Horses and roads/Chapter 20
The ‘Field,’ in its issue of May 1, 1880, contains the following:—‘Last week I saw in the City a brown horse without shoes drawing a full-sized brougham: his feet seemed particularly sound and Well-shaped. It would be interesting to learn the method of treatment, and the length of time necessary to fit a horse for use unshod on the London stones. If the owner should see these lines, perhaps he will give your readers the benefit of his experience.’
This communication proves that there is at least one more unshod horse going sound in our midst, and that he has excited the interest of at least one observer. Although this gentleman does not directly express it, he seems to imply his wonder how the horse could do his work over the paved streets of London, which are the cause of so much injury to shod horses through their slipping about upon them so continually, and the ‘concussion striking through the iron up the leg’ (Douglas).
This brings us back again to the question of roads—there are no bad ones for an unshod horse; but neither the hardest nor the roughest are the worst.
We have before cited Xenophon, but now we will do so more fully. He says: ‘Damp and smooth stable-floors injure even naturally good hoofs; to prevent damp, they should slope backwards.’ The damp of acrid excrement is evidently implied. ‘To prevent them from being smooth, they should have irregular-shaped stones inserted in the ground, and close to one another, similar to a horse’s hoof in size; for such stable-floors give firmness to the feet of horses that stand upon them. The ground outside the stable-door, upon which the horse is groomed, may be put into excellent condition, and serve to strengthen the horse’s feet, if a person throws down upon it here and there four or five measures full of round stones, large enough to fill the two hands, and each about a pound in weight, surrounding such spaces with an iron rim, so that the stones may not get scattered; for as the horse stands on these, he will be in much the same condition as if he were made to travel part of every day on a stony road. A horse must also move his hoof when he is being rubbed down, or when he is annoyed with flies, as much as when he is walking; and the stones which are thus spread about will strengthen the frogs of his feet. He that gives trial to this suggestion will give credit to others which I shall offer, and will see the feet of his horse become firm.’
Paul Louis Courier translated Xenophon’s treatise, and was so impressed with its inculcations that he put them to the proof by riding unshod horses in the Calabrian campaign of 1807, and he found them right. Does not this look as if we have been striving to know better than our masters, and hunting to heel, or peering through the wrong end of the telescope? The ‘Cavalry Officer’ before quoted had got hold of the right end of the thing, and so have a few others who have given their experience to empty air from time to time.
The unshod horse can successfully deal with all roads. Those that are soft, and have to be travelled over continually, are the worst for him; but Xenophon shows us how to meet even this difficulty, by making him stand at every opportune moment upon the roughest material we can find for paving. How opposed is it to the opinions and ideas of the present age, that a horse could be benefited by dancing about upon loose shingle of the size of an orange, whilst he was being groomed outside a stable that was intentionally roughly paved for the purpose of giving as much attrition as possible, in even waste time.
Xenophon did not write upon theory, but gave the result of his practice and experience, which does not seem to have taught any one very much, for we find modern writers who quote him shifting out of the question by stating that he had not our modern artificial hard roads to deal with. From his style of writing we may infer that he would have been glad to shake hands with Macadam, or even with a pavior that would extend his stable floors out-of-doors as far as possible. He would not have asked for a steam-roller to smooth down loose stones, because he knew that his horses would prefer them to the soft mire encountered continually when in campaign, at which times they could not always get the benefit of the hard floors, on the use of which in barracks he laid so great stress.
The universal idea nowadays is that horses must have something ‘nice and soft to stand upon’ when they are not at work, and that this something should have smoothness also connected with it; some people even argue that a stable without straw spread over it in the daytime looks naked and comfortless. This is conventionality. In Spain the best-appointed stables are clean swept by day, and the presence of an odd straw knocking about would be considered slovenliness. Tastes differ according to established customs or prevailing fashions; but the hygiene of the horse should never be sacrificed to such empty and variable things as fashions or appearances of any kind.
‘Herts’ seems unwilling to believe that unshod horses could trot for miles together over roads contructed and repaired with flints. They can do so, however, and with more ease and comfort than shod ones. If they could not, there would be an end of the thing, for evidently the horse should be able to go anywhere and everywhere, and at a moment’s notice. This is just what shod horses cannot do, as they are continually being sent to the forge to have alterations made when a frost sets in, or for some other reason. His statement that his horses are found very much lamed and cut when they go only half a journey over such roads, after losing a shoe, everyone (including the writer) will most readily accept. As regards the deer that could not stand upon its feet for three weeks after a run, we have no evidence that he ran upon macadamised roads, or even that he suffered in his feet. He most likely had too much of either the pace or the distance, and so had given out, as many a good horse has frequently had to do, and even die in the field upon occasions, notwithstanding his being blessed with shoes. This accident to a solitary deer does not seem to have led to the practice of shoeing deer that have to be hunted. It is generally accepted amongst sportsmen (those who ride, at least) that their chase should have fair play. The deer which we hunt in England are captive animals (except those on Exmoor), and if shoeing would give them fairer play they certainly ought to get the benefit of it; not only on account of the fair play, but also on the score of speed, activity, confidence, and staying powers, of which they might (theoretically) take advantage, and which should make their chase all the more exciting. Perhaps people are afraid that then they would never be run down at all, or even viewed. Foxes run stoutly, and some of them manage to outrun both hounds and huntsmen without the aid of so much as a sock or slipper, and so do the deer on Exmoor that have rougher ground to deal with than most people imagine; yet we do not hear much about their going into hospital. The deer that got so knocked up on the occasion cited could not have been in condition, or ‘fit’ for a hard run, and must have been prostrated by simple overexertion. Should he be brought forward after many years as evidence that horses require shoeing? Fair argument and common sense do not appear to be entirely necessary to everyone who is determined not to be convinced.
