Thursday, 18 July 2013

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Horse and Stable Management

 Stabling and Feeding

Traditionally, and in particular at the country houses of the Georgian era, stables were in long brick or stone buildings, often within a courtyard. A narrow passage gave access from the stable yard to the horse accommodations and harness rooms, if the latter were not sited in a separate building. In the space above the stables, fodder was stored in a hayloft, or living quarters were provided for the grooms and other stable staff. Within the courtyard there was a coach-house as well as feed rooms and other storerooms. It was even known, in some larger establishments, for there to be a washing-down house.

The horses were generally housed in what we would now call stalls, tied with a stone or wooden weight on the end of the rope (‘log and rope’). A leather or rope halter was used to secure each animal, leather being preferable since it would break in an emergency. Loose boxes were far less common than they are today due to the space they occupied; those there were tended to be kept for stallions or a foaling mare. Young and breeding stock were usually kept at pasture, but most working horses spent their leisure hours stabled so that they were on hand when required. They were bedded on thick straw, since that was freely available, the choice of rye, wheat, barley or oat straw usually dictated by the crops grown on the estate. 

Feed usually consisted of hay and oats. A horse is designed to eat small quantities of food often. In the wild they will feed in a pattern of grazing and resting throughout a twenty-four hour period. They have also evolved to subsist on large amounts of forage. Stabled care must reflect this, the individual’s diet adjusted in order to provide sufficient forage to maintain the digestive system and the correct quantity of grain in relation to the level of work expected. A racehorse or hunter required several pounds of oats a day in order to gallop, whereas a coach horse, needing stamina, may well have had peas, beans or maize, feeds which are heating but less ‘enlivening’ in effect than oats. High spirits within the shafts can have dire consequences. Horses doing slow work such as ploughing were often fed barley, as it has a slower release of energy into the system and is good for maintaining condition (weight). Roots such as carrots, swedes and beets would have been given in season to add interest and wherever possible ‘green meat’ (fresh grass) was cut if time at pasture was not feasible. Hay was provided in either a metal hay rack or a wooden manger.

Basic horse management has changed little over the centuries. Writing in the early seventeenth century, Gervase Markham recommended that following a half-day’s hunting, the horse should be rubbed until dry, then unsaddled and his back rubbed. Having been rugged up with a rug secured by ‘a surcingle well padded with straw’, he should be given ‘a feed of oats and hemp-seed, the gentlest and easiest scouring for a horse’. Approaching two hundred years before the Regency, therefore, the importance of resting, after strenuous work and before a day off, the digestive system of a fit horse eating large quantities of grain, was recognized if perhaps not fully understood. Nowadays we would consider this a ‘sudden change of diet’ and something to be avoided, but for many years a bran mash has successfully been the traditional feed for horses following a hard day’s hunting, because it is easy to digest.

Herbs were used to remove internal parasites – what we would now term ‘worming’ – and for medicinal purposes, the same as for humans. Rugs, blankets and sheepskin pads were employed by Regency grooms just as they are by the horse owners of today.

The groom

The groom (or ostler in a coaching inn) was always male. In the stables of a gentleman, there would be a head groom, several under-grooms and also a stable boy or two. Often the head groom would be responsible for teaching the daughters of the house to ride and thereby frequently held a position of respect and licence. He was usually provided with a cottage on the estate, invariably sited near the stable yard and his charges. He was responsible for the smooth running of the stables, from hiring and firing staff, to ordering feed and sending horses to the farrier. These were walked to the blacksmith by an under-groom, sometimes as far as the next village.


Daily routine

The groom’s day was long. It would begin early, in order that the horses could be fed, mucked out and groomed before the household required their mounts or carriage horses. The stables and yard would thus be immaculate by the time the master ventured forth and the horses would have had opportunity to digest their food prior to work. After work the groom would rub the horse down to remove sweat and any mud or dirt and walk him around to cool off (no fancy sweat rugs to remove moisture then!) The horse was then groomed thoroughly. Unless allowed out to pasture, all the horses had to be fed and watered three or four times a day as well as having their hay replenished at regular intervals. Where there was a hayloft above, the forage was forked via trapdoors into the wooden or iron mangers below. Water buckets and troughs within the stable were scrubbed meticulously every day, as horses require fresh, clean water at all times. The stone trough in the yard received less frequent attention. Water becomes tainted by standing in the stable for too long; horses are finicky and may well refuse to drink, and while they can live without food for a month, they can only survive for forty-eight hours without water. In addition, rugs and harness needed mending and/or cleaning, the muck heap had to be ‘squared off’ to limit flies and smell, and all paths swept. It is little wonder that grooms were often small, wiry men, since their workload ensured there was always plenty to be done with little room for idleness! At the end of the day the head groom took a late check around, just before retiring, to ensure all was well.

