In Western culture, little girls seem to go through a “horse” period, during which the horse holds a special psychological appeal. No doubt the Freudians would connect it to psychosexual development, and they may be right. I’ve never been particularly attracted to horses, but even I went through this phase around age ten, gathering figurines of horses and drawing pictures of them. (And reading Black Beauty, of course.)

I wonder whether this happened in the days when horses were essential to daily life. Somehow, I think they must always have possessed a special magnetism for us because of their size, beauty and power.


Horse trappings and other objects from Iron Age Ireland. The item at the bottom with the linked rings is a snaffle bit, the part of the harness placed in the horse’s mouth. Click for photo source.

7. Grey and Black

As she carried the child outdoors for some fresh air, Deichtire heard a loud whinnying and snorting. Súaltam’s grooms were trying to subdue two colts, who reared back fiercely, small as they were. One was as grey and lithe as a seal, and the other was black as soot.

Coileán, the head groom, was trying to rope the black. It dealt him a sharp kick to the shin and he hopped about on one foot, cursing. Suddenly the two horses ceased their cries. They swiveled their heads toward Deichtire, ears pricking and nostrils wide. Both headed straight for her, and she felt a stab of alarm. They were only colts, but what if one should kick her, and knock the babe from her arms? Her father had taught her that horses reflected whatever emotions the people around them displayed. It was best to appear relaxed and confident. She held her ground.

The colts reached her, one on each side, and gently nudged their noses into Sétanta’s blanket, making light snuffling noises. Still she didn’t move; clearly they only wanted to smell him, and they seemed quite calm now. For his part, Sétanta opened his eyes and regarded them with the same gravely intent look he had given her.

Satisfied, the pair withdrew and trotted over to Coileán, docilely allowing him to halter them. “Where did they come from?” she asked the other groom.

“Dunno, my lady,” he said. “They arrived last night and slowly circled the place, getting closer and closer. Lovelies, they are. We’ve had no word of lost colts, so we plan to rear them for the young master.” He gestured to Sétanta, who was now twisting and stretching his muscular little body with great vigor, like a fish on a line. It was all she could do to keep hold of him.

After that, Sétanta and his horses had to meet at least once a day, or he turned peevish, and they mischievous. The trio grew quickly, and the horses were greatly admired among the Ulstermen. Súaltam proudly called them Liath Macha and Dubh Sanglain, supposing that they were a gift from Macha in memory of the twins she had borne at the great royal dún of Emain Macha. Sétanta sat their backs before he could walk, and he walked in his sixth moon. Deichtire supposed that this was normal for his age, until she realized that Fearbán’s boy Ailín, far older than Sétanta, was only now trying his first unsteady steps.

Sétanta’s thoughts were always of the twin horses and his beloved toy weapons, the sling with its pebbles so lethal to birds and the miniature spear that Súaltam whittled from a yew sapling. Yet he was an affectionate child, never hesitating to come to Deichtire or kiss her, even when others were looking on. They met other boys only when they visited Emain Macha, and after each visit, Sétanta asked when he would be allowed to join the troop there and begin his training in the manly arts. 

“Be patient, my dearest,” she said. “You are younger than they, but your time will come.” Once he tried to go there on Liath Macha’s back, and had to be retrieved by an angry Súaltam, who yet swelled with pride at his son’s precocious ways.

“Deichtire, he must be fostered soon.”

“Husband!” she cried, recoiling at the idea. “He is not yet five years old! Already you wish to take my only son from me?”

Súaltam put his arms about her. “Our son, Deichtire,” he said. “Sétanta is the finest, most promising lad in your brother’s lands. All the Ulstermen are vying for the privilege of fostering him.” When tears sprang to her eyes, he added, “Don’t look so heartbroken. Sencha and Blai and Amergen will send you a troop of their wee timorous lads to mother.”

On the morning he left, she smiled and waved encouragingly as Liath Macha galloped off, carrying her son away as suddenly as he had arrived. Then she went to her chamber and wept inconsolably.

Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss

Notes: Cúchulainn’s two chariot horses are an important part of his legend, characters of the saga in themselves. We will hear more of them as the story progresses.


A “black” foal. To me this looks grey, but I read that there are actually no grey foals. The grey only appears later. Click for source (whitehorseproductions).