Looking Back: Feeding Horses in the 1800s
I came across an interesting book called The History, Treatment, and Diseases of the Horse written by William Youatt for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, first published in 1831 and last updated in 1861. The first striking element to this book is the author’s description of horses of North America in the 1800s:
Those of the United States are of every variety, but crossed by the modern English race, or the Arab… . Habit, arising from some cause or whim now not known, has made them partial to the trotting horse; and the fastest trotting horses in the world are to be found in the United States.
The author goes on to point out that a certain Mr. Rotch of Louisville, New York—a “much-valued correspondent”—has stated that “all our stock in America seem to possess a harder constitution and are much less liable to disease than in England.”
Food for horses in the 1800s
Youatt describes the use of mangers for feeding chaff (chopped hay and straw) mixed with oats and beans. His recommendation for some of the working horses:
[E]ight pounds of oats and two pounds of beans should be added to every twenty pounds of chaff… Thirty-four or thirty-six pounds of the mixture will be sufficient for any moderate-sized horse, with fair or even hard work. The dray or wagon horse may require forty pounds.
According to the author, the hay for the chaff is cut, stacked, and kept for at least a year, during which time “a slight degree of fermentation takes place in it.” He recommends that chaff be “composed of equal quantities of clover or meadow hay, and wheaten, oaten or barley straw, cut into pieces of a quarter or half an inch in length; and mingled well together…”
The book describes how oats in Great Britain are “the principle nourishment.” For horses not manger-fed, Youatt recommends:
…in winter, four feeds, or from ten to fourteen pounds of oats in the day, with hay, will be a fair allowance for a horse of fifteen hands one or two inches high, and that has moderate work. In summer, half the quantity, with green food, will be sufficient. … The hunter [needs] from twelve to sixteen [pounds].
[I]n many horses that are hardly worked, indeed, in horses generally, barley does not agree with them so well as oats. They are occasionally subject to inflammatory complaints, and particularly to surfeit and mange.
…in Great Britain is more rarely given than barley. Wheat contains a greater portion of gluten or sticky adhesive matter, than any other kind of grain. It is difficult of digestion and apt to cake and form obstructions in the bowels. This will oftener be the case if the horse is suffered to drink much water soon after feeding upon wheat. Inflammation of the bowels and feet, colic, and death, are occasionally the consequence of eating any great quantity of wheat. A horse fed on wheat should have very little hay.
Bran, or the ground husk of the wheat used to be frequently given to sick horses on account of the supposed advantage derived from its relaxing the bowels. There is no doubt that it does operate gently on the intestinal canal, and assists in quickening the passage of its contents when it is occasionally given; but it must not be constant or even frequent food. Bran may be useful as an occasional aperient [relieves constipation] in the form of a mash, but never should become a regular article of food.
I found it very intriguing that in the later part of the 1800s, they were aware of gluten and how it could affect the GI tract. And it is interesting that in the 21st century, wheat middlings are a common ingredient in most commercial feeds…
They are indispensable to the hard-worked coach horse. Washy horses could never get through their work without them; and old horses would often sink under the task imposed upon them. They should not be given to the horses whole or split, but crushed. In general cases beans, without oats, would be too binding and stimulating, and would produce costiveness, and probably megrims or staggers.
…are occasionally given. For horses of slow work they may be used; but the quantity of chaff should be increased, and a few oats added. It is essential that they be crushed.
is sometimes given to sick horses — raw, ground, and boiled. It is supposed to be useful in cases of catarrh…or disease of the urinary organs or of the bowels. It is bland and soothing. Linseed meal forms the best poultice for almost every purpose.
…green and dry constitutes a principal part of the food of the horse.
(I had to look this up as I had no idea what tares is — a garden vetch and nitrogen fixing plant with a history of being fed as livestock fodder):
Of the value of tares there can be no doubt. It is very nutritive, and acts as a gentle aperient. When surfeit-lumps appear on the skin, and the horse begins to rub himself against the divisions of the stall, and the legs swell, and the heels threaten to crack, a few tares, cut up with chaff, or given instead of the portion of the hay, will afford considerable relief. Ten or twelve pounds may be allowed daily.