Grooming

Stabled horses – as in hunting yards today – were groomed probably three times every day. The first was to make the horse presentable for exercise; the second took place after work and was a thorough grooming (strapping) to keep the horse healthy and gleaming, while the final ‘set fair’ was designed to ensure he was comfortable for the night. The groom had to roll up his sleeves and work vigorously with brush, currycomb and stable rubber to ensure the horse had a glossy coat which was free of dust or grease. It was (and still is) considered a mark of shame for a horse to leave his stable with straw in his tail or a stable stain on his flank. A wisp – a plaited hank of straw or hay – was used to promote muscle tone and bring the natural oils to the surface to improve the coat’s shine. The horse’s hooves were picked out several times during the day, both before and after work and last thing at night. This was essential to keep the feet healthy by the removal of muck, mud and stones. Should one of the latter become lodged in a horse’s foot, it can cause bruising and even lameness. No nineteenth century groom worth his salt would have allowed one of his charges to become lame in such a manner through his negligence.


Mucking Out

The horse was ‘short racked’ (tied up short) with a small hay net to occupy him, then all manure and soiled straw removed with a pitchfork to a muck sack. The groom worked efficiently and methodically, tossing the clean straw to one side of the box so that the floor could be swept. When the floor was dry, a day bed was put down to encourage the horse to stale (urinate) and lie down. Droppings were skipped out at regular intervals throughout the day and then at evening stables, the bed was again mucked out, a deep bed with thick walls being laid for protection and warmth. Fresh straw was added at this time where required. A good bank of bedding around the walls of the box or stall offered protection from injury and draughts and also helped to prevent the horse becoming ‘cast’ (unable to rise) by lying too close to the wall or beneath the manger.


Exercise

Horses have evolved to wander the vast grassy plains of the world in large numbers, grazing sporadically. Man has appropriated them for his own use, enclosing them in small fields and paddocks and shutting them in stables. If stabled horses do not receive time at pasture, they must be exercised or worked instead, else bad behaviour and vices (pawing, stamping, kicking the door, weaving, crib-biting) will result. It was thus the job of the Regency groom to quietly exercise about the estate those horses not required by members of the household or their guests. This frequently involved the groom riding one horse whilst leading one, or even two, others. In a portrait of 1793, George Stubbs painted the Prince of Wales’ groom, William Anderson, employed in this manner with two saddle horses.




Writing Exercise

One of the most famous quotes in history is, ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.’ Use this as a first line and see where it takes you... 

Have fun, Heather.

17 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Heather, do you think running a stable in Vienna was much different during this period?

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    1. Probably not tremendously so. Many of the greatest masters of equitation were from the Continent and, of course, The Spanish Riding School has the most glorious history in equestrianism. Alois Podhajsky's 'The Complete Training of Horse and Rider' is a wonderful reference work on the principles of management as practiced at The Spanish Riding School. Of course, as with all countries, much would depend on the type of stable. A gentleman's stable would differ greatly from a poor tavern. I hope this helps.

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  3. This is a great article. Thank you for the info. I was wondering if you had any information on specific horse commands used in the U.S. during the late 18th and early 19th century? I know nowadays we might say, "Git!" or "Getty up!" to get a horse to move. What would they have said back then to get a horse to move and move quickly?

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  4. Thank you. I'm glad you have found it useful. As to your query, being English, my knowledge is limited - and probably coloured by a misspent youth watching television Westerns! Allow me a day or two and I will see what I can find out. I would suspect, closer to the East Coast where the English settled, 'Walk on,' would have been in use for some considerable time until it was overtaken by colloquial phrases. Are you particularly interested in riding horses or driving? In driving, the whip is used as an aid to the horse to proceed faster. I will see what I can discover for you.

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    1. I would say driving horses. The scene I'm writing takes place in the early 19th century New York. A man of dutch descent, born and raised in the U.S. is on the run. He is driving a horse drawn wagon and he needs to go quickly. So I need to know what he might say to get the horses going initially. Would he use a whip?

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  5. Yes, he would use a whip. 'The Horse Whisperer' was based on John S Rarey, who became famous for his gentle way of training horses. He was born in 1827 and wrote several books, it seems. In his 'The Complete Horse Trainer' you may find the information you need, although I suspect your character would just slap the reins on the horses' rumps and use the whip. Did they say 'Ha!', or is that just in films? There is also a site called the Small Farmer's Journal which may know more than I do. Apparently, gee and haw were used with farm horses, to turn right and left respectively - etymology unknown. I hope this helps.

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    1. He might also have shouted 'Giddap', 1867 ('Giddy-up' is 1909, according to the online etymology dictionary) or 'Get up'.

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    2. Afterthought... 'Get up, there!' would have been a likely command.

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  6. A relative of mine worked as a groom in a country house from the 1920s through to the 1950s, I am interested to find out more about what his life might've been like, your article above is very interesting and informative, do you know of any further reading that could help me understand better my relative's day-to-day working life? A diary of a groom from the early 20th century would be ideal, but I can't imagine there is such a thing out there.

