Since I am currently nursing an elderly pony, it occurred to me that this would be a useful article to write. After all, nowadays we have the skills and knowledge of talented veterinary surgeons to turn to, and a variety of especially formulated feeds with which to tempt a fussy feeder or one with poor dentition. Two hundred years ago, this was not the case.
In the Regency, although the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons had come into being in 1791 as The Veterinary College, London, for many horses medical care and treatment came from either a groom or the local farrier. There are many books of ‘Horse Management’ written by farriers and horsemen of the era, and some of the treatments recommended are nothing short of barbaric, at least to a twenty-first century horsewoman’s eye. For all their strength, horses are, in many ways, fragile creatures and subject to various conditions.
The following comes from a Veterinary Pathology volume of 1804 and is less severe than many:
Take Peruvian bark in fine powder, eight ounces; grains of paradise in fine powder, two ounces; gentian in powder, Columba root in powder, of each three ounces; honey sufficient to form the whole sixteen of a proper consistency, and divide into sixteen balls.
One of these balls may be given every morning, and will be found excellent for indigestion and loss of appetite.
Of the above, honey is the only ingredient I would use for a horse with loss of appetite and debility. However, if the Peruvian bark mentioned is Cat’s Claw, that has anti-cancer properties and is of great use where ‘wastage’ or digestion issues occur from such a cause. Grains of paradise, also known as alligator pepper and Guinea grains, among others, was mentioned by Pliny as African pepper. In the Bake of Nurture, John Russell described grains of paradise as ‘hot and moist’. Whilst warming and soothing in small doses, I’m not sure I would want pepper shoved down my throat if my stomach was ‘off’! Purported to be useful in cardiovascular health, nowadays it is more often used as a condiment. Columba root has a bitter taste and is used to combat anaemia. Forget the bright purple colour, Gentian is a herb renowned for its medicinal properties. Digestive problems such as bloating, heartburn, diarrhoea and loss of appetite are all indicated in the use of Gentian. A word of caution though – herbs can be as strong in their effects as modern drugs and I would not advise their usage without the requisite knowledge or supervision.
Honey, on the other hand, is soothing, antiseptic and provides much-needed nutrition in an easily absorbed form, especially if the horse is debilitated through diarrhoea. Mixed with water and a small quantity of salt, it makes a simple electrolyte solution which most horses will readily drink. It is important to remember that while a horse can survive thirty days without food, he can manage only forty-eight hours without water. Thus it is essential that a sick or debilitated horse has access to fresh water at all times. If exhausted, a drink of chilled water may be offered, which, despite the name, is cold water with a little warm water added to take off the chill. Very cold water can be a shock to the system and even cause colic.
The Regency groom would have regularly offered water to his charges from a wooden or steel pail, since they were too easily kicked over where horses were housed in stalls – and automatic watering systems were a long way in the future! A horse will often wash his mouth without taking a drink, so the water must be changed frequently. Were a bucket of water to be placed beneath the manger, feed or hay would soon foul it. Horses are finicky about their feed and water and will starve themselves sooner than ingest anything contaminated.
There are times when, like a sick person, a horse may be so debilitated he may have lost the will to drink as well as eat. What, therefore, can we do? If holding a bucket up to his mouth will not do the trick, we have to be sneaky. Fair means or foul. If something tempting added does not work (and I am always wary of adding anything to water), then water must be introduced by other means – hosepipe, bottle or cup. I used a well-rinsed squeezy bottle to wash out my pony’s mouth. He would not have appreciated the hosepipe! Lacking either of these, the Regency groom would have made use of anything at his disposal – probably a bottle or cup.
If the horse will eat, hydration can be assisted by giving feeds made into a sloppy mash or even a gruel which the horse can slurp or drink. Nowadays, there are many proprietary conditioning feeds on the market, designed for veteran horses and those with poor dentition. Deciding which to choose can be a problem in itself, and then, when you get a 20 kg sack home and your horse turns up his nose, also an expensive one. I do wish manufacturers would offer small bags too, so a new feed may be ‘run by’ the horse before a big sack bought.
Lacking these scientifically formulated feeds, what did the Regency groom do? Firstly, this might be a good place to remind the historical author to beware of giving their characters twenty-first century sentiment with regards their horses. The horse was a tool, a beast of burden, transport and conveyance of sport, not, on the whole, one of man’s best friends. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. While he was respected and considered with affection in the case of a favourite, for the majority of animals, if they could no longer work or were severely afflicted, they were disposed of. Once a horse could no longer chew effectively, in most cases it signalled the end. That said, there are traditional methods of preparing feeds to tempt the finicky feeder or horse debilitated after illness.
Above, I mentioned gruel. A true gruel is made from oatmeal, something readily available on any country estate. Oats are still considered the main feed for hard-working horses, especially in the worlds of racing and hunting, despite the myriad compound competition mixes now available to the horse owner. Gruel made from oatmeal is refreshing, palatable and easily digestible. Put a double handful of oatmeal in a bucket, add a little cold water (to prevent lumps forming) and stir thoroughly. Add one and a half gallons of hot water and stir once more. Allow to cool before giving to the horse. Do not use boiling water as this produces a compound which is too starchy for an exhausted or weakened digestion. Of course, there will always be the stubborn individual who will turn up his nose, so what then?
