What is the origin of horse-brasses?

Today horse-brasses are entirely decorative; adorning heavy horses at horse shows. However, their role is far more than decorative or it used to be. They are protective amulets defending horses against evil spirits. They are a remnant of ancient pagan beliefs. They can almost be traced back to a time when the horse was first domesticated.

Horse-brass protecting the horse against evil forces by reflecting the sun's rays
Horse-brass protecting the horse against evil forces by reflecting the sun’s rays. The picture is by MikeB.

The reason why domestic horses in the early years needed to be protected against evil spirits was because (a) horses were very valuable in those days and they gave their owners an enormous advantage over others who did not own a horse and (b) superstition in those days was chronic. It is bad today but there was a belief then that the ownership of a beautiful horse attracted dark evil forces which would cause havoc and destroy the horse.

These malevolent forces were able, it was believed, to strike down a horse with the ‘Evil Eye’. This kind of superstition bred fear and therefore with pagan beliefs they devised methods to safeguard horses including horse-brasses, blood sacrifices and rituals.

Relatively speaking, the wearing of horse-brasses was mild and benign. The amulets repelled the Evil Eye with symbols of goodness by forcing it to look away before it could do harm.

Horse-brasses in those pagan days were usually images of powerful pagan gods, horns, the sun (see above) and the crescent moon.

Perhaps these origins are little-known today and also perhaps a Christian person might be busily polishing his horse-brasses portraying pagan images. It presents a nice juxtaposition of beliefs.

In the photograph below you can see the sunflash horse-brass on the horse’s forehead. You can see the depiction of the sun and the idea is that the reflection of sunlight from the amulet protects the horse from evil forces.

Horse-brasses on a heavy horse at a show
Horse-brasses on a heavy horse at a show. Image: in public domain.

It was also believed that the Evil Eye would be most active on special celebratory occasions which is why it was particularly important to deck out the horse at festivals. And today we see heavy horses displaying their heavy brasses. They are festooned with them at fares, shows and spectacular parades.

As mentioned, they are decorative but beneath that pleasant decoration there is a pagan origin of good against evil.

One horse-brass is called the sunflash. It’s is normally placed on the horse’s forehead (see image above). It flashes the golden rays of the sun as the horse moves. The reflective nature of horse-brasses allows the sun to dazzle the Evil Eye and repel it. Dull amulets are less effective.

You might see swastikas which are symbols of the sun moving through the heavens. Or moons, wheels, hearts, stars, sacred hands, acorns, birds, beasts and flowers especially the Lotus-flower which is another Egyptian motif.

It is believed that there are about 3,000 different designs for horse-brasses. They were first made by hammering out the design but these days they are cast and then mass produced. They are made as collectors’ items for enthusiasts.

Source: Dr Morris in Horse Watching.

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