Horses and roads/Chapter 15

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By paying a visit to various camps of the righteous, we have again come round to that touchstone ‘brittle hoof.’

All shod horses suffer more or less from brittle hoof; it is only a question as to the extent of the disease in any given instance. Heavily shod horses that have to keep back heavy loads, by either slipping or knuckling-over when going down hill, and have to make that other unnatural exertion of digging in their toes to start a load, or draw it up hill, are the worst sufferers. On looking at their feet, it will be found that the farrier has had a call made upon his ingenuity to get nails into places where they would hold in the horn, by driving them either askant, or else far up into it, or both. By so doing, he is only heightening the difficulty he will have to encounter when the next shoeing comes round.

At the risk of appearing tiresome, we will repeat the description which Mr. Douglas gives of the constituency of the crust. He is well worth hearing twice:—

‘If the crust is closely examined with a microscope, its structure will be found to consist of a number of bristle-like fibres standing on end, but bearing diagonally towards the ground. From the particular longitudinal construction of the fibres, it follows that they will bear a great amount of weight, so long as they are kept in their natural state. The crust so viewed resembles a number of small tubes, bound together by a hardened glue-like substance. Whoever has seen a mitrailleuse gun, with its numerous barrels all soldered together, can form a very good idea of the crust, especially if they were likewise to imagine the tubes to be filled with a thick fluid the use of which is to nourish and preserve them.’

We have already seen that the driving of nails, in any form, must both lacerate and close up, either totally or partially, these delicate tubular fibres containing the fluid which gives life; but when we come to consider that in driving them askant from right to left the farrier is causing a double amount of laceration, we shall easily comprehend that the further the disease spreads, the more he helps it to do so. Well may Mr. Lupton say:—‘Farriers ought to go through a course of instruction previously to being allowed to operate upon structures the anatomy, physiology, and economic uses of which they have never studied, and, consequently, never understood.’

But how about the hardened glue-like substance which binds the fibres together? It is not difficult to imagine that this, also, must get smashed up, compressed, and its natural secretion and divinely correct distribution impaired if not ruined, by traversing it with nails, which push it on either side, and reduce the space which it was intended to occupy; and this cannot fail to destroy the general adhesion of the whole, even if the whole of the prismatic-shaped portion in front of the nails (from their heads to their clinches) were not already dead—which it generally is. Thus we find that we get a loose, shaky, uncemented bundle of dead fibres (like a rotten broom), easily destructible; and the crust is deprived of its essential property of deadening the shock which it must receive at each step, and of warding it off from the interior of the foot, and from the leg, aided by such important adjuncts as a soft, tough cushion (made further expansible by being cloven) in the frog, and a strong, arched sole, so made as to follow the expansion of the frog by allowing its lateral buttresses to spring out at the quarters, carrying with it, as a necessity, the crust at the quarters to which it is attached. Mr. Lupton has demonstrated that the heel and frog first reach the ground. Hence these parts were made soft and expansible (although strong in the bars) to receive the bulk of the shock, when, immediately afterwards, down comes the crust, proceeding from the quarters gradually to the toe, to complete the action devised by that Omniscience which we fail to acknowledge, raising up in lieu thereof a hideous false deity to whom we bow down, whose behests we blindly obey, and to whose high priest, the knacker, we daily give over as sacrifice animals that are just arrived at, what ought to be, the prime of their lives.

‘Impecuniosus’ remarks:—‘It is, after all, no affair of mine what becomes of my neighbour’s horses, but in no way is our ingratitude and hard-heartedness so apparent as in our treatment of dumb animals, and horses especially. A dog cries out if you hit him, and probably sulks; a horse suffers in silence, and exerts himself the more.’ ‘We ought to be ready to hail any inventions or ideas which promise to amend the treatment of that essential part of the horse’s frame.’ ‘No foot no horse’ has been long a stable proverb; but how little the comfort of the foot has hitherto been consulted! The ideas on the subject have sprung from wrong roots, so to say, altogether; or rather let us say they have been built on fanciful and insecure foundations.’ ‘Owners of horses too often act as if their intention was to wear out their property as soon as possible. We should think but little of the common sense of the man who, having bought an expensive watch, knocked it about in every conceivable unfair way; but we think nothing of such a course of action pursued towards a horse—and why? Because every one does it, I suppose; at least, I can think of no better reason.’ ‘Any one, by stating his experience, at the expense of but little trouble and the wear and tear of pen and ink, hardly enough to alarm even Mr. Greg, will assist in throwing light on a subject now confessedly veiled in obscurity, viz. the horse’s foot; and, in these days of reduction, reducing our bills, and checking the deterioration of horses.’

