Horses and roads/Chapter 4



Servants are apt to be very exacting as to the quantity of straw for litter, and they keep some all day long under the horse’s feet, ignorantly believing that it is a comfort and a benefit to the horse.Here, again, they are wrong; and upon both points. Let any proprietor go to his stable, upon returning on a Sunday from morning church service, when the horses will, perhaps, have been left to themselves for three hours, and he will find that his horses have been trying to get rid of it by scraping holes in it, in which to stand in ease and comfort on the bare floor, having pushed as much as they can back into the gangway. It is probable, also, that instinct takes part in their dislike to it, on the score of its being unhealthy, as well as uncomfortable to them.

Xenophon wrote in praise of a bare stone pavement: ‘It will cool, harden, and improve a horse’s feet merely by standing on it.’ Lord Pembroke says: ‘The constant use of litter makes the feet tender, and causes swelled legs; moreover, it renders the animals delicate. Swelled legs may be frequently reduced to their proper natural size by taking away the litter only; which, in some stables where ignorant grooms and farriers govern, would be a great saving of bleeding and physic, besides straw. I have seen, by repeated experiments, legs swell and unswell, by leaving litter, or taking it away, like mercury in a weather glass.’ It has also been found in the army that the troopers’ horses, which are not bedded down during the day, never suffer so much from corns, contractions, thrush, and grease as the officer’s chargers do, which have straw to stand upon whenever they are in the stable.

Some owners, with a view to economy, substitute sawdust for the straw, and they leave it for weeks without changing it. This is a still greater mistake; it gets saturated with acids and alkalies, and is most injurious to the feet as well as to the general health of the animals. Veterinary surgeons assign, as one of the causes of cough, ‘rank bedding.’ It is a frequent source of seedy toe; yet, not many weeks since, a groom to whom this remark was made laughed it to scorn, saying that it was the best possible preventive to the disease, and was, moreover, the very best cure for it in a horse already affected with it; and, he added, the older and more rotten the sawdust the more effective. His horse did have seedy toe shortly after this, and the veterinary had to be called in. He, of course, had all this rotten muck immediately removed. The use of sawdust is no economy at all, when considered from the right point of view. The problem to be solved is, how to keep your horse in health and get the most work you reasonably can out of him. Straw, used with judgment, will be found as economical as an3rthing else; it should only be put under the horse the last thing at night, and it should be removed the first thing in the morning. The horse will dirty it but little in the night; the dirty portion should, of course, be carried out of the stable, and, in this manner, no alarming expense of straw is incurred.

It is well known to many travellers that in countries quite as cold as England straw is so scarce and valuable that horses even sleep by night on the bare floor; and the horses from some of these countries are imported to England with a great reputation for possessing hardiness and sound constitutions. But they do not dwell with us long before we improve them down to a level with our own breeds (in this respect), by hot stabling, foul atmosphere, and many other fanciful crotchets which come under the headings of ‘mistaken kindness,’ or ‘mistaken economy;’ and economy well understood is specially in demand, and should be sought, in the present ‘hard times.’ In the case of straw a double economy is very visibly to be found in using it sparingly, as the outlay upon the article itself is reduced; and the horse, by being freer from ailments, can do more work in the course of the year.

Certain classes of horses get, in the course of the year, a diminution or cessation of labour. This is looked forward to by the owner with an inane kind of idea that the horses will receive benefit from their ‘rest;’ as, indeed, they really ought to do, if they were sanely dealt with during that time. The stableman looks forward to the same period with ferocious satisfaction, as then he will have an opportunity of giving swing to his cruelties. Beforehand he is rejoicing in projects of ’physicking’ (i.e. purging) and blistering, and then ‘conditioning,’ his hapless and helpless horses, and counting on the empire he has over his master—and he is seldom wrong on that head—for carte blanche. Mayhew says ‘the prejudices of ignorance are subjects for pity: the slothfulness of the better educated merits reprobation.’ ‘No slave proprietor possesses the power with which the groom is invested.’ In Brazil the slave-owner is not allowed by law to flog his slaves himself; if they are judged to merit flogging they have to be sent to an official specially appointed in each district for that purpose, which official is, of course, free from anger and vindictiveness, and only lays on the regular strokes, which the owner would be likely to exceed both in force and number.

