Horses have long been used as a means of transport, but they have also had to be transported themselves. Horses prized for their strength or superior conformation have sometimes been moved many thousands of miles, as the heavenly or celestial horses were taken from Central Asia to present to the Chinese Emperor.
Horses, particularly valuable racehorses, are still moved over long distances today for similar reasons, but they are also much more likely to be transported to races and events, to new owners, or simply between paddocks. History has brought us from a time in which horses were one of the main means of transport to an age in which we use vehicles specifically designed to help transport them.
Allowing horses to transport themselves from one place to another is the simplest way to move them. Horses have always been driven from place to place, often in great numbers, as when large herds are gathered in from the wilds of Exmoor or the Australian outback.
However, while the heavenly horses may have travelled across Asia by land in the 2nd century BC, this mode of transporting horses has its limitations. It can only be used when a route is available by land, and it means travelling at the horses’ pace, and arriving with animals worn out by their journey. To bring animals over the sea, or to arrive to war with fresh mounts, it was necessary to find ways of transporting horses that allowed them to save their energy.
Lady Hester Stanhope records that her brother James who fought alongside General Sir John Moore who died at Corunna, rode a horse for 2000 miles and at one point 900 miles without resting and only dried peas to eat. There are simply hundreds of books on long distance rides. The Long Riders Guild continues today.
Carrying horses by boat to overcome some of these limitations began surprisingly early in history, with the works of ancient Greek writers like Herodotus describing horses being brought to Ancient Greece over water by the invading Persian army in about 1500 BC.
Invasion was a common motive for transporting horses by boat. They can be seen emerging from the ships of William the Conqueror on the Bayeux tapestry, or read about in histories of the Spanish conquistadors traversing the Atlantic.
Horses were still being ferried to war during the Peninsular, Crimean and First World Wars, in conditions that had remained largely unchanged since the 16th century. The animals were usually slung in slings on deck, or tethered tightly and boxed into compartments in the hold.
Sea travel remained a highly stressful experience for the horses, with high mortality rates, particularly for those animals that were kept in the stuffy conditions below deck. Even getting on and off the ship could be hazardous, since there were no loading ramps designed for horses. Conditions did begin to improve from the early 20th century, when research was carried out for the US Army Veterinary Corps by General William Carter suggesting that restraints such as slings were not suitable for horses and that conditions needed to be improved.
By Horse Power
In the 19th century, horses were for a short time actually transported in vans drawn by other horses. It was initially very uncommon, with the first examples being the racehorses Eclipse and Sovereign, transported in carefully adapted horse-drawn vans in 1771 and 1816, respectively. It must have been a pleasant way for horses to travel since the roads were slow and quiet, and the cargo took as many rest stops to eat and exercise as the horses pulling the van required. Vanning did not become common until the 1830s, when Sovereign’s trainer, John Doe, convinced another racehorse owner to put his animal in a horse-drawn wagon to reach a distant track. The well-rested horse, Elis, won the race at such high odds that the new-fangled mode of transport soon caught on, despite the reservations of some traditionalists who considered it unnatural.
Horse drawn progress was slow, at just a few miles an hour, but it was the only option available until the rapid expansion of the railways replaced this horse-drawn transport with a much faster option. Experts and haulers at the time, including the RSPCA, noted that many horses reacted badly to train travel, particularly at the point of loading.
A former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, J Wortley Axe, wrote in 1905 that conditions on board often seemed intentionally designed to spook horses, with loud noises everywhere, and tethers too short to allow the animals to maintain their balance.
The roughness of train travel meant that a trade in leg wraps, shipping blankets, head bumpers and other protective gear was soon booming. It would later evolve into the modern travelling gear we know today.
Road transport for horses began as early as 1902, but trailers designed to be drawn by motorized vehicles were not manufactured commercially until 1912, and for many decades it remained a short distance option, since there were few vehicles around that could cope with pulling a horse trailer long haul. It was not until the 1950s that road travel became a suitable option for long distance transport, and since then many different vehicle and trailer designs have been created to carry horses safely. Safety is paramount in modern horse transport, which is very different to the early days of boat and rail travel, when horses were often injured or even killed in transit. Journey times are minimized, horses are given sufficient space in a safe environment, with opportunities to rest and feed, and specialist insurance and breakdown policies can be put in place to ensure animals are never left stranded. Many horse owners now own or have access to a trailer built specifically for the purpose of transporting horses, and although travel can still be stressful, we have come far beyond the noisy, cramped train compartments into which horses used to be forced by untrained handlers.
The most recent development in the history of transporting horses is air travel. Cargo holds can be specially adapted to transport animals safely, and over long distances, or when transporting animals internationally, it can actually be less stressful for the animals than travelling by road, particularly when it shortens journey time, although it remains less common than road travel, since the majority of journeys taken with horses are relatively short.
By Eva Pearce