Horses and roads/Chapter 2


A veterinary surgeon, Mr. W. Douglas, late 10th Royal Hussars, was so much impressed by the miseries, diseases, and dangers caused to horses by their being pushed down hill by their loads, that it caused him to write a book upon ‘Horse-shoeing.’ Here is part of his preface:—

‘Passing down Ludgate Hill one day [this was whilst it was paved with stone] my attention was directed to the pitiful condition of a horse in the shafts of a large waggon. The poor animal was not drawing the load, but was being driven down the descent by the crushing weight behind; and, utterly unable, from the manner in which it was shod, to withstand the pressure, it had gathered its hind legs well under, and its fore legs well in advance of its body, in a helpless struggle to avert the fall which it too evidently knew was at hand. Never did I witness such a picture of powerless terror as that horse presented, as with eyes starting, body shaking, and limbs stiffened, it was carried downwards against its will, until the fore and hind feet slipping in the same direction, it came down upon its left side with a crash. The thought of what agony that poor beast must have suffered, even before it fell, has haunted me ever since, and knowing if the horse had been able to use the supple elastic cushion nature has provided its feet with to prevent their slipping—namely, the frog—it could easily have controlled the pressure from behind, I resolved if possible to direct public attention to the present cruel and unwarrantable system of shoeing horses.’

His book is full of valuable remarks on the horse’s foot and on the evils of shoeing as commonly practised; but he missed the mark in failing to recognise (even supposing that the shoe he proposes might not admit of so much slipping) that the horse would still injure his feet and legs by the immense strain put on them in his violent exertions to hold back the waggon—a work that should be done for him. Perhaps he was not acquainted with the brake, and was labouring under the delusion that all that mechanical skill could effect towards the breaking of momentum by friction had been done by making one wheel skid. Mayhew, in the chapter which he dedicates to ‘strain of the flexor tendon,’ says that ‘this is chiefly present in the shaft horse that has to descend a steep declivity, with a load behind it. The weight would roll down the descent; this the horse has to prevent, and the chief stress is then upon the back tendons.’ Elsewhere he states that ‘the frame of the horse is stronger than machinery; but it cannot resist the wilfulness of human misrule.’ Yet, strangely enough, this gentleman, energetically as he speaks, has also failed to seek in mechanics a means of saving the shaft horse excessive and superfluous labour when going down hill, whether over slippery paving, or over rough country roads.

Amongst the societies which we rejoice to possess in England, there is one to prevent dangerous driving. How many of those who form this society have this sensible appendage to any of their own carriages, even those to which they daily trust their own necks? Accidents are not always the faults of drivers. About a year and a half ago, a brougham horse took fright at the engine whistle, and bolted down Ludgate Hill at a gallop. The weather was dry, and the hill not slippery. The coachman succeeded in turning into Farringdon Street (although it looked as if that was the way the horse wanted to go); yet, up the street, it ran into another carriage, and both were wrecked, and both horses very much hurt. Fortunately, no person was seriously injured on the occasion; but the pecuniary damage was great. If the coachman had had, close to his right hand, the handle of a brake which he could have instantly applied firmly to both wheels, he could have diminished the speed from the outset, and have stopped entirely before he came to the spot where the collision occurred; or, at least, he might have brought the speed down sufficiently to enable himself and the other driver between them to avoid it. It was not the slippery shoes (objectionable as they undoubtedly are) that did the harm in this case; but the want of a controlling power more efficient than the man’s arms, which only control the mouth of the horse under any circumstances; and, even then, only as long as the horse chooses to submit, or is able to do so. A man cannot ‘pull a horse up’ with the reins used as a mechanical power, any more than he can get into a basket and raise himself from the ground by lifting at the handles, as the principle is the same; but resistance thrown against the collar will soon tell upon the horse’s speed, and the means of throwing it there by the application of friction to both hind wheels (just short of making them ‘skid’) would do away with a great deal of the present losses of life, and deterioration of valuable property, put down to ‘dangerous driving.’

Conservatism is proverbially strong amongst horse owners, and still more so with grooms and others that surround the horse. In the last century, Lawrence wrote:—‘There are some toils to which even the rich must submit. True knowledge is not to be acquired, or the acquisition to be enjoyed, by deputy; and, if gentlemen and large proprietors of horses are desirous to avoid the difficulties, dangers, and cruelties perpetually resulting from prejudice, ignorance, and knavery combined, they must embrace the resolution of making themselves so far master of the subject as to be able to direct those whom they employ.’

The Earl of Pembroke held very similar sentiments. Mayhew, one of our most modern authorities, says:—‘Of all persons living, grooms generally are the worst informed: here is the curse of horses. No other servant possesses such power, and no domestic more abuses his position. It is impossible to amend the regulation of any modern stable without removing some of this calling, or overthrowing some of the abuses, with a perpetuation of which the stable servant is directly involved.’ But, of the master, he says:—‘The most humane of modern proprietors is an ignorant tyrant to his graceful bondservant;’ to this he might truthfully have added that the most intelligent amongst masters was but a narrowminded bigot. Tel maître tel valet. Betwixt these two classes stands the helpless horse!—not to mention their natural chosen ally, the farrier.

It is not meant to imply that farmers are guilty of overloading or overworking their horses, in the general acceptation of these terms; but that they neglect taking precautions which would enable the horse to do at least the same amount of work, with comfort to himself, greater freedom from disease, prolongation of life, and economy all round for his owner, besides removing from the latter very frequent anxieties resulting from mismanagement of the animal. The advice or opinion of servants should, therefore, not be asked for. They will immediately object to the brake and all other economical improvements: it is upon principle that they object to everything new. The way to begin all economies, therefore, is for owners to escape from the thraldom in which their servants, at present, hold them. Their fetters are self-imposed, and they carry about with them, at all hours, the key to enable them to cast them off; apathy, only, prevents them from doing so. Any man, with determination, could walk into his stable free of them for ever, whenever he chose, and at a moment’s notice. It is humiliating for an educated owner to admit tacitly that such a low class should be his superior, which he is really doing when he asks, or acts upon, their advice; or, which comes to the same thing, when he leaves them to do as they like.

At this point, nine out of every ten readers will throw down the paper, remarking that all this may be true as regards their neighbours; but, as to their own ‘man,’ he does understand horses, and keeps them going without any bother. This is the great mistake. Is it rational to suppose or infer that sweeping dung out of a stable is conducive to the acquirement of even a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy and physiology? Mayhew passed a long career as a veterinary surgeon in continually passing from the stables of one proprietor to those of others; and yet he is unable to cite a redeeming instance of a servant. He appears to have felt this, as he says that he ‘deeply regrets those comments which a regard for correctness has compelled him to offer upon the present race of grooms. He can, however, with sincerity deny that the indulgence of dislike, or the gratification of malice, has induced him to travel beyond the limits of his subject.’ So, upon his authority, supported by that of so many others, right away back to the last century, every one is safe in coming to the conclusion that his ‘man’ knows nothing about horses, and that it is high time that he should take the thing into his own hands; for, unless he does so, the prevention of mismanagement is impossible. If he lack confidence in his own knowledge of the animal, which in any case should not be less than that of a carter or horsekeeper, let him read. The subject is replete with interest and entertainment; but he should choose modern works if he wishes to march with the age.