Horses and roads/Chapter 16

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Horses and roads by J. T. Denny
Chapter XVI



As a proof of the great diversity of ideas and opinions on the difference between the fore feet and the hind ones, as to which of the pairs should be most protected, or whether either of them should be protected at all, we will give an extract from ‘Twenty Years on the Turf,’ in the ‘Sportsman,’ in which a description of the establishment of Mr. H. Jennings, the well-known trainer of racehorses, at Bac de la Croix, Compiègne, is given:—

‘Mr. Jennings has as many horses under his care as any other trainer in either France or England. One peculiarity about the horses in the La Croix stable is that the majority of them are unshod, while in training. Mr. Jennings is enabled to adopt this capital plan for the reason that the thoroughbreds have not to travel over any hard roads on their way to and from their gallops. They are ridden from their stables over the very short distance that intervenes between there and the loamy soil and leaves over which they gallop on the rides in the forest, and this gives the yearlings and two-year-olds a fine opportunity to expand their heels and their feet generally, instead of contracting the natural growth by “binding” them, as it were, with iron. In fact, very few indeed of the horses trained by Henry Jennings run even in their races with plates on their hind feet, and only wear “tips” on their fore toes. The feet of all the horses in this large establishment are well cared for, and the yearlings especially derive immense benefit from the “barefoot” system of training, as their feet are altogether broader in both the hind and fore quarters of their structure, and their frogs firmer and more healthy than the young things that are shod even before breaking.’

Of course, the remark that the horses are enabled to go unshod because they have not to travel over any hard ground is only due to a popular delusion, the real fact being that it would be much better for them if they took all their walking exercise over good hard roads. Their feet would then become sufficiently toughened to enable them to dispense with the last remnant of iron, which Mr. Jennings employs in the shape of ‘tips’ on the fore feet only, leaving the hind ones in their natural state.

But how is it that Mr. Jennings stands alone amongst trainers in his ‘peculiarity’? It would appear as if he had thought the thing out for himself, and then had pluck enough to try it by experiment; he was evidently not a slave to routine and fashion. Will he take this ‘straight tip’ and lay out a piece of hard road, and let some of his unshod youngsters try their walking exercise upon it? This would just make his system complete and his horses’ feet perfect.

The foot that is inured to hard roads can but be perfected thereby, and a perfect foot can but stand upon better terms with a racecourse, or a training-ground, hard or soft as they may be at times. Qui peut le plus pent le moins.

In the Evening Standard of March 17, 1880, we find the following paragraph:—

‘It is a pity that nature and art should be so often, as they are, in opposition to each other, and that a theory of beauty which satisfies the demands of one should outrage the demands of the other. It was not natural that a girl’s waist should be immediately under her arms, yet in former times that was considered indispensable to true grace. In later years it was equally unnatural that waists should be compressed to a painfully-small circumference, but this again became a habit; and there exist others equally false and mischievous. Now and then, however, nature asserts herself, and gives a salutary hint that she is not to be maltreated with impunity. This, it appears, was lately the case at Boston. A young lady living there found that her eyesight gradually became worse and worse, and, after a time, she adopted the sensible course of consulting the best oculist in the neighbourhood. To him she told her sad story. She had always enjoyed good health until lately; but now she could neither read, nor work, nor play. Riding and driving were out of the question, and she was in terror of becoming blind. The oculist asked her about several things, and suddenly said, “Put out your foot.” The request, strange as it was, did not seem altogether disagreeable to her, for her feet were small, and were incased in a delicious little pair of French boots with, as a matter of course, heels like little stilts. The doctor looked at it stolidly, and then said, “Yes. Go home and take off those heels, and then come to me in a month’s time, and we’ll see how your eyes are.” She did as she was told—with a slight pang, it may be, but without hesitation; and gradually the eyesight became stronger and stronger. At the end of the month she visited the doctor to report improvement, and he explained to her how certain nerves and tendons communicated with other nerves and tendons, and how injuring some injured the rest; all of which she did not understand, but gathered enough information to comprehend that high heels develope unexpected dangers. In this girl’s case Nature was having her revenge.’

Here is food for reflection for us. Ill-treatment of the foot will cause disarrangement in an organ so remote from it as the eye; ergo, it will do the same to other organs that are nearer to the foot, or even farther from it.

Mr. Fearnley says: ‘Next to the eye the larynx is the most delicate organ of the body.’ ’Roaring’ is supposed to be due to the abuse of the bearing-rein, which, in some cases, is most likely to be true; but then we have horses, such as racers and hunters, that have never become acquainted with the bearing-rein, and yet are ‘roarers.’ ‘Whistling,’ ‘wheezing,’ thick wind and broken wind, ‘have been much thought about, and have had the fancy considerably racked to account for their existence.’ It is a singular fact, that unshod horses are very rarely indeed to be met with suffering from blindness, or any of these other infirmities. Why should they be so free from them? They work harder and fare worse than ours do. So we see that apart from the acknowledged, and most apparent, diseases caused by the falsely so-called ‘necessary evil’ of shoeing, there are others more subtle which may be attributed to it; and it needs no great stretch of the imagination, when we are let into secrets like these, to suppose that some cases even of glanders may be some day traced to ill-treatment of the foot.