The first food of all mammals, milk is useful to stimulate appetite in the horse, but again, beware! Horses cannot assimilate cow’s milk and therefore skimmed milk, watered down further, should be used, and not too much. I gave my pony small quantities of plain yoghurt, as it is a probiotic and easy to digest, to help stimulate his desire to eat. Since he needed energy, and quickly, I also gave him (half a mugful at a time) porridge made with watered skimmed milk and mixed with molasses. Fair means or foul! I had to spoon-feed him like a baby, but by the afternoon he was nibbling at some chaff and sugar beet pulp my other pony had left. The first rule of feeding is Little and Often, so I fed him at hourly intervals and then 1½ – 2 hours apart. Sugar is another good way to give a horse energy, just as it is with humans. A whole packet of extra strong mints, one after the other, went quite a long way towards lessening his apathy too, I suspect! It was the first sign of enthusiasm and it gave me hope. The latter the Regency groom did not have, nor yet polos, but porridge he could well have made use off.
Once the horse’s desire to eat has been triggered, it is important not to overload the system. Feeds should be soft and easy to eat, just as with a baby. This is where the rules can be set aside – No Sudden Changes of Diet, for instance. The important thing is to get food into the starved or debilitated horse, and while he has evolved to process large quantities of fibre in the form of grass, in this instance he needs nutritious feed high in calories. Back to the expensive search of the feed merchant’s shelves for the modern owner, to find one their beloved charger will deign to fancy. For the Georgian, Regency or Victorian horse, this would have meant bran mashes, with an added handful of oats or barley, molasses, boiled barley or linseed, or cooked, mashed peas and beans. These are not the peas and beans you buy from Aldi (other supermarkets are available); they are legumes with hard shells and must be split, crushed or cooked before feeding. They are very rich in protein, heating like oats and fattening. In a healthy horse, either wintered out at grass or in work where fast paces are not required, one part peas/beans can be mixed with two parts oats, by weight, where grain is fed.
Barley is also a very hard grain and must have the outer shell broken in some way to allow the digestive juices to act on the starch inside. Nowadays, the horse owner can buy micronized barley, which looks like cream-coloured cornflakes. It is steam-cooked and then rolled into flakes, so can be fed straight from the sack or soaked to a mash. In the early eighteen hundreds, it would have been rolled or boiled. Huge pans were set on the stove or over a fire and the barley boiled for two to three hours or until it became soft and pulpy. It makes a horrid, sticky mess of the pan! Alternatively, in this modern age, sufficient for one horse can be made in a crock pot. Cover the quantity of barley with about two inches of water and cook on a low setting for six to eight hours. This can then be added to a bran mash or fed as it is. Oats may also be boiled but absorb a lot of water. The digestive juices are then diluted and the horse becomes fat but also soft in condition. While this is not a problem for our elderly or sick horse, it would be detrimental for the animal in hard work. In the latter case, steaming is better.
|Barley, Public Domain|
A cautionary note regarding barley and the elderly horse: If fed long-term, the starch levels can become hard to digest where the horse cannot ingest sufficient fibre , either through poor dentition or other issues, and may cause diarrhoea. Boiled grain, or one of the many extruded feeds now available, have the advantage of grinding the cereal and steam heating in a technologically advanced version of pressure cooking, which makes the food more digestible. A well-known British manufacturer makes barley rings, which can be hand-fed if necessary. I said we had to be sneaky! Nevertheless, it is important to ensure the fibre content of the horse’s diet. This can be provided by grazing, hay, haylage or, if necessary, soaked fibre pellets, alfalfa, grass pellets etc. Sugar beet is also a good source of fibre.
|Linseed, Public Domain|
Another useful feed to tempt the appetite and improve condition is linseed. Linseed is highly nutritious, being rich in oils and protein, and gives a gloss to the coat; it is also poisonous to horses as it contains prussic acid, but this is destroyed in cooking. The raw seed must be soaked overnight, more water added and then boiled rapidly for a few minutes before being left to simmer until a jelly forms. When cool it must be fed immediately. Most establishments keep an old pan for the purpose because it makes a dreadful mess of the vessel – and the stove if it boils over, so beware! It also burns easily, so an insulated boiler is best. Linseed tea is prepared the same way but with more water. Very nutritious, the ‘tea’ is added to bran to make a linseed mash (see below).
A bran mash is the traditional feed given to a horse the evening after a day’s hunting or other period of intense activity, and has been so since man first ground wheat to make flour. Easily assimilated, it soothes the digestive tract of a tired horse on high levels of grain. While today we consider this a sudden change of diet and that it is better to halve the ‘hard food’ ration, replacing with hay, if it is a case of persuading a horse to eat, the rule may be disregarded. To make a bran mash more appetizing, a handful of oats, some linseed, treacle or molasses may be added after ‘cooking’.
