Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/February 1881/Horses and their Feet
By Sir GEORGE W. COX.
IF we say that of all brute animals none is more valuable to man than the horse, and that the neglect of any means which may promote and insure his welfare and efficiency is a blunder not easily distinguishable from crime, we may fairly be charged with uttering truisms. If we urge that this value is not recognized as it should be, and that this neglect is miserably common, we may still be accused of wasting breath on statements which no one would think of calling into question. Every one, we may be told, is well aware that the management of horses is very faulty, that their lives are shortened by the ignorance of those who have charge of them rather than by any wanton cruelty, and that they are rendered practically useless long before their existence is brought to an end. To the plea that the same, or much the same, things may be said of men as of horses, we may answer that the blame must be apportioned to the degree of carelessness with which evils affecting either men or horses are allowed to go on unchecked, or are foolishly dealt with; nor can failures to improve the condition of mankind furnish a reason for refusing to do what may improve the condition of horses. Our duty ought to be discharged at all costs and under all circumstances; but a man must have risen far above the average of his fellows if he feels no relief when his duty coincides with his interest. Something is gained by the mere pointing out of this agreement, wherever it exists; and we must remember that, if a vast amount of human wretchedness is the direct result of willful and wanton perversity, we can meet with no such resistance on the part of brute beasts. With regard to these we have only to see what the evils are; and the blame is ours, and ours alone, if we fail to apply the remedy, when the remedy, if applied, must be successful. In the case of the horse, unhappily, we do not realize the extent of the mischief, and seldom, perhaps never, fix our minds on its cause or causes. Yet the facts, even when reduced within limits which none will venture to dispute, are sufficiently startling.
The number of horses in the United Kingdom has been estimated at rather more than two millions and a quarter, and their average value can scarcely be set down at less than thirty pounds. Their collective value, therefore, falls little short of £68,000,000. That the nation incurs a loss if this sum is spent quicker than it needs to be is a self-evident proposition; that it is so spent is certain, if horses on an average become useless at a time when they ought still to be in full vigor. On this point few will be disposed to challenge the verdict of Mr. W. Douglas, late veterinary surgeon in the Tenth Hussars, who tells us that a horse should live from thirty-five to forty years, and live actively and usefully during three fourths of this period. "All authorities," he says, "now admit that animals should live five times as long as it takes them to reach maturity. A dog, which is at its full growth when between two and three years old, is very aged at twelve years. Horses do not, unless their growth is forced, reach their full prime until they are seven or eight years old, which by the same law leaves them to live some thirty years longer. When these facts are kept in mind, together with these other facts that three fourths of our horses die or are destroyed under twelve years old, that horses are termed aged at six [he should have said eight], old at ten, very old when double that number of years, and that few of them but are laid up from work a dozen times a year, . . . the viciousness of a system which entails such misery and destruction of life can not be too strongly commented upon." If we take the age of three years as that at which horses begin to work, and twelve as that at which they are worn out, it follows that the period of their efficiency is shorter by at least fourteen years than it should be. In other words, the nation has to buy three horses when it ought to buy only one, and thus upward of 200,000,000 are spent every twenty-one years in the purchase of horses when 68,000,000 ought to suffice. The loss, therefore, to the nation is at least 135,000,000 in twenty-one years.
