Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Secrets Behind 'Marocco' - the devil's horse.

A week ago I posted about the true story of Marocco, the 17th century, performing horse whose act was so good that he was accused of witchcraft. At the time his feats were so exceptional that some believed the only way they were possible was through witchcraft. During the lifetime of his act, Marocco’s trainer, William Banks, declined to explain how the tricks were done : - even to the point of getting Marocco to kiss a crucifix (and prove his skill was derived from the Holy Spirit, rather than the devil) instead of explain the truth.

It was after Banks retired from show business and set up a tavern that he eventually relented. He agreed to share his secrets with an early hippologist, Mr Gervase Markham, as a testament to the intelligence of his horse. Markham considered Banks’ information as of the utmost importance and devoted a chapter to it in his 1607 edition of his book Cavelaire.

“an explanation of the excellence of a horses understanding and how to teach them to doe trickes like Bankes.”

It transpired that Banks bought Marocco as a foal and from that day allowed no one else but him to exercise, feed, fuss or groom the colt. He treated the animal with great kindness at all times and soon the horse started following his master like a dog. During training lessons, if Marocco performed well, he was rewarded with his favourite bread. If he did badly he was given no food that day in order to sharpen his attention on the following day.

Using this system of rewards Banks taught the horse to raise a foreleg on the command “Up!” and by raising and lowering a rod indicated how many times he was to strike his hoof.

‘Giving him a bit of bread til he be so perfit that, as you lift up your rod, so he will moved his foot to the ground.”

Then Marocco learnt to do without the rod, becoming alert as soon as the word ‘Up!’ was mentioned.  Banks then used facial expressions to tell Marocco how often to stamp his foot.

“it is a rule in the nature of horses, that they have an especial regard to the eye, face and countenance of their keepers.” 

Once this trick was perfected it was an easy step to ask the horse to tell him how many knaves, or harlots, were in the audience that day.

For tricks such as returning a glove to a member of the audience, Banks first taught Marocco to retrieve like a dog. Then he pointed his rod to an assistant and rewards the horse for going to him instead. If he approached the wrong assistant Banks said “Be wise!” and once he chose correctly “So, boy!”  Eventually Marocco became so skilled he could do without the verbal commands and be guided solely by Banks’ face. As Markham, who had seen the act numerous times, remarked:

“Marocco never removed his eyes from his master’s face.”

After Marocco’s retirement, Banks never trained another horse, but their were many successors in show business. One such was the little horse, Billy, the star of Astely’s circus in the late 18th century. Billy could dance, boil tea and serve it like a waiter. However when the circus went bankrupt, Billy was sold to a tradesman who put in harness pulling a cart. Some years later, one of the circus performers recognised the dusty, rundown horse and when he clicked his fingers, little Billy started tapping his foreleg.

Billy was repurchased and re-entered the circus life, where he performed for many years. He died at the great age of 42…and his skin was made into a huge thunder-drum, used for special effects at the circus. A sad end for a talented horse.

No records exist of how Marocco ended his days.


  1. Entertaining followup to last week's blog on the same subject. I really did enjoy these pieces on Marocco.

  2. It is a tribute to kindness. Animals and people respond much better to kindness than to harsh training. Nobody wants to please a harsh teacher. Children naturally want to please a kind parent, although of course as they get older, they tend toward independence, but that is the natural order of things. There is no need to step outside of kind discipline, even when a teenager strikes out in a direction that the parents don't care for. I'm not saying no discipline, just kind discipline. Kids also need structure. I'm telling you something you already know. Off track again, but I was impressed by the results of the kind training of the horse.

  3. I hope such a beautiful creature ended his days in the lap of luxury! Wonderful post, Grace. I love animals.

  4. Thank you to everyone who left a comment. Karen, I can only hope that after Banks went to so much trouble to raise Marocco, he must have also loved his horse...and saw to his needs in later life.

  5. Hey!

    I really enjoyed the story about Marocco. It's interesting that he took his cue from his owner's facial expession.I have noticed that my horses get upset when I am yelling at my an angry voice is noticed. But I wasn't aware of the facial expression thing.

    So I learned something new today!

    Nicki Lynn


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