Animal Behaviour – Hooden and Hobby Horses by Adam Garland
Over the past 22 years I have had the honour of appearing with East Suffolk Morris Men in the guise of ‘Henry’ – a hooden beast. Henry is no single type of animal but tries to encapsulate the many centuries of beast traditions in one form.
Where ever one goes today, when watching a team of Morris Dancers they will at some point in the performance be accompanied by a fool, a dame, or a beast. A number of years ago I was pleased to run a workshop on animal behaviour for the Morris Ring Fools and Animals Weekend.
If you are thinking about trying out the role of beast master then the following are my thoughts on the job and how it can become a fun and rewarding part of a performance.
A Little Bit of History
Animal traditions whether for religious or custom purposes have been around for many centuries and were originally nothing to do with Morris Dancing; reference things like the Welsh Mari Llwyd, Inuit shamanic tradition, native American tribal dances, Egyptian religious characters, and many more – they all have human characters dressed or behaving like animals.
These traditions are mostly centred on the beast being a good character who will assist and bring fertility or luck to the tribe/village, but only if there is a gift or payment made. This could be in the way of actual produce, money, food etc, or by more esoteric methods such as psychic effort; South American Shamans or African Witch Doctors following mind altering episodes, or, religious worship for example.
It is only over the last 400 years or so that these traditions have come together with the Morris dance. There is a well known painting from the c1620 called the Thames at Richmond showing a Hobby Horse in conjunction with the dance.
None of these traditions or religions were the cosy, ‘Walt Disney’ kind of animal, they may have been friendly to a degree but had about them something almost terrifying and other-worldly. In my opinion this is the sort of atmosphere a Morris Beast Master should aim to conjure.
Animals such as the Mari Llwyd or my very own ‘Henry’ fall into this category; not necessarily a horse, the user is totally covered by the animal’s cape or cloak. The material should be of a suitable thickness to hide the master, whilst still affording them a decent level of vision.
The master should get out of the mind-set of being ‘human and wearing a costume’ as this will always be noted by the audience and will not deliver the appropriate level of mystery.
Questions the master should ask themselves;
1) What is my animal? Am I nasty or nice?
The behavioural traits of the animal should be studied; A horse, for example, as appears with Bristol Morris Men, will at times be approachable and friendly, at times be crotchety and cantankerous, a Dragon; Standon Morris Men, should normally be worrying, a little sly, and at times down right objectionable. The master should tailor his behaviour when inside the animal accordingly.
I always try to make Henry’s behaviour unpredictable which automatically adds to the level of uncertainty in the minds of the audience. What also helps is that Henry is not any one sort of animal; he has been called a horse, duck, gnat, bat, and many other names in his life; all of which are wrong. Henry is Henry!
2) How much vision/room have I got?
Having an animal such as a Stag (St Albans Morris Men) means the master should at times be quiet and still, but at other times ‘take flight’ and run. Where the type of material or amount of people hinders all round vision the running about could be impeded and could lead to collision with members of the audience.
A lot of Hooden Horses have small panels at the front just under the lower jaw by which the master can see out, but in my experience these panels attract audience attention as they try to peer in to see who the master is, thereby detracting from the performance.
Some materials such as Industrial nylon do allow all round vision thereby allowing the master to see out well enough to avoid having panels, or collisions! This adds to the mystery and I have heard many members of the audience ask ‘how can he see?’
On big dance areas, using the animal to the full is great, run about, caper, leap and twirl, do everything you can to attract attention.
3) Is this the right spot for an animal?
Gauge the audience; one man and his dog are not always the best audience to try to entertain. Children may be good as they can be entertained or worried in good measure. Westminster’s Unicorn is a total showman and has younger audiences eating out of his hand. But, be careful, they can be scrofulous little tykes and pull your cape or try to trip you up; they run in pack and this gives them confidence, so you don’t want too many of them.
Large audiences of mixed ages are good as they allow you to steer away from the sections which may not be responsive or the kids if they are stroppy or scared. If the mystery works and there is a level of fear in the audience then this is ok. Some children will cry, some ladies will scream, some men will run away; it all adds to the show. I have seen grown men cowering from Bristol Morris Men’s Horse, and Henry.
4) How animalistic should I be?
It depends on a number of things;
i) how you feel on the day, you could want to chew up the audience and spit out the bones, on the other hand you may just need a cuddle.
ii) the type of audience. If they are responding well then work with them, be the animal, go and chew some foliage, kick a pebble around to play with it for a while, pinch someone’s hat, sneak up and nibble a ladies ear. If they are not interested do more leaping around in the dance, and be part of the show but away from the audience.
iii) Are there toys about? All animals enjoy playing; Morris sticks, road cones, hats, discarded sandals, anything loose and on the floor is good for a toy and can be used to good effect; work with these things, don’t always be with the audience.
The bottom line is that you are taking on the role of the animal. Personality is important, but so is the fact that all animals occasionally have to scratch, for example; standing on one leg whilst using the other foot to scratch behind an ear is effective.
The Hobby Horse
Constant Billy; East Suffolk’s other horse, Padstow, Minehead, and Phoenix Sword’s ‘Eric’ are all examples of the Hobby Horse. Different to the Hooden horse, the master can be seen by the audience and has to juggle being human and animal at the same time.
