Worldbuilding with Horses: Urban Horsekeeping

In worlds and historical periods in which horses are a primary means of transport, they often coexist with cities.

There’s a bit of a disconnect there. Large, herd-dwelling herbivore that evolved on and for steppe and tundra, that needs large quantities of grass forage to survive, and that roams a natural range of hundreds of square miles–how does that fit into the human metropolis?

The answer is: surprisingly well. But it takes some human ingenuity to work.

Space in cities is at a premium. If there is room for horse pastures or greenways or parks, these tend to be reserved for the elite who can afford to pay the price for a scarce commodity. At the same time, horses are needed to carry riders, pull coaches and carts, haul loads, and generally turn their strength and speed to human uses.

When an animal is transport, there’s no room for sentimentality. His health, both mental and physical, is only relevant insofar as it improves or impairs his usefulness. He may be happier in a pasture, but his job is in the city.

City dwellers with the means and the space to maintain their own riding or coach horses had stables in or near their houses. Those who could not afford to keep horses at home might rent space in a livery stable–as many horse owners still do–or simply rent horses from the livery. Carters, vendors, and cab drivers might live beside or above their animals, in houses or lodgings that did double duty for horses and humans.

The rich might house their horses in elegant stables with stalls large enough for the horse to turn around or lie down–loose boxes or box stalls–but even the wealthy and many or most of the rest would be more likely to keep their horses in as small a space as possible. The minimum would be a standing or tie stall: basically, a slot into which the horse would be inserted for safekeeping between jobs. It would be barely wider than the horse–two or three feet, four at most–and only slightly longer than the horse’s head, neck, and body. He would be tied by the head to a ring or bar in the wall, and restrained behind by a rope or chain.

Since the working horse would be out for much of the day and possibly part of the night as well pulling a cab or delivering goods or carrying riders on various errands, his stall, where he would be fed and watered and hopefully sheltered under a roof, would be a kind of refuge. He might even, with care, be able to lie down and rest, if his tie rope was long enough.

When he was out working, he would be expected to cope in all weather. If he was lucky he would have a blanket or rug in cold or wet weather, especially while standing in between delivery runs. He would rarely be taken under a roof and relieved of his harness; he would be expected to be ready to go out again at a moment’s notice. In hot weather, he might be sponged off, and he would be given extra water to keep his system from shutting down.

Equine digestive systems being what they are, a horse needs to eat and drink early and often. Smart horsekeepers in urban settings would bring along a nosebag (made of canvas or similar tough fabric or leather, designed to fit over the nose with a strap over the ears or attached to the bridle) filled with whatever grain or concentrated fodder happened to be available–oats or barley would be common–or carry a supply of hay or cut fodder.

There would also be ready access to water, either carried in the vehicle or supplied by the city in troughs or cisterns or fountains. If the carter or cabbie wanted to keep his valuable and essential horse going, he would make regular refueling stops, and make sure the quality of the fuel was as high as he could afford.

In addition to fuel, in the medieval and postmedieval West, especially on cobblestones or various forms of paving, horses would have been shod with some form of metal shoes. Leather boots were in use in ancient Rome among other places and eras, but whoever figured out that metal plates or rings or rims could be nailed safely and painlessly onto horses’ hooves created a revolution in horse transport. Now a horse could travel many more miles for many more days or weeks with much less wear and tear on the feet, and last much longer and in better condition.

Horses in cities created whole industries for their support. Someone had to grow and process and transport their feed, and sell it to the horses’ owners or managers. Someone else had to mine and forge metal for shoes and harness (buckles, bits, stirrups, even saddle trees and horse collars), and then create the different items–sometimes with great artistry.

Horse harness, everything from strap goods to buggy whips, was big business. In fact the advent of the motor car caused the buggy-whip business to collapse–and so created a metaphor for the effect of new technology on the support systems for the older and unrelated technology. Companies still make horse tack and buggy whips, but they’re much more of a fringe industry now, more for the hobby crowd than for daily use and transport.

People were also needed to train the horses, manage their stables, buy and sell them either privately or in horse fairs and markets–and of course someone had to breed new ones, usually on stud farms in the country.Young horses have to move in order to develop properly, and need space to run. They can be raised in stalls or small spaces, but their muscle and bone development will suffer and they may not stand up to the rigors of daily work.

Retirement was not always an option for city horses. Many literally died in harness; others succumbed to disease or injury. If they were very lucky they might be retired to pasture–maybe on or near the farm where they were bred. More likely once they were no longer useful they were put down, and their bodies would be put to further use as meat, leather, tallow, lye, glue, even fly whisks and paintbrushes.

There’s one other aspect of urban horsekeeping that tends to get literally swept under the rug: manure disposal. A lot of fodder goes in, and most of it comes back out, stripped of the nutrients the horse needs to live. In a city full of working horses, that’s tons of manure every day–and if the climate tends to be wet, the mud will get very bad very quickly.

