There seems to be general agreement that our domesticated horses are descended from two primitive types, namely, the northern cold-blooded type and the southern warm-blooded. With the latter, represented by the Arab, we have little to do with here, except insofar as its blood has mingled, over the millennia, with that of the coarser, heavier northerners, a process which has naturally tended to lighten and refine certain breeds.

The northern type (Equus caballus frigidus) has undoubtedly made the major contribution to our modern heavy horses. Animals of this type roamed the plains of northern Europe and Asia in prehistoric centuries and are depicted in cave paintings, some of which are estimated to be 50,000 or more years old. Of the primitive species or subspecies which have survived till today the most important are Przewalski’s Horse (now probably extinct in the wild and confined to certain semi-domesticated herds in zoos and parks) and the Tarpan.

As the cave paintings imply, Man’s earliest relationship with horses was that of hunter and the hunted. Almost certainly men of the palaeolithic, mesolithic and neolithic eras ate horses, and as time went on they probably milked them. In Britain it was not until the Late Bronze Age that horse harness, such as bits and bridles, are found in graves, indicating that the horse had been domesticated for riding.

Primitive British horses were small animals, most of them similar in size and probably in appearance to the modern Exmoor pony, though, from bones recovered from graves and middens, some were even smaller than the Shetland.

It is not until Roman times that the remains of larger animals appear, and these doubtless came over from Europe with Roman cavalry units. They are thought to have been derived from fairly massive, heavy-headed animals with bristly manes which had been domesticated by Germanic tribes living on the plains arid in the forests of central Europe.

A similar type seems to have roamed all the northern steppes as far east as China, where great horses were being bred and domesticated at an early date, probably between 3000 and 2000 BC.

The penetration of the domesticated horse into the wooded countries of the Mediterranean and north-western Europe seems to have taken many centuries. Greek legends of centaurs apparently refer to a time when horses were unknown to the Greeks, who thought, when they encountered mounted men on the Scythian steppes, that horse and rider were one creature. When eventually, however, horses became familiar in the Mediterranean world, probably between 2000 and 1000 BC, interbreeding between the northern and southern types was inevitable. For a time southern blood was naturally predominant. Arab horses in particular are both fleet and beautiful the aristocracy of the horse world. Kings and emperors kept studs of magnificent animals based on Arabs, and armies marched with supporting wings of light cavalry. Their eclipse seems to have begun with the battle of Adrianople in A.D. 378, when the Goths, relying largely on heavy cavalry, resoundingly defeated the Roman army, killing the emperor, Valens.

Presumably the Romans learned their lesson, for from that time heavy cavalry features more and more prominently in the Roman military machine. A well supported school of thought maintains that the success of the Romano-British hero, Arthur, who flourished early in the sixth century, was founded on a reintroduction of heavy cavalry against which the invading Saxons, who were footsoldiers, had no answer. Hence the legend of King Arthur and his knights.

The feudal system, which grew out of the ruins of the Roman Empire, was based theoretically on the supremacy of a class of professional warriors. In theory they provided the protection under which the productive arts and trades of peace were carried on; and in return they were entitled to a share of the proceeds. In practice, ofcourse, the system lent itself easily to abuse and oppression, but the salient fact, from the point of view of our theme, is that for centuries a dominant role in the economy of Europe was played by a class dedicated to war and possessed of ample resources to equip themselves for it.

An essential feature of their equipment was a horse, for it was beneath the dignity of a gentleman to fight on foot. As the centuries passed, the armour worn by these warrior horsemen became progressively heavier, requiring, of course, the development of a stronger and larger horse to carry the load. The Great Horse of Europe was thus evolved as a war horse, a corollary of the knight in armour.

Like most sound ideas, the concept of the heavily-armoured knight was pushed to extremes which led to its downfall. The irresistible charge whereby heavy cavalry won its victories was never a thundering gallop at top speed. The massed ranks moved forward at what was probably a gentle trot, defeating the enemy by sheer weight, but such tactics received a rude jolt when the formidable knights of the West, apparently as impregnable as their towering castles, went eastwards on Crusades and encountered the more lightly-armed horsemen of the Arab world, and particularly the Saracens.

