It’s funny how, despite all the advances in science and technology, some of us still hang on to old superstitions that common sense tells us cannot make any difference to our everyday lives.
We insist on saluting magpies, throwing salt over our shoulders and blessing people when they sneeze. One of the oldest and most persistent of superstitions surrounds the horseshoe, an item of equine foot protection that dates back to at least 400BC. The need to preserve the hooves of these hard-working animals was recognised almost as soon as horses were domesticated, and early versions, known to the Romans as ‘hipposandals’, were fashioned out of materials such as woven plants, leather and rawhide.
It wasn’t until around the sixth and seventh centuries AD that metal horseshoes began to be used in the colder Northern European climates to help steeds get a better grip on frozen terrain. They also shielded hooves that were easily damaged by hard daily toil over rough ground. It became apparent that if the hoof was covered, it enabled a horse to move faster, and therefore became an important tool not only in everyday life, but also in the sport of horse racing.
The first metal horseshoes were fashioned out of cast bronze, with iron following in the fourteenth century, the preferred material until relatively recently. Today though, you get horseshoes made of steel, aluminium, composite plastic and even rubber, the substance dependant upon what kind of activity the hooves will be subjected to. For example, steel is used for heavy horses and heavy work, whereas aluminium is appropriate for lighter duties and needs to be replaced more often. Composite and rubber shoes help to cushion the hoof and are useful on softer surfaces, or if the horse has an injury.
But why the association with luck? According to my dad in his column from 23rd May 1981, the origins of the connection are hard to pin down, but there are a number of theories. One is its shape; a horseshoe resembles a crescent moon, a motif that has so many links to historical symbolisms that it is impossible to explore them fully here. Another thread of discussion stems from the fact that ancient man would have found it hard to understand how a metal object could be nailed to a foot without causing any pain or spilling any blood. Also, when knocked against a stone, the shoe produces sparks, so it’s not hard to understand how a primitive mind might have associated this object with magical powers.
But which way up is the correct way to hang a lucky horseshoe? This again is a topic for debate. What is not disputed is that it needs to be hung either above the entrance to a building, or on an outside wall.
If you hang it like the letter ‘U’, then the idea is that it will ‘collect’ luck, like a bucket collects water. However, if you hang it the other way up, then it pours the luck over anyone who crosses the threshold. If there were seven holes in the shoe, it was important that you hung it using nails in all of them, as that was a lucky number. Some people would hang them sideways like the letter ‘C’, and this is supposed to symbolise Christ.
The amalgamation of paganism and Christianity clearly comes to the fore when it comes this practice. The horseshoe’s association with luck predates Christianity, and yet, as I referred to in the opening paragraph, people have always found it difficult to let go of long-held superstitions that haven been passed down from one generation to another. I wonder if some early Christians with pagan forefathers may already have had a horseshoe above their door and simply decided to turn it on its side to reflect the new religion? Nailing it in place also had the obvious connection with nailing Christ to the cross.
To this day, the horseshoe symbolises luck, and a quick scan of any card shop shelf will reveal a healthy crop of examples of the image. But I wonder how many readers still have horseshoes nailed above their doorways? And which way up is most commonly seen where you live? And has anyone spotted one that is turned on its side like the letter ‘C’?
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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 28th and the Gazette & Herald on 26th May 2021