Anecdote: horsehair, weasels and witches

Trying to solve a mystery
01/02/2012
I spend last Christmas with my wife and in-laws in Romania. Between the family visits, hibernating next to the tile stove and extensive dinners, we went for a short trip to a farm of one of the neighbours. What I encountered there was the beginning of a tale, spanning from Romania to UK and even the rest of the world :)

The above photograph shows a plaited part of a horse its mane. Nothing out of the ordinary you would say! However, the horse its owner told us that neither he nor anyone else did the braiding. In fact, he told us it was a residential ‘nevastuica’ or weasel (Mustela nivalis), which climbs on the horse by night and makes braids while the horse is standing completely immobile.

BAM! I was flabbergasted, wondering whether I enjoyed too much of the local produced ‘palinka’. I asked him to repeat it just to be sure I heard it right the first time. Local legend tells about a very lazy young girl who didn’t want to spin the wool. Because of this she was cursed to spend eternity spinning away in the shape of a weasel. Since the only way to get rid of the braid is to cut it off, you might possibly upset the weasel, making it return and bite the horse. Putting a spinning wheel and some wool near the nevastuica will make her go away for good…

We didn’t had a spinning wheel available, and I doubted – even though it sounded wonderful - a weasel going around at night making sure the local horses look pretty. The braid consisted of a neat three-strand structure however, and very much looked like it was made by someone or something. The description he gave of the nevastuica’ fitted the bill, and he regularly found remains of rats around the farm. Remains he attributed to the weasel looking for a tasty snack. I was contemplating about a possible dormouse angle and left completely puzzled.

Back in the Netherlands I started to ask around and to surf the Internet for clues. Apparently a similar phenomenon hit the UK in 2009, causing widespread fear about possible horse thieves and even witchcraft. Apparently in the UK and the US the legend is told a little different: if a horse's mane is matted in the morning, either fairies or witches have ridden him during the night. In other parts of the US, the mane braiding is associated with Sasquatch, while in Colombia it is ‘El Duende’ and in Normandy a kind of hobgoblin.

So, there you go! I didn't promise you too much in my overdramatic introduction to this tale, now did I? A truly world wide phenomenon with plenty of other worldly explanations to go around. In other media horse owners describe this phenomenon as anything but supernatural. Horses would bring this upon their own mane, by rubbing against each other or against a hard surface. Sounds logical, but what is the fun in that!

Mystery solved? Please send me your thoughts and I will add them to this article!

Update 13-03-2013: Bogdan from Bucharest contacted me by mail and told me that his fiancee used to work in a Romanian petting zoo, which besides ponies also owned some weasels. "It was a regular sight to see the weasels climb the ponies and start working their mane (no so much braiding, as twisting and tangling it). It mostly happened during the day, when the animals were out in the yard." Unfortunately no pics or video so far, but he promised to send me some footage if he got the chance. Thanks Bogdan!

Update 3-12-2013: still no proof, but Mario from Guatemala reports that he saw the braids when he was growing up. An interesting detail is that it where always the mares, never the males and that it was also only during pregnancy. This mystery was contributed to El duende...

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