Punches, rarefying, gals and the Horseman’s Word: views on our working horse past

If there is one characteristic shared by all farms which have steadfastly used heavy horses come what may, it is a sense of timelessness. They look, smell and sound like farms should look, smell and sound and are far removed from the proliferating agricultural factories where the nose is assaulted by the latest wonder chemical and the ears ring with the incessant whine of machinery” – Barry Cockcroft, Princes of the Plough, 1978

Lately I’ve been reading a trinity of books on related topics. It’s a trinity, rather than a trilogy, because they are all by different writers and each one is very different, but what they have in common is that they are about working horses. The three of them have meshed together strangely well. I’ve read them with a real pang of nostalgia for a past that is only just within my experience and my memory.

A cast of equine thousands

I’ve owned the first book, Kingdom of the Workhorse by A.J. (Tony) Dampier, for a long time. It was a while since I’d read it last and I suddenly realised what a true gem it is. It was privately published and is clearly a labour of love that grew out of Dampier’s immense knowledge of the subject of working horses in north west England.

Ailse o' Fussers and one of the last of the pack animals

It’s a history, true; but it’s also a story with a heart: a cast of characters, equine and human, beginning with Ailse O’Fussers and her team of lime-carrying “gals”. You can hear the snort of humour as Dampier explains that “gal” does not mean girl, as some have assumed, but is short for “Galloway”. It’s an evocative word for those who know about this gallant northern breed, or type, of horse, the Galloway and the important role it played in our history. That’s something to which I will definitely be returning.

Until the 1940s, horses were still present in every aspect of daily life in Manchester. Vanners delivered bread and milk; dignified plume-clad funeral horses bore the dead through the streets to the cemetery; council-owned horse-drawn carts took away rubbish to the dump; and of course there were mounted police and horse-drawn fire brigade vehicles. Cities were still geared for horses and it showed in many ways, from metal-edged curbs on the pavements to the drinking troughs and fountains where the animals and their drivers could find fresh water. How quickly that changed.

“The declaration of war in 1939 caused something of a mini-boom in horse trade as petrol became rationed, but the end was in sight,” writes Dampier. “And when it came it was as swift as it was merciless. 1947 was the year of the equine holocaust.” He quotes an estimate from Keith Chivers’ book, The Shire Horse of at least 100,000 slaughtered in 1947 and the same number the following year: “…it is pretty safe to say that 40 per cent of these were under three years of age.”

Punches and “Rarefying”

These were dreadful times for those who had spent their working lives with horses, but Dampier also shows the other side of the years of the “Kingdom of the Horse”; the casual violence to both man and beast, the exploitation, the poverty and swindling. He describes, for instance, a fight between the notorious “Bullet” Hathaway, horse dealer, and a butcher who felt he’d been cheated: “The fight started at 12 noon prompt, at the Flat Iron Market Place. Bets were taken, lookouts posted (for the bobbies) and referees appointed….[the butcher] took ‘Bullet’s’ blows for 27 rounds before he collapsed in a green field on the Saddleworth Road, 12 1/2 miles, as the crow flies, from where they started…”

Dampier also describes, in a section relating to horse whisperers, the arrival in 1857 of the famous horse tamer, John Solomon Rarey from the USA. At Bell’s Equestrian Palace in Manchester, Rarey gave his demonstration of “Raryfying” a horse when he struggled with a notorious stallion, named Hue and Cry. The Manchester Guardian reported: “Mr Rarey had a terrible, nay severe fight with an Entire horse, who smashed straps, rode over grooms, bit at the spectators and, in fact, proved a demon for an hour – tact conquered brute force and Mr Rarey delivered a speech from his back.”

And the reference to horse whispering brings me on to the next book in the trinity I’ve been reading, but before moving on I must mention this:

The last of Manchester’s working horses went up for sale in 1962 at Ardwick. Dampier recalls that all nine horses for sale that day were bought by Jimmy Sommerville O.B.E. of the Blue Cross Society and Arthur Thompson of the Humane Education Society and sent to good working homes. (They would almost certainly have been bought by the knackermen, otherwise.) And the author relates that one of those horses, Major, who was too old for regular work, went to Dampier’s own home to enjoy a well-earned retirement.

Tony Dampier, your book is a classic on the working horse and I salute you for that and for your kindness to Major. These things will not be forgotten if I can do anything about it.

