Fairies are reputed to ride a variety of creatures. As the illustrations to this post show, artists at least have allowed themselves considerable latitude in the sorts of steeds deemed possible- great fun being had with notions of the tiny size of the faes and the kinds of steed that might therefore be suitable.
It is very well known from the folklore that fairies and pixies like to take horses from stables and ride them at night, returning the steeds distressed, sweating and exhausted in the morning. Often, too, their manes will be fiendishly knotted to make stirrups and panniers for their faery riders. A witch-stone or hag-stone (a naturally holed stone) hung just above the animals in their stalls will prevent this. Sprays or crosses of birch put over a stable door will bar the faeries from entering at night.
Be warned, though: if the faeries want to go out riding and there are no suitable steeds to hand, they can use us instead. Especially on the Isle of Man, people have been known to be taken and ridden all night. They feel no weight on their backs during the experience, but they become tired from loss of sleep and thin and weak from their exertions. Luckily, it is said that taking the precaution of wearing a suitable flower or herb to scare off the faeries (rowan blossom say) should be enough to prevent this.
From the Isle of Arran, we hear of a woman who suddenly fell ill and became very tired and sleepy. Her family suspected that this was no ordinary fatigue and watched her at night. They discovered that the fairies were coming when the house was asleep and turning her into a horse, which they then used for their carting. A search of the garden the next morning uncovered a hidden harness, which helped break the spell cast upon her.
Also from Scotland, we have the confession of suspected witch Isobel Gowdie that she had gone out with the fairy host, the sluagh, to shoot elf-bolts at hapless humans. Of these random victims she said:
“we may shoot them dead at owr pleasour. Any that ar shot be us, their sowell will goe to Hevin, bot ther bodies remain with us, and will flie as horsis to us, as small as strawes.”
These straw-like beings were used by the witches to ride upon, just like horses. They sat astride them, pronounced ‘horse and hattock’ and then travelled in a whirlwind. This mode of travel is a trait of witches (see too the testimony of Bessie Flinkar, tried in 1661, who travelled to covens this way); but it was a power of those with the second sight and is, of course, exactly what the fairies were very commonly known to do.
We’ve looked previously at the fae tendency to move in whirlwinds. That they travel in this manner is a widespread belief in Britain, from the Forest of Dean all the way north to Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. There, for example, the band of fairies called Friday’s People (Muintirr Fhionlaidh) would travel on calm days in whirlwinds, occasionally picking up those found asleep en route and carrying them a short distance.
Another Scottish witch suspect, Jonet Morrison of Bute, confessed in 1662 that the way the fairies ‘blasted’ those against whom they had a grudge was with “a whirlwind that the fayries raises about that person quhich they intend to wrong and, that tho ther were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot quhom they were set for.” I’ve written about fairy whirlwinds in other posts on their movement.
In former times it was widely believed that wasting illness and perpetual tiredness (symptoms we might now ascribe to a poor diet or to underlying health conditions) were actually the result of being ‘hag ridden’- turned into horses by witches, or fairies, and ridden at night or, alternatively, because the person was being carried off nightly to dance under the fairy hill. Either way, their energy was being drained and they received no rest when they seemed to be asleep.
To conclude, therefore: we must not be complacent. Almost any available object can be employed by the faeries to travel about. Plant stems are regularly enchanted with their glamour, they keep their own horses, but will just as readily take steeds kept by humans from their stables and, most alarmingly, they will even cast a spell on us and exploit us.
Riding humans is just one aspect of the Darker Side of Faery, a subject I explore in my 2021 book of that title.