The legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of the most famous American folktales featuring a horse. The infamous Headless Horseman finds its way into most equine costume parades, and the ghoul has even been known to visit Woodland’s own Halloween party. (Can anyone remember what horse and rider pair once fulfilled the role? )
The headless horseman has cousins in other folklore and its significance and backstory can differ greatly from the American version. So get your costume on, prepare your candy, and settle in for a brief retelling of Headless Horseman myths from around the world.
United States of America
This is the tale you’re probably familiar with in relation to Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which tells the story of Ichabod Crane. Ichabod was a highly-superstitious school teacher in the town of Sleepy Hollow, which was notorious for being haunted. He was not native to Sleepy Hollow and competed with local Brom Bones for the favor of Katrina Van Tassel as a means of gaining both wealth and acceptance.
One night, he attended a feast at the Van Tassel estate with the intention to propose to Katrina once the party ended. Brom Bones spent the evening filling his head with ghost stories, specifically the legend of the Headless Horseman who haunted the hollow and emerged every Halloween seeking to replace the head he’d lost upon his death. Katrina rejected Ichabod, and he headed home, heartbroken and on edge. The story goes that Ichabod encountered the Headless Horseman during his journey home and was never seen again (though the Disney version of this story has a happy ending for everyone.)
In the original myth, the Headless Horseman is the spirit of a German soldier who was killed during the Battle of The White Plains in 1776 and left his head on the battlefield. He was buried in Sleepy Hollow and appears on Halloween night to avenge his death and reclaim his head.
Like many German folktales, the headless horseman originates from the Grimm brothers. There aren’t terrific records online of the full stories, but the legends usually paint the horseman as a far less aggressive spirit. He’s associated with the sound of a hunting horn, which either announces his presence or warns riders not to go out the next day, as they are destined to die if they do.
The most sinister version of the Headless Horseman is the Irish dulachán, which is a demon that rides a black horse and carries its head under its thigh or holds it up high to see a greater distance. Sometimes this spirit is seen as the headless driver of a carriage. When the dulachán stops it calls out a name and that person immediately dies.
In contrast, India’s headless horseman is usually regarded as a heroic, benevolent spirit. The legend is central to Rajasthan, India’s biggest state, and the spirit itself is called jhinjhār. Most stories say it was a prince that lost his head defending a village or fighting highwaymen, while others say it was a cavalry rider defending his prince. Either way, jhinjhārs are the result of a wrongful death. These spirits protect innocent people and are rumored to fight mounted and unmounted. They may be repelled with powdered indigo dye, which disrupts their chaotic energy and allows them to find peace.
Do you have a spooky horse story to share? Let us know in the comments below (if you dare, muahaha!)
Have a safe Halloween everyone.
Until next time, happy riding!
Images from fellponysociety.uk.org, techtimes.com, marshotel.com