Equine boom – and bust

When I was very young, I lived in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne in north east England. Newcastle lies at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall and it has a long and interesting history. It has always been an industrial – and industrious – place. In Tudor times, coal from Durham and Northumberland – a major national commodity – was shipped  from Newcastle to London. Newcastle flourished during the 19th and early 20th century; and like all major cities, part of the reason for its success was the labour provided by thousands of work horses.

Whenever we drove through one particular part of the city, there was an appalling stench.

“That’s the glue factory. It’s where they send all the horses when they die,” said my father, glancing across at me slightly anxiously. He knew I loved horses.

“That’s horrible!” I said. I think I was pragmatic about it, though; I understood that horses grew old and died and that something would have to be done with their remains.

The full significance of what he was saying did not really strike me for decades.

A world of horses

Horses were part of my life. There were always horses; ponies in the riding school whose customers trotted over Newcastle’s Town Moor, the city’s green lung; ponies on the beaches of the seaside resorts along the coast of Northumberland where we went at weekends; ponies tied up by travellers on patches of common land – the sweetest, most well-behaved ponies I have ever known – and, yes, even a few horses that still pulled vehicles around the city streets, mostly belonging to the “rag and bone men”, the urban recyclers of the mid-twentieth century. At that point, a few ponies were still in use in the mines of the north, Scotland and Wales. Even the shepherds on farms along the Border used horses or ponies, not quad bikes.

Our coal was brought for a time by horse and cart. The old horse, named Cassius (probably after the boxing legend rather than the character in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”), had a bad temper but still received an apple or some sugar from me. Whenever we went to a cafe, I would raid the sugar bowl for paper-wrapped sugar cubes, taking as many as I dared, because I knew there would always be another horse to feed. The story of the first time I’d been on a horse’s back – that of the milkman’s horse, Spot, when I was a toddler – had become family legend. As late as the 1970s people could still relate to Benny Hill’s ludicrous ditty about the showdown between Ernie the milkman “who drove the fastest milk-cart in the West” and his rival “Two-Ton Ted from Teddington” who drove the baker’s van. Horse-drawn in both cases, of course. Did you know it’s one of the favourite songs of both David Cameron and Earl Spencer, the brother of Princess Diana? They both included it in their “Desert Island Discs” selections. Bizarre but true; and it shows how deeply the tradition of the working horse is still embedded in the British psyche.

There were showjumpers on the telly and horses in westerns. There were books about ponies and gymkhanas – a world away from the one I lived in, but one I always envied and to which I aspired. There was televised racing from Sandown and Uttoxeter and elsewhere and I couldn’t understand why one horse called “Bar” seemed to be in every race until it was explained to me. There had always been horses. There always would be horses…

In fact, during the 1960s and 70s, there was serious, pessimistic talk about the forthcoming “extinction” of the horse. Those rag and bone men still jogging round the cities of Britain on their worn-out old carts, with their strangled, almost incomprehensible street cries “Raaaaa-aaa-booooone!” were just about all that remained of the working horse tradition. The desire of the young to escape the shackles of the past was encapsulated in the well-observed television comedy, “Steptoe and Son”. Aged dad Albert, with his fingerless gloves, junk-filled house, horse-drawn rag and bone cart and memories of World War I, symbolised everything that his aspirational son Harold wanted to escape – or even bury. However, Harold was fond of Hercules, the horse; and the references to him were always filled with warmth and humour. The scenes with Hercules were touching and sometimes moving.

I didn’t understand at the time, but my father had been telling me that the stink from the glue factory was the stench accompanying the last gasp of the working horse tradition; the betrayal of centuries, millennia in fact, of human dependence on equine power.

Horsemeat: by-product of technological change

When little Miss Combustion Engine, wiggling her sexy exhaust, walks onto the block with all her family – the juggernauts, the 4W-Ds, the vans, the limousines – humans can’t move fast enough to send their loyal horses to the knackers. Horses become an embarrassment, like an aged relative drooling dementedly in the attic. In  Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years, Dublin’s famous horse market at Smithfield was quickly moved out of the city centre. Horses are dirty and demanding. They are too slow. They aren’t powerful enough. They are expensive. They are dangerous and a nuisance. Logically it could be said that cars are also expensive, dirty, demanding, dangerous nuisances; and if you’re stuck in city traffic or a motorway jam it doesn’t really matter how fast or powerful your car is. And there’s many a farmer who is overwhelmed by the debts accrued from purchasing and maintaining tractors and other equipment. However, this isn’t about “logic”. It’s about “progress” and “convenience”.

The change from equine to motorised power (and the resulting collapse of established industries, to be replaced by new ones) provided an important example for the work of the economist Schumpeter, whose theory of “creative destruction” described the consequences of rapid and extensive technological change. Old industries collapse, but others arise from the ruins.

The most important aspect, for me, of the recent “scandal” over horsemeat in the UK came to light during investigations into the origins of the meat. It appears that the sudden influx of horsemeat on the market is due to horse-drawn vehicles being banned from main roads in Romania. In other words, it marks the the end of another working horse tradition, in this case in eastern Europe. When the tradition came to an end in the USA and UK, the carcasses of the slaughtered horses were used for pet food and the remnants were rendered – hence the glue factory.  Now, in a global economy, the end of the working horse means the production of a commodity – horsemeat “stuff” – that has the potential to end up anywhere.