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    1. I am very glad you have found my article helpful. I doubt most grooms of former eras would have had time to write diaries, but if I ever come across one I will try to remember to post about it. May I suggest you take a look at my 'The Horse: An Historical Author's and Reader's Guide'? Although mainly concerned with the Georgian era, it contains detail of the groom's duties and a stable's daily routine. While equipment and terms may have changed, much of the day-to-day running of a stable yard has not altered. Grooms still get up early in the morning to feed and muck out their charges, and go back before bedtime to offer a late hay ration to keep the horses occupied during the night. 'The Horse' also contains a useful bibliography.

      A great many books were written during the early twentieth century on care of the horse and stable management, not least by ex-cavalry officers and veterinary surgeons. You could do worse than look up the various books written by Sir Walter Gilbey.

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    2. Thank you Heather for your reply, I will certainly take a look at your book 'The Horse: An Historical Author's and Reader's Guide' and see what else I can find with regards - Sir Walter Gilbey. Do you think a groom in a country house 1920's - 1950s would mainly be looking after horses that were used for hunting purposes? I don't suppose they would've been used so much for transport by then?

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    3. Actually, Parker, like many innovations and advancements, the change from horsepower to mechanised power happened over time. Particularly in rural areas, people were resistant to newfangled and noisy machines. Some areas were only accessible by horse, such as remote hill farms.
      My grandfather, a farmer and horseman, bred and exported Shire horses, as well as hiring riding horses to holidaymakers. That would have been about the era you are interested in, so the change to leisure use was beginning then. Many lesser gentry in the north gleaned a living from coal and iron ore, which was transported on hill ponies to the coast. Horses were still used to pull barges long into the last century, as they were for milk rounds, butchers' deliveries etc. even in my childhood. Cars and petrol were expensive, especially during the war years, so horses were both economical and practical for local journeys.
      A groom in a country house would have cared for hunters, yes, but also general riding horses, children's ponies maybe, one or two carriage horses (perhaps more if the owner enjoyed the sport or preferred that mode of transport) and farm stock. The last would have been the province of an under groom or stable-boy.
      The Head Groom would have had a cottage, usually by the stables, and was responsible for the day-to-day running of the yard, including ordering feed and the hiring/firing of stable staff. He might well teach the owner's daughters to ride and school the younger horses. By contrast, an under groom would have slept in a loft above the stable or even in an empty stall! A stud groom was responsible for the young and breeding stock. Many gentlemen had a penchant for racing, just as today, and to greater or lesser degrees, spent fortunes on the attempt to create a Derby winner.
      Much depends on where your relative worked as to what his day involved. If you know the name of the family or the house/village, I would suggest seeing what you can find out about them and that might lead you to the information you seek. Grooms were traditionally small, wiry and soft-spoken men, because the day is long, the work hard and horses like calm, quiet handlers.
      I hope this is of use, and if I can be of any further assistance, I'm glad to help.

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    4. Thank you for your reply, it is very helpful and also interesting to hear about your grandfather and his work with horses. My relative (great grandfather) was small, wiry and soft spoken (sums him up perfectly), he had the cottage by the stables, so I suppose he was Head Groom, but I don't think there were other grooms employed, well certainly not in the latter part of his career, there may have been earlier. The house was in Oxfordshire, the master of the house was an ex cavalry captain so I understand horses were important to him and he was often seen on one. I will try and dig around a bit more for information, though having found an extremely thorough written history for the next village along, have yet to find much for the place I'm interested in.

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    5. Oh, how often that is the case! Keep digging - you may well come across something in an unexpected place. It sounds as if it was a smaller establishment, so your great-grandfather may have been the only groom - or perhaps assisted by a stable-boy from the village. The Captain probably kept a couple of hunters, a hack or two and perhaps a pony for the trap. Do you know if there were any other staff? Sometimes the cook or housekeeper, or the governess, would use a gig or trap for shopping or children's outings. Latterly, I suspect, as the Captain grew older, the number of horses kept would have decreased. He may well have kept one horse for general riding and the odd outing to hounds during the season - two at the most. In such a case, your great-grandfather's duties wouldn't have been excessively onerous, but he would have had plenty to keep him busy all day - mucking out, feeding, grooming, exercising, sweeping paths, squaring the midden, mending harness etc. etc. Good luck with your search - I love research rabbit holes, you never know where they will take you and what you'll find!

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  7. Yes, the house isn't as big as some, the Captain being the younger son from a noble family had probably grown up in a larger one. I'm not sure what staff the Captain had, but judging by the census from 1881 the previous owner who was a vicar and lived with his sister - had a cook, parlour maid and housemaid. The Captain might've had a different retinue, as he had a wife and several children to consider. There was a farm attached to the house, so there could've been horses associated. My great grandfather had worked in a larger house before taking the position with the Captain - the Bryanston house in Dorset, but when the Portman family had to sell-up, he moved to Oxfordshire. I think the move was also a promotion of sorts as he now had a cottage, which suited - what with having a young wife and a daughter on the way. Thank you again - it's very helpful when trying to build up a picture.

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    1. Excellent! You seem to be well on your way with your searches. I hope further information comes to light in due course. It might be worthwhile researching the noble family (how nice to be related to the nobility!) to see if their records throw up any more threads of the story. I wish you luck and do keep me posted!

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