Mr. Fearnley deplores that the spirit of specialism should be wanting amongst veterinary surgeons. In America, however, they have veterinary dentists, as we may learn from a treatise already quoted from in these chapters. Mr. Russell, ‘practical horseshoer,’ in his ‘Scientific Horseshoeing,’ says: ‘There are cases, frequently occurring, where an imperfect action cannot be remedied by any kind of shoeing; but, if we closely investigate the matter, we shall find that it originates from some other cause. This is sometimes the case when caries of the teeth is present, and the animal suffering from a continued toothache inclines to lug on the bit on one side, and in such a manner that he becomes tangled in his gait and bad in his action. If he pulls his head and neck out of line with his body, either to the right or to the left, the hind foot on that side is forced to land between the front feet and legs. The teeth must, therefore, be properly treated to obviate these difficulties. I have had Dr. E. E. Clark, the celebrated veterinary dentist of New York, operate for me on many occasions, and with wonderful success.’

The man who reads us this lesson styles himself a ‘practical horseshoer.’ But after all, might it not have been the shoeing that had in the first place caused the caries of the teeth, and that this had reacted in its turn upon the feet or other organs of locomotion?

At any rate, Mr. Russell’s experience proves that there is sympathy between the teeth and the heels of a horse, and these are the parts of him that are the most remotely separated. Therefore it cannot be considered an exaggeration to conclude that the respiratory organs may be affected in a somewhat similar manner; especially since they are nearer to the seat from which evil may fairly be supposed to proceed. By joining his evidence to that of the Boston oculist, whose special study, reflection, and acumen had enabled him to detect a cause concealed under a lady’s flounces, it may be assumed that many puzzling infirmities in the horse may have their source in shoeing. The experiment which would prove this would be interesting, humane, inexpensive, and devoid of all risk. There is nothing in the shape of vivisection in anywise involved in it, and, indeed, there is no valid reason why it should not be made, as, in fact, it has been made, and, if we say nothing of the help which it may give us in accounting for occult infirmities, it has been found to succeed; and it will be so found again.

Mayhew says: ‘The various aspects which disease can assume, of course, are multiform, and unfortunately these, when exhibited by the horse, are all exposed to the arbitrary conclusions of prejudice.’ ‘The diseases of the horse are not yet thoroughly understood.’ Although an advocate of the use of tips, he did not go to the length of advising the entire abolition of iron, which he regarded as a ‘necessary evil.’ After saying that ‘seedy toe had been much thought about, and the fancy somewhat racked to account for its origin,’ he theorised on the subject until he persuaded himself that it was caused by a debilitated and diseased state of the constitution, and prescribed entire rest in the stable (not in the field), with a liberal diet, until a cure was effected. How could he possibly have left out of account the true cause, which was staring him in the face in every instance—the shoe? It is true that continual suffering, which would cause nervous irritability, would in most cases have told upon the constitution, but he confounded effect with cause. He states also that navicular disease is caused by pressure on the frog—a diseased frog, of course—rendered incapable by the farrier of performing its functions; and afterwards says that, as far as his knowledge extends, it is unknown in the unbroken animal. Of course it is. The unbroken animal is also unshod, yet he can gallop about amongst loose granite or over solid rocks with impunity. Mr. Douglas says that goats never suffer from navicular disease, but that he believes they would do so if they were shod.

Perhaps some of those correspondents who have so kindly come forward to give their experience of unshod horses will still further favour us by saying whether or not they had found amongst them many ‘crib-biters,’ ‘wind-suckers,’ or ‘weavers.’ The writer has never met with a single case of either of these three; therefore he is forced into the conclusion that shoeing cannot be considered entirely blameless as to their cause. Some day a pathologist will arise who will give an account of influences now ‘veiled in obscurity.’ In the meantime practical experiment will convince some that by giving up shoeing they have struck at the root of a host of diseases and vices.

Sight could not, of course, be restored to the blind, nor an anchylosis be loosened, and so forth; but failing sight might be improved, and incipient ossifications be dispersed in some instances.

The writer knows of one stable which contains only three horses—valuable ones when purchased—of which one suffers from false quarter and very brittle hoofs; the second is a windsucker, and has overshot fetlocks; and the third cuts himself behind so badly that he has no nails on the inside of the hoofs, except one just inside the centre of each toe, whilst on the outside half he has six nails; his action is bad, as he has always a tendency to ‘lift up’ behind. He knows of another stable, also containing three horses, which would be valuable if they were sound. One suffers from corns that have to be pared out fortnightly; the second has hoofs that scarcely grow, and seedy toe, and has a confirmed habit of gnawing everything within his reach; he has not as yet, being quite young, become a crib-biter, but he will most likely come to that; the third has splints, for which he is periodically tortured with blisters, and after each blistering he is found to be worse. The number of such stables is legion.

