Thursday, June 20, 2013

Historical Equine Data - some misconceptions corrected

I've just been referred to this page as a useful resource for historical novelists.

I'm pleased to see that someone realised it was necessary back in 1997, but the more I read of it, the more I feel that a lot of its information is inaccurate. Not all of it. Quite a lot is sound. But its frequent inaccuracies and its American bias show the rest of the page in a less trustworthy light and it might be helpful to correct some (ie, those I've taken most exception to!)



"you won't find the word pony in use because they were all horses." That is true as far as terminology goes, because the word "pony" isn't recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary until the mid-17th C (1659, powny, from Scottish, apparently from Fr. poulenet “little foal”). Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Brittanicum: or A More Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1730s) defines the word pony as “a little Scotch horse”.

However, the HN page continues, "The generic pony is 9 to 14 hands at the withers (a hand is four inches)..."

Now that's arguable. Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 9th Edition 1881, said a pony “must be less than 52"” (13hh) from the ground to the top of the withers; else he is a Galloway.” (The withers is the bony prominence of the spine above the horse's shoulders, the highest part of its anatomy when it is grazing.) Enc. Brit. also says that a cob “should not exceed 14.1hh”. So from the 17th C to the late Victorian era, a pony is small. Then from about 1890 to modern times the definition of a pony changes to one standing 14 hands 2 inches, or less, and the term "Galloway" retreats into the local dialect of Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland and parts of Yorkshire. It also travels to Australia as a definition of a riding horse.

You can find more detail on ponies and Galloways on the Fell pony Museum web site.


The HN page says that ponies weigh "250 to 850 pounds."  Well, chums, you must have some pretty skinny animals over there. My fit and decently covered Fell mare who stands 13.3 in her unshod hooves weighs over 500 kg and my old 13.1 gelding weighs 475 kg. Multiply that up by 2.2 and you get 1100 and 1047 pounds respectively. Workmanlike British ponies like Highlands and Dales will tip the scales at similar weights. So those top weights for the 14 hand working animals in England would need revising.

The weights given for the larger horses are equally unlikely. Snow & Vogel (1987)  remark that Thoroughbred racehorses weigh 400kg/880 pounds, but point out that eventer types weigh 600kg/1320 pounds, which makes nonsense of the HN page's assertion that "Draft horses are over 17 hands and 1400 pounds, and again are stronger than standard horses. ... " Also, depending on the era, those enormously tall horses might actually not have been available - and if they'd been that tall they would certainly have weighed more than 1400 pounds.

Eating habits

"Horses eat only grass, no weeds." Well, there you're wrong again, chums. Hugely wrong. Shall I list some of the things that I've observed a British native pony will eat? No wonder they are such survivors!

Grasses of all kinds (not cocksfoot except when very young or wilted, because of the sharp edges of the leaves) - leaf and seed. Yes, they prefer grass, but they will also eat:

Sedges and rushes
Plantain (ribwort and mousear)
Bramble - leaves, flowers and fruit
Raspberry - ditto
Early-flowering crucifers like lady's smock, hedge garlic and shepherd's purse
Thistle - both the spring rosettes and the summer flowers
Daisies, dandelions and other compositae
Leaves, twigs and bark of shrubs - willow, rose, thorn (hawthorn or may)
Leaves, twigs and bark of trees - apple, ash and beech especially
Gorse - both prickles and flowers

My ponies certainly won't eat poisonous plants like foxgloves, but smell itself doesn't put them off "weeds" since they will also snack on:

Umbellifers like cow parsley 
Allium (wild garlic)
Mint (yum, yum!)

See? Don't generalise.

Pack horses and ponies

"before the later 1700's, pack trains are the normal means of moving goods overland" - yes, and the HN's emphasis on there being only poor roads, narrow tracks (and narrow bridges, where there was any bridge at all) is worth repeating, as is the fact that pack animals work at a walk. Pack saddles were of various designs from the cross-trees (sawbuck) type to the fixed-arch wooden "saddle" over which panniers could be slung.

Inexperienced handlers and packers can need to stop as frequently as every ten minutes or so to adjust slipping loads! So they won't make the upper limits of distances per day that the expert pack trains used to, in England, where ponies walked with their loads over 200 miles from Kendal to London and brought goods back within a month.

Saddle vs harness work

"An animal that has been taught to draw can be broken to saddle, but it is more challenging to teach a saddle-broken animal to draw, as they read the resistance of the load as a command to stop." This is nonsense, as my own mare would tell you. Many trainers begin work under saddle before harness work, reasoning that teaching a horse to respect its handler's wishes WITHOUT a carriage fastened to it is safer than WITH. Disregard this assertion as a generalisation from someone who hasn't done it either way.

"Plowing is draft work on very soft ground" and "Because of their weight, [draught horses] would sink to the fetlocks in plowed fields." More generalisation: ploughing (pardon my English spelling) can be done to break virgin land or tear up pasture in a farm's rotation (that's from the early 18th C onward; look up Jethro Tull and Turnip Townshend). Ploughing is therefore not exclusively "on soft ground" so your draught animals of whatever size won't be sinking into it. You can see photos of horses ploughing on the Fell Pony and Countryside Museum web site (Countryside section, Seed time) along with observations from men who have done it. The horse "up to the fetlocks" is walking in the furrow that was turned previously. He is not wading through mud. You don't plough when it's that wet, anyway.

"Even animals too young or weak to ride can draw a load." Yes, unfortunately it is true that young and weak animals can be used in draught, although they might be unfit for ridden work. And they probably would be so used, if conditions forced it.

General Caveat

There's a distinct American bias in most of the information on the HN page, so if you are a writer and your characters are "on stage" in Europe or Britain, don't for heaven's sake mention "hard-rocking mangalargas" OR "gliding paso finos"! Do your own research!

Some References

Fell Pony and Countryside Museum web site. This chronicles the everyday working ponies of Northern England from prehistory to the present day.  The Countryside part of the side has a great deal of agricultural information, though of a limited period from the 1850s to the 1950s.

Snow & Vogel, 1987, Equine Fitness, David & Charles, Newton Abbot & London; discusses the fittening of horses for various disciplines and is very informative about how and why horses can perform as they do.

David Murray, 2003-2004, The Fell Pony: grazing characteristics and breed profile. A study of the grazing preferences of semi feral ponies.

Sue Millard, 2005, Hoofprints in Eden, Hayloft Publishing, Kirkby Stephen. An examination of the modern Fell pony, and its history as told by its breeders. Now available only from the author's Jackdawebooks site (paperback) or on Amazon Kindle (4 e-books).

1 comment:

Paula Lofting said...

This is a fantastic source for us HF novelists that have included horses in their narratives! Thanks Sue, I may just have to consult this post every now and then!