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Horses and roads/Chapter 1






In the crisis through which agriculturists are at present passing, economical improvements of all kinds are being sought after. Much has been written about the horse; but the field he affords for writing is so extensive and fertile, that much still remains to be said; indeed, he will afford a theme for a very long time to come, to say the least.

To begin with, let us consider the vehicles he is often obliged to draw. Mayhew, an eminent veterinary surgeon, formerly demonstrator at the Royal Veterinary College, states, in one of the various works he has written upon the horse, that 'it is a disgrace to the intelligence of the present age that any cart should be built without springs; the real question being whether living thews and sinews should endure the burden, or whether this shall be imposed upon inanimate metal? Reducing the matter to £ s. d., which is cheaper? Fact pronounces “iron” to be the answer.’ Thus much for springs, upon which nothing more is necessary than to give full and hearty assent to Mayhew’s opinion.

But there is another subject connected with carts, waggons, and all other vehicles upon which Mayhew has not touched, but which may be here introduced. Those who have been on the Continent may (or may not, according to the use they made of their eyes) have remarked that all vehicles, whether two-wheeled or four-wheeled, are fitted with brakes, which not only serve for down-hill work, but are also applied when horses run away, or when they are left to stand. It will be said that our four-wheeled heavy waggons are fitted with a chain, or a skid. Granted; but these cannot be put to various uses with the same celerity and utility that a proper brake can; in fact, in the case of runaway horses, they are of no use at all. Even in the other cases they are far behind the brake, as they necessitate a stoppage of the team to apply them, and another to remove them. They mostly stop only one wheel; which wheel, in the case of the chain, is exposed to injury by having the tire worn into facets at the corresponding distances from whatever spoke the chain may be put against, while the spoke sometimes breaks; the violent jerk thrown on the next spoke carrying away that one also, as well as those that come after, and so on, until the axletree comes down on the ground and is either broken or bent, the shaft horses being generally injured, and sometimes the driver also.

The brakes used on the Continent are always applied to both wheels on the same axle, and they are not screwed up tight enough to effect an entire stoppage of the wheels, as it is found that wheels with smooth tires skidding on a smooth road do not break momentum as much as when the wheel is almost stopped, and biting, by friction, the blocks of the breaks. These brakes vary in form. For horses driven from a box or dickey they are generally worked by means of a screw with a cranked handle, sometimes by a lever and a toothed rack; and for such vehicles as are driven by carters that walk alongside their teams, or even a single horse, they are most commonly a lever which has a ring at the top, to which is attached a rope, the other end of which passes through another ring in the shaft, enabling the driver to pull down the lever. He then makes a fast knot, but a slip one, which he can easily pull loose, and thus throw off the action of the brake without stopping his horses to either put it ‘off’ or ‘on.’ As being safer, the lever is sometimes placed behind the vehicle. Two-wheeled vehicles, with half a dozen horses, with one of these horses only in the shafts, are thus safely used.

A horse should not have to work when going down hill; but, on the contrary, it should be so managed for him that at every descent, however gentle, he should have some respite from work, as a sort of set-off against the hard labour he endures when drawing a load up hill. There are very many reasons for this besides this most apparent one. Even with our four-wheeled heavy trucks and waggons, the chain or skid is not always put on for every slight descent, as the brake is on the Continent. The approaches to London Bridge, for instance, are bad—in certain weathers especially so—but frequently skids are not applied on account of the necessity for stopping to put them on and off—which stoppage the traffic does not always admit of—and so the poor horses pay in a direct way, and their careless masters in rather a more indirect one. Unfortunately they only pay out of their pockets, whilst the horse pays with his frame.

It is astonishing that the railway companies, above all others, being such large horse owners as they are, have not paid attention to brakes on their street vans, because, as they employ the best mechanical skill attainable for their other rolling stock, they might have easily appointed an engineer to see what he could do for their horse trucks; but it looks as if no engineer ever went near the horses or trucks, or even noticed them in the streets, where mechanical skill ought to see that there was room for improvement. It appears as if this branch were left entirely to the surveillance of ignorant, prejudiced drivers, horsekeepers, and farriers, who have no emulation, but are quite satisfied to go on like their predecessors. It must be understood that railway companies are only cited because they have actually in their employ the men who could see this at a glance, if their attention were directed to it, and almost as soon remedy the evil. But no—they continue in the same old groove, and squander thousands yearly upon horseflesh, at the same time that they are also cruelly working a noble animal, by many considered the most noble and useful ever designed by Nature for man's use.