Veterinary surgeons, when they examine a horse as to soundness, as it is defined by law, continually find themselves obliged to add riders to their certificates as to existing circumstances which may lead to unsoundness at some future date. If they could only get rid of their prejudice in favour of the shoe, how much trouble and responsibility they might save themselves, and what disgusting operations—for instance in the case of quittor—they might free themselves from performing. Mayhew says:—‘It obviously is folly for mortal pride to contend against those organisations which govern the universe. However, in the case of exercising power over the horse, centuries of defeat and ages of loss seem incapable of causing mankind to relinquish a hopeless struggle. The strife has been going forward almost from the commencement of time; nevertheless, human beings, though always beaten, press onward to perpetuate the contest. They scorn to retreat, and will suffer rather than own a victor; they will not, to make an advantageous peace, desert a silly custom or discard an ancient usage. They can sustain punishment; they can endure chastisement; but, like land crabs, when once upon the march, they cannot deviate from the line which they have adopted. They can abuse the master, but they cannot listen to the instructor. “Nature,” men exclaim in chorus, “is very stubborn.” “Horse property,” respond another gang of culpables, “is particularly hazardous!” All this noise, however, might at any moment be avoided, if the human race would only stoop to employ a little reflection. If man would not fight quite so obstinately, but merely think over the cause of combat, he might possibly be a gainer in happiness, as well as in pocket.

Thus speaks Mayhew; but, unfortunately, he does not appear to have even tried the simple and inexpensive experiment of seeing what a horse might do without shoes. He had always been told that shoes of some sort were a necessity, and he took it for granted that such was the case. He strongly condemns ‘routine’ and ‘prejudice,’ yet he had a leaven of both still clinging to him.

Fortunately we are not obliged to wait whilst scientists work out the intricacies of the problems. In thirty days people have been able to satisfy themselves thoroughly of the error of their former ways as regards shoeing. Others will do the same; and some of them will not even care to hear at a future date how pathologists may have succeeded in interpreting things which are now to us virtually what cuneiform inscriptions would be to Zulus.

As has been remarked by ‘Santa Fe,’[1] people will still shirk the trial of doing away with shoes as long as they can, by making all sorts of trivial excuses to themselves. ‘Santa Fe’ already divines five such probable excuses, of which the one that is perhaps the most frequently urged is, that ‘they think there may be something in it, but they will wait until someone else tries it.’ But there is one unmentioned by him (although he foresees that there will be others) which is scarcely less used; and it is that many say they believe that it would answer well with most classes of horses, but that the particular kind of horse they possess—it matters not of what breed he may be, or what he may have to do—could not do without shoes, although all the others might do so. Mr. H. Jennings was not so narrow-minded as this. He had to do with the racer, and he found out that shoes were a nuisance, both to animal and master, and so he tried to do without them. He succeeded in cutting them down to their smallest size; and only his fear of hard roads—that bête noire of the multitude—hindered him from arriving at the point of his ambition.

The following extract is taken from a letter signed ‘A Cavalry Officer,’ which appeared in the ‘Daily Telegraph,’ of December 28, 1878. ’If people tear off shoes, and put horses to work, or else turn them to grass, they will fail. In such experiments it is not the theory that has failed, but that it has not been put to a practical test. I know a pony over twenty years of age that has never been shod, and has all its life been accustomed to be galloped about by children on the hard roads. I have, myself, kept my horses shod with tips only, for eight and ten months together, using them on hard roads and paved streets, and keeping them, when in the stable, standing on granite-paved stalls, without litter under them, except by night. I found the horn tougher, weak heels grow stronger, brittleness of hoof disappear, and I never had a foot-lame horse during the time named. I am satisfied that the way to improve horses’ feet is not by turning them out in boggy meadows, but by removing their shoes, and standing them on paved flooring. That a diversity of opinion exists upon such matters amongst veterinary surgeons I am well aware; but I know some who have served both at home, in India, and elsewhere with their regiments, and who approve my suggestions. I have heard another gravely insist that the feet of every horse in his regiment should be stopped twice a week during the summer to keep their feet soft, because the roads are so hard.’

It is refreshing when we find cavalry officers not bound by red tape. But as regards that twenty-year-old unshod pony, unbelievers will immediately say that he only had to carry children (from one to three probably), and so he stands for nothing as a proof. But let some of these unbelievers be asked for the loan of a pony for children’s use, and then we should find them refusing it, because, as they would say (inwardly), ‘they know how children knock ponies about,’ which is really true. The remainder of the letter coincides strikingly with a great deal that has been insisted upon in these chapters; still, for the generality of people, this letter may almost as well have remained unwritten—it is so hard to make horse-owners believe that thereremains anything for them yet to learn!

  1. See Appendix E.