Aloes, as being the most violent and irritating of purges, is the favourite one with the groom. It frequently remains inside the horse a couple of days before it ‘sets;’ it often thus causes inflammation or irritation of the kidneys, and terribly weakens him. Its operation has hardly ceased when the man is applying blisters to the horse’s legs; and the most powerful of ‘patents’ and ‘vesicants’ are his greatest favourites. A horse first weakened by a drastic purge, and then tortured by one of these infernal inventions, is more injured than if he had continued at hard work instead of having his ‘rest.’ A modern professor of veterinary science says: ‘Let all gentlemen discharge the veterinary surgeon who proposes to blister the legs of their horses. The author has beheld hundreds of blisters applied to the legs, but he cannot remember one instance in which such applications were productive of the slightest good.’ Youatt said: ‘Agriculturists should bring to their stables the common sense which directs them in the usual concerns of life.’ Youatt wrote half a century ago, and for farmers; yet it is doubtful whether things have not got worse since then, in spite of his advice. Mayhew says that the administration of three or four bran mashes is in general a sufficient purge; and he further says that, ‘during the years he was in active practice, he does not remember to have given a dose of aloes’ (presumably only then on an emergency) ‘that the symptoms did not afterwards cause him to regret the administration. They are at present chiefly employed in accordance with the dictates of routine.

Routine seems to be having a long innings in most respects as regards the horse. After long and energetic representations and arguments on the part of Mr. Flower, some of the horse proprietors in London finally discovered, upon trial, that their horses could actually do more work without bearing reins—this was a severe blow to routine—and now most, or nearly all omnibus, van, car, cab, and tramway horses are driven without them in London.

Many gentlemen have also done away with them for their horses; even four-in-hand drags are frequently seen without them—but cart horses, say for instance (and only because they happened to turn up first on the surface of memory), those working in the carts belonging to the vestry of St. George’s, Hanover Square, are still hampered with them. They are to be seen with their chins drawn up to their breasts, thus having their stride shortened, and thus making many more steps than natural to each mile they travel; and every step, short as it may be, entails a putting in motion of the flexor and extensor muscles and their tendons. But Nature has determined the real economical swing of these muscles and their tendons in each direction; and so it results that, by depriving her of her will, such horses are prevented from exercising their powers to the full, and at great inconvenience to themselves, and prejudice to their lasting power also; for something is bound to suffer undue wear and tear when natural extension and flexion are interfered with—even if it should be only the sheaths of the tendons, to put it in a very moderate light.

Farmers plead that cart horses, driven by a man on foot, must have something for that man to catch hold of at certain times, and they also parade and make much of the fact that when they have a hill to ascend, the bearing rein is loosened; therefore they admit that a horse should have ‘the use of his head’ at certain times, yet they do not know where to draw the line, although nothing is easier to draw, if common sense were appealed to.

The cart horse should always have the free use of his head at a walk, as it should and does govern his stride; and if a rein of some sort is necessary for carters to lay hold of occasionally, the measure of the length of that rein is easily found. It is just the length that will allow a horse to use his fullest exertion up hill without bearing upon it. To this they object again that a rein of that length would hang unequally on the sides of the horses’ necks and be troublesome and unsightly. This only shows them to be short of inventive faculties. They have only to sew on a ring just at the double of the reins, at their determined length, and hitch this ring on the hames, when they would find the reins to hang equally and gracefully, and always ready to be caught hold of; although the best carters lay hold of the cheek strap, above the bit, and thus manage their horses better than those who take their hold below the bit.

We won’t quarrel over the last point; but, in the name of common sense, let a horse always have his natural stride—it is essential to his economical work. Yet cart horses are to be seen, in town and country, pegging away with reduced strides, expending on a four-mile journey the same exertion that they would, if allowed, only use on a five-mile one. Their owners handicap them.