Though in a charge they were still irresistible, when engaging in more open warfare they were at a disadvantage. The lighter, speedier Arab steeds were able to make rings around them. By the end of the twelfth century the lesson was sinking in. A favourite theme of mediaeval artists was the single combat between Richard I and Saladin before their assembled armies outside the walls of Antioch. Huge murals depicting the scene adorned the walls of the royal chambers of the mediaeval palace of Clarendon, in Wiltshire, and troubadours loved to sing of how Richard fought from the back of his great stallion while Saladin’s mount was an Arab mare on heat! For us, the point of the story is that Richard’s western contemporaries recognized it as an equal match. In their eyes the lovely little Arab horses were in no way inferior to their own giant animals.

A more profound shock awaited the heavy cavalry of the West in the battle of Crecy in 1346, when the might of the chivalry of France fell before the arrows of English long bowmen. At first the French nobility tried to meet the challenge by encasing themselves in still thicker and heavier armour-plate, but in 1415 the battle of Agincourt still further emphasized the lessons of Crécy.

The heavy horse was obviously no longer supreme. In fact, the pendulum was swinging far in the opposite direction, and the English archers who triumphed at Agincourt were soon organized in lightly-armed companies of infantrymen, mounted on ponies or light horses, who became the scourge of France, raiding far and wide with little fear of the ponderous and virtually immobilized French knights. And in defeat in a pitched battle, the great horse was more of a menace to his own side than to the enemy for, maddened by armour-piercing arrows, he would plunge, turn and attempt to escape, causing havoc all around.

Tradition died hard, however, and as late as the reign of Henry VIII laws were enacted to compel horse-breeders to concentrate on size and weight. As the supply of heavy horses was evidently low, Henry caused considerable numbers to be imported from the Continent, notably from Holland, Flanders and Germany. Possibly his decision was influenced by the need of substantial steeds to support his own huge bulk!

A mild controversy has arisen around the actual size of the Great Horse of mediaeval armies. Daphne Machin Goodall, writing in Home and Hound, sums up some of the objections to that “Great Horse” being a giant animal, comparable to a Shire of 17 or 18 hands, as follows:

We have allowed ourselves to think that it requires weight to carry weight. No knight in full armour could have mounted a 17 hands horse. The average knight was a small man, rarely above 5 feet 6 inches . . . It is nearly impossible, from the ground, to mount a 17 hands animal even when one weighs only 10 stone!

What is needed is a stout-boned, short-legged, well-bred horse with a well-muscled short back, good joints and feet, with a fine head and responsive mouth.

And a cob, or an animal very like it, was, she thinks, the horse which carried heavily-armoured knights into battle. She further argues that it was the macadamizing of English roads, which began to be introduced in 1816, which led to the breeding of heavier horses.

I find this not entirely convincing. I do not doubt that a knight clad in twenty or more stone of armour would find it impossible to leap lightly into the saddle of any horse, but there were such things as mounting-blocks. And one of the handicaps of the armoured knight, according to some authorities, was that, once he had dismounted to fight on foot, he found it almost impossible to mount his horse again without discarding some of his armour, even with the help of several squires. Against that must be set the evidence that often the knight rode to war on his palfrey or rouncey, followed by his squire leading his war-horse. Presumably he was expected to mount when the command was given.

The horses depicted as the steeds of knights in mediaeval stained glass windows and in statuary have been quoted as evidence of the true size of the horses, but even they cannot be entirely relied on. Years ago a short study of the Rothamsted Collection of Prints and Paintings of British Farm livestock, which consists of nearly a thousand prints, paintings, lithographs and engravings covering the period 1780 to 1910 was made. More than 7500 of them are of cattle, and I was interested to check whether the monstrously obese animals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries really were as the artists depicted them.

They were not. Of one of the most exaggerated portraits, the Airedale Heifer, painted by J. Bradley and engraved by R. G. Reeve in 1820, the actual measurements are preserved. The picture shows a vast, slab-sided creature, as rectangular as a slice of toast, with tiny, short, slender legs, next to no neck, and a head which could have belonged to a medium-sized sheep.

Her measurements are given as nearly 11 feet long and 5 1/2 feet high at the shoulder. In the portrait they have been distorted to the extent that, if her length is correct she would have stood over seven feet high at the shoulder.

In short, there was a vogue in painting prize stock not as they actually were but as their owners thought they ought to be. The artists were paid by the owners. One artist of integrity, Thomas Bewick, protested and has left a memoir of his protest. He refused to alter the proportions of some prize animal which he had been commissioned to paint and in consequence lost the commission.

Only fifteen pictures in the Rothamsted Collection are of heavy horses, and farm horses, it seems, were not subject to the vogue in over-fat animals, for they could be matched in stables today. One suspects, though, that the attendants were deliberately reduced in scale, to enhance the impression of size.