If this were all, the question would surely be most serious; but it is not all. Unless the facts thus far stated can be set aside, our horses work on the average seven or eight years; but how do they work? The collective experience of the country will answer that the work is done at the cost of frequent interruptions, and with an amount of discomfort and pain which often becomes agony. It is easy to say that much of the evil must be laid to the charge of grooms and stable-men; and perhaps the censures dealt out to these men are not undeserved. They are, at least, outspoken. In the last century Lord Pembroke spoke of grooms as being "generally the worst informed of all persons living." "No other servant," says Mr. Mayhew, "possesses such power, and no domestic more abuses his position. It is impossible to amend the regulation of any modern stable without removing some of this calling, or overthrowing some of the abuses with a perpetuation of which the stable servant is directly involved." In this state of things the most humane of masters becomes, he adds, an unconscious tyrant to the brute which serves him so well. It is a miserable fact that grooms on their own responsibility are in the habit of administering secretly to horses medicines the cost of which they pay themselves. It may fairly be said that in every case the remedy is ill-judged, and creates worse mischief than that which it is designed to remove. Among these medicines, arsenic, antimony, and niter seem to be the favorites; but the list of remedies is not ended with these. The experience of ages, if it has failed to do more, has impressed on them the fact that the chief source of the sufferings of horses is to be found in the foot. The suspicion that the foot is not treated rightly by the traditionary method never enters their minds; and they deal with the limb not from a knowledge of its anatomy, structure, and purpose, but in accordance with the popular notions, which are, in plain speech, outrageously absurd. In profound ignorance that the hoof is porous, they apply hoof-ointments, which answer to cement plastered on a wall. If these were in constant use, Mr. Douglas asserts emphatically that not a morsel of sound horn would remain at the end of six months on the horses, and shoeing would become an impossibility. If the groom be told that he is thus preventing the internal moisture from reaching the outer surface and the air from circulating inward, his only answer is an incredulous laugh. His conviction is that the hoof should not come into contact with hard material, and that the horse can be best fitted for his work by having his feet smeared with tar, beeswax, or tallow, and by resting always on a heap of litter in the stable. It would be of little use to cite Lord Pembroke as declaring that “the constant use of litter makes the feet tender and causes swelled legs; moreover, it renders the animals delicate. Swelled legs may be frequently reduced to their proper natural size by taking away the litter only, which, in some stables, where ignorant grooms and farriers govern, would be a great saving of bleeding and physic, besides straw. . . . I have seen,” he adds, “by repeated experiments, legs swell and unswell by leaving litter or taking it away, like mercury in a weather-glass”; and his experience is confirmed by the general condition of troopers’ horses, in contrast with those of their officers, which are bedded down all day.
But, if there are evils for which grooms are in large measure directly responsible and the abolition of which they would beyond doubt stoutly resist, there are others in which masters are not less blameworthy than their men, and from which the public generally as well as the animals are constant sufferers. The work of the horse is that of dragging and carrying; and the aim of the owner should be the accomplishment of this work with the utmost possible sureness and with the fewest accidents. Serious and fatal injuries may be the result of stumblings and slippings not less than of actual falls; and the premature wearing out of horses by excessive straining of their sinews and muscles is a direct pecuniary loss to the owners, although few of them seem to realize the true significance of the fact. These evils are to be seen everywhere, and they affect horses kept for the purpose of pleasure and ostentation almost as much as those which spend their days in a round of monotonous drudgery. A horse should not be obliged to work in going down a hill; but, in fact, they are subject to the severest strain just when they ought to have none, if they are harnessed to springless carts or wagons without breaks. Farm-horses suffer with terrible severity from this cause; but the horses used in carrying trades and by railway companies undergo a more cruel ordeal. Improvements in the break-power of wagons used on roads, which might greatly lessen the mischief, are not made, and hence the horses are seldom free from diseases more or less serious, which may be traced directly to constant slipping and shaking over slippery pavements. Among ignorant owners, blind to their own interests, there is an impression that “the work which kills one horse will bring in money enough to buy another”; but experience has sufficiently shown the fallacy of this theory, whether the overtaxed slave be a horse or a human being. In towns and cities the roads are, and must be, paved, and the pavings at present are variously of stone, wood, or asphalt, where the road is not macadamized. These pavements have, it would seem, each its own peculiar dangers for the horses which use them; and each has thus become a fruitful source of controversy. If any one method be likely to supersede the rest, the victory will probably be for the asphalt; but horses are found to slip seriously upon it, and the falls so caused are, we are told, of a graver kind than those on pavements of other sorts. All the proprietors of cabs, omnibuses, and railway-vans have, it is said, protested in a body against its use, but scarcely, it would seem, to good purpose. Fresh contracts have been signed for pavements of asphalt, and others will probably follow. In the mean while horses have to pass, perhaps in a single morning, from macadamized roads to roads paved with asphalt, wood, or stone in other words, over roads made of widely differing materials, which call in each case for a different action of the foot. On the other hand, the hoof is supposed to be protected by shoes, the varieties of which are legion; and thus the controversy has been brought to a singular issue. On one side it is urged that there should be a uniform system of paving enforced on all towns, so that horses should no longer