gave to the Rohirrim. I’m quite sure he was familiar with Beowulf, where there are lines about mearas being led through the feasting hall in decorated headgear – possibly similar to this earlier celtic style face protection:
http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/17/02/4e/17024eb4991b8bf1b987cc9105d1f903.jpg .  It took several centuries, through to the end of the 16th century, for the word mare to become standard usage for a female horse or pony.


By now you can probably guess with confidence that this is another generic term, and indeed I think most non-equestrians would still use it that way today. It’s from Common Germanic and Old Saxon, and it pops up in lots of northern English placenames. Several Cumbrian villages owe their names to this Viking word: Rosthwaite means a clearing for a horse and Rosgill is the little valley of the horse. There’s another clue in the fact that both are pronounced locally with the unvoiced S sound, not the Z we hear in the word roses.

Most of the Fell pony breeders in northern England still call their animals “hosses” rather than ponies – “pony” is a term that, having only appeared in the mid 17th century, is comparatively modern! But “hoss” lives on!

I’ve already talked about Coursers, Palfreys, Rouncies and Destriers on EHFA, but let’s have a look at Capalls and Nags.


Latin has donated the word caballus – a horse, mare or hack – to several languages in Europe. Icelandic has kapall, Manx has cabbyl, Irish has capall, capull (but apparently not in Old Irish), Breton has caval; Welsh has ceffyl, and Cornish cevil, kevil, keffyl. I’m sure Richard Nankivell, the “Old Horse” who broadcasts on Radio Cumbria, is aware that his Cornish name means “Horse Valley”. These word variants seem to have come into each language direct from Latin, and not from each other as sometimes happens. In English the term is not recorded until the late 13th C, c1290 Land Cokaygne Hors, no capil, kowe, no ox; and a little later, in 1362, Langland’s Piers Plowman Þenne Concience on his Capul Carieth forþ Faste. (Then Conscience on his little horse carries forth fast…).


A nag was a small horse, and therefore a cheap one – size, like modern horsepower in cars, becoming more and more expensive the more of it you wanted to buy. C. M. Woolgar’s Household accounts from medieval England (1992) cites an account of  c.1336–7   Item in i ferro anteriore pro le nagg et i remocione pro morel ii d. (Item, 1 [new] front shoe for the nag and 1 remove [old shoe replaced] for the black horse, 2 pence), and in 440  Promptiorum Parvulorum Nagge, or lytylle beest.

And of course there is also the well-known 1535 Act of Henry VIII concerning the size of horses that he wanted his gentry to keep, and the removal of “Horses and nagges of small stature and value” from the breeding pastures, so as to ensure a good supply of large animals. For three centuries, from mid-16th C to late 19th C, “nag” and “Galloway” lived in much the same pigeon-hole and were, no doubt, equally used and abused as “maids of all work” in the horsey world.

Sumpters, badgers, broggers and chapmen

Finally, I have to admit I have been surprised again by the dictionary. I can’t remember which eminent horse writer first gave me the idea that a “sumpter” was a pack-horse (and I wrongly defined the word “sumpter” on this blog in February 2014!), but the OED is very clear that a sumpter is actually the man who leads, loads and looks after the pack-horses.

c1320   Brasenose College Muniments mentions “Robert the Sumpter”.

c1420   Sir Amadace xxx,   His sometour and his palfray-mon bothe. [both his pack-horse man and his riding-horse man]

Other specific job names linked to pack-horse use are the “badger” – a corn dealer; the “coper” a horse-dealer; and the “brogger” – a dealer or broker, especially a carrier of wool both as fleeces to be cleaned, carded and spun, and goods woven or knitted from it. There was also the “chapman” who was a peddler of small goods such as buttons, needles and threads, and reading material in the form of “chap-books”, which were small printed pamphlets containing songs, ballads, and stories of sensational interest such as disasters and executions. Although the Cleveland Bay horse is said to descend from “Chapman horses”, ie, pack horses, only a highly successful chapman would have needed to carry his lightweight wares on pack-horses.

Pack-horses in fact carried almost every kind of produce, from edible to utilitarian to raw materials: fish, cheese, fruit, grain; turf, lime, straw, hay; metal ores such as silver, copper and lead in their raw state from mines to the smelter, and as ingots or “pigs” from the smelter to cities or ports. In the North of England, tracks that were used by pack-horses carrying lead ore are often still known as “Jingling Gate” (gate meaning the Scandinavian “way” or “path” and “jingling” from the bell-collar worn by the leading pack-horse of the group). Also, if you find a pub called “The Clickham Inn” it probably once served a busy pack-horse route.

We no longer have these terms at our tongue’s ends, the way we talk today about hatchbacks, sports cars, SUVs and people carriers. And that’s a sign of the changing times: we have to dig into historical dictionaries, or the heads of addicts like me, to discover the meanings of the terms that people once used daily to describe their fastest means of transport.

References drawn from the Oxford English Dictionary’s Historical Thesaurus.


Sue Millard looks after the web site of the Fell Pony and Countryside Museums at Dalemain, http://www.fellponymuseum.org.uk/ Her historical novel, Coachman, is among those available from her Jackdaw E Books site, http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk/



  1. Thanks for sharing, Sue. A fascinating post.

  2. Great info! Timely, too - I'm writing about Irish Travelers in the 18th century :)

  3. Great post! And your book look fabulous--I must check it out. I love early to mid Victorian times. Thanks!

  4. LOL! I totally had all these terms wrong in my mind too. Now I'll be more careful about what I think something means. Thanks!

  5. I've been enforcedly offline since 7th Dec and unable to read your comments so I'm very glad you all enjoyed this post :)


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