Therefore, although we do not know what went on in the Middle Ages, it is at least possible that fashion and convention dictated to art. The horseman and not the horse was, after all, the more important figure in the composition, and it was the horseman who was paying the artist. On the other hand, we do have horse armour which was probably made to fit, and from that we can give fair assessment of the size of the knight’s mount as being nearer to the Suffolk Punch than the larger Shire.

The Cyclopedia of Agriculture of 1855, discussing the antecedents of the heavy horse, states “Recourse was had to the large black horse which had been known throughout the fertile plains of Europe . . . During the reigns of the Edwards repeated importations of these animals took place.”

It is interesting to note that the adjective used is “large” not “great”.

The matter remains undecided. Perhaps we shall never know just how big the “Great Horse of Europe” really was. It would probably be correct to visualize it as stocky and immensely strong rather than tall. Something perhaps like the Ardennes and Flemish horses of today, and more nearly resembling a short-legged Suffolk Punch than a lofty Shire.

When horses first began to be used agriculturally is not known. The Britons immediately before the Roman period used horses extensively for pulling chariots, but whether they also harnessed them at times to farm carts is doubtful. Oxen were the recognised draught animals. On Roman sites in Britain horse-shoes have been found, though whether they were from military, riding or farm animals cannot be ascertained. Horses were never very numerous, however, and in the centuries that followed they became even less so. The Saxons, when they arrived in Britain, seemed to have had little knowledge of horses and, it has been said, did not normally use them even for riding until late in the seventh century.

On the western side of Britain, the Celts were more familiar with horses. Some of their early laws lay down the values of good horses, and an interesting little note in Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba, in the sixth century, refers to a docile white horse which used to carry pails of milk to the monastery on Iona. By the tenth century horses were used for transport, usually as pack-horses, in both the Celtic and Saxon parts of Britain. These were, however, small, light horses, much like our ponies. They could hardly be otherwise, for both races adopted the age-old practice of turning their horses loose to breed in the wild. The foals were rounded up for branding and breaking in once a year, much as still happens to the pony herds on Exmoor, Dartmoor and elsewhere. The Domesday Book reveals the presence of just a few general-purpose work horses on many manors, but these usually belonged to the lord.

The Normans were much more familiar with horses than were either the Celts or Saxons, and the size of the steeds which carried the Norman knights at the battle of Hastings, as depicted on the Bayeux tapestry, implies that they were paying some intelligent attention to horse-breeding. Some at least of their best stock were kept on stud farms rather than being allowed to roam at will on heath and in forest.

By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries horses were in common use on farms, and it seems that some of them at least were large and powerful enough to pull carts a feat which required considerable strength on the appalling mediaeval roads. In Tudor times it has been stated that five or six cart-horses would draw a burden of 3,000 lb weight “with ease for a long journey”. Even some of the packhorses must have been strong, upstanding animals, for they could carry burdens of up to four hundredweights without strain. However, these were probably exceptions, for the horse-breeding laws of Henry VIII, referred to above, suggest that their average height was no more than 11 1/2 or 12 hands. One of his statutes, dated 1535, requires all major landowners with land of “a mile in compass” to keep at least two mares capable of bearing foals of 13 hands, and they were to be mated with a stallion of not less than 14 hands. In most counties stallions of less than 15 hands were prohibited from being allowed liberty on waste-lands. While these ordinances may have been obeyed at the higher levels of society, it is likely that among the peasantry indiscriminate horse-breeding went on much as before.

Whatever else Oliver Cromwell may or may not have been, he was a superb judge of horseflesh. It is recorded that on one occasion he kept an important Puritan deputation waiting for two hours while he inspected a newly-imported horse from “Barbarie”. Cromwell, considered by some military authorities to be the greatest general England has ever produced, relied heavily on his picked cavalry, the Ironsides. His usual tactics were to hold them in reserve until the crucial moment of a battle and then to send them in with an overwhelming charge. His horses were, however, apparently not the massive horses of mediaeval knights and of Henry VIII. The age of cumbersome armour was passing, in favour of lighter gear which gave greater ease of manoeuvre and movement. Leather rather than plate steel protected Cromwell’s troopers. Cromwell had both light and heavy cavalry, but even the heavy had no need of monster horses. Cromwell himself did everything in his power to refine the large and somewhat coarse animals hitherto in fashion by crossing them with imported Arabs and Barbs.