pass from a less slippery road to one that is more slippery; on the other the contention is that the true remedy lies not in uniformity of paving, but in the discovery of a shoe which shall effectually prevent the horse from slipping anywhere. The former alternative is visionary; the latter has been, and perhaps it may be said still is, the object aimed at by some who have a thorough acquaintance with the structure of the horse, and the most disinterested wash to promote his welfare. We may therefore safely pay no heed to the lamentations of those who believe that “the difficulty in riding or driving through the London streets arises from the variety of the pavements in use,” and that, if we had a uniform kind of pavement, a shoe for universal use would be quickly invented.” We may please ourselves with fancying that “the ingenuity of man would devise horseshoes to travel over glass, were glass the only pavement in use.” The main question is, whether mankind after all has not been forestalled in this invention; and it is absolutely certain that those who have labored most conscientiously to improve the shoeing of horses have striven especially to secure for them the power of moving safely over materials of many kinds. These men have been convinced that the traditional methods overload the foot of the horse with iron, and that the modes of fastening on this iron interfere with, if not altogether obstruct, the processes of nature. The efforts of all have been directed toward diminishing the weight of iron, and this has led them to the conclusion that the less the natural foot is interfered with the better. M. la Fosse thus inferred that one half of the ordinary shoe was unnecessary, and that nothing more was needed than a tip on the front half of the foot. Unfortunately, he directed that the heel should be pared, thus making it weaker, and he fastened on his tip, which had about six inches of iron in its entire length, with eight nails. He was thus “inserting wdges, amounting in the aggregate to from one to one and a half inch in thickness, in six inches of horn, thus squeezing it into the space of five or even four inches, and killing it from the clinches downward and outward.” It is strange that veterinary surgeons who have clearly comprehended the mischief thus caused have failed to draw the logical inference from their premises. Mr. Douglas was aware that the crust of the horse’s foot resembles in its natural state a number of small tubes, bound together by a hardened, glue-like substance, and he compares it to a mitrailleuse gun with its many barrels soldered together. By his way of nailing, M. la Fosse was reducing the size of each tube by one sixth, or rather was entirely closing those nearest the nails and compressing those that lie half-way between each pair of nails. He was in this respect aggravating the mischief of the ordinary shoe, which commonly has seven nails; and this insured dryness and brittleness of hoof. But the circulation of fluid through the pores of the hoof is not the only natural process which modern shoeing interferes with. In his work on the horse’s foot, Mr. Miles illustrates the expansion and contraction which always take place in its natural state when it is set down on and lifted from the ground. The subject was a horse nine years old, which had the shoe removed for the purpose of the experiment. “The unshod foot was lifted up, and its contour traced with the greatest precision on a piece of board covered with paper. A similar board was then laid on the ground; the same foot was then placed upon it, and the opposite foot held up while it was again traced. The result was that it had expanded one eighth part of an inch at the heel and quarters.” Over two inches on each side of the center of the toe no expansion had taken place, the tracings showing that the expansion was only lateral. It would follow that a shoe intended to give full play to this process must be confined to the part where no expansion takes place; but Mr. Miles adhered to the form of the ordinary shoe, although he reduced to three the number of nails by which it was fastened. The object of this process of expansion and contraction is to give the animal a firmer hold on the soil, and to enable him, where this is thick, slimy, or sticky, to withdraw the foot easily on contraction. This purpose is necessarily defeated when the whole foot is armed with iron.
No one has condemned the mischievous working of the existing system more strongly than Mr. Mayhew, who refuses to allow that the body of the horse was made stronger than his legs and feet, and holds that these, if left to themselves, must be adequate to the tasks imposed on them. In his belief, “it is among the foremost physiological truths, that Nature is a strict economist,” and that “man has for ages labored to disarrange parts thus admirably adjusted.... No injury, no wrong, no cruelty, can be conceived, which barbarity has not inflicted on the most generous of man’s many willing slaves.” But, although he has thus seen “the folly of contending against those organizations which govern the universe,” he still thought that the employment of some sort of shoe might not lie open to this charge. Shoes of some sort may give to the horse the freedom which is essential for the health of the foot, although he insists that all the shoes thus far used are lamentable failures, “There are,” he says, “many more pieces of iron curved, hollowed, raised, and indented than I have cared to enumerate. All, however, have failed to restore health to the hoof. Some by enforcing a change of position may for a time appear to mitigate the evil; but none can in the long run cure the disorder under which the hoof evidently suffers.” Such language, it might be thought, could come only from one who had discarded the use of shoes altogether. All, however, that Mr. Mayhew has done, is to point the way to the road which he was not prepared to take. But the experience of Miles and Mayhew, La Fosse, Charlier, and Douglas, seems to lead by necessary logical inference to one conclusion only. If the working of the traditionary system leaves the horse a wreck almost before he has reached his prime, if the lessening of the weight of iron and of the number of nails used in fixing the iron has been followed by direct and important benefits in every instance, if even those who hold that a horse must be shod have discovered that which they look on as a protection to the fore-feet is merely harmful to the hind-feet, is it possible to stifle the suspicion that this insignificant remnant of a system so fruitful in mischief may have no magic power, and, in short, that the horse may do just as well without them?
