Sturdy Barge Horse: Horse power thanks to the sturdy draft horses with easy going personalities.

The Industrial Revolution in England began around 1760 thanks to mechanization, advances in technology and the advent of the steam engine, which all produced major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining and transportation.

While railways opened up the country in countless ways, rivers and inland waterways were often preferred alternatives to road transport for shipping. However, bad weather, storms, tides and drought were all too common problems. What to do? The answer lay in the construction of the inland canals built to criss-cross England, and the need for consistent power was furnished by sturdy horses, mules or even teams of donkeys that pulled the long narrow boats or barges along the canal ways. This created a whole new industry and turned land people into canal people with their own customs, lingo, lifestyle and art termed Roses and Castles, the traditional painted artwork of the narrow boats. And, the noble horse, as we so often see throughout history was an integral part and key player of this newly developed industry.

Barge Horse: The barge horses were well cared for despite their daily grind.

Slow and Steady
At a steady walking speed a horse can move approximately fifty times or more weight in a boat on tideless water versus a cart on poorly maintained roads. Canal schedules were maintained as well as possible and horse care was enforced by inspectors employed by the navigation and canal companies who owned the horses. Warehouses and stop over pubs offered stabling, water and food and a tired horse could be switched for a fresh one called a “changeling.”  While a canal horse’s life was a daily grind, unlike many horses at this time in history, their basic needs and wants were looked after.

Two people were required to work a horse drawn canal boat: one to steer the boat in deep water and the other to lead the horse who walked in a path alongside the canal. Usually the handler’s wife and children would be the unpaid help along the way and experience and knowledge of the canal was part and parcel of a successful partnership.

The steerer on the boat signalled his approach to a set of locks or a blind bridge by using a smacking whip, an essential piece of equipment with a short handle, very long lash and a silk thrum at the end. The steerer kept the whip close by on his boat and the three loud cracks were like gun shot and could be heard miles away by any other approaching boat. And no, this whip was not used on the horse!

Some horses would work by themselves without a driver, would ‘backer’ as the boating expression put it, but this was fraught with potential disaster when they came face to face with an oncoming boat. The handlers, using a complicated set of right of way rules would slow their horse so that the towline went slack and the other horse could step over it without stopping. The cotton rope would sink and be dragged along the bottom of the canal while the boat with the right of way was pulled over it. Then the other boat could start moving again.

Horse Drawn Barge: The Tiverton Canal company, Devon: A lovely way to see the countryside.

Narrow horse-drawn boats lasted in the Midlands region in England until the 1950s and Regents Canal in London was used until the 1960s.Today, traditional narrow boat and motor boat rentals are available in England for canal holidays that take families through pastoral countryside, villages and of course to canal side pubs! The restoration of narrow boats and canal waterways has found a following and has resulted in the dredging and re-opening of many derelict canals and waterways.

The canal system was an industry employing thousands of men, women, horses, donkeys and mules. However, the advent of motorboats and powered barges saw the eventual decline in this traditional way of life. What would these hardworking men, women, children and horses think today if they saw their canals of commerce and restored narrow boats being used purely for pleasure by tourists and holiday makers?


Did You Know?

  • Crocheted horse ear covers are nothing new. The boat handler’s wife and family lived on the cramped narrow boats and the wives were adept at many tasks including complex rope braiding, painting and crochet projects, which often included equine ear covers to keep flies away!
  • Old Billy, a barge horse owned by the Mersey and Irwell Navigation is famous as the oldest horse in the world. Born in 1760, his passing on November 27, 1822 made the papers and was recorded in the Annals of Manchester, England. Two years later, on August 30, 1824, Old Billy’s head was presented to the Manchester Museum by the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company. Check it out

For more information on the heritage, lifestyle, and history of the canal waterways in England, go a terrific site called Canal Junction at: and click on canal heritage.

The Tiverton Canal Company in Devon is the one remaining company offering horse drawn trips on the Tiverton Canal. Visit their site at

Thanks to Canal Junction and The Tiverton Canal Company in Devon for permission to use the photos.