Farming Magazine - February, 2012
Working Horses: Where Did That Come From?
Drafts and horses in general share a rich history with their human counterparts. Whether they know it or not, even non-horse folk are touched on a daily basis by the impact of horses as part of our society.
Did you know, our modern "lunch hour" is due to horses needing a longer break to digest their mid-day meal and rest enough to work efficiently through the afternoon? In former times laborers without horses were only allowed 20-minutes for lunch, but those with horses were given an hour. When unions began to form in our country along with their equine-induced name of "Teamsters," they fought for a full hour for everyone. Hence, today, most of us humans are allowed a full hour break for lunch.
The sound of jingle bells that warned of horse traffic ahead in former times is also why we send good wishes to travelers to "be there with bells on". If your sled or sleigh had a roadside mishap and another driver helped you out, it was common to give the Good Samaritan one of your sleigh bells as thank you pay. Many of today's collectable sets of sleigh bells will have mismatched bells due to this friendly form of commerce.
Appreciation of service or substance without charge is shown with the timely comment "never look a gift horse in the mouth". This advice from the fact a horse has all its permanent teeth by the age of 5, and after that they just get longer. A good horseman can efficiently tell the age of a horse by its teeth up to about the age of 15. Either way, outside of the cost of its care and feeding, a good horse is a good horse no matter its age, breed or color.
For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Another favorite, "hold your horses," is thought to have originated with the horse in war and its capacity when working with arterial forces. Though its full meaning "hold your horses in formation until further orders" could easily have its roots in commerce, racing or any other variety of horse activities.
Enjoy a good cocktail on occasion? This term originated with horses and the mixing "two good things". Decades ago light horse breeders would cross their best light horses with their best drafts to produce a mid-sized horse. This cross-created a gentle horse, not too big or strong, but just sturdy enough for their servants or wives to ride sidesaddle or run errands with. These horses' tails were cut in the shape of a "cocktail" to show they were crossbred and not of pure breeding or lineage.
Listen to emergency traffic on your local scanner and you'll still hear fire department declare all units "back at the barn" and in service. And most firefighters still refer to their fire and personal protection equipment (PPE) as "hitch gear". Both these terms, as well as other firehouse traditions, stem from the turn of the century, when horses played a major role in the fire service.
The chain of casualty as well as the need to pay attention to small details is the lesson to the saying "for the want of a nail." While this proverb is another example of the importance the horse played in former wartime, modern society uses this to describes a situation where permitting a small undesirable situation will allow a gradual worsening and disastrous affect.
And finally, the luck of the horseshoe, which, according to most, holds luck no matter which way you hang it. Pointing upright holds the luck safely in place and guarding the home or barn from unkind spirits. While others point the shoes down to shower those who pass through with good luck and fortune.
Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The 100-acre draft horse farm features drafts for work, sport and show.