This conclusion has been courageously avowed and most ably enforced by a writer calling himself “Free Lance,” in his recently published work on “Horses and Roads”; and, to say the least, it is time that the whole question should be fully and impartially considered. It affects the wealth of the nation, and on it depend both the usefulness and the comfort of a race of noble animals which are indispensable to our prosperity. The force of prejudice may be great, and a widespread traditional system may not be soon or easily overthrown; but it can not for a moment be supposed that Englishmen generally will assume with reference to it an attitude of unreasoning and obstinate antagonism. Fear probably will be found to supply a restraining motive more powerful than open ill will. Many who think that the new theory may look well enough on paper will doubt its value in practice, and will regard their own horses as exceptions to which it can not apply. With a strange ignorance of fact, they will insist that unshod horses may move safely over smooth and soft ground, but must fail when it is rugged, and hard, and stony, or will be oppressed by a vague dread that a horse which has gone well enough without shoes for six months may break down in the seventh. But even those who refuse to give up the practice of shoeing will yet acknowledge its faultiness, and wish that they could give it up without risk. To all such we need only say that if they have any regard for impartiality they are bound to consider the arguments and the facts on which the conclusions of “Free Lance” rest; and most assuredly they will find in his pages nothing which they may charge with extravagance, rashness, and intolerance. They will not be told that unless they abandon the system of shoeing altogether they can effect no improvement in the present state of things, or even that they must hasten to change the old system for the new. On the contrary, they will find that they are again and again warned against imprudent haste, and are told that a vast amount of good may be achieved even if they never venture on leaving their horses’ feet in a state of nature.
Of these arguments and facts it might be difficult to determine which are the most important and significant. Certain it is that our horses generally are afflicted with a multitude of diseases which seize on their legs and feet, and that lameness is everywhere a cause of constant complaint and of loss of time and money. The author is not speaking from theory or from book, but takes his stand on an experience obtained during a sojourn of many years in foreign countries, especially in America, where in the construction of railways and other public works he had to employ hundreds of horses and mules on tasks which taxed their capabilities to the utmost. In Mexico, Peru, Brazil, and elsewhere, he found that unshod horses were daily worked over roads of all kinds, carrying heavy packs from the interior down to the coast, the journey thither and back being often extended to several hundreds of miles, and that they accomplish these journeys without ever wearing out their hoofs; and the roads in these countries, where they exist at all, are neither softer nor smoother than those of England or of Ireland. If horses fell lame, it was from causes incidental to the climate, and for these the system of shoeing would supply no remedy. From other diseases, which from strong and often incontestable reasons may be traced to the use of shoes, they were wholly free. The necessary conclusion was that the system of shoeing could answer no good purpose, while it might be productive of much harm; and in this conclusion he was confirmed by the admissions and protests of the most able and competent veterinary surgeons in this country. These have uniformly raised their voices against the heavy weighting of the horse’s foot maintained by the traditional practice. It has been found here that the hoofs of some horses are so weak that they can not be fully shod; and a writer in the “Field,” styling himself “Impecuniosus,” cited some ten years ago a remark by Mayhew that “some horses will go sound in tips that can not endure any further protection,” adding the significant comment that the moral of this is that “it is the shoe, not the road, that hurts the horse”; for, if a weak and tender foot can go sound when all but unshod, “why should not the strong, sound one do the same?” The conclusion, as he insists, should rather be that a horse must have a strong, sound foot to stand, not our work, but our shoe. The same writer, speaking of the cruelties unwittingly perpetrated by grooms and blacksmiths on the horse’s foot, says that, “though lameness usually attends their efforts, they ascribe it to every cause but the right one, and, indeed, resign themselves complacently to the presence of many diseases confessedly caused by their treatment.” “Free Lance” has seen, and others also have doubtless seen, light horses, of high breed and value, shod or burdened with a full set of shoes in which eight nails, nearly three sixteenths of an inch in thickness, were driven four in each quarter, and in a space of three inches for each four nails. He may well call attention to the immense amount of laceration and compression which the delicate hollow fibers of the crust must have suffered when thus wedged up within a fourth of their natural dimensions. Besides this, he adds, the hoof was, in one instance, carved out on the crust to receive three clips, one on the toe and one on each quarter. “A calk, three quarters of an inch high, was put on one heel of each hind-shoe, and, on the other heel, a screw cog of equal height. On each front-shoe a cog, also three quarters of an inch high, was put upon each heel. This wretched victim to fashion was then regarded with the utmost satisfaction by the farriers and his groom; and all this heathenism was perpetrated in the forge of a veterinary surgeon. But, perhaps, he was shoeing to order.”