To make a bran mash:
(Note: A wooden bucket is unsuitable.)
To a metal pail add one third of bran and as much boiling water as it will absorb and half an ounce of salt. Stir well and cover to retain steam and allow bran to cook until cool. It should be crumbly, not wet and sloppy or stiff. Add molasses, oats or a few succulents and feed when cool enough.
When fed dampened or as a mash, bran has a gentle laxative effect; fed dry, it has the opposite effect, so can be used in cases of mild diarrhoea or following a dose of physic.
Here is another recipe from the Veterinary Pathology:
Mild Drink for Pains of the Bowels, Looseness, or Difficulty in Staling.
Take gum-arabic in powder two ounces; dissolve it in three quarts of boiling water; when cold, add tincture of opium, half an ounce, and mix them well together.
This mixture may be given every six hours, in violent looseness, pains of the intestines, or where there is great difficulty in staling.
With opium in there, I should think the horse wouldn’t have a care in the world! As with the modern food industry, where it is used as an emulsifier and stabilizer, gum arabic is a thickening and binding agent, so it is the opium which is the medicament here!
One of the best tonics for a sick or debilitated horse is ‘Doctor Green’. This is a horseman’s term, probably dating from the late nineteenth century, for time at grass. Horses have evolved to eat grass and lots of it. Just an hour a day in the field can be enough to sweeten a jaded appetite and refresh the horse’s enthusiasm for work. For centuries we have kept them in stables for our own convenience (particularly so those belonging to the gentry and aristocracy of a bygone age), yet this can be detrimental to the animal’s well-being. If the horse is too ill to go out to pasture, then walking out in hand, allowing him to nibble on herbs and grasses as he wishes, hand feeding freshly picked grass or chopped roots such as carrots, beetroots, turnips, swedes and mangolds will all assist in recovery. Roots are succulent and add interest, variety and bulk.. Beets were also traditionally fed. Although now required for sugar manufacture, sugar beet pulp, cubes and quick-soak flakes are all available in convenient sacks. All must be soaked before feeding, the time and quantity of water varying with the level of concentrate.
Warmth is essential, for if the horse is cold he will use his energy reserves for heat instead of healing or maintaining weight. This cannot be provided at the expense of fresh air, though. Blankets can be too heavy for a frail horse, so a deep, thick bed must be provided and a thin wool blanket for the Regency horse, held in place by a surcingle not too tightly secured, or a light rug for the invalid equine of the twenty-first century. As remarked above, change the water frequently, because it becomes flat in the stable, in addition to being contaminated by dust, feed or saliva/nasal discharge. Keep mangers or feed buckets scrupulously clean and remove rejected feed promptly. Stale food will not encourage him to eat! If the condition is contagious or infectious, the horse will need to be isolated and appropriate actions taken to prevent spread to other inhabitants of the stable.
|A stable with two running horses, James Seymour|
Much of the above refers to a horse weakened through fasting or illness. Many of these considerations also apply to the elderly horse. As with people, an old horse can lose appetite for a variety of reasons, including ‘going off’ a particular diet. The old adage, The eye of the master maketh the horse fat is never more pertinent than with the aged equine. A horse’s teeth do not wear evenly. Sharp edges are worn on the molars as the horse grinds his food and must be rasped regularly. Since the old horse dealer’s trick of ‘bishoping’, i.e. filing the teeth to make a horse appear younger, was known in the early eighteenth century, it it likely teeth were rasped for non-nefarious purposes too.
Neglecting the worming of the horse can cause damage which can have long-term effects on the internal organs, causing problems for the veteran. Feeding soft, nutritious feeds when the ability to chew is impaired can prolong the useful life (or happy retirement in modern times) of the individual. Health comes from within, yet keeping the coat well groomed stimulates the production of oils, removes dirt and dandruff from the skin, massages, deters parasites and gives the opportunity to detect wounds, rashes and other skin problems. Lice, in particular, can cause loss of condition and irritability through intense itching. Conditions such as Alopecia can cause loss of appetite, as can an impairment of the immune system, which is common in elderly horses. Afflictions of the pituitary gland like Cushings Disease, Lymphoma and other cancers, and systemic illnesses such as liver failure are just a few more hidden horrors. Be prepared therefore – as would have been the groom of yore, if worth his salt – to adjust, re-evaluate and think laterally in order to restore your sick horse to health or keep condition on your veteran. Above all, whether the horse is ill, debilitated, convalescing or elderly, he must be allowed to rest and enjoy peace and quiet. The groom of yesteryear would have mended and/or cleaned saddlery, or some other quiet occupation, so as to be on hand if his charge had need of him.
The Duke of Wellington’s famous charger, Copenhagen, lived a long and happy (as far as a cantankerous old war horse can be) retirement at the Duke’s estate, Stratfield Saye in Hampshire, where he was well cared for, with a palatial stable and his own field near the ice-house. Despite becoming both blind and deaf, he reached the ripe old age of twenty-eight. He was celebrated, and treated with affection by his illustrious owner. I doubt many of his contemporaries were similarly fortunate.
© Heather King