Hence, street sweepers. Someone has to clean up the manure and carry it off. Where it goes depends on how much space there is for disposal, whether and how soon the culture realizes that dumping it in or near water contaminates the water supply, and what use might be made of it: composted for gardens, dried and compacted to fuel cook fires and heat dwellings, hauled out of the city and spread on fields for fertilizer, and so on.

Which is an advantage horse manure has over car exhaust: it may be a pollutant, but it’s also extremely useful. And when composted, it produces potassium nitrate, a key component of gunpowder–an ambiguous blessing, but definitely important to the march of human progress.

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Worldbuilding with Horses: Urban Horsekeeping — 13 Comments

  1. Thanks, Judith.

    I have discovered that 18th and 19th century cities, before automobiles, were absolutely filthy, horse manure being one of the primary culprits. I’ve read plenty of fantasy novels where this sort of gets ignored or forgotten or never mentioned…

    • Then, the people would take it absolutely for granted. Why would the POV character notice it any more than any other background detail?

  2. Thanks for this, Judy. I’m writing historicals and romances set in London during the Time of the Horse and I find there’s very little discussion of the whole horse infrastructure.

  3. In the late 1980s, when I first moved to Scheveningen on the Dutch coast, there were still many urban stables in use. These had originally been built for the horses that had pulled the flat-bottomed fishing boats up onto the beach, but were then used for pleasure. There were three riding stables, and several people who had and used the small stables behind their homes. In the last 30 years, all three of the commercial stables have closed, and most of the small stables have become rooms, linked to the small cottage in front. There might be only two or three horses left in the neighbourhood, where in 1987 there might have been 100. It’s our loss.
    The thing I wanted to add: Horses here tied in slip-stalls were not simply tied to a tether ring, but the rope went from their halter through the ring (which was fairly high up) and ended on a wooden weight (a cylinder about 6 inches across and 8-9 inches long). This kept a constant, light pressure on the rope, so that a horse could lie down or move around without getting tangled in the rope.
    I bought my horse from an urban stable, and one advantage to city riders was that traffic moves more slowly in the city.

  4. Speaking of manure …

    When I was growing up in the 1940’s the milk, bread, and ice were delivered to the door by horse-drawn cart. There was always a competition between 2-3 ladies who lived opposite as to who would get the manure for their garden. It wasn’t done to walk down the street opposite someone else’s house to get it – it had to be close to your house. And where the houses were close together one lady would lie in wait with dustpan and broom making sure she got there first.

    • Yes, I thought about Black Beauty, too, especially at th part about the stables. The book was quite traumatic for me as a horse-loving girl-child, by the way.

  5. The first time I lived in Edinburgh in 1971, the milk was still delivered by horse cart between 4 & 6:30 AM, early enough for breakfast for working folk. As a college student in an uncomfortable garret, the sound of horse hooves tromping on the pavement meant it was time to close the books and snatch 2 hours of sleep before exams.

    By the time I returned to the city the horses were gone. I felt like something was missing.

  6. In the earlier years of our life here I knew some of the elderly neighborhood residents, who recalled in great detail the city filled with horses, and particularly horses dying in the street for various reasons from illness, age and accident — and how long it could take get the body removed — weeks sometimes.

    The Civil War was a gold mine for the breeders and trainers of horses and mules.

    Love, C.

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  8. Lovely additions! Thank you all!

    Brenda, yes, Anna Sewell was writing about horse abuse in her time, and describing the lives and deaths of horses as she had seen and heard of them. I don’t think she was exaggerating much if at all.

    Speaking of bodies in the road, we had an episode of that in my rural Arizona town a year or two ago. Summer. Hot hot hot. Early morning. Range bull vs. motor vehicle. (The range bulls will charge anything that moves, if they feel so inclined.) I didn’t see what happened to the vehicle, but the bull must have hit it head on, because he was DOA. He stayed there for a couple of days, in summer heat, until the rancher could remove him.

    Because if a large animal goes down, you’re looking at up to a ton of literal dead meat. It’s a major operation to haul it off. Even with modern motorized winches and hydraulics, it’s not easy. And in a city, you can’t just get a backhoe and dig a hole and push the animal in. You have to take it somewhere. That somewhere will most likely be a rendering plant rather than a cemetery.

  9. Great article. It’s a whole different way of thinking about horses than many of us do now. As in WAR HORSE, Albert’s dad and their Devon neighbors think Albert is daft for his love of Joey the horse. The village’s opinion feels very appropriate to the period when horses were trucks and tractors, yet we modern readers and audiences align more with Albert’s bond with Joey, as well as the appreciative and protective horsemen Joey encounters in Europe.