However, as regards those sharp flints, Mr. Douglas has informed us that the frog does not fear them. Colonel Burdett says that the natural sole is almost impenetrable, and so hard and strong that it protects the sensible sole from all harm; and Osmer tells us that all feet exposed to hard objects become more obdurate thereby if the sole be never pared. Now, has ‘Herts’ considered that our shoe does not cover either the frog or more than the edge of the sole, and, mutilated as they are by the knife, that the sharp stones must continually be reaching them, and that still horses do not get cut by flints in these parts? Where they get cut and crippled is on the brittle crust, and sometimes on the outer rim of the sole, precisely those parts which have always been covered and protected with iron, or, in fact, deprived of all attrition, whilst the frog and sole get some occasionally from inequalities to be met with on almost every road. Both of these must, therefore, be exposed to the sharp points of the broken flints in question to a very great degree, although they do not hurt them unless a stone gets fixed between the shoe and the sole. People ought not to want to have such simple facts pointed out to them; they see them daily, and they are patent enough. But no; people close the doors of their minds, and when they have incapacitated the outer rim of the foot from performing its natural functions, they point triumphantly to it, as if the mischief were not their own bringing about. Certainly, no one must expect to tear off the shoes and be able to put the animal to full work in five minutes afterwards. Not only has no one been invited to act thus unreasonably, but they have been warned against it. For hardworking horses, that cannot be suspended from labour, the use of tips has been recommended. Keep on with the tips if you are satisfied with the results they give you, for months if you choose, or even altogether, if you are afraid to go farther. You will, anyhow, have made a vast improvement.
Here is another argument in favour of tips. You may have an ordinary full-sized shoe put on in the best manner possible, even inspected by the best veterinary surgeon to be found, and one who will forbid all carving away of the frog bars and sole, and will see that the frog comes down to the ground (even if it has to go over the Hertfordshire flints, for which the veterinary surgeon will have no fear), and then you will get frog pressure, which is already something, and your horse will then be one of the best shod in England, but if you will just lift up his foot and examine the frog, you will see that it is semi-cloven. Now, as you will hardly regard the cleft as the result of a careless construction, you should reason out for yourself what it is there for, and then you could hardly help arriving at the conclusion that it was to allow the heels to spread. Why then do you lock them together with a full shoe? You have obtained some pressure and attrition for the frog by abstaining from mutilation, but its third necessity—expansion—you do away with altogether. This has been expounded by Bracy Clark. Mayhew says:—‘You cannot treat an organic body as if it were an inorganic one,’ but this is just what you are doing when you turn a flexible foot into a rigid one. Hope was also aware of this, and he recommended that, after a journey, the two hindermost nails on each side of the shoe should be drawn, to give the horse relief. All kinds of dodges have been proposed with the same view, but the tip is the only one that has answered; so you are earnestly advised to try it. You risk absolutely nothing, as has been proven over and over again. Keep up its use as long as you feel nervous about leaving it off; but when you determine on getting rid entirely of what Bracy Clark calls ‘the miserable, coerced, shod foot,’ and entering that seventh heaven of a horseman, where the bother, anxiety, and expense of shoes are unknown, you must bear in mind that the horn at the toe will still be somewhat brittle, and may chip away until the nail-holes have grown down to the ground. This is to be prevented or remedied by following Osmer’s advice to ‘keep them rasped round and short at the toe.’ The nail-holes will grow out much sooner than may be expected.
Hear Bracy Clark on the difference of the rate of growth of horn in the shod and unshod horse:—‘To consider all the beauty and purposes of the singular construction of the foot, we must dismiss from our views the miserable, coerced, shod foot entirely, and consider the animal in a pure state of nature, using his foot without any defence… The wall, or crust, of the hoof, where there is a demand for its wear, grows rapidly, as when in a state of nature and exposed to the ground; but, shod, it loses this power in so great a degree that in many horses a few thin slices only can be removed at each shoeing, after the interval of four or five weeks, in which time twenty times as much horn would have been produced had there been a demand for it.’ It may be doubted by some that horn can grow so fast when allowed to do so, and it may be asked where it is to be seen. On the heels and quarters attrition uses it up as fast as it grows, and so these parts never require rasping—in fact, they must be let alone altogether. But in the case of the toe it is different, for attrition will not suffice to keep down an exuberant growth, and the rasp is, therefore, needed to remove it. All that have had the experience are agreed upon that point.
Bracy Clark dedicated the best part of his life to the task of producing a perfect horseshoe. He did not succeed in this task, any more than he succeeded in seeing the fall force of his own arguments. In this he was rivalled later on by Miles, who wrote:—‘The principal argument upon which the uninformed ground their objection to bringing in the heels of the shoe is the necessity which they affirm to exist for affording the horse more support at the heels than Nature has given him, and which they say my plan entirely deprives him of. Now, what does this argument amount to? Neither more nor less than a declaration that the Almighty Creator of the Universe has failed in imparting to the horse’s foot the form best suited to its requirements, and has delegated to the puny intellect of man the task of devising a remedy. Surely the stoutest sticklers for the infallibility of old plans and old prejudices will shrink from subscribing to such a doctrine as this.’ Mayhew wrote:—‘A return to perfect freedom could alone cure the evils caused by unnatural restraint.’ Still, after expressing himself thus, Mayhew ‘went home and invented another shoe,’ as Mr. Fearnley says, but one which never came into use, and never will.
It is lamentable to find writers of such calibre holding forth such arguments, afflicted with shoes on the brain up to the very last, and unable either to get over or break through the low, flimsy fence which stood between them and the field which contained perfection.