Among the reformers of these great abuses M. Charlier occupies a prominent place. His shoe in its first shape was not successful. Starting rightly on the assumption that Nature intended the horse to walk barefoot, and that the bottom of his foot was in every way fitted to stand all wear and tear, he excepted from these self-sufficing parts the outer rim, that is, the wall or crust. “He, therefore,” “Free Lance” tells us, “made a shoe of very narrow iron, less than the width of the wall, which he let in, or imbedded, to the crust, without touching the sole even on the edge; so that, in fact, the horse stood no higher after he was shod than he stood when barefooted. He urged that such a narrow piece of iron would not interfere with the natural expansion and contraction of the foot; and in this he at once went wrong, for malleable iron has no spring in it. Then, in spite of his theory, as he expressed it, he carried his shoe right round the foot into the bars, beyond where the crust ceases to be independent of them. He then got a very narrow, weak shoe, about a foot in circumference (if circumference can be applied to that which is not a complete circle); and, as he ought to have foreseen, the shoe then twisted or broke on violent exertion.” Still, as freeing the horse from a large amount of the weight usually attached to his foot, the change was an important benefit; and the lesson thus taught was not thrown away. The shoe was reduced by a man at Melton from the full to the threequarter size, and in this form it weighs five ounces. Seeley’s patent horseshoe, adopted by the North Metropolitan Tramways Company, weighs one pound and a quarter, this being a reduction of one half on the weight of the ordinary shoe; and we have to remember that each additional ounce on the horse’s foot makes a most sensible difference in the amount of work performed by him during the day. Shoeing their horses on the principle of the modified Charlier shoe, Messrs. Smither & Son, of Upper East Smithfield, have found the result marvelously to their advantage, in the measure of comfort and safety with which their animals do their work, whether in the London streets, on pavement, or on country roads. So far as their experience has gone, there are no horses which it does not suit, and it is of special service for young horses running on the London stones, and for horses with tender feet, or corns, and to prevent slipping. In other words, the absence of metal confers benefits which can not be bestowed by its presence. Facts in America teach the same lesson. At a meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture in 1878, Mr. Bowditch, a practical farmer, declared that “nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of all the trouble in horses’ feet come from shoeing,” that he was in the habit of driving very hard down hill, that he had galloped on ice on a horse whose feet had merely a small bit of iron four inches long curled round the toe, and that this piece of iron is all that is needed even in the case of an animal whose feet have been abused for a series of years. When nothing is left but this fragment of the traditional shoe, and when even this fragment has, as in Massachusetts and elsewhere, been retained for the fore-feet only, it is incredible that men should fail to ask what the use of this relic of the old system may be. Donkeys in Ireland are unshod, and they work on roads at least as rough, hard, slimy, and slippery as those of England. “Can one really believe,” asks “Free Lance,” “that the animal which is endowed with the greater speed and power should have worse feet than his inferior in both respects?” To such a question one answer only can be given; and the lesson may be learned by any one who will take the trouble to go to the wilds of Exmoor or Dartmoor. There, as in the Orkneys and on the Welsh hills and in many parts of the Continent of Europe, horses run unshod over rocks, through ravines, and up or down precipitous ridges. “Yet all this,” Mr. Douglas remarks, “is done without difficulty, and to the evident advantage of their hoofs, for these animals never suffer from contracted feet, or from corns, sand-cracks, etc., until they become civilized and have been shod.” Mr. Douglas, it is true, holds that civilization involves the need of a shoe of some sort for horses as for men; Mr. Mayhew advocates the use of the tip, and, as we have said, it is not in human nature to stop short at such a point as this. It is obvious that, if the complete abandonment of iron is followed by increased efficiency and power of endurance on the part of the horse, as well as by deliverance from a number of painful and highly injurious diseases, the owner is directly and largely benefited in more ways than one. His horses live in greater comfort and for a longer time; his veterinary surgeon’s bill and the outlay for medicine are greatly lessened, and the costs of farriery disappear altogether.
