Horses and roads/Chapter 21

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Asphalte is a class of road surface that has caused a great deal of controversy. At certain times, and on certain days, such as when fog and mist prevail, it gets greasy (as this state is called). In some other weathers the same state of greasiness is produced during the beginning of rain; but when sufficient rain has fallen to reduce the consistency of this so-called grease, the slipperiness disappears, and then asphalte becomes a better holding surface, for even shod horses, than either the wood or granite which are contiguous to it; supposing them each and all to have received the same amount of rain. In fine summer weather, watering with carts will make wood and granite slippery, when it will not so affect the asphalte. But in any weather the unshod horse can deal with it more successfully than the shod one. The Almighty defies ‘the puny intellect of man’ to produce a road of any kind that can harm the foot which He has designed with his omniscience and omnipotence to grapple with everything that can possibly spring up on the surface of the earth.

Modern writers on the horse (asphalte is only a modern introduction) have been for some time, and significantly enough, much at variance as to the virtues or defects of this material, according to the different lights under which they looked at it; even when all of them were ignorant that the unshod foot was the proper one to deal with it successfully under all circumstances.

In June 1878, in one contemporary we read:—‘Asphalte pavement appears to be on its trial. As we briefly mentioned last week, the R. S. P. C. A. has volunteered to assist those who do not approve of these pavements, and to “unite with any respectable agency for the purpose of mitigating the evil complained of.” Respecting this voluntary effort, Mr. Gerard F. Cobb, of Trinity College, Cambridge, requests the society “to carry out its own acknowledged objects, and to regard the question entirely from the horse’s point of view, but in all its bearings. I know, if I were a horse, what I should say, viz., that I would gladly incur the risk of an occasional downfall (which, after all, is less than what I am exposed to on the granite) for the sake of the unparalleled ease and comfort with which it enables me to perform my daily tasks.” Mr. Cobb also suggests that “If the Society meddles at all in this matter, I would venture to suggest that its efforts would exert a more extended beneficence if it induced owners to adopt the Charlier system of shoeing suggested by Mr. Stevens.”’ Eight days later on, another contemporary published a communication on the same subject, from which we give the following extract:—‘All the cab proprietors, all the omnibus proprietors, all railway van proprietors have protested against the dangers and cruelties created by asphalte pavement. Falls on asphalte are not only more frequent but of a graver character than on any other kind of pavement. Veterinary surgeons meet with fractures of the pelvis and ribs, which were before almost unknown. Strains of a serious kind are created in starting loads on a surface almost as smooth as ice. It is a mistake to appeal to the climate of Paris. The climate of Paris is not the climate of London, where in five minutes a greasy fog makes Cheapside one long chapter of accidents. Unfortunately, asphalte has on its side the vested interests of the City legislators. It is the least noisy, the least dirty, the most easily cleaned of pavements, and although it tortures the horses, it suits the respectable tradesmen who pay the City rates. It is to be hoped that public opinion will shortly be too strong for natural but selfish legislation, and that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will find some subjects for their righteous zeal of a higher class than costermongers.’

With the last part of the last paragraph we heartily agree. But the Society in question, after being invited to investigate the question of shoeing, on the one hand, and that of roads on the other—both of them being within its scope—has moved in neither direction. Feeling itself incompetent to treat the question at all, it has maintained a ‘masterly inactivity.’ The last of the two exponents who thus invoke in such opposite ways the aid of the Society in favour of an animal over which it watches in other matters, sets forth that asphalte makes the best road of all, except for the horses. Yet we are asked to abandon the economies and comforts of this production of modern intelligence, because it would render another improvement necessary, which would bring about as much or more economy and comfort on its part. This is to offer a two-fold opposition to progress.

Asphalte, however, is not yet suppressed; nor does it appear likely to be, since we read within the last fortnight that ‘the carriage-ways of London Wall, Bucklersbury, Cannon Street, Abchurch Lane, Castle Street (Cripplegate), Trump Street, the north side of St. Paul’s Churchyard, Long Lane, Broadway (Blackfriars), and Philpot Lane, are to be forthwith asphalted’—the contracts being signed.