Behavioural traits of the animal are still highly important; the crotchety horse, the mischievous ostrich and so forth, but now the master can use these traits almost against themselves in order to gain the Audiences ‘trust’; he can be suave and witty chatting to the audience but then the animal turns against him and the watchers get the entertainment by witnessing the ensuing battle between man and beast!
Whilst the master is visible, they should always have one section of their mind in ‘animal’ mode as they still have to behave for the animal as well. The above questions above should still be asked.
If it appears to be a good spot, talk to your audience, some will ask questions about the dance or the animal, the children can stroke the animal while you talk to the adults. Throw in some simple jokes or witticisms.
Des Herring (Constant Billy; East Suffolk Morris Men) is a very genial beast master who likes talking to the audience and carries with him other props and tools of the trade; Gemima is the ‘little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead’ doll – he recites the nursery rhyme for the kids, he also sits them round him and on the count of three they all have to shout ‘Billy’. All these things aid in helping the audience enjoy the show.
Where this falls down is if the beast master ‘forgets’ he is wearing the animal. I.e. a good collector could do exactly the same thing without the animal being there. There should be times when the animal takes over; this will add another layer to the ‘show’.
This is where the personality of the beast comes to the fore. Is your animal a lecherous old so-and-so? Does it only want to talk to the pretty young things? Is it a dreamer who wants to go and smell the flowers? Does it get side-tracked by a rather interesting looking gully?
Spying someone who wants to talk to you and making for them whilst making eye contact is fine, but instead of going straight to them, break off because the animal wants to chew the grass. There can then be a struggle between man and beast before the master regains control and forces the beast to go to the member of the audience.
Conversely, whilst talking to someone about the history of the Morris, for example, the animal can ‘spook’ at a sudden noise and run off across the dance area before being brought to heal and return to continue the discussion.
As the master your eyes and ears are your greatest friends. Whether you are a hobby horse rider, or a hooden beast, sights and sounds can bring all sorts of useable reactions or toys; the shriek from a slightly concerned woman, the bark of a dog, a bumblebee buzzing past can all create reactions in the beast.
As a beast your reactions are highly important as they will help define your personality; do you attack road signs, are you frightened by crisp packets etc, keeping eyes and ears on the surroundings will show you where props are which can be worked into your show, sometimes at the drop of a hat; on one appearance Bristol Morris Men’s Horse chased a horsebox the entire length of Thaxted High Street to enormous applause from the crowd.
Layers of Personality
Try not to get stuck into one particular pattern. Animals, including the human animal, do not spend all their time showing one particular emotion; perhaps you could have risen from the wrong side of the bed, perhaps you could be feeling peaceful, perhaps you want to be alone.
The loss of temper comes upon every one of us from time to time, perhaps the hobby horse can loss its cool over the fact that the rider doesn’t want to run through the flower beds, perhaps the hooden animal doesn’t like yellow shirts.
Changing the behaviour, altering the interaction with the audience, ignoring the audience completely, all create the layers which add interest.
Should the animal or rider collect money? There is no simple answer to this. For the hobby horse rider it is undoubtedly easier as an appropriate receptacle can be carried around and ‘waved’ at the crowd whilst saying suitable things; “Anyone not paid twice!”, “Keep the shiny metal things; I’m happy with the tatty old bits of paper!”, “This is the age of equality, that gives me the right to take money off everyone!” and so on.
Obviously as a hooden horse, the master must remain silent at all times, but there are those animals which have a mechanism in their mouths which deposit money into a bag through a hole in their bottom jaw. The animal can therefore ‘eat’ money.
However, the ability to collect does have its down side. It controls the behaviour of the animal quite considerably. The rider does not want to be leaping around whilst holding a hat full of loose change, if the hooden animal’s bag is large then there is a danger of the rider being hit on the head by a full bag of cash. Similarly if the audience see the beast as foul-tempered and snapping a people, they are not going to put their hands in its mouth just to give money.
If you are making your animal from the ground up, then you need to consider what you want it to be like before sketching out ideas. If your beast is a feisty character that is going to be leaping around and chasing people, or running through the dances, then you do not want something that weighs a ton and a half, for obvious reasons.
Choose your materials carefully, talk to existing masters who have similar animals to the one you will be making and find out what the pros and cons and pitfalls are before embarking on your project.
Above all though the design should be simple; let the audience make up their own minds about what it is.
A good tip is to watch animals in the wild – wildlife TV progs, on-line resources, etc, see how the animals behave when frightened, cross, at play, sleeping etc and indeed, how they act when doing normal everyday things; scratching, yawning, sneezing, greeting others of the same species, and so on.
One of the most important things is, whether hooden or hobby, the audience should never see the master changing into the animal as it detracts from the effect. It is not always possible to hide whilst dressing, but the fewer people see you becoming the animal the better
The Morris Animal is a beast with its roots in history, it is the thing of myth and legend, it is your friend, it is your worst nightmare. The beast will attack men, terrify children, and molest women, or it will be the fool, the jester, the juvenile, and these things in good measure will provide you, the master, with hours of fun and the appropriate level of mysticism to bring just the right level of fear to the audience; this is after all what they want; that little bit of adrenalin; entertainment; a show..