Farriers will, of course, complain that their occupation is gone, and that they are ruined men; but little heed was paid to like pleas when they were urged for the drivers and attendants of coaches and coach-horses when the first railways were constructed. Matters will adjust themselves in this case as they did in the other. But, that the change can not be effected in a day or a week, no one will venture to deny. The feet of horses are ordinarily treated, not wantonly but through ignorance, with a cruelty which is simply shocking. With vast numbers of animals which are not kept for purposes of drudgery, and in whose appearance their owners feel a pride, the hoof is a mere wreck, and the sight of the mangled and split hoof may well excite not merely pity but wonder that any can passively allow such evils to go on. A few, however, will always be found with resolution enough to shake off the fetters of traditionalism; and some of these have already expressed their opinion with sufficient emphasis. One of these, writing in November, 1878, says: “The argument against horseshoes seemed to me so strong, and the convenience of doing without them so great, that I resolved to try the experiment. Accordingly, when my pony’s shoes were worn out, I had them removed, and gave him a month’s rest at grass, with an occasional drive of a mile or two on the high-road while his hoofs were hardening. The result at first seemed doubtful. The hoof was a thin shell, and kept chipping away, until it had worn down below the holes of the nails by which the shoes had been fastened. After this the hoof grew thick and hard, quite unlike what it had been before. I now put the pony to full work, and he stands it well. He is more sure-footed, his tread is almost noiseless, and his hoofs know no danger from the rough hands of the farrier, and the change altogether has been a clear gain, without anything to set off against it. The pony was between four and five years old, and had been regularly shod up to the present year. He now goes better without shoes than he ever did with them.”
A well-known Cumberland farmer, writing about the same time, speaks of a farm-horse in his possession, which, having been lamed by a nail driven into its foot, had been for many months in the hands of the farrier. Tired out with this annoyance, the owner had his shoes taken off and turned him out to pasture. While still rather lame, the horse was set to work on the land; and he is now, we are told, “doing all sorts of farm-work, and dragging his load as well as any shod horse, even over hard pavement.” If judgment based on knowledge is to carry weight, the question would soon be settled. We have already seen the opinions expressed by the most able writers on the horse, and especially on the structure and treatment of his feet, as well as by the best veterinary surgeons. The verdict of the “Lancet” is almost more emphatic. “As a matter of physiological fitness,” it says, “nothing more indefensible than the use of shoes can be imagined. Not only is the mode of attaching them by nails injurious to the hoof, it is the probable, if not evident, cause of many affections of the foot and leg, which impair the usefulness and must affect the comfort of the animal.” If we add that the hunter is benefited almost more than other horses by being allowed to use his feet as Nature made them, the admission is made in the interests of the horse and not as an expression of opinion on the controversy respecting the right or the wrong of fox-hunting. It is enough to say that for horses which have to move rapidly, and to come down with a sudden shock on sticky and slippery ground, the natural course of the process of expansion and contraction is of the first importance. For those who may care nothing for the gratification of hunting-men, it may be amusing or provoking to learn that, in times of hard frost, hunters have been enabled to chase the prey by the aid of gutta-percha soles fastened to the feet; but all who are anxious only for the welfare of the horse will see in this fact strong evidence of the uselessness of the iron shoe. The plain truth is, that differences in the quality of soil, be it hard or soft, stony or sandy, smooth and slippery, are of comparatively little importance to the horse whose feet are as Nature made them. In the words of “Free Lance,” “the unshod horse can successfully deal with all roads”; and assuredly no one will dream of asserting that shod horses can do this, for on the setting in of frost, for instance, they can not be worked until certain ceremonies have been gone through at the blacksmith’s forge. The unshod horse can tread firmly on the slime of wood pavement when shod horses are slipping and struggling in agony around them; he can gallop on ice, and trot for miles together on the hardest and roughest flint roads, with far more ease and comfort than horses whose feet are shod with iron, or even with gutta-percha. “Free Lance” rightly remarks that “if they could not there would be an end of the thing, for evidently the horse should be able to go