Cruel to be kind?
It’s flippin’ freezing at the moment, but our horses are out in the field 24/7. And they’re quite happy about it, even though one has no rug at all. The other has a medium/heavy turnout with neck. Well – he’s clipped. But as long as they have water and some hay they manage fine. Fred – the one with no rug – is hugely fat, so he could do with burning off some of it – to keep himself warm.
Some people might accuse me of being, if not cruel, then ‘mean’. There are stables available, so why not use them? The thing is, and it’s one of my pet grumbles, a large number of horses kept today are overweight. You try fitting a saddle on a fatty. Thin animals make the news, but it’s just as cruel keeping them fat.
Why? Apart from the extra strain overweight causes on limbs, lungs and heart, I’m convinced there are other, more innocuous yet dangerous ramifications. The escalation in cases of atypical laminitis over the last few years, and increased diagnoses of ‘equine metabolic syndrome’ (horse diabetes) have coincided with a series of mild winters. Added to the increasing use of ‘heavyweight’(ie. extra-warm) turnout rugs on unclipped horses, it’s a recipe for disaster.
In the sixties and seventies, a turnout rug was canvas lined with a layer of blanket – enough to keep the horse dry and provide a smidgen of extra warmth. Nothing like the 10-tog quilts you get these days! Horses, like most temperate-climate grazing animals, evolved to put on weight through the summer and lose it during winter. I believe not allowing their bodies to work this way can only exacerbate any predisposition to sugar intolerance.
In the 19th century, horses were rarely fat, the opposite being far more common. Horses were owned either by the wealthy, or by owners whose livelihood they were an essential part of: farmers; draymen; liverymen. And working horses REALLY worked. All the hours God sends, just like their owners.
In winter, working horses were generally not clipped because, apart from coach horses, they did little fast work. Hunters and racehorses might be, because though clipping by hand was a lengthy job, those who could afford horses for leisure also employed grooms. It was not until later in the century that hand-cranked clipping machines were invented, whereupon some men hired themselves out as ‘Horse Clippers’ and clipping became more affordable for the ordinary horseman.
Thus a working horse which sweated-up or got soaked with rain had a thick winter coat to get dry afterwards, usually achieved by ‘thatching’, laying a blanket or Hessian sacking over the horse and stuffing straw beneath to allow the horse’s body heat to evaporate the moisture. This method was common right up until the advent of the ‘string vest’ and ‘wicking’ rugs of today (I used to do it myself, years ago). Once the horse was dry, every speck of dried sweat had then to be brushed off, or it risked its work-harness rubbing to cause sores.
Horses might have been turned out at night, or on a Sunday, but not with rugs on – blankets were too valuable to get filthy with mud and were kept for ‘best’.
Today, not many horses would be expected to work on icy roads – certainly not in
the UK. You wouldn’t ride out on a slippery surface by choice, but back then horses and owners often had no option – if they didn’t work they didn’t eat.
So steel horseshoes were fitted with ‘frost nails’ which had a pointed top surface to aid grip. Draught horses would have calkins on their shoes pretty much as standard, and these were often ‘frosted’, sharpened with a file for the same reason. Sometimes a front calkin was fitted for even more traction. You just needed to ensure a horse shod like this didn’t step on your foot!
Although 19th century horses worked hard, they were usually well looked after – their owners relied on them to earn a living. A sick animal meant you might well starve.
They weren’t cosseted, however, like most of ours (even mine) are. Laminitis (founder, they called it then) was far less prevalent. So next time the weather gets a bit chilly, don’t be too quick to dig out the duvet. Most horses don’t need that level of warmth and are quite likely better off without.
Sometimes you have to be ‘cruel’ to be kind.