When the internecine wars of the seventeenth century were over, the modified heavy horses produced by this interbreeding found their way into peaceful occupations, in agriculture and city transport, and so became part of the general heritage of England. The seventeenth century saw, too, the development of coaching, culminating in 1690 by the invention of springs for coaches. Henceforth those who could pay the fare could travel over the country, by such roads as existed, at the incredible rate of fifty miles a day. The horses which pulled the coaches were presumably smaller than the Great Horse but still large and powerful, as they needed to be. Speed, however, was a very important consideration, and speed was a quality contributed by the warm-blooded southerners. In the eighteenth century, therefore, the tendency was for lighter horses to be used on long-distance work, while the heavier, plodding animals gravitated more and more to the farms. But cross-breeding was the rule, and an early eighteenth-century writer comments, “The true-bred English horse hardly exists, unless we may account the Horses to be such that are bred wild in some of our Forests and among the mountains.”

Even when light horses were most fashionable and the English aristocracy were becoming mad about racing, considerable numbers of large Dutch horses, representatives of the old Great Horse of Europe, were being imported.

Predictably, with such a wealth of material available, controversy soon arose as to the respective merits of light and heavy horses on the farm. Early books on agriculture are peppered with the arguments. One critic of the heavy horse was Thomas Davis, who compiled a report on the agriculture of Wiltshire for the Board of Agriculture in 1811. He writes:

The pride or vanity of stock has been almost as hurtful to the farmers of this district in the article of horses as in sheep. In both instances, the attention has been much more directed to get large than useful animals. Large, heavy-heeled black horses have long been the fashion, and have almost driven the smart, active and really useful horses out of the district.

There are undoubtedly some situations where the steepness of the hills and the heaviness of the soil require more than ordinary strength; but surely it would be better to add to the number of horses upon particular occasions than to increase the size, especially as the roads to the market towns are in general very good. . . .

Great horses not only cost proportionately more at first than small ones but require much more and better food to keep up their flesh . . .

He goes on to describe how many farmers attempted to recoup themselves by breeding foals for the London market, a practice which he is convinced is not justified, bearing in mind the fact that the farmers have to keep them (so he says) until they are six years old, during which period they must be “nursed and treated tenderly”. He sums up:

This kind of horse is naturally too heavy and too slow in its step for the purposes of Wiltshire farming . . . In light soils so much strength is not wanted; in heavy soils, the weight of the animal does injury to the land. Large, heavy-heeled horses are undoubtedly fit for steady drafts on public roads; but, for a farmer’s use, a smaller and more active kind of horse will not only step quicker but will bear their work more hours in a day, and will keep up their flesh . . . with proportionably less food.

One feels that Thomas Davis was prejudiced. For one thing, “large, heavy-heeled horses” are no more injurious to the soil than are light ones, for they have a greater hoof area to support their weight; for another, I cannot believe that Davis really thought that young horses bred for the London market did no work at all in the first six years of their life on the farm. Maybe he was influenced by the comment of William Marshall that the big black horses of the Midlands were “better calculated for eating than for working, and whose tendency is to render their drivers as sluggish as themselves”. “The black snail breed”, Marshall called them. He was not the first or the last observer to be deceived by the apparently slow and ponderous gait of the heavy cart-horse. Had he followed a pair of them behind the plough all day he would have appreciated that their pace was virtually ideal for a day-long stint.

Parallel with the heavy versus light horse controversy ran that between the champions of horses and oxen. The use of oxen for land work far antedated that of horses, and throughout the Middle Ages oxen easily outnumbered horses on English farms. In the Domesday Book most farms are recorded as possessing oxen, but horses are a scarce commodity. An anonymous writer of the thirteenth or fourteenth century produces what he doubtless considers to be a clinching argument when he states, “when the horse is worn out there is nothing left but skin, but ten pennyworth of grass will make an old ox fit for the larder.”

One of the eighteenth-century protagonists of the cart-horse was Coke of Holkham who, visiting Gloucestershire from his Norfolk home, saw “a team of six oxen attended by a man and boy at work in a field and decided he would show local farmers that such work could be done efficiently and even more quickly by employing two horses and a man”. It is added, however, that “the demonstration did nothing to remove the prejudice from the horse and the affection for oxen”.