…is inferior to the tare. It is not so nutritive. It is apt to scour and, occasionally, and late in the spring, it has appeared to be injurious to the horse.
…is inferior to the tare but nevertheless is useful when tare cannot be obtained. But custom seems properly to have forbidden it to the hunter and hackney.
Lucerne (the 1800s term for alfalfa):
…is preferable even to tares. It is easily digested and perfectly assimilated. Speedily put both muscle and fat on the horse that is worn down by labour. Some farmers have thought so highly of lucerne as to substitute for oat. This is allowable for the agricultural horse of slow and not severe work, but he from whom speedier action is sometimes required, and the horse of all work, must have a proportion of oats.
Swedish turnip [or rutabaga or “Swede” — a cross between the cabbage and the turnip]:
…is an article of food the value of which has not been sufficiently appreciated…although [the nutritive content] which it has seems to be capable of easy and complete digestion. It should be sliced with chopped straw, and without hay. It quickly fattens the horse, and produces a smooth glossy coat. It will be good practice to give it once in the day and at night when the work is done.
The virtues of this root are not sufficiently known, whether as contributing to the strength and endurance of the sound horse, or the rapid recovery of the sick one. To the healthy horse they should be given sliced in his chaff. Half a bushel will be a daily allowance. [Based on US bushels of carrot, half a bushel equals 25 pounds of carrot.] Carrots afford decided relief from chronic cough.
…have been given, and with advantage, in their raw state, sliced with the chaff; but, where it has been convenient to boil or steam them, the benefit has been far more evident. Some have given boiled potatoes alone, and horses, instead of rejecting them, have soon preferred them even to the oat; but it is better to mix them with the usual manger feed, in the proportion of one pound of potatoes to two and half pounds of the other ingredients.
Note: the Swedish turnip, carrots, and potatoes would have been winter food for livestock in the 1800s. According to the Alternative Field Crops Manual (compiled by the universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota), turnips have been a popular livestock fodder for at least 600 years.
Feeding horses today
Reading old books like this one, and John Stewart’s The Stable Book (originally published 1856) is a good reminder that feeding horses does not require a Ph.D. in nutrition. It does require common sense. Horses in the 1800s were used for war, transportation, farm work, mail delivery, hunting, and sport. These horses burned a lot of calories, and yet the primary feeds for these horses working 8-10 hours a day was hay and chaff (a mixture of hay and chopped straw).
The higher energy foods—oats, peas, beans—supplied more carbohydrate energy and, because they were whole foods, they included fiber, fat, protein, vitamins and minerals. Horses working many hours a day needed more calories and energy. Many horses today in light or moderate work don’t need more calories from higher energy foods.
Other aspects of the book
One of the fascinating chapters of Youatt’s The History, Treatment, and Diseases of the Horse is the list of the 1800s medicines used. Opium was regularly used for pain, along with homeopathics made with rectified spirits of alcohol, and specific herbs such as anise, belladonna, chamomile, gentian, ginger, myrrh and plantain. There is also mention of epsom salts, which should be used “only in promoting the purgative effect of clysters, gently to open the bowels at the commencement of fever.”
There are of course the rather surprising treatments: topical creosote “valued on account of its antiseptic properties”; ointments made out of mercury; tar mixed with grease for “dressing bruised or wounded feet”; tobacco, which “in the hands of the skillful veterinarian may be employed in cases of extreme or dangerous colic”; and turpentine, which “has been described as one of the best diuretics, in doses of half an ounce, and made into a ball with linseed meal and powdered ginger.”
While veterinary medicine has grown leaps and bounds since the 1800s, the feeding of horses is still fundamentally about basics: water, hay, forage, nutrients, and additional foods as needed for energy and maintenance of healthy weight.
You may also be interested in our article:
What Horses Used to Eat: Feeding Horses in 1856
*Heading Photo: Blair Athol, Thoroughbred Sire, Winner of Derby & St. Leger 1864.