Horse power in the 1800s and into the early 1900s can certainly never be viewed as the good old days for the thousands of equines involved. Old paintings may depict idyllic hunting, carriage driving and hacking scenes down country lanes, but the lives of the poor horses that did the endless daily work of pulling, pushing and dragging loads, people and products in towns and major cities were not as pleasant.
In New York, horses found a savior in Henry Bergh who founded the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. Like Anna Sewell who penned the famous story of Black Beauty, Bergh was appalled at the treatment of the draft horses in New York City. The cobblestone and Belgian block pavements were slippery in any kind of weather and falls were frequent. Horses that broke legs were killed, and those who didn’t get up fast enough or who moved too slowly were beaten. Lack of water and food was another cause for concern and concerned citizens hesitated to step in to help for fear of being beaten or attacked by the horse driver. A horse that fell was often left to die creating an obstruction in the streets and street cleaners usually left the carcass to putrefy and then cut it up in pieces before taking it away.
Streetcar horses had an average life of just two years as they were forced to pull overloaded street “cars”. In New York, about 41 dead horses a day were carted away as the owners preferred to work a poorly cared for horse to death rather than care for him and keep him healthy and useful. Besides beatings, falls, poor food and overwork, the stables were small, dark and poorly ventilated and rarely cleaned.
Bergh was a wealthy man and in starting the SPCA, the move towards anti-cruelty started and then spread to 38 other states. However, he did not just talk in the halls of government and to his esteemed friends in high places, but instead became a hands on advocate for the mistreated horses he saw and made citizen’s arrests of owners abusing their animals.
However, perhaps his greatest gift to the poor equines of New York was the creation of a horse ambulance in 1867. His invention of a movable or roll back floor that could be rolled out on top of the tailgate was ideal for horses that could not walk up the ramp. Today these movable floors are used worldwide in modern day ambulances.
In 1872 more than 2,500 horses died in New York from a mysterious epidemic and a second horse ambulance was built to deal with the sick, dead and dying. Three years later, Burgh invented a canvas sling to rescue horses who had become stuck in the mud or who had fallen in deep rivers. Later his sling invention was used in WWI for injured horses. In 1902 the first motorized horse ambulance was created.
Another man, William Phelps Eno can be credited with creating the first rules of the road at the turn of the 20th century such as stop signs, stop lights, yield signs, one way streets, taxi stands and codifying driving on the right side of the road. The public were stepping in to create a safer environment for both man and beast.
Today horse ambulances are common at shows, events and of course the racetrack. The New York Racing Association (NYRA) says that 7.3 out of every 1,000 race horses sustain some significant injury and 1.1 out of every 1,000 incurs a fatal injury. In the mid-1970s vets Dr.Greg Ferraro and Dr. Roy Dillon were concerned about the horse ambulances that existed at that time which were little more than standard horse trailers. A company called Kimzey that made farm equipment created the first improved ambulance that was unveiled at Santa Anita race course in 1979. The major improvement was the hydraulic system that lowered the vehicle allowed the horse to walk out of, or into the ambulance without a ramp on an incline. A rubber padded wall was another major improvement that could be widened or squeezed to hold a horse upright that could not stand on four legs. These were a far cry from the original ambulances of 1867, but both were built with the same intention of animal welfare in mind. Today horse ambulances are at every major equestrian event in North America and are the expected norm by the horse owners and competitors who are riding equine superstars.
Horses Helping Humans
While horse ambulances for horses were new in the 1800s, carrying humans off the battlefield had been left to other soldiers for centuries. The Anglo Saxons created the first “ambulance”, a hammock based cart to transport people with leprosy. By the 11th century at the Battle of Hastings, a litter was suspended on two poles between horses to carry the wounded.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s chief physician Baton Jean Dominique Larrey created the “ambulances volantes” or flying ambulances and they went right into the thick of battle. There was one version pulled by two horses for two patients, and a larger version pulled by four horses to be used over rough terrain. Larrey’s ambulances were later designed to suit varying situations and included mule and camel litters that were used by the French armies serving in Africa.
During the American Civil War from 1861-65 there was at least one ambulance cart per regiment. In Cincinnati, Ohio, the first known hospital based horse drawn ambulance was created in 1865, and two years later in London, a similar service was created to transport smallpox patients to the hospital. With these, the need for swift transport for the needy saw the use of ambulances move from just a military device to a public conveyance. These “fever ambulances” carried a stigma however, and many people refused to get in them. The solution lay in altering the ambulances to look like regular wagons with an opening for sliding stretchers in and out at the back. The brougham style of carriages were widely used and Atkinson and Philipson of England built ambulances from 1876 supplying the Metropolitan Asylums Board with an ambulance in 1888. The sliding stretcher was an optional extra. By the First World War, horse drawn ambulances for multiple uses were on their way out and many ambulances were mechanized.