On his own Norfolk farm Coke introduced his new Norfolk plough, which was drawn by two horses, and for a challenge he ploughed an acre of land in Hertfordshire in ten hours with this team, thus winning a wager of £200. Tull’s invention of the seed-drill and horse-hoe also gave a strong impetus to the employment of the horse for land work, for these light, manoeuvrable implements were not suited to the slow, lumbering gait of oxen.

Arthur Young, visiting Lincolnshire in 1813, found the replacement of oxen by horses fairly well advanced but with quite a number of farmers still favouring oxen.

Every farmer in Holland Fen [he wrote] keeps mares for breeding, and the numbers are very great. . . . Mr. Thacker, of Langrike Ferry, buys in Yorkshire at three years old in autumn, winters on straw, works a little in spring, and sells at Horncastle fair in August; one of the greatest fairs in the kingdom. A good judge makes money in this way. Oxen are nowhere worked in common. Mr. Cartwright has used, and approves them. . . .

About Grantham many oxen have been used, but all left off; once they were seen all the way from Grantham to Lincoln, now scarcely any; a pair of mares and one man will do as much work as four oxen and two men.

The first signs I saw of working oxen were the yokes and bows at the farm of Mr. Thorpe, at Kirton; he uses them for ox-harrowing, and also for carting. The same farmer keeps his team-horses loose, in a well-enclosed yard, littered and with the racks and mangers under an open shed; an excellent system for health. But on the Wolds most farmers have some oxen for working. . . .

They use oxen at Wintringham in carting; and the proportion will be seen by the stock on Mr. Cust’s farm, which is fourteen horses, four to six oxen, six colts, four cows. . . .

Mr. Bourne, of Dalby, breeds none but buys foals from four to six months old, at six to sixteen guineas. He thinks the expense of keeping a farm working horse £15 a year; no decline of value, as he never keeps longer than five or six years old; on the contrary, he thinks that all he keeps makes him, on an average, something; perhaps nearly as much as other sorts of stock; observing that those horses which do not work, and are two-thirds of the number, are kept at a more reasonable rate than the working ones; so that if he did not keep those horses he should keep but few more cattle.

Arthur Young sums up the two sides of the argument in his last paragraph on the subject of horses:

Mr. Smith, of South Elkington, like all his neighbours, works oxen for leading manure, and corn, and hay. They never have corn nor hay, except a little when they are in work; are at other times wintered on straw; and thinks that he can keep two oxen at the expense of one horse; but that the horse will not draw as much as the two oxen. He is of opinion that there should be no such thing as ploughing with them [the oxen], they move so slow.

Gregory King, surveying eighteenth-century England, estimates the number of horses engaged in agricultural work at about 600,000 but cattle at 4,000,000. He does not, however, differentiate between cattle kept for milk, meat and draught purposes, probably because in most instances no such distinction was possible.

We must not totally ignore another use of the horse, before the arrival of the railways. Canals suddenly became fashionable in the second half of the eighteenth century. Directed by skilful engineers, teams of navvies (which term is an abbreviation of “navigators”) carved a network of canals across rural Britain, climbing mountains with stairways of locks or driving long tunnels through them. One of the earliest of canal designers, James Brindley, chose the narrow width of 7 1/2 feet for his waterways, and this soon became standard. The well-known canal narrow-boats were evolved to fit into them, and a limit was also placed on the length of the boats by the length of the locks, which had a maximum of about 72 1/2 feet. The cargo that could be comfortably carried by boats of that size was not more than about 30 tons.

At first the barges were hauled along by manpower, with a switch to sails in open stretches of water. Many of the early tunnels had no tow-path, and the barges had to be “legged” through, by men lying on their backs and pushing with their feet on the low roofs.

Barge work was delegated to horses from about 1800, usually on the basis of one horse per boat. Because of their restricted size and weight, the narrow-boats were not a very exacting burden for a horse, who was allowed to take his time anyway. The type of horse used, therefore, could be of a genuine heavy breed but was more often a lighter crossbred. Old, quiet horses were commonly used for canal work.

We have now arrived at the age of Robert Bakewell and his programme of live-stock improvement. Although he is remembered chiefly for his work with sheep and cattle, he also made a contribution to the development of modern heavy horse breeds, notably, of course, the Shire (though it was not known by that name till long after his time). Already by the middle of the eighteenth century, when he embarked on his work, several regional types of heavy horse had become established, especially the Suffolk Punch in Suffolk and neighbouring counties, and the “great black horse” of the Midlands, as well as the Clydesdale in Scotland.

At this juncture, therefore, we follow the story of the heavy horse under the headings of the several breeds.

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