Everywhere you turn – the news, the mall, your social circle – there is no escaping Covid-19 and the pandemic that has uprooted our lives for nearly a year, and which shows no sign of slowing down until possibly next summer or even winter 2021. As we are all acutely aware, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy and there are few, if any, parts of our lives that haven’t been altered due to the disease.

Historically, pandemics have been around for centuries: there was the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and the Black Death, the second bubonic plague pandemic that killed millions from 1347 – 1351, to name just two. But did you know there was also a horse pandemic? The horse flu of the 19th century resulted in sick and dead animals and also mirrored the economic upheaval we’re seeing with Covid-19.

The first automobile was a few years away, and mass-production wouldn’t happen until the next century, so the horse was the sole means of providing the movement of goods and services. Everything from family visits to milk to firefighters to the mail were delivered by horses. The economy and society depended on equine transportation, but these hard-working animals were often neglected and taken for granted.

It was 1872 when the pandemic began in Ontario. “Since the outbreak was traced to pastures outside of Toronto, the great horse flu of 1872 was originally called the ‘Canadian horse disease’ by nervous American observers. But it spread across the whole continent, finally burning out [in Central America] in Nicaragua a year later,” says Dr. Ernest Freeberg, history professor at the University of Tennessee and author of A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement. “Everywhere it arrived, the horses and mules got sick … The effect on social and economic life was enormous, a first great ‘energy crisis’ that shut down normal life and gave many a new appreciation for their partnership with the horse.”

According to an article Dr. Freeberg wrote in The Smithsonian Magazine “The flu’s symptoms were unmistakable. Horses developed a rasping cough and fever; ears drooping, they staggered and sometimes dropped from exhaustion.” He also writes that two per cent of an estimated eight million horses died.

Horses, donkeys and mules were too ill to do their work “Produce rotted at the docks. Trains refused to stop at some cities where depots overflowed with undelivered goods. The economy plunged into a steep recession,” he writes. “Every aspect of life was disrupted. Saloons ran dry without beer deliveries, and postmen relied on ‘wheelbarrow express’ to carry the mail. Forced to travel on foot, fewer people attended weddings and funerals. Desperate companies hired human crews to pull their wagons to market.”

While there is no “patient zero” identified, there is some documentation that indicates the GTA specifically as the start of the outbreak. Prof. Andrew Smith, veterinarian and founder of the Ontario Veterinary College, said that the first cases showed up in York, Scarborough and Markham…and soon “generally extended in every direction.”

There were also reports from newspaper editors of the time, including one from Ottawa who wrote, “There are not fifty horses in the city free from the disease.” And another from Montreal stating, “We had very few horses unaffected.”

And similarly to today’s Atlantic bubble that has been mostly successful in keeping out Covid-19, the horse flu never made it to Prince Edward Island. “At the time the disease was raging in the other provinces, the navigation was closed, and our island entirely cut off, in the way of export or import from the main land, which in fact must have been the reason it did not cross to our shores,” explained the editor of The Patriot newspaper.

While the effect on the economy was widespread and devastating, the horses were the ones to suffer the most. Owners would force their animals to work through their sickness, which would result in death. A journalist from the era, E.L. Godkin, the editor of The Nation, called their treatment “a disgrace to civilization … worthy of the dark ages.”


Henry Bergh (in top hat) stopping an overcrowded horsecar to check the health of the horses. (photo from Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 21, 1872. Library of Congress)


Which brings us to Henry Bergh, who created the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dr. Freeberg, whose book covers Bergh in great detail wrote, “As the equine flu raged, Bergh planted himself at major intersections in New York City, stopping wagons and horse-drawn trolleys to inspect the animals pulling them for signs of the disease. Tall and aristocratic, Bergh dressed impeccably, often sporting a top hat and silver cane, his long face framed by a drooping mustache. Asserting that working sick horses was dangerous and cruel, he ordered many teams back to their stables and sometimes sent their drivers to court.”

Bergh, who is buried in Brooklyn, New York, and whose mausoleum includes a bronze sculpture of him embracing a horse, was instrumental in raising awareness of cruelty towards animals. His work during the horse flu pandemic no doubt created a new appreciation for humankind’s dependence on the horse.