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Shoe the (Wild) Mare, or the Shoeing of the (Wild) Mare is a 17th-century English physical game of unclear form, as there are conflicting accounts of what the game comprised. It was popular during the Christmas season.

In 1616 it appears in Ben Johnson’s masque Love Restored:A[990]In some later editions this mistakenly appears as “shooting the wild Mare”.B

Are these your court-sports ! would I had kept me to my gamboles o’ the countrey still, selling of fish, short service, shooing the wild mare, or rosting of Robin red-brest.

It was probably a physical game played by men, also mentioned in a poem (“A New-yeares gift sent to Sir Simeon Steward”) published by Robert Herrick in 1648:C[146]

Of Christmas sports, the Wassell-boule,
That tost up, after Fox-i’th’hole:
Of Blind-man-buffe, and of the care
That young men have to shooe the Mare:

In Nicholas Breton’s Fantasticks: Serving for A Perpetuall Pronostication (17), it is mentioned in the section on Christmas:Although in the later reworking The Twelve Moneths (4), it is mentioned under the chapter for January, as part of the twelve days of Christmas.

It is now Christmas, and not a Cup of Drinke must passe without a Caroll, the Beasts, Fowls, and Fish, come to a generall execution, and the Corne is ground to dust for the Bakehouse, and the Pastry: Cards and Dice purge many a purse, and the Youth shew their agility in shooing of the wild Mare: now good cheere and welcome, and God be with you, and I thank you: and against the new yeare, provide for the presents: the Lord of Mis-rule is no meane man for his time, and the ghests of the high Table must lacke no Wine: the lusty bloods must looke about them like men, and piping and dauncing puts away much melancholy: […]

The 1680 poem “Batt upon Batt” has:F[5]

Our Batt can dance, play at high Jinks with Dice,
At any primitive Orthodoxal Vice.
Shooing the wild Mare, tumbling the young Wenches,
Drinking all night, and Sleeping on the Benches.

It also appears in another poem (“To my Friend Mr. John Anderson”) by Charles Cotton published posthumously in 1689:G[378]

 We have too errant Knights so stout,
 As honest Hobinel and Clout,
With many an other stiff and sturdy Lout,
   That play at wasters,
 Shooe the wild Mare, and lick the board,
 That for stiff Tuck, or cutting Sword,
For Man, or Woman, care not of a Turd,
   But their own Masters.

An old nursery rhyme of unknown date runs:H[52]John Bellenden Ker gives a masterfully absurd interpretation of this poem as a heathen Saxon invection against Catholic monks, see: A Supplement to the Two Volumes of the Second Edition of the Essay on the Archæology of our Popular Phrases, Terms, and Nursery Rhymes (257).

Shoe the colt,
Shoe the colt,
 Shoe the wild mare;
Here a nail,
There a nail,
 Yet she goes bare.

The Game

In Francis Willughby’s 17th century manuscript of games the name is given as Shewing or Shooing the Wild Colt, and this is one of few period descriptions of how the game is played:J[195]

They lay a pole upon two stooles ar formes that are a prettie way asunder. Upon the middle of this pole, a man must sit with his leges acrosse under him. Upon the two corners of the stooles before him there must be 2 trenchers shelving over and likewise upon the two corners of the stoole behind him. In his hand he holdes a stich just long enough to reach the trenchers. If he can knock downe the trenchers with his stich on one side he hath Shoowed the Colt on that side. Then, lifting his stick over the pole is Brideling of him, knocking the trenchers downe of that side is Shooing him of that side. Lifting the stick over the pole behind him is Putting on the Crupper, putting the stick twice under him and taking it with the other hand is Girting of him. Before he can doe all this the Colte will throw him severall’ times unlesse he have the right art.

To put this into modern English: the pole is balanced across the top of two stools. On the outer corners of each stool’s top are placed plates (a trencher is a wooden plate), and the goal of the person on the pole is to knock these plates off the stools using a stick. They must then turn around, while remaining balanced on the pole, and knock the plates off the other side. Finally they must pass the stick under the pole twice. While they are doing all of this the other players attempt to buck them off the pole.

A similar game is described in The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia (426) under the name of:

Shoing the Auld Mare.—A dangerous kind of sport; a beam of wood is slung between two ropes, a person gets on to this, and contrives to steady himself, until he goes through a number of antics; if he can do this he shoes the auld mare, if he cannot do it, he generally tumbles to the ground, and gets hurt with the fall.

The “suspended” version seems to be particular to Scotland, another account names the game Crudhadh an Capuill Bhain “Shoeing the White Mare”, or An Lair Bhreabain “The Kicking Mare”:L[197]

A beam is suspended from the roof by two ropes of about equal length, and high enough from the ground to prevent any one astride of it touching the floor with his feet. The feat consists in keeping your seat on this white mare without touching the ropes. When it is called “shoeing the mare,” the rider is supposed to be the smith, and has a piece of wood in his hand which represents his hammer, with the hammer he was supposed to drive in the nails of the shoes, striking the lower part of the beam four times eight blows. He who could complete the shoeing of the horse without being thrown off was of course a master of smithcraft. When it was merely riding “the kicking mare,” the rider was provided with a wand with which he struck at his lively mount in all directions, and the more quickly and more variously he could do this without falling off, he was considered all the better rider. It generally ended in a tumble, exciting the merriment of the spectators.

Other Interpretations

W. Carew Hazlitt described the game as:M[332]

From scattered notices in several old works, I collect that this was a diversion among our ancestors, more particularly intended for the young, and that the Wild Mare was simply a youth so called, who was allowed a certain start, and who was pursued by his companions, with the object of being shoed, if he did not succeed in outstripping them.

However, this seems to be entirely his own supposition.

Another 19th-century author remembers it as a circle chase where “if my boyish recollections be correct, this game is played by a number standing in a ring, holding hands, with one outside the ring, who drops a handkerchief behind any one he pleases; and the point is, to be sharp in observing if it be dropped behind you, and then to be quick in overtaking the dropper before he arrives at your place—the only practical allusion to a horse being in the activity”.N See Circle Chases for more on these types of games.


There is some discussion of this game in Brewster (1947, 153), although he also includes references to the song “how away the mare”, which may not be related to the physical game.


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