Bright Floodplain Lights 5. Horse Rippers
In the spring and autumn, all across the country, there are inexplicable and horrific outbursts of horse mutilation. It is rare that anyone is caught or observed committing the acts, the attacks often follow a pattern, and the pattern has been observed for a very long time, in fact through all of recorded history and even before. Despite this it remains a largely overlooked crime that elicits brief bursts of shock if it is reported before it is forgotten again. I became aware of the phenomenon in 2003 when a particularly nasty wave had occurred the length of Britain around Halloween and I was reminded of it again in 2008, when this time there was a series of very violent incidents in and around Bonnybridge and Denny that resulted in many horses being destroyed. Not long before writing this, the Evening Times reported two cases that occurred in the nearby town of Cumbernauld on the 19th and 20th of April.
I call it a phenomenon rather than just a series of crimes because of the aforementioned pattern and the strangeness of the attacks, something that I have yet to see mentioned whenever the crime is reported. Horses, free to roam in a field are approached at night and have their genitals or eyes slashed or less commonly their skin partly flayed. The attacker must approach them without arousing the animal’s suspicion in a dark field, often a hidden field unknown to passers by, where they can’t see the horse but the horse is perfectly aware of them and is able to move away if it sensed any threat.
I feel the only explanation for this is that the attackers are intimately familiar with horses in general and maybe these horses in particular; otherwise their own nervousness would alert the animal before they ever got close. Perhaps the most famous case of a horse ripper who was caught was the fictionalized but real boy whose blinding of six horses served as the inspiration for the play Equus.
There the author Peter Shaffer tries to understand the crime by attributing divine motivations to the attacker. Although the attacks are normally ascribed to wayward teenagers, once the act itself is seriously considered this seems absurd. To a person unused to horses they are terrifying creatures, more than capable of frightening off or escaping an attacker and the violence itself seems worse than even random violence against a stranger. The spiritual impulse of Adam in Equus makes more sense because how else could someone relate to a horse. And yet at the turning of the seasons, people who do not fear horses and whom horses do not fear go out at night and slash their eyes.
The other thing that qualifies it as a phenomena is another far less cruel but perhaps more inexplicable behaviour that attends the ripping. At the same times of year and occurring often in the same areas as the attacks and sometimes to the same animals before they are harmed little braids are woven into their manes and tails, locks of hair are cut off and often burned on little piles of stones. The strangest fact I have ever read about these attentions is that this is recorded worldwide and into prehistory, Native Americans attributed it to the Sasquatch and even then the behaviour was identical; tiny braids of only a few strands, always covered in a sticky substance. I have never seen these two behaviours linked when the crimes are reported and it seems very much like damned data, something that can’t be accepted into a discussion without making it seem ridiculous.
It seems obvious to conclude that at least some people are committing the horse ripping with some occult intention but in some ways that explanation asks even more questions than the random ‘bored teens’ who are able to run down a horse over uneven ground in pitch darkness and commit psychopathic violence against them, let alone the fact there must be an unending number of these people who all get the same idea at the same time.
If it is ritualistic behaviour, from where are they getting the information to carry it out? I can attest that such a thing is not recommended or even mentioned obliquely in even the most speculative terms in any publicly available books written in more than a century and a half. Even in the group of practices we call voodoo where animal sacrifice is by no means taboo one is urged to avoid the animal’s suffering as much as possible. Nor is there in my opinion, now or in the past, any such thing as a ‘witch cult’ that people like Gardner and Murray claim preserved ancient rituals through generations. There are modern instances of groups ritually killing animals and even people and there are certainly ‘cults’ in the area that I intend to write about another time.
I don’t believe horse ripping is ritualistic in this sense. It seems to be disparate individuals stimulated by a shared urge; this may be some survival of a primal human instinct or a frustrated urge for violence carried out against a beautiful and innocent creature so as to be even more transgressive than attacking a human with little chance of punishment. The horse as an atavistic animal shares the same significance amongst people much as a lion or a snake does, maybe it is some organic proto-religious response, maybe it is only carried out by people who love the horses and are deeply wounded by it but are driven to satisfy a sacrificial need just as St Longinus pierced Christ's side.