Horses and roads/Chapter 13



The second letter of ‘Aberlorna’ is most interesting.[1] This gentleman is evidently thinking things out for himself faster than these chapters can carry him. In the common interest it may be well to go over his letter somewhat in detail. His successful, although rather severe, trial must ‘set a good many people thinking,’ especially when they see that within the fortnight he has been so encouraged by the result obtained that he has subjected another horse to similar treatment, only using this time a three-quarter shoe, with the intention of reducing it to a tip later on. Most likely he will bring it to that at the second shoeing; but he is able to take care of himself and his horse, and stands in no need of advice.

‘Hot shoeing will become unnecessary by the use of tips, which any person ought to be able to put on with very little practice, and thus save the time and trouble’ (and, in his case, a twenty mile journey) ‘of having to send their horse away to be shod.’ The writer is under great obligation to ‘Aberlorna’ for having made this remark: he would have already made it himself had he not feared to see it scouted. If owners would interest themselves so far as to accompany their horses to the forge, and carefully watch the process of shoeing, they would see distinctly that the nailing on of a shoe has no great mystery attached to it, and that any carter or groom could do it as well as a farrier, if he tried in earnest. The pointing of the nails is the chief thing. Nails as they come from the manufactory have, of course, a certain kind of point; but it will be seen that farriers always give it a modification by hammering it on one side only, which is on what is intended for the inside, with a view of giving the nail an inclination to drive, in a slight degree, outwards, and so avoid pricking the inner crust. Whilst driving a nail, the operator will be remarked to be feeling, with a finger over the place, where he wishes the point to come out; and, should the slight bulging out, which the nail carries before it, not appear to him to be in the right place, he will draw the nail and point another, and frequently this will be done on the face of the shoe which is partially fixed. Nails that have scales upon them should be rejected, because the scale will weaken the nail at the part where it exists, and may cause it to bulge in, or bend and press upon the sensitive inner parts, although the point may, at the moment when the weak part of the shank gets introduced, be going all right; also, the scale may open out in the course of driving, and cause much injury. The machine-made nails of the Seeley Company are to be recommended for their general good quality and freedom from scaliness. From Belgium also come nails superior to the English-made ones, which seem to be among the poorest.

When once these minutiæ are seized, the fancied difficulty is practically vanquished; and why should not a groom or a carter learn them as easily as a farrier? They generally spring from the same class, and Mr. Douglas tells us that tailors throw down the needle to nail on horseshoes in the army.

We next discover that ‘Aberlorna’ has travelled in South America, and has ridden hundreds of miles on unshod horses, whose feet ‘grew fast.’ He states that ‘he had often to cut the toes’—the toes only, mark—‘which was done with some difficulty with a chisel and mallet.’ To people who have not had his experience it might be interesting to learn from him whether he means that the only difficulty consisted in the density and toughness of the horn being so great as to render a heavy mallet necessary to drive the chisel through it, or whether there was any other annoyance or difficulty attached to the operation; because some people may say that if the annoyance in cutting the toe is as great as that of shoeing, they prefer rather ‘to bear those ills they have, than fly to others they know not of.’ By rasping the toe once or twice a week it may always be kept in good form, and then no cutting would be required.

‘Aberlorna’ has happily known how to compress a large amount of useful observation into the twenty-five lines which his letter occupies; some people cannot say more to the real point in as many columns.

The next statement of this gentleman, who went about the world with his eyes open, is that ‘he does not remember seeing any lame horses except in the towns, and these were generally, if not always, I observed, shod. The (country? ) roads were for the most part sand, full of rough stones, and in some places causewayed for miles. Anyhow they were pretty rough going.’ So, then, it really is a fact that in the towns, where horseshoes would have been brought into fashion by Europeans, and where the road surface would be smoother, shod horses went lame, whilst the unshod ones went sound on long journeys over worse roads. ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’

Another thing which many readers would probably be glad to hear from this gentleman is, whether by ‘causeways’ are to be understood roads that are ’pitched,’ or paved with stone, somewhat like London streets, only more roughly, in parts where they would in the rainy season become otherwise impassable; as, in certain places, such roads do exist to the writer’s personal knowledge. ‘People in this country seem to have no idea what a horse’s foot is. They have always seen horses shod, and think they always must be shod, and never will alter the method if they are let alone.’ Thanks, ‘Aberlorna,’ for putting the thing so plainly; it comes so much better from you. Some who think of a horse’s foot only as a lump of horn stuck on to the end of his leg for the purpose of nailing a shoe on to, will be led by you to investigate the nature of the foot of the horse.

‘As to farriers, it is useless talking to them. Take your horses to them, and make them follow out your directions through thick and thin; it is the only way.’ Exactly so; no one could give better advice.

In November, 1878, a correspondent wrote in a contemporary:—‘The argument against horseshoes seemed to me so strong, and the convenience of doing without them so great, that I resolved to try the experiment. Accordingly, when my pony’s shoes were worn out, I had them removed, and gave him a month’s rest at grass, with an occasional drive of a mile or two on the high road while his hoofs were hardening. The result, at first, seemed doubtful. The hoof was a thin shell, and kept chipping away, until it had worn down below the holes of the nails by which the shoes had been fastened. After this, the hoof grew thick and hard, quite unlike what it had been before. I now put the pony to full work, and he stands it well. He is more sure-footed; his tread is almost noiseless; and his hoofs are in no danger from the rough hands of the farrier; and the change altogether has been a clear gain, without anything to set off against it. The pony was between four and five years old, and had been regularly shod up to the present year. He now goes better without shoes than he ever did with them; and without shoes he will continue to go as long as he remains in my possession.’