Science and progress cannot be put down by ‘old-fogyism,’ however much the latter may retard them. Asphalte will ultimately supersede, in towns, both wood and granite; and the asphalting companies could forward this end to their immense commercial benefit if they had the intelligence to demonstrate that unshod horses would not slip on their productions, by using unshod horses themselves. Will this ‘tip’ be thrown away upon them? We have heard that they have held out encouragement to inventors who could remedy the only defect of their pavements; here they get all they want, and without any charge for it. All inventions to avoid slipping upon asphalte have been applied to the wrong surface. Let them turn their attention to the other one, and so do what other societies are unable to do, because they get muddled with conflicting advice, and are unable to discern for themselves.

We have now, we believe, treated of all roads; and the upshot is that people are most afraid of the best—which are the hardest. Loose, broken flints, freshly spread, no man in his right senses would select as a trial for a horse that had just had his shoes pulled off; although judicious treatment would in a few days enable him to travel over them with more comfort than if he were shod. On the other hand, to try to harden his feet by working him upon grass or soft roads would be almost as great a mistake. It is well known that horses at pasture will become tender-footed in dry summer weather, if the ground becomes dry and hard, and that often they have to get tips put on on this account. ‘Santa Fe’ has advised that horses should be worked in the fields at first, and then be gradually used to hard roads. In this we are at variance with him, and must uphold that from the first day they should daily get some exercise on hard roads. The distance cannot be laid down, as it depends so much on the state of brittleness of the hoof: intelligence alone can decide the degrees. Ni tanto, ni tan poco. The advice offered by a ‘Cavalry Officer’ is about as good as any, and the excellent remark of ‘Impecuniosus,’ that ‘it is the shoe, and not the road that hurts, the horse,’ contains the gist of the whole thing in fewer words than any other writer has been able to put it. Unfortunately, he did not arrive at the point of doing away with iron altogether; but he went on cutting it down in every dimension, until he found that the less of it there was the better he got on; and then he imparted the result of his experience to a public that had not sufficient capacity to take it in.

The more simple the means offered, the less reliance a horsey public is inclined to place in them. There is always existing a latent hope that some extra-scientific invention may spring up, which will conquer all difficulties. There is no use in waiting for it. Nature cannot, and will not, be superseded by the puny intellect of man, when it is a question of treating a living structure, which is so admirably constructed as to make the very idea of improving its construction ludicrous. Everyone may give up all hopes on this score; and the best thing to be done is to travel on the ‘back-track,’ and meet Mother Nature at the point where they failed to detect her finger-post. The travel on the back-track necessitates only the inversion of weeks to unfold the errors of centuries; and thrift is always on the right side. What more can be asked for? It may, perhaps, appear to some to be too cheap to be of any use. The writer, however, has had proofs in the correspondence which his remarks have called forth in the ‘Farm Journal,’ that the horsey world is still as uneasy on the subject of shoeing as it ever has been, and that a certain portion of it is open to receive new ideas, and, at least, give them consideration. Another proof that the system of shoeing followed at the present day is not universally satisfactory, is to be deduced from the fact that at a council meeting of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, held May 5 of the present year (go back for a century, or bring it down to present date, it always resolves itself into the same thing at last), it is reported that ‘a letter from Mr. Robert Mynors, suggesting the republication of “Miles on the Shoeing of the Horse” as a sixpenny pamphlet, was read and referred to the “Journal” committee, on the motion of Sir Brandreth Gribbs, seconded by Mr. Bowley.’

Miles, as has before been stated, was seeking only to secure the benefits resulting from expansion. He did not fully grasp the question, because he was, like all others, blinded, or semi-blinded with iron; but he tried to reduce the excessive number of nails then, as now, used in fastening on the shoe. He failed in establishing his system, because it was not even as much as a half-measure; and the society in question will do no better with it on this very account. The sixpenny pamphlet of Mr. Stevens, which is ready-made, and at hand, is far more worthy of their attention and patronage, especially when we see the system it explains so highly advocated by an authority like Mr. Fearnley. Why should societies feel so inclined to revert to anything they can lay hold of that carries them back to what we may call the infancy of the art of shoeing? The reason is that they are disgusted with the results of the present system, and so they are always on the lookout for ‘any port in a storm.’ There is a haven open for them at an easy distance, and with wind and tide in their favour. Although they still prefer beating to windward, they will tire out in time. They are evidently in want of smooth water at the present moment. Let them therefore put back. There is no cowardice in so doing when they find that they really cannot weather the storm.

