Police are investigating the possibility that pagans are behind a "bizarre outbreak of horse mane weaving" in Devon, Dorset and Somerset, the Western Morning News reports.
Some 20 equines have been found with plaits in their manes, and while the initial suspicion was that they were being marked for theft by horse-rustling gangs, the fact that none have actually been lifted has led police to consider the possibility they're being used for "knot magick" rituals.
Such magick commonly involves the tying of knots in a cord, often with feathers or other objects bound in the knots, to create a talisman.* The ritual is carried out with an incantation intended to endow the charm with the power to carry out the creator's wishes.
In this case, the horses may have been used because "pagan gods are thought to have a close connection with horses which adds strength to spells that incorporate the animals".
A baffled PC Jeff Howley, neighbourhood beat manager in Cullompton, Devon, said: "At the moment we do not know of any motive for the plaiting. To start with we thought they were being marked for theft but that is clearly not the case.
"One motive from research by Dorset police who are also investigating a number of cases is that it may be a pagan ritual. It is hard for us to judge at the moment but any speculation will have to be considered."
Jenny Parsons, secretary of the Taunton Vale Harriers Hunt, said she "believes a small group of people are targeting the same animals after communicating through social networking websites".
She offered: "It is possible it's a pagan ritual and I have had reports of a change in horse behaviour, so if these are children's ponies it is an absolutely awful thing to do."
Parsons has set up a horse watch scheme to combat the illicit pagan activity and "urged horse owners to send pictures of the plaits to local police and to remain vigilant".
* Also known as a "witch's ladder".