That eight months after—in August, 1879—this gentleman should send a copy of this same article to a provincial paper, is proof that he had never had any difficulties after the first month, the time needed for the ‘thick,’ ‘hard’ horn to reach the ground. There is one thing that he does not tell us, but which would have been interesting to know; and it is, whether any of his neighbours found heart and brains enough to profit by his example. His silence leaves room for the conjecture that ‘they had eyes, but saw not.’ It is even possible they still look upon his proceeding as an eccentricity. Such is life; the world might stand still for all that some people care to the contrary.

At the same time that this was passing, a well-known farmer and breeder of shorthorns in Cumberland wrote:—‘I had a brood mare which had been running barefooted for several years, when, ceasing to breed, I took her up and used her as a shepherd’s hack, where she had constant work for two years; and, in travelling from farm to farm, she had a considerable distance of hard road to traverse daily, yet she never required shoeing. In the summer of 1877 I purchased a farm horse which had had the misfortune to get a nail into its foot, and he had been under the farrier’s treatment for several months; but had made so little progress towards recovery, that I determined to try what Nature would do for him. I had his shoes taken off and turned him to pasture. In the spring of 1878, being still rather lame, I put him to work on the land; and he is now doing all sorts of farm work, including drawing manure from the town, and drags his load as well over hard pavement as any shod horse that I have. Whether he could stand constant work on hard roads I am unable to say; but he does all that I require of him, and the experiment is so satisfactory that I intend to put another horse through the same training.’

The ‘Lancet’ says:—‘As a matter of physiological fitness, nothing more indefensible than the use of shoes can be imagined. Not only is the mode of attaching them by nails injurious to the hoof; it is the probable, if not evident, cause of many affections of the foot and leg, which impair the usefulness, and must affect the comfort, of the animal.’ There is no dearth of complaints about horseshoes; but people still ‘cling so tenaciously to the favourite superstition’ of regarding them as ‘necessary evils,’ that the idea of fully examining the other side of the question never seems to occur to them; although, when it is brought to their notice, some are found willing to listen to argument and profit by it.

A weekly, having the date of March 7, has the following paragraph:—‘Whilst on the subject of animals, I should like once more to draw attention to the terrible suffering which greasy wood pavements entail upon the poor horses. The scene on Ludgate Hill is often heartrending. The poor beasts, struggling madly to gain a foothold on the slippery surface, strain and tremble and sweat, and often seriously injure themselves. It is no uncommon thing for the whole traffic to be stopped by a heavily-laden waggon, which the horse, with the ground slipping from under him, vainly endeavours to drag up the hill. Oaths, kicks, and brutal beatings the poor beast gets; but it never seems to strike any one that a little sand or fine gravel thrown in the morning over these wood pavements would conquer the difficulty. Asphalte and wood require keeping clean where there is much traffic. The present object of the authorities seems to be to keep them filthy. One would imagine they were big share-holders in a joint stock horse-slaughtering company.’

For some days preceding the appearance of this paragraph the weather had been finer than usual, and the watering carts had been at work. If, then, under the best of circumstances things were thus, what must they be on some of the days for which London is so famous?

Ludgate Hill is neither very steep nor long, yet we have so often heard these stereotyped complaints about it, that we have come to regard it as a veritable mountain. If this mountain refuses to advance to Mahomet, and there is an urgent necessity for their meeting, why should not Mahomet advance towards the mountain? Sand is, at the best, an incomplete remedy, at the same time that it is a costly one for the ratepayers; and its use, instead of inducing to cleanliness, does the very reverse. Every time the road was swept or scraped, the sand would go with the rest, and then we should be ‘as we were,’ until more was put down. A better measure would be to keep the roadway clean by the use of revolving brushes worked on the end of a cart, into which the dirt should be carried by the brushes. Such sweeping carts were formerly to be seen, but have vanished. But what really wants most looking at is the revers de la médaille. On it would be seen bright, smooth, iron shoes far more slippery than the pavement. Unfortunately for the horse, this face of the coin is downwards, and people will not allow themselves to be persuaded to turn it up and examine it. If they would do so, and efface those slippery shoes, they would find under them a material, placed there by the Almighty to prevent the horse from slipping on smooth surfaces, even on ice. The horses would then give over struggling on the points of their toes, because they would find that a large, tough surface would afford them better holding and a better point d'appui, than would the fractioral part of an inch of a bright, smooth, slippery iron shoe. Then the shouting, swearing, kicking, thrashing, stoppage of traffic, and other outrages to the feelings of humane people, would disappear; and all this would not only not have cost anyone a penny, but both ratepayers and horse owners would have positively economised, even if we say nothing of the diminished liability to street accidents. It is true that horse slaughterers would find business slacker: it must be a good wind that blows no one any harm.

Ludgate Hill, being a principal thoroughfare, falls more under notice than other streets; but let anyone visit the small streets running up from the river. These are paved with stone more slippery than wood, and the slipping upon it, from its not being level, shakes and injures the horses more than when they slip upon wood. These streets, not being in the road of the generality of journalists, remain unnoticed. Horses must be the meekest of animals when they allow themselves to be induced to enter them a second time. Chien échaudé craint Veau froide; the horse is even more docile and tractable, meeker, and less easily scared than the dog.

  1. See Appendix C.