If it were only for the invitation thus given by ‘Impecuniosus,’ how could the writer, knowing what he knows by experience, refrain from standing up for the ‘rights of an animal’? And such an animal—not a wild beast, but one ‘that was created to be the friend and companion of man,’ if we are to believe ‘Lavengro;’ whilst another writer has said that ‘had not custom dignified the lion with the title of “king of beasts,” reason could nowhere confer that honour more deservedly than on the horse.’ Virgil describes him as having a hoof ‘that turns up the ground, and sounds deep with solid horn.’ To be sure Virgil had not seen or heard of horseshoes, or he would perhaps have sung of the clatter of iron. Brittle hoof will not sound deep, like solid horn, but more like a cracked saucer, or a ‘shuffy’ brick—it is flawed all over.

It is all very well for some people to say that they do let the frog and bars alone, and thus comply with everything. They do not comply with more than a fraction. The thickness of a shoe, without calks, is not less than three-eighths of an inch. Hence the frog, to be of any use at all (and it can only be of partial use in an iron-bound foot), must make an abnormal growth to this extent; and abnormal growths are always weak. That it will thus grow, only proves still more clearly that Nature is extending her help to the animal, in so far as she is allowed to do so. Here comes in the superiority of the Charlier shoe over all others. As it is let into the crust, the frog has no forced growth to make, but remains (in this respect only) as if the horse were unshod. So does the sole; but the crust, even with this best of shoes, still gets mutilated with nails. ‘Of evils choose the least.’ The Charlier tip offers the least destruction to the foot, at the same time that it gives greater holding powers to the horse than anything yet invented in the shape of shoes. In his ‘Lectures on the Examination of Horses as to Soundness,’ published in 1878—Modern Horsey Literature—Mr. Fearnley tells his pupils: ‘The day will come, but perhaps it will not be in our lifetime, when the streets of our large towns will be paved rationally (with wood pavement), and then, happy day! we shall have horses wearing on their forefeet at once the most scientific as it is the most common-sense shoe—the Charlier. The stone pavior will cost the country many millions of pounds in horseflesh before the revolution comes about, but no doubt it will one day become a State question.’

Think of this, ye societies who have misunderstood your self-imposed tasks, and ye vestrymen who have squandered public funds, and ye horse-owners who have squandered your own, and ye journalists who keep upon the old track and offer questionable advice! Remember that it comes from a veterinary surgeon and a professor of high degree and repute.

But how is it that so many people recommend the Charlier shoe for the fore feet only? The fore feet appear to have to carry more weight than the hind ones, as part of the shoulders and the neck and head are in front of them; but certainly they were so constructed by the Almighty as to admit of this. In the case of a saddle horse or pack horse, the hind feet are called upon to share the extra weight. In the case of draught horses, the hind ones do nearly all the propulsion at the same time that (in shod horses) they take nearly all the weight, at the time of starting, which is the heaviest pull. In countries where shoeing is only partially practised the horses are shod in front, and their hind feet left bare. This is the case in Rome, as it is at the Cape, and the American farmers before cited acted thus, and so do many others; but nowhere are horses to be seen which are shod behind whilst their fore feet go bare. There is a striking anomaly of theory about this. Of course the theory of shoeing is wrong ab initio, and perhaps this accounts for the various views taken of it. ‘Impecuniosus’ was not the man to do things by halves. He began by using the Charlier shoes only in front, and he relates of a mare, which had twice fallen as a hack, that she was benefited by them. He then shod her behind also, à la Charlier, and he says, ‘after the first few days she never made a “peck” on the road, and felt quite different under me—so much more springy. The fact is, I don’t think we attend enough to the hind feet. They don’t show the effect of bad shoeing like the forefeet, and so they don’t get attention; but what is bad in front can’t be good behind. The mare’s heels became much more open, and no man need desire a better hack on the road.’ Not long ago a correspondent wrote that his horses were shod all round à la Charlier, yet they were quite capable of ‘backing’ a load on any ordinary road, because they stood upon their feet (although they did not quite do so). Now, ‘backing’ is the most severe work a horse can be called upon to perform; and, therefore, it seems strange that every facility should not be allowed him for its performance. No valid reason has been adduced to deter us from ‘going the whole quadruped ’—that is to say, if you persist in shoeing him at all. If you do, you should go in for Charlier tips ‘all round.’ Nothing in the shape of shoeing can touch that form; unless it is to let the hind feet go bare altogether, as they do in Massachusetts. When you reach this point you will soon throw away those in front also.