Before concluding, there is yet another question which demands a high consideration in many points of view. It has been long maintained that many diseases are transmissible by sires and dams (either or both) to their progeny. Not to go farther back than the last month or two, the columns of contemporaries have teemed with opinions on this subject, many of them emanating from acknowledged authorities, amongst whom are to be found managers and secretaries of horse shows, in which progenitors have their special classes. It has been urged that if all those who were not free from those physical defects which are considered as hereditary were objected to, there would scarcely be a competition, on account of the number of disqualifications. It appears right, however, that only perfect animals should be chosen for the purpose of reproducing other perfect ones. If there is anything wanting or anything superfluous, we must be aware that it will show itself in some way or other in the foal, and generally in the spot where either the sire or the dam exhibited a like defect. Spavins, &c., are justly ascribed to shoeing as their principal cause; leave off shoeing and you reduce the prevalence of such kinds of ossification. ‘Like produces like.’ The tailless breed of Manx cats was produced only by persistently amputating the tails of all kittens, until there was not left upon the island a tail to reproduce another one. Within the memory of the writer a good sheep dog was supposed to be obtainable only if he had been pupped without a tail, or a curt apology for one. All those who dared to bring tails into the world with them were condemned to the horse-pond. Within his memory, the same law held good in France with regard to the poodle. Now-a-days a good tail is an important point in both the colley and the poodle; so much so, that neither colley nor poodle possessing a ‘stump’ would be admitted to a show or fetch three halfpence anywhere.

‘Men change with travel,
    Manners change with climes,
Tenets with books,
    And principles with times.’

Entire horses mostly save their tails in their entirety; strictly speaking, they would not be entire unless they did. So also do many mares; but if we were to fall into the habit of docking those of both parents, we should soon get a breed of horses with a diminished number of vertebrae. If the minus reappears in the offspring, it is presumable that the plus will reappear likewise. The plus is often to be ascribed to shoeing.

Where our horses most fail is in their feet and legs. It was lately stated at a meeting in England that French statistics have shown that in their army two-fifths of all cast horses were so cast for ‘worn out feet and legs.’ Let us take a common-sense (which will turn out to be the most scientific) care of our horses’ feet by the use of the brake on wheels, and not a clumsy substitution in the shape of a calked shoe on the horse’s foot. The frog is a natural calk, but it must have fair play. It is pointed in front like a ploughshare to offer resistance in one direction. To offer resistance in the contrary direction it is semi-cloven, and thus it offers a double resistance, for the very evident reason that a horse needs more aid to go ahead than he does to stop himself. Yet the two ends have been rightly balanced by Nature, if we could only see the thing as such.

We have the authority of previous writers that the shoeing question is a national one, and that much economy is in store for the nation if any improvement can be introduced. The real fact is that millions annually hang upon this very hinge, because we are obliged, through the short lives of our horses, to import weekly a large number of hideous foreign-bred brutes, many of which are mares, which, when they have had enough of London stone pavements, are sold in foal by transport companies. See recent advertisements in the daily press, and then give us the lie.

At the Northern Horse Repository go and see every Friday a sale of foreign horses that always are unshod, at least on the hind feet. The sellers are evidently wide enough awake to have perceived that there is some advantage in showing them off in this state, or else they would clap shoes on to them, to give them a fictitious value. Horsed-ealers suppose themselves to be up to every dodge, and this is one, amongst others, that they are keeping as ‘dark’ as they can. The innocent (or ignorant) acquirers of these animals (as we have found out by frequent attendance at these sales) never dream of putting them to work until the farrier has been allowed to exercise those brutalities, in which he is such an adept, upon their feet.

These writings could be prolonged by pushing arguments and quotations; but we are inclined to think that enough has been said on the present occasion, which we regard strictly as a first stage upon the road. We are not sanguine enough to believe for a moment that we can bring about a sudden revulsion, although we may, perhaps, have helped on a movement which will not be arrested. We have vouchers that some readers have been able to keep their attention sufficiently alive to go through a course of nearly seven months’ weekly reading on the subject in the ‘Farm Journal,’ and this is encouraging. It seems to prove that ‘Impecuniosus,’ practical and enterprising as he was, was not far wrong when he still craved for some writing out of the ’ordinary follow-my-leader style,’ which might ‘throw some light on a subject hitherto veiled in obscurity, viz., the horse’s foot.’ We should only be too glad to learn that this active-minded gentleman is still in the land of the living, and that writing containing the ‘original ideas’ which he, being so far ahead of the ‘ruck,’ was still open to receive, may fall under his criticism. He is chargeable to a great extent for its having appeared.