Besides the mere hard work taken out of horses in holding back a load, it must be apparent to those who know anything about the animals, that they also suffer severely from many diseases brought on thereby. Either slipping and shaking over slippery pavements, or knuckling over on roads which do not allow them to slide, causes a great strain and vibration on the nails with which their shoes are attached, and from them to the hoofs in which the nails are imbedded, thence to the bones and cartilages enclosed in the hoofs, and so on up to the hock and knee, at the very least, besides causing severe strain on all tendons and their sheaths. Hence they are found to be suffering from a great variety of diseases in one, many, or all of these parts, in a short time after they have been first harnessed; let us say in the shape of corns, thrush, quittor, cutting, sandcracks, ring-bone, greasy heels, seedy toe, drop-sole, or pumiced feet, ossified cartilages, which are sometimes called side-bones, splints, spavins, navicular disease, &c. Horses are often to be seen with a pad confined by a leather strap, or else tarred string, applied to keep their hoofs together, and yet they work them, and no one interferes. They manage to steer clear of the law, of which it has been said that 'a coach and four may be driven safely through any Act.' These diseases are the result of reckless treatment, which is very unprofitable to horse owners, let alone the cruelty.

It is pretty well known—or, if it is not, it should be—that any of these diseases, once set up, are extremely difficult to cure; but, on the contrary, mostly go on increasing under the care of ignorant farriers. If an intelligent veterinary should be called in, he will mostly advise a long rest and mild remedies; but this means loss of work, although it means also a prolongation of the useful life of the horse, if the warning be taken on the first appearance of disease. In general, however, violent remedies, such as blistering, &c., are resorted to, and as soon as possible the horse is put to work again, without having had even the benefit of a rest; for a horse with a blister on cannot be expected to enjoy as a rest the few days he is suffering with a blister.

Railway companies are not referred to in this case, or in any future ones. They were mentioned only as being a power in the land, with a special facility for applying mechanical means to reduce the work of their horses, which are spread over the whole of the kingdom. Improvements on their part would therefore be more extended, general, and useful, than even those adopted by brewers or distillers, who, having, as a rule, no dividends to pay, perhaps work their horses under the mark; and they are not losers by that, as their animals last them longer. Still, no one takes this into account; and they are by many considered prodigal in horseflesh. Most likely they know to the contrary; still they may do even better by breaking their trucks down every descent.

Brakes cost infinitely less than forced losses in the shape of rests, and still more in the shape of new acquisitions of horseflesh. It is within the bounds of possibility that the men connected with the care of such horses might be brought to acknowledge that they were none the worse for the brakes; but, ignorant and bigoted as they generally are, it might be difficult to extract from any but an exceptionally intelligent and observing man that they thought much of the change. They know all about horses—in their own opinion. Of course, they should not be led to believe that all existing diseases can thus be entirely cured, especially if in at all an advanced stage. They should, if reasonable, be satisfied on seeing them arrested in the case of old horses, and on having it pointed out to them that young horses were free from them for a longer time, and in a less degree, than formerly under the old system; and they may be brought to confess that the horses generally ‘did better,’ to use a phrase very common amongst this class of men.

But agriculturists extensively use two-wheeled carts without any means of breaking them down hill; 007 and hills in the country roads are constantly to be met with both longer and steeper than those to be found in London, although not always so slippery. In these cases their horses suffer, at least, as much deterioration as any of those hitherto mentioned. They load the carts heavily, as they try to work near, and so make their horses ‘earn their living,’ as they really should do in their case, which is at present a hard one; but they should consider thoughtfully whether it is profitable to make a horse work hard when going down hill, and so injuring him really more than in drawing a load up hill.

The foregoing remarks have been made to lead up to such cases, although it is open to any other parties to profit by them if they choose. It has been said that ‘the work which kills one horse will bring in money enough to buy another;’ but this is a great fallacy—in fact, an immense mistake, as it is generally interpreted. Besides, it is evident that no horse can possibly pull over a certain weight up a certain ascent; yet often a single shaft horse is expected, and obliged, to do his best to keep back, without mechanical help, the same weight which has required two, or often three, horses to drag it up the same incline in a two-wheeled cart. Is this rational, or even economical, when well considered? There is another saying, common among horsemen, that ‘one horse can wear out four pairs of legs;’ but it is also rational to believe that Nature gave the horse the same requisite number of legs that she gave to all other creatures designed for the use of man. It is not in their lawful use that they become so soon worn out, but in the abuse that is made of them.

If Mayhew used such forcible language about springs, it may, with at least equal justice, be said that it is a disgrace to the intelligence of the present age that any vehicle whatever, from the heaviest waggon down to the pony basket of the farmer’s daughter, should be built without a brake; the real question being whether living thews and sinews should endure the burthen, or whether this should be imposed upon inanimate metal and wood. Reducing the matter to £ s. d., which is the cheaper?