Monday, 19 March 2012

War Time Horses

I watched a program about War Horses the other night, only to realise how many were taken from this country and North America to work abroad during the First World War.

What an important role they played in the transportation of supplies out to the front line in the most horrific conditions.

During the Second World War horses was still in short supply but possibly for a very different reason, food shortage.

My own memories of the horses we had in the early 1940’s was that we had two mares and a gelding, the mares stayed with us into old age when tractors started to take all the hard work away from them, the gelding went to a young farmer just starting up who needed the horse and his harness, and all this as father had just bought his first Standard Fordson tractor.

The picture shows my father with Flower and Dolly mowing a meadow by the brook at Brook House Farm Doxey.

It was quite a few years before the tractor took over the job of mowing, because it would make it into a two man job. One to drive the tractor the other to ride the mowing machine operating the lift and lowering the blade.
Ploughing and cultivating were the first heavy jobs taken off the shire horses, with specifically designed two furrow ploughs and cultivators the “trip” lifted and lowered into and out of work.

Around this time, and as it was years before, there came a travelling Stallion came

round through the villages, with its handler both on foot. He had a pack slung on the stallions back as he had farms were he was put up for the night and his charge stabled.

As had happened in the First World War, horses were taken for the war effort and mainly mares left to work on the farms where they could be used to breed the next generation of work horses.  A travelling stallion or a couple of stallions in an area would be used to service the mares needed to be put in foal. The in foal mares would work right up to foaling, and then often worked with the foals following if the work allowed. That way they would be used to being handled and the work environment they were brought up in.

So as the 1940’s progressed and tractors came in, there was less and less need to breed more shire horses, and the travelling stallion had further to travel between mares, and the practice stopped by the end of that decade.

It was often pointed out by the old “wagoners” that horses did not consume fuel while working, unlike the new tractors that were becoming so popular. That was always countered by the tractor drivers by saying, ahaa but the tractors don’t consume fuel while they are in the shed standing idle.

It was the young up and coming farm workers who took to the tractors, and I can not recall any old wagoners ever changing over to using a tractor. The change over came gradually, as the old men retired, so the old shires were not replaced, and no more were bred on farms.

It was always a sad sight to see the shires being transported to a knackers yard in the next village, they were brought in from a wide area, their heads were above the top of the sides of the lorry and head foreword over the cab with the wind blowing through their manes. Not all were slaughtered, the fit and useful ones were grazed in an adjacent field where anyone who still wanted a work horse could go and buy it off the field, and this was often done.

In the Black Country there was still a community who ate horse meat, and a butcher’s shop that sold nothing else but horse meat, but as time went by that shop ceased to trade and horse meat no longer available. That sort of trade then transferred to France, and horse meat is now exported. 


This was the blacksmiths shop in the 1940's.

The big cast iron circle out on the front was where the blacksmiths fastened down the wooden cart wheels while hooping. The tall narrow door and lean too on the right was the hoop oven where they heated the steel hoops, it has wooden shutters on the widow holes but no glass, the double doors was where the horses were taken in for shoeing, and the pile on the left hand side of the doors was the pile of scrap horse shoes

I Remember Blacksmiths Shop

I remember blacksmiths shop, all dingy dark and dusty,
Great big pile of horse shoes outside, all a going rusty,
Tom Giles was smithies name, all jolly strong and hot,
With shoeing father’s horses, he did the blooming lot.

When setting off to school one morn, the horses we would take,
To blacksmiths shop for shoeing, would make us very late,
On going home for dinner, these horses we would ride,
Pitched up high on Flower, the others led with pride.

Welding cutting bending shaping, everything was there,
To make it new, or fettle up, to make a good repair,
His stock of metal had a rack, but most of it had missed,
It lay about in piles around his forge, which was in its midst.

All day you’d hear the hammer, a ringing out aloud,
Hitting out the red hot metal, made him very proud,
The different shapes and sizes, needed for a gate,
Lay around the workshop floor, no need for him a mate.

Alone he worked all day until; we kids came out of school,
Then he would be invaded, his metal then would cool,
On his forge he put his kettle, there to make some tea,
We kids tried out his drilling tool, great flywheel turned by me,

With tongs we tried to heat the metal, in the furnace hot,
To make and shape we would try, to bend on anvil, but,
Not hot enough to work it, so pump the bellows up,
It made the spark fly every where, our school cloths covered us.

The water in the blacksmiths shop, was warm to wash our hand,
With dowsing all the things he’d made, red hot metal into bands,
With our cloths soiled and singed, and not a hole in site,
Mother knew where we had been, she said it’s late it’s nearly night.


Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.
John Adams   (1735 – 1826)

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