This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

From chivalric steed to noble shire horse

Posted in Animals, British Countryside, Communications, Farming, Historical articles, Transport on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about the horse originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1049 published on 17 April 1982.

Farm horses, picture, image, illustration

Farmers used oxen before the middle ages, but the invention of the horse collar along with the ready availability of horses after the passing of the knights wearing their heavy armour, meant that there was a ready supply of strong powerful horses which could now work alongside and replace those traditional working cattle. Picture by David Nockells

For centuries “horse power” was the main source of energy used by man. We still use the term to describe the power of an engine, and until this century the horse was essential to carry people and goods from place to place.

To govern a large empire successfully, a ruler needed to be able to keep in touch with the outlying parts, to send messages and receive information swiftly. Cyrus, ruler of the mighty Persian empire, set up the first fast and regular messenger service in about 400 BC. He organised a system of relay stations along the road, where messengers on horseback could obtain fresh horses.

The Romans, too, linked up their enormous empire with a fast, efficient communications system. Their couriers, using teams of horses harnessed to a light, four-wheeled cart, could cover about 130 kilometres a day.

During the 13th or 14th century in Europe, the horse collar was invented. This was a great improvement on the old yoke and neck strap, which was really best suited to oxen. For the first time, horses could use their powerful shoulder muscles to pull heavy loads efficiently.

There was no system by which the ordinary people could send messages, except by private messenger service, which was expensive, until the 17th century, when most countries set up postal systems using relays of men on horseback.

These mounted couriers were eventually replaced, however, by mail coaches, which were so fast and efficient that they soon began to attract passengers. The mail coaches were better made than other coaches and their smooth suspension gave passengers a better ride. There were posting stations all along the road, where the tired horses could be changed for fresh ones. It was hard work for the horses, who were only kept on the job for three or four years.

In the mid-19th century, the Pony Express was started in America, to carry mail across 3,000 kilometres of wild country from St. Joseph to Sacramento. Relays of riders covered the distance in 10 days.

The famous Buffalo Bill was one of the riders. When the telegraph line was set up and messages could be sent in minutes, the Pony Express ended.

Different kinds of coaches and carriages were designed and built, from the small, two-wheeled chaise for fashionable gentlemen to the large four-wheeled charabancs, used for public sight-seeing tours, and the stagecoach, with its powerful horses.

With horses the main means of transport, a city or town would have been full of horses a hundred years ago. A large city might have had 300,000 horses on its streets.

There were heavy draught-horses pulling buses and delivery carts; placid black horses, known as the “black brigade”, pulling hearses and funeral carriages; and grey horses, because of their conspicuous colour, used for pulling fire engines. Land was scarce in the centre of cities, so horses were often kept in two-storey stables, with a ramp leading to the upper floor.

The first “fire horses” were used back in Roman times. The Emperor Augustus employed 600 men as fire-fighters in 21 BC. They had pumps, leather buckets, picks for pulling down burning buildings, cloths soaked in vinegar as fire extinguishers, ladders and jumping sheets.

This equipment was rushed to the fire on horse-drawn tenders, with the firemen dashing along behind. The London Fire Brigade was established in 1886 and its equipment was not very different from that of ancient Rome. For many years all the fire engines were drawn by horses.

Long before the railways appeared, wagons that ran on rails were used. They were pulled by horses. In the coal mines, tough little Welsh or Shetland ponies pulled “tubs” of coal from the pit-face along narrow passageways on rails. From the age of four until they were too old to work, they lived underground in stables. In 1900 there were over 70,000 pit ponies in Britain’s mines.

Before the steam engine was developed, horse power had to be used to operate all kinds of farm machinery. Many farms and workyards had horse gear, a contraption to which the horse was harnessed. It could be fitted on to many different types of machine, such as butter churns, threshing machines and the grinding stones of a mill.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.