The second book I’ve been reading would almost certainly be rejected from an academic reading list, more’s the pity. The Society of the Horseman’s Grip and Word, published by the Society of Esoteric Endeavour, is quirky, delightful and informative. It’s also an important piece of social history that really puts into perspective just how much life has genuinely changed in the past fifty years (always a subject for debate) and what we have lost.

“The bonny plooman laddie”

The Society of the Horseman’s Word flourished in 19th century Scotland and continued into the 20th century. Its membership was drawn, in the main, from those who followed the “ploo” (the plough) although it did also extend to others in the horsemen’s fraternity, such as farriers. Secretive and mysterious, it was feared and mocked in equal measure, but very little was known about the true nature of its activities until the 20th century – and possibly the publication of this book. And perhaps even now – who knows? – there might be a few secrets remaining.

The key to the Society I would say, does lie in the word “fraternal”. Part trades union, part Masonic-style ritual, part initiation ceremony for new apprentices to the “ploo”, its knowledge was concealed in word play, pranks, symbolism and a particular mythology drawn from ancient sources specifically for the members. This potent combination – and the way it was administered – would ensure loyalty and continuity in the ranks of the horsemen. Of course, securing good pay in return for specialist knowledge and experience was part of the reason for its existence, but it was more than that. The skills of the ploughmen were greatly admired and they were often imbued with a princely, even magical aura, for who could live without the corn they grew? As one of the songs in “The Society of the Horseman’s Word” says:

“The tailor he cries out wi’ haste
I pray of this don’t make a jest;
Oh I can make coat, trews and vest
Far better than a ploughman.
Oh tailor, ye may mak’ braw clothes,
But where’s the meal for to be brose?
Ye might close up baith mouth and nose,
If it were not for the ploughmen.

Success the ploughmen’s wages crown;
Let ploughmen’s wages ne’er come down,
And plenty in Scotland aye abound,
By the labour o’ the ploughmen.
For the very King that wears the crown,
And the brethren o’ the sacred gown,
And Dukes and Lords of high renown,
Depend upon the ploughmen.”

It was only in the 1950s that the last members of the Society began to open up, as recounted in the book. One member, Jimmy MacBeath, talked to the well-known folklorist and collector of traditional songs, Alan Lomax. He explained that one of the members of the society wanted a horse to refuse to move: “…they did something tae the collar, it was not tae the horse that they did something, it was something tae the collar they did.” Rubbing something with a particular scent onto the collar would cause the horse to freeze to the spot.

The real secrets

Scent, body language, confidence and genuine care and respect for the horse – those were and are, the secrets of the true horseman and woman. Changing technology meant that whatever closely guarded secrets the Society had kept and that had served them so well, by the 1950s and 60s had seemingly lost their value because it appeared so certain that the day of the workhorse was over.

The full text of an interesting article from 1920, written by a police officer, John Ord, is also given in the book. Here is a quote from it: “A ‘Horseman’ who fulfils his obligation will never wilfully ill-treat a horse. On the other hand, I have known a member of the society to appropriate some of his master’s corn to feed his team when he thought the animals were not receiving sufficient nourishment…In many cases the food supplied to the farm servants was of the very poorest quality, but if the skim milk and oatmeal cakes were fairly good a complaint was seldom made.”

In other words, along with the ribaldry and bawdiness, indeed obscenity, of some of the Horsemen’s rituals, there was a consciousness of what was just for man and horse. What was right for one, was right for the other.

The last horsemen?

The last book in my current reading “trinity” is The Last Horsemen: a year at Sillywrea, Britain’s only horse-powered farm by Charles Bowden. I found this book by chance in my local farmers’ shop, hesitated briefly and then bought it; and so another treasure has landed on the bookcase.

This is the story of Northumbrian horsemen and ploughmen, the farming families the Dodds and the Wises. When the tractor was making its apparently inexorable march over the land in the middle of the 20th century, they simply didn’t stop using horses. And they still haven’t stopped.

At Sillywrea (“Quiet Corner”) Farm, the endless cycle of the agriculture year turns around the horses as it it did a century and more ago. Most of the equipment dates from the heyday of the working horse, a testament to its construction and to the maintenance that the family has provided. At Sillywrea the circle has not been broken by the roar of the tractor engine or the massive combine harvester. Mucking out is a manual activity as is removing stones from the field to avoid damage to the ploughshare.

