Ooh…my aching back!
Horses get sore backs – the same as we do, and much worse.
I’ve posted briefly before about the equipment the British army often has to use being poorer quality than that of the opposition. This lack of attention to detail came to the fore in the Peninsula when infantry were issued with a wood-framed backpack largely manufactured by a company called Trotter’s. The shoulder straps of said pack were joined horizontally across the front by another strap, effectively constricting the soldier’s chest. So not only did the pack frame dig into your back, if you had to run any distance with all your equipment you were too out of breath when you arrived at your eventual destination to do anything useful. ‘Trotter’s Pains’, the men called the discomfort the packs induced. They took every opportunity to swop their packs with those of dead Frenchmen, who carried a reverse-hide pack, the skin tanned with the hair still on it, which was far more comfortable to wear.
Horses, of course, had no such luck – they were stuck with whatever was strapped onto their backs.
The standard cavalry saddle in use during the war was the 1805 ‘Hussar’ pattern. Originally designed to be easy to repair, the saddle was based on two slightly curved wooden rails which sat either side of the horse’s spine, joined by flat timber arches that at the front angled forward and at the rear angled back. Between the arches was fixed a strip of rawhide, laced to the rails down its length so that it formed a narrow suspended ‘seat’. Leather saddle flaps and girth straps were nailed onto the rails together with a number of ‘D’ rings to attach other equipment. Nowadays, this might seem a bit ‘Heath-Robinson’, but it practice it seems to have worked remarkably well.
Tacking-up was a bit long-winded, though. The saddle came in only one width fitting so a heavy woollen blanket was first placed on the horse’s back, folded thickly, or thinly, depending on the individual horse. This was an absolutely critical piece of equipment, and woe-betide any dragoon who lost (or worse – sold) his blanket! The saddle went on next, then a breastplate to prevent it sliding right back, followed by a crupper to stop it sliding forwards. A quilted leather cushion (called a pilch seat) hooked over projections on the front and rear arches (called ‘spoons’), and a decorated saddle cloth (shabraque) fitted over all that. Then the holsters were attached to the front ‘D’ rings, a pair of roughly conical leather tubes for pistols and ‘bucket and strap’ for the carbine, and a tubular cloth valise which contained the dragoon’s spare clothing was buckled across the back. A cloak (rolled up) was strapped over the top of the pistol holsters and a sheepskin added which covered the whole saddle area to provide extra cushioning. Finally a web or leather surcingle, fitted with additional straps which buckled right around both front and rear arches, went around the horse on top of sheepskin, saddle and girth to keep the lot in place.
With all that padding, the whole thing sounds quite comfortable. So where do the sore backs come in?
There were a couple of problems, really. Everything had to be fitted correctly to start with. With squadrons often numbering 150-180 men and horses there was little time for details to be checked in the field – the men were relied on to do the job properly. Many cavalry recruits had little experience of horses before enlisting so despite training, mistakes were often made. And the time it took to tack-up must also have been a factor, especially as horses often had to be made ready to march in a hurry.
Then there was the weather. Heavy rainstorms are common in Spain and Portugal, and soaking wet wool takes a long time to dry out. Often, wet blankets must have been put back on horses out of necessity rather than from deliberate neglect.
And in times of advance and retreat horses were sometimes kept saddled for days at a time. Imagine wearing the same pair of shoes and socks constantly for a week, through good weather and bad, and it might give you an idea of what that was like.
If you add in that a British light dragoon in marching order, carrying full kit together with rations for himself and his horse, weighed 20 stone (280lbs), then you begin to see why horses might suffer with their backs.
The skin on a horse’s back is, like our own, tender and poorly supplied with pain receptors. When constantly wet or rubbed, the surface layer detaches, allowing fluid to form below like a blister (commonly called a saddle-gall). If this bursts the underlying tissues are exposed and easily become infected. As a saddle fitter, I’ve seen this even today, most usually on horses which have been hunting – they’re basically cavalry horses in all but name.
French cavalry of the period had a poor reputation for horse-care. There’s a story of one troop of dismounted dragoons who returned from a patrol to find many of their original horses present at camp with new riders. On greeting their old equine friends, a number of the dragoons were unhappy with how their horses were being treated – one horse in particular is reported to have had such bad saddle sores the blanket had to be carefully peeled off – and a major fist-fight resulted between the old and new riders. Which proves that some cavalrymen did care about what happened to their horses.
So when you read in histories that cavalry horses suffered sore backs, it wasn’t just that they ached a bit.
They were bloody.
Hussar in full marching order. Yes – it is me, and no, a bouquet of roses wasn’t standard issue in the 19th century (long story). But a full haynet (they called them ‘forage cords’) would have been hung off the saddle, so the overall weight would probably have been similar.
20 stone? I’m nowhere near that, you cheeky…….!
PS. For the purists amongst you – yes, the shabraque tails would have been tied up over the horse’s croup, and the feather plume would be carefully wrapped in an oilskin cover and stored in the valise for use only at full-dress parades and inspections…but give me a break!