Magical Horses from Around the World
Updated: Nov 26, 2021
Used for transport, agriculture, status, and even their milk, horses have been humanity’s close companions for over 5000 years. They were thought to have first been domesticated in Kazakhstan, and then spread out across Asia and Europe. As with many animals that are both widespread across the globe and live closely with humans, horses find themselves the frequent focus of our myths and legends.
Whether they are winged, scaly, benevolent, or deadly, here are some of the magical horses that appear in myths around the world.
Also known as a water horse, the kelpie is a Scottish shapeshifter that lurks near lakes and rivers. In its horse form, it appears as a powerful stallion, and attempts to tempt humans into climbing onto its back.
Once the poor human has climbed on board, the kelpie takes off, galloping into the river and drowning its passenger. The kelpie is able to carry multiple people at once, and it is thought to become sticky, making it impossible for its passengers to leap to safety. Those who merely touch the horse, rather than climbing onto it, may still escape drowning if they cut off whatever body part has been caught in the kelpie’s trap.
As well as a horse form, the kelpie is thought to also transform into a beautiful man (kelpies predominantly appear in legends as male) to entice women. Depending on the legend, the kelpie either wishes to drown the woman, or marry her. When the kelpie is not playing seductor, they are said to appear as a huge, muscular man, capable of tearing people to pieces with his bare hands.
Luckily, kelpies do have one major weakness – their bridle. If you can get hold of a kelpie’s bridle you control the kelpie. As the creature was said to have the strength of many horses, gaining control of a kelpie was highly desirable, despite the risks.
While the term ‘Pegasus’ is now used as a general word for a species of winged horse, the first winged horse of Greek myth, was actually named Pegasus. The flying horse was born from the blood of Medusa, after she was decapitated by Perseus. In some versions of the legend, Pegasus was also the son of Poseidon, making him half-god.
Pegasus was tamed by Bellerophon who would often fly on the horse’s back. One day, Bellerophon decided to fly up to the heavens, and take his place among the gods. Unfortunately, Bellerophon fell off Pegasus’ back halfway there. Not noticing, Pegasus continued on to Olympus, and Bellerophon died.
Perhaps due to his father being the god of the ocean, Pegasus was often associated with water – in particular springs and fountains. His name is derived from the word, ‘pēgē’, meaning spring, and he was thought to have created the mountain spring Hippocrene, which was sacred to the Muses.
Originating in Turkish mythology, the Tulpar is a winged horse, usually depicted as being either fully black, or fully white. The wings of the Tulpar usually represented the fact that the creature was supernaturally fast, rather than an ability to fly. The wings were sometimes said to be invisible, with the Tulpar appearing like a normal horse, and if the wings were ever seen, the Tulpar would disappear.
One legend tells that the first fiddle was made from the bones of a Tulpar, by its grieving human. This is similar to a Mongolian legend which explains the origins of the morin khuur, or the horse-head fiddle. A boy’s favoured horse was killed, and the young boy was distraught. The spirit of the horse appeared to him that night and taught him how to make the fiddle from the bones and the hair of the horse.
The braag, or brag is a shapeshifter from the folklore of Northumbria, in England. While it is known to take the form of a horse or donkey, it is actually a type of goblin or trickster. It is known to play tricks on humans by letting them ride on its back, before chucking them off into the nearest pond or bush. While there are similarities to the Scottish kelpie, the braag is fortunately less murderous, more interested in playing tricks than in killing its victims.
Another similar horse is the colt pixie, also from England, appearing in myths and legends around the New Forest, which is known for its population of wild horses. The colt pixie is another creature that takes the form of a horse or pony in order to trick humans and lead them astray. The colt pony is said to deliberately misdirect humans into bogland.
Keshi is the name of a demonic horse that the Hindu god, Krishna, killed when he was young. It was sent by the evil king Kamsa, Krishna’s uncle, who had been informed that he would one day die at Krishna’s hands.
Desperate to evade this fate, Kamsa sent many demons to kill Krishna. The horse, Keshi, was said to be huge and powerful, causing earthquakes with his hooves, and bellowing loud enough to terrify anyone who heard it.
Despite how terrifying the demon horse was, he was no match for Krishna, who grabbed him by the legs and threw him away. When Keshi became enraged enough to lunge at Krishna with his mouth wide open, intending to swallow him whole, Krishna stuck him arm inside the demon’s mouth and down his throat – choking him.
The Chollima is a powerful winged horse that has become an important symbol in Korean mythology, although it is thought to have originated in China. It is also known as qianlima and cheollima. The horse is said to be capable of traveling hundreds of miles in one day and its name translates as thousand-li horse, with li being a unit of measurement equivalent to approximately 250 miles. They were said to be so swift that they were impossible for any man to either ride, or tame.
There is a similar horse that appears in Chinese myth, called the longma. In addition to its wings, the longma has dragon scales, which makes sense, as their name translates as dragon horse. Like the Chollima, the longma was highly revered, and catching sight of one was meant to foretell the appearance of a great leader.
Horses have been our constant companions for centuries, allowing us to travel further and accomplishing more than we ever could have without them. And, whether depicted as murderous and terrifying, divine and powerful, or just plain tricksy, they have earned their foothold in myths and legends around the world.