Sillywrea then and now: a timeless scene

Those northern favourites, the Clydesdale horses, carry out a range of tasks on the farm, not just ploughing. Grass-cutting, hay turning, harrowing and “scrubbing” (breaking up the ground); drilling seed and carting muck; hauling out timber and drawing a roller across the fields. Days out for the family tend to be confined to farm and livestock sales, a change being as good as a rest. Sillywrea is a magnificently traditional mixed farm with livestock, grassland and arable and there are very few of those left on a small to medium scale. Throughout the year (2001) we follow not only the fortunes of the family, but also those of the young horse Sandy as he is introduced into the work team.

Lest this sound too lyrical, and it is an evocative book, there’s plenty of information about the sheer hard work and constant effort required to work a farm with horses. There have been family tragedies and great losses over the years. Consistently though, the horses have been there; and somehow, with them, through them and by them, storms have been weathered.

Tom Forster (now deceased), ploughman, horseman and friend of the family, began as a labourer and ended as head horseman on a famous estate. When he said, of some of his early employments: “Like damned slaves, that’s what we were. Damned slaves. Some farmers treated their dogs better than their men,” he was speaking from bitter experience. Some horsemen may have found better treatment when they left their horses for machines. But they also knew what they’d lost. The slow, regular pace of farming with horses, the work that could not be rushed or pushed, the sense of pride and nobility in their knowledge of horses had gone: but not at Sillywrea.

Working horses: the future?

Who better to comment on the possible future of the working horse than John Dodd of Sillywrea Farm? In 2001 these were his thoughts: “‘We’re too far down the road of mechanisation,’ he says. ‘I can’t really see horses coming back. We’ve reached the point of no return.'”

Periodically, people do talk about the return of the working horse – but mostly, that’s what it seems to be, talk. I remember, years ago, writing a magazine article about Sue Day, a horsewoman who has spent most of her life working with horses in various capacities, including farm work with traditional horse-drawn equipment. At the time she recalled “People used to say I’d be worth a fortune when the oil ran out. It didn’t run out!” For Sue and others like her, it’s not about making a fortune.

A similar theme ran through Barry Cockcroft’s famous 1970s book, Princes of the Plough. The tag line was: The Return of the Heavy Horse. Geoff Morton, Yorkshire horseman, commented: “Everyone thinks that I did make a deliberate choice to use horses instead of tractors, but I looked at it from the other side. I’ve always felt that the question ‘why horses instead of tractors’ was really the wrong one. Horses have always seemed the proper thing, the logical thing to me, so I think the right question should be ‘why tractors instead of horses.'”

There seems to be a yearning for a less frantic way of life but, as a professor visiting Sillywrea points out, no-one is really prepared to give up what oil has given us, the cars, the televisions, the holidays, the cheap clothes, the cheap food; and there’s no doubt of the demanding nature of keeping horses, whether for work or leisure. And, would we want to go back to the days when horses were often little better than slaves, rather than working partners, themselves?

James Howard Kunstler, who argues in his book The Long Emergency that the age of oil is coming to an end, thinks that we will have to return to horsepower, and perhaps sooner than we like: “The American scene further into the twenty-first century will have to include more working animals…Obviously relations between humans and working animals can range from respectful and loving to careless and cruel, and social norms of decent behavior towards them will have to be reestablished. We are likely, however, to find ourselves living in a world in which this kind of cruelty is more visible.”

This blog has proved to be a long journey, but without quite so many turns, perhaps, as are made by the horse in the furrow and the horse on the land. There follow the details of the three books I’ve been reading and not a web site in view! If you only have the time or the inclination to read one, might I suggest you choose “The Last Horsemen”, remembering that it is about life today, not in the past? I hope you enjoy it.

And finally; I am a woman on a mission! Do you know of any farms using horse power to perform at least some of their tasks in the UK? Are they still using original horse drawn farm equipment? How difficult is it to find new machinery? And what happens outside the UK? Let me and others know by posting a response to this blog. I’d love to hear from you.

The Last Horsemen: A year at Sillywrea, Britain’s only horse-powered farm by Charles Bowden, pb published 2011 by Andre Deutsch. ISBN 978-0-233-00323-8

Kingdom of the Workhorse A.J. Dampier, Countryside Publications pb 1987 ISBN 0 86157 226 2

The Society of the Horseman’s Grip and Word, published by the Society of Esoteric Endeavour, ISBN 978-0-95637-130-0

Princes of the Plough, Barry Cockcroft hb 1978, Dent ISBN 0-460-04320 x

Pulling Punches: A Traditional Farming Year by Paul Heiney, Methuen 1988 ISBN 0-413-17010-1