I don’t eat meat but I’m not being smug about this. If you eat meat, I don’t see why eating horse is different from eating any other kind of meat. What I don’t understand is how unconcerned some people are about what they are eating; and that somewhere along the way, someone has lied. There is a difference between eating meat that has lived in the wild, or originated from well-documented sources which show the treatment, food and medicine that animal has received – and eating meat stuff that is just that – “stuff” – without knowing – or caring – what it really is or where it came from.

The equine boom…

The horse didn’t become extinct, of course. What saved the horse in several parts of the world was the rapid emergence of the predominantly female leisure rider. For some, aspiration didn’t consist of getting rid of a horse, but was expressed through acquiring one. The boom years of the leisure rider (in the UK) began in the 1960s and probably peaked in the 1980s, when women (and men) from many different backgrounds started to keep horses simply because they wanted horses in their lives. They weren’t necessarily wealthy. They didn’t necessarily come from families with a long tradition of equestrianism. They just had a bit of money and some leisure and they intended to spend both on horses and with horses. And boy, did it boom!

Equestrian clothing manufacturers, saddlers, rug makers, horse breeders, show and event organisers, horse trainers, riding schools, livery yards, magazines, specialist publishers and authors, societies, farriers; horse feed, hay and haylage producers; vets and veterinary products: all benefited from the boom. In the mid 1990s, it was estimated that the equestrian “industry” in the USA was worth 15 billion dollars annually.

I was part of the boom. I bought my first pony, became a journalist specialising in equestrian subjects and spent a lot of my time participating in, observing and commenting on the equestrian leisure boom. Some of its aspects were a bit silly, it seemed to me. I called it the “pink bucket” phenomenon, as a range of supposedly girly equestrian accessories hit the market. Horses hadn’t become extinct, but they had certainly changed. The working horse tradition had been largely, if not exclusively, a male world. Now, horses and ponies were mainly kept by women and girls. Along with the silly accessories and over-emphasis on performance in the showring, there were some good times and indeed some great times. And when all is said and done, it was mainly women who kept equestrian traditions alive and supported the “industry” through that time. Horses survived, thanks mainly to the money and energy of women. Also, to those who were dedicated to horses for other reasons, some horse breeders and working horse centres for instance.

…and bust

In 2013, the equine boom in the UK is clearly at an end. There is a welfare crisis as people desperately try to find homes for horses and ponies they can’t keep. For some, it’s a cost they can simply no longer afford. Others perhaps feel older and wiser after years of horse keeping and just want a change. They don’t want to spend their time and energy on horses any more but on something else instead. Riding schools are closing because of the costs; and, allegedly, because of the risk of hefty insurance claims and the restrictions of health and safety rulings. In Egypt, too, there’s an equine welfare crisis, for different reasons. The collapse of tourism after the Egyptian revolution means that many of the small businesses in Egypt depending on horses – particularly the ubiquitous tourist site carriage drivers – are in dire straits. In the 1960s, people were saying that the horse would be extinct by the year 2000. Did the equine boom simply delay it by another decade or so?

I don’t think the horse will disappear entirely. There will always be some people who will dedicate themselves to horses despite the costs in terms of time and money (and the emotional cost, too). They’ll take the odd looks and the critical or joking comments about horses being a waste of space, grit their teeth and carry on, because horses are what they do and horses are part of who they are. Sometimes they’ll wonder why the hell they’re doing it and then, on a bright day in summer, their horse will come cantering across the paddock towards them and they’ll remember.

A future?

Throughout my life, for as long as I can remember, people have been talking about the possible return of the working horse. That’s what it’s been mostly – talk; but not entirely. In the 1970s, television director and producer Barry Cockcroft made his famous documentary about Geoff Morton, one of the few remaining people in Britain to still use horses on the farm. A book, “Princes of the Plough” further chronicled Morton’s life and that of some of his contemporaries. It spoke optimistically about a future for working horses. A few councils and large commercial organisations used – and continue to use – working horses for deliveries; and to turn them out impeccably for shows. Sometimes this is because they are aware of the promotional opportunities horses provide, but in some cases the organisations simply never stopped using them. And there are others; the journalist Paul Heiney, having learned about working Suffolk Punches for a 1980s reality TV show, decided to buy some working horses of his own. Working horses are still used by the British Horse Logging Society. There are a few individuals, both men and women, still using horses in farming and in other businesses. Carriages for weddings are particularly in demand. Horses are used in television and film work – where would a Jane Austen series be without a carriage and pair? How would the “Lord of the Rings” movies managed without Shadowfax? Gimli walking along behind Gandalf making clippety-clop noises with some coconut shells, Monty Python style – that’s how; though I suppose CGI could fill the gap.

Ought there to be a major return to working horses, anyway? After all, when they did all the “lugging and dragging and straining”, to quote H.G. Wells, their lives were often nasty and short. I suppose I’m still pragmatic about this, because it seems to me that when humans don’t have a need for something, they don’t care much about it: therefore the best future for horses might be as working animals. And perhaps, there are reasons to be “cautiously optimistic” about this future, as I’ll discuss in the next blog. “Cautious optimism” seems to me to be better than boom and bust, anyway.

Miriam Bibby

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