anywhere and everywhere, and at a moment’s notice.” It seems hard to produce the conviction that the natural sole of the horse’s foot is almost impenetrable, that it is so hard and strong as to protect the sensible sole from all harm, and that all feet exposed to hard objects are made harder by the contact, provided only that the sole is never pared. This adequacy of the horse’s foot to all demands that may be made upon it is forcibly illustrated by Mr. Bracy Clark, who, like Mr. Douglas and Mr. Mayhew, contented himself with striving to produce a perfect shoe, although he acknowledged that, if we wish to appreciate the full beauty of its structure, “we must dismiss from our views the miserable, coerced, shod foot entirely, and consider the animal in a pure state of nature using his foot without any defense. Probably Mr. Clark thought that, though we may consider it in its natural state, few can ever so behold it, as all horses in civilized countries are in greater or less degree brought under artificial conditions. The plea is fallacious. The horse is clearly intended by nature to serve as a domesticated animal; and, so long as we do not interfere with the proper functions of any part of its body (and the abomination of bearing-reins and other such practices interfere with them grievously and even fatally), we bring it under no conditions which it was not designedly calculated to encounter. Private owners and companies whose horses must be numbered by troops are naturally irritated by the accidents constantly occurring on smooth and slimy pavements or on rough and hard stone or flint roads, and in their disgust they now offer rewards for the invention of a shoe which shall render the horse indifferent to the materials over which he has to pass, and clamor for a uniform system of pavements in all towns. It seems strange indeed that no misgiving seems to cross their minds that they are taking thought of the wrong surface, and that they are scared by false terrors when they dread the contact of the unshod hoof with sand, granite, flint, wood, or asphalt.
It can not, indeed, be too often repeated or too strongly insisted on, that the foot of the horse in no way needs to rest on soft and yielding surfaces. The very opposite of this is the truth, and this truth was perceived as clearly by Xenophon as by the ablest physiologists of our own day. Speaking, as he says, not from theory, but from wide and varied experience, Xenophon insists that, in order to insure the healthiness of horses, stable-floors must not be smooth or damp, that they should be lined with stones of irregular shapes, of much the same size as the animal’s hoof, and that the ground outside the stable, on which it is groomed, should be covered in parts with loose stones laid down in large quantities, but surrounded by an iron rim to prevent their being scattered. Standing on these, the horse, Xenophon adds, will be in much the same condition as if he were traveling on a stony road, and, as he must move his hoof when he is being rubbed down as much as when he is walking, the stones thus spread about will strengthen the frogs of his feet. It is not easy to repress a certain feeling of shame at the disingenuousness of modern writers who have tried to shirk the difficulty by saying that Xenophon had no knowledge of our hard roads. It is enough to reply that he speaks distinctly of roads covered with stones, and of the benefit which the horse derives from traversing them. There is not a word to justify a suspicion that he would have shrunk from the hardest roadway of modern times. Xenophon is thus in complete agreement with Lord Pembroke’s remark, that the constant use of litter in a stable makes the feet tender and causes swelled legs. In his judgment the bare stone pavement will cool, harden, and improve a horse’s feet merely by his standing on it. Acting on the same principle, Vegetius, as “Free Lance” remarks, holds that the floor of the stable should be made, not of soft wood, but of solid hard oak, which will make the foot of the horse as hard as a rock. It should surely be unnecessary to say that these writers make not the remotest reference or allusion to the shoeing of horses. It was impossible that they could notice a practice which was unknown to the ancient world, and which is in truth simply a modern, as it is also a most uncalled-for, barbarism. No iron helped to produce the heavy sound of solid horn which Virgil ascribes to the fiery steed of Pollux. Of late years we have heard much of the unjustifiable waste of time spent on classical literature which has no practical bearing on the interests of modern life. It is unfortunate that Xenophon’s treatise on the management of horses has not formed one of the subjects for the upper forms of our public schools; and it would be well if they were made to read with care a book written by one who wrote unfettered by the restraints of any traditional system, and who successfully brought the cavalry, as well as the infantry, of the Cyreian army of Greeks from the plains of Babylon to the shores of