While we like to think of the horse as part of “the good old days,” in reality the horse has created and produced countless issues and problems for mankind for centuries. In fact the problems with horses can be traced way back to the days of Julius Caesar who found the noise, accidents and congestion from too many horses problematic and actually banned the use of horse-drawn carts from dusk to dawn in ancient Rome.
In the USA, there were some measures created that did help with some of the horse issues such as Henry Bergh’s founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 1866. About 40 years later William Phelps Eno created stop signs, lights, crosswalks, pedestrian islands, one way street and road rules to reduce the accidents. The decision about which side of the street to drive on was also decided, but these measures were far from enough.
The problems with the overpopulation of horses came to a head in 1898 when New York City hosted a conference on urban planning. One of the major topics up for debate and discussion was what to do with the massive amounts of horse manure in each and every city along with other problems that tagged along for the ride including flies, urine, horse carcasses and congestion. When nobody came up with a valid solution, the conference folded its tent after just three days instead of the expected ten. The poop situation had major newspapers like The Times of London suggesting that by 1950 the cities of the world would be buried under nine feet of smelly manure.
So how did the noble horse become such a huge problem? How did urban and human progress and regress go hand in hand with the horse, the animal that literally kept cities, goods, people and services on the move? A look at the sheer numbers is staggering. In London there were 11,000 horse-drawn cabs in 1900, and the large omnibuses each needed 12 horses a day each to transport people. Then throw in the carts, drays, carriages and other modes of horse, donkey and pony drawn transportation and congestion is the word that comes to mind.
The greatest problem was the massive amount of manure that was created, the smelly pools of urine, the disease laden flies that were everywhere, and the carcasses of animals who broke legs and were shot on the spot, or just expired from the ever present cruel and inhumane treatment. Usually they were left in the street to rot before being hauled away. The horse population in New York was between 150,000 and 175,000 in 1880 and this created about four million pounds of manure daily in streets and stables. Throw in a quart of urine from each horse and the total reached a staggering and smelly 40,000 gallons. The manure dried in summer and became a quagmire in wet weather. Street cleaners were hired to clear paths at intersections for ladies in long dresses and the manure gathered was left in vacant lots that sometimes reached 20 metres or almost eight feet high.
Another problem was that the use of land used for growing horse feed could have been used for human dwellings as people moved to the cities and urban areas in search of a better life. For example, between 1800 and 1900 the urban population in the USA grew by thirty million people. These newcomers in turn needed to be fed, housed and clothed and the horse of course was the only answer. To add to the problem, while these newcomers meant that cities moved outwards, the density levels of cities increased: in New York City in 1800 there were about 39,000 people per square mile, and by 1900 this number had jumped to around 90,000. Again, it was the horse who was needed for all these extra people and besides human overcrowding in the cities came the problem of horse overcrowding. The stables were dark, smelly and these poor beasts worked eight days a week as most owners felt it was better and cheaper to work a few horses to the breaking point than it was to work more horses slightly less.
And, what of rail transportation? Didn’t it help? No, in fact the goods carried by rail had to be brought to the departure point and picked up upon delivery by horses, and rail companies had massive numbers of horses at their disposal just for this.
While movies would have us believe that the masses used and had carriages in the cities, most people walked to get around town, leaving the wealthy to take hackney cabs. This all changed when the omnibus became common in the 1820s. In New York these conveyances travelled a fixed route and by 1853 they were moving 120,000 passengers a day, using 11 horses per vehicle per day. When tracks for the omnibuses were invented and installed, their speed was doubled, the fares dropped and New Yorkers were taking 297 horse car rides each per year.
In Part II of this look at the problem of too many horses, we will glance at the other issues that went hand in hoof with equine congestion that included road accidents, stabling, killer flies and cruelty. Finally we will see the surprising solution to the problem!