Beware the Water Horse

Here’s another of my horse lore articles. It originally appeared in a long-ago issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.

Two water horses with fishes' tails in a fountain in Paris, France
Water horses at Paris’ Fontaine des Quatre Parties du Monde, sculpted by Emmanuel Fremiet.

Beware the water horse. He lurks in the deep, murky waters of desolate forest pools, and in icy northern fjords, and on bright, sun swept beaches–and he wants to eat you.

Beware the Scottish kelpie.  Kelpies are shapeshifters that take the form of bold grey horses, as grotesque humans with hideous sabre teeth, or as handsome young men with horses’ ears and seaweed draped in their hair. They haunt saltwater estuaries, inland rivers, and great, deep lakes like Loch Ness. Kelpies devour human flesh . Once aboard a kelpie’s sticky back, a rider is doomed. Off thunders the kelpie into the deep, where the human quickly drowns. Only his liver is spared.

And kelpies have cousins. Nickers den in Iceland’s frigid fjords, shoneys on Cornwall’s shores, and Scottish each uisges haunt desolate seaside tide pools. All of them are shapeshifters and blood drinkers, fearsome and cunning and mean.

The Orkney tangye is a chubby water pony with horse’s legs, enormous testicles, and seaweed dripping from his mane. Like the Shetland shopiltee (who resembles a shaggy grey Shetland pony), some say he’s a bonny little horse, playful and friendly. Others say he dines on human blood.

The Hebrides are home to the nucklelavee. A saltwater spirit, he’s half horse and half human and rank as rotted mackerel. A peerless shapeshifter, the nucklelavee assumes any form. His favorite: a massive black horse. Nucklelavee chases humans, but only to frighten, not eat them.

Another saltwater horse is the Scottish boobrie. A dusky-feathered water bird with a huge bill and claws like twisted hands, he transforms himself into a hideous black horse and gallops atop the waves. Water bound, he can’t set hoof on shore.

Sweden’s neck is a huge grey river horse who sucks the souls of his victims. Sometimes he assumes the guise of a handsome young man and lures young girls to his underwater cave. Whenever someone drowns, the neck shrieks, “Cross Over! Cross Over! Cross Over!”

The Manx glashan dwells in rivers and lakes. When not in human form, he appears as a small grey foal. Not as bloodthirsty as his larger cousins, he is nevertheless a lecher and a rapist.

Throughout Western Europe, noggles settle near the edges of inland streams. They resemble small grey horses, sometimes wearing tack. Noggles loathe humans and chase them into the water. However, if a landowner’s property abuts a noggle’s stream and he somehow befriends the noggle, it will guard his landholdings for him.

The malevolent Irish pooka (called bwca in Wales) is the worst of the pack. In their true form, pookas have bodies like horses and the heads of human males. But pookas are prolific shapeshifters. As sleek grey or black horses, pookas lure humans into murky water

where they drown and eat them. And to a pooka, the best flesh is children’s flesh. To charm children onto their sticky backs and thence into their pools, pookas appear as fat, friendly ponies or fuzzy grey donkeys. Pookas hibernate from Midsummer to Halloween.

This sculpture of a man with a fish-tailed water horse is in Rome's famous Trevi Fountain.
This fish-tailed water horse lives in Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain.

And never ride your mare near a water horse lair. Water horses are enchanted by flesh-and-blood horses. They interbreed freely with them. The mark of a half-blood water horse: he can’t cross water without splashing or lying down.


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