An Introduction to the History of Horses and Society
Written by Christine Thomas
Throughout history, domesticated horses were deeply connected with work, health, and daily life in England, and additionally, proved a reflection of English political, social, and economic life. England has often been referred to as a “horse-drawn society” for its co-dependence on the animal in comparison to other countries. This dependence on horses rose steadily from the 16th and 17th centuries to reach its peak in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Boehrer, 2017). This can be attributed to a number of reasons, one being the importation of diversified stronger, faster breeds of foreign horses, starting from the reign of Henry VIII and continuing under the Tudor and Stuart monarch and onward (Boehrer, 2017). By the time of the Restoration in 1660, England’s horses had transformed from mostly country ponies to animals of true strength and capability, and with this shift came a transition in the symbolic stature of the horse as well, now closely tied with power, authority, and aristocratic stature (Boehrer, 2017).
While a portion of the elite used exotic breeds of horses for recreation, the animal also became essential to the English middle and lower classes. Although in the early stages of domestication, horse meat was a motivation for keeping horses, by the early modern period the animal was seen more for its mixed potential as a tool for transportation and as a working companion for those of lower class and more rural backgrounds, as well as leisure and sporting for the wealthy (Hausberger, 2007). Over time England grew more reliant on the animal, from horseback being the common transportation for peasants in the early 1500s, to the emergence of horse-drawn sprung coaches, to the 1700s, where a well-established system of stage coaches was in place (Boehrer, 2017).
In the 19th and 20th centuries horses were used in variety of ways in the city of London, many documented in the Medical Officer of Health reports. The practice of using horse ambulances for transportation of patients to and from the hospital, especially those in critical conditions and for particularly long distances, is repeatedly documented within the MOH Reports (London County Council, 1901). The city of London would regularly purchase or hire horses (St George (Westminster) 1881) for “slopping” and watering the roads in order to remove dust, ashes, house refuse, and other forms of waste from the streets, drastically improving their previously poor conditions of cleanliness (Lewisham, 1882). However, by the mid-20th century, horses were increasingly replaced with mechanical forms of transportation. The MOH report from Stepney for 1934 notes tersely that: “The purchase from time to time of new mechanical vehicles has resulted in the disposal of the remainder of the Council’s horses during 1934” (Stepney, 1934).
Another essential part that developed in people’s relationship with horses is with their maintenance, care, and relative costs associated with the horses purchased by the city, town, or individual, including the type and amount of fodder, the equipment needed including shoes and saddles, and repairs and veterinary treatments (Fulham, 1890). Horse accidents were an all too ordinary phenomenon (Croyden, 1945), mostly due to the fact that many workhorses at the time were being grotesquely overworked and overused, with many accounts of neglect, starvation, and abuse (Boehrer, 2017).
There are also detailed reports of the precautions and methods to deal with diseased horses and horses that might have contracted glanders or diphtheria, as well as their symptoms, and how to prevent the further spread of the disease and practice its treatment (Hornsey, 1928). Probably the most surprising documentation of interaction between horses and humans is seen with the recorded number of horses slaughtered for human consumption annually and the hygienic inspection of their carcasses, as well as their deep-rooted connections with public health at the time (Lewisham, 1949). The frequent consumption of horse meat is shocking in light of the widespread consideration at the time of horses being “companion animals,” often being named by families and being raised as a common household addition in more rural areas (Sabloff, 54).
However, the relationship of horses and warfare sports underwent some of the most drastic changes leading up to the 19th century. The medieval cavalry, which was a crucial part of any country in the 1300s, had begun to dwindle during the Hundred Year’s War due to its vulnerability to the newly introduced gunpowder weaponry (Boehrer, 2017). This in turn altered the world of equestrian sports, which up to the 15th century was largely bound with warfare skills like jousting and hunting. At the start of the 19th century there was a definite switch from “warrior to leisure class” with horse racing and horse showing becoming increasingly common sports of the wealthy (Boehrer, 2017).
Finally, by the late 1800s, horses had developed another level of human interaction that many of the animals of London’s streets would never reach, pure recreation and relaxation. Watching or participating in horse riding and racing became a frequent pastime (Hounslow, 1969), especially after its popularization as “the sport of the English kings” by Charles II in the 18th century (Boehrer, 2017).
In 1947 England took into account the indispensable relationship between horse and society, and established the British Horse Society in order to promote education, training, and safety between horses and the public, improve the animal’s condition, work environment, and well-being and prevent any abuse or mistreatment, as well as promote healthy recreation and community participation with horses (Hammersmith 1965). The establishment of this organization and an examination into the role of horse in society in the early modern England only further emphasize the animal’s significance in all areas of English life, including transportation, maintenance, public health, and recreation.
Sabloff, Annabelle. Reordering the natural world: Humans and animals in the city. University of Toronto Press, 2001.
Martine Hausberger, Hélène Roche, Séverine Henry, E. Kathalijne Visser, A review of the human–horse relationship Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 109, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 1–24.