the Euxine. There they would see how thoroughly the rules laid down by the leader of the Ten Thousand for the selection and management of horses are in accordance with the highest scientific knowledge of the present day, and how happy an ignorance he displays of the long and dismal catalogue of diseases and miseries which a wrong-headed and ridiculous system has called into existence. No horses could be subjected to a more severe strain in every limb of their body than were those which Xenophon led from Cunaxa over the Armenian highlands to the walls of Trebizond; yet we hear nothing of any special difficulties arising from diseases of the foot or leg. It may probably be said with truth that the strain endured by those horses could be borne only by unshod animals. Paul Louis Courier, the French translator of Xenophon’s treatise, was so struck by the apparent soundness of his method, that he put it to the test by riding unshod horses in the Calabrian campaign of 1807, and he did so with complete success. But that which with him was a voluntary experiment has been for others an involuntary necessity. This was the case with many of our cavalry-horses during the Indian Mutiny, and their riders have declared that they were never better mounted in their lives. In the retreat of the French from Moscow, the horses, “Free Lance” remarks, lost all their shoes before they reached the Vistula; yet they found their way to France over hard, rough, and frozen ground. In his invasion of America, Cortes could not carry about with him the anvils, forges, and iron needed for shoeing even the small number of horses which he had with him. But these horses did their work and survived it, and from them comes the fierce mustang of Mexico, which still goes unshod. There is great force in the remark of “Free Lance,” that horses are not indigenous to America, this being their first introduction, and that the climate and locality, therefore, have not that influence over the hoof which they are commonly supposed to have. The small horses of the irregular cavalry at the Cape, which took part in the battle of Ulundi, had no shoes on their hind-feet, and few were shod even in front, but they held out longer and went miles farther than the shod animals; and no complaints were made of any of them falling lame, although, as “Free Lance” adds, “sheets of wet, slippery rock, and rolling stones in river-beds, would be calculated to try the hoofs to the utmost.”
But it is scarcely necessary to cite more instances of the vast benefits which those who have had the courage to leave the feet of their horses as Nature made them have received under the most varied conditions of work, of soil, and of climate. Humanity and self-interest here point in the same direction, and only folly of the most perverse kind will have the hardihood to fight for the maintenance of the existing system. The cruelties practiced (whether unwittingly or wantonly) on the horse’s foot have been extended over a series of generations, but the only penalty which remains to be paid for the ill doing of years is the surrender of a few days or a few weeks of the labor of the animal which has been thus misused. On the other side, there is a certainty that we shall be entering on a course which will triple the length of time over which the efficiency of the horse will be extended, and which, therefore, will, within twenty years, have saved the nation a hundred and thirty-five million sterling. It will further insure the immediate saving of all the money now spent on farriery, and this saving, which must be at the least forty shillings a year on every horse, will amount to two million and a quarter and there will be the further saving in straw as well as on medicines, nostrums, and remedies no longer needed for animals rescued from a system which was a fruitful source of discomfort, disease, and death. The angry controversies which the subject is now constantly calling forth and exasperating will at the same time disappear. There will no longer be an outcry for uniformity in the system of paving towns, for horses will go as well on one kind of pavement as on another. There will no longer be querulous demands on inventors for the devising of a perfect shoe, because it will be clearly seen that this perfect shoe has been furnished already by nature, and that it is only human ignorance and conceit which has marred the work of God. We may now look back with some feeling of envious regret on the wiser, because more natural, methods of the ancient world; and future generations will look back with feelings of simple wonderment at the infatuation which could submit without a struggle to a system which doomed the horse to unnecessary disease and agony and to a premature death, while it deprived his owner of wealth often sorely needed for his own welfare and that of all depending on him. Of the ultimate issue there can be no doubt; but it is still the duty of “Free Lance,” as of all whose eyes are opened to the mischiefs of the existing system, to fight the battle to the end.—Fraser’s Magazine.