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Taking a drive through our sport’s history

Many towns were developed at about eight-mile intervals. Why? That was how far the average horse trotted between rests...

By Patricia M. Demers / Horsetrader columnist - April 21st, 2016 - About Driving

PatriciaDemers_170pxThe history of America is linked with the history of horse-drawn power, particularly the expansion of road networks from the late 1700s forward. It created a need for business hubs to distribute people, freight, goods and services. Many towns were developed at about eight-mile intervals. Why? That was how far the average horse trotted between rests, feed (refueling) and watering. Everything about the production and consumption of draft animals shaped the material environment. Innovations were constantly in the forefront to help the equine work more efficiently — better roads, harnesses, vehicle design, feed, veterinary care, and shoeing. The driven horse, mule and ox were the “engines” that moved and improved America during the industrial revolution. Energy demands of industrialization increased American’s dependence on horses, mules and oxen. The horse population grew in size but began to change in composition. More and varying sizes, breeds, and strengths of equines were needed. During the 19th century, the approaches taken by horse breeders reshaped horses to fit the needs of society. They transformed the bodies of horses as well as their uses.

In the early 1800s most horses were around 15 hands and between 800-1,200 pounds. They had an average working life of six to eight years, and lived an average of 12-16 years. Mostly equines were known regionally as a certain “type,” and over time, “type” became “breed” with respective registries. Types were developed because of their specific uses and requirements. Desired characteristics were a combination of power, willingness, activity, soundness and constitution. Power was gained with size and weight, which was needed to move the ever-larger machines, implements, and vehicles. The major trade-off was strength for speed.

Certain breeds were symbolic simultaneously of social status and democratic values. The rise of mule power developed from the 1840s-1860s. Mules were a genetic dead end because they are a hybrid themselves. Better breeding of horses and donkeys lead to the making of a superb mule with power and heat tolerance. Horse breeding, society and technology were mutually shaping America.

Horses also powered almost every aspect of urban life, from factories to street cars. Horse populations grew 370% during the Gilded Age. Horses lived in dense stables located in every neighborhood, with as many as 400-700 per square mile in many cities!

Because of this dense population, the equine influenza outbreaks in 1872-73, had catastrophic effects on the nation, as most transport and power (the equine as the engine that runs America), came to a crashing halt. Innovators realized that if an efficient engine were developed it would change the world. Combustion and steam engines could work 24/7 without need of rest or constant care. However, it really wasn’t until the 1930’s that horse-power was put out to pasture permanently as the most efficient source of power.

Horses after this time became quaint reminders of times passed. Many people still owned horses, but their role in the world was changing from work animal to pleasure/pet status. Fast forward to today. As the changing needs of the past shaped the needs of horses, so does our society today. Horse ownership is becoming a smaller and smaller segment. Urbanization is pushing horses away from traditional horse-keeping areas, and open spaces are being used to build housing and cities instead of trails.

The economics of our current world are influencing our abilities to support our horse habit. As our modern world changes, so do our needs for our horses. As horse sports evolve, so breeds and disciplines must change, too, for a modern market. What was once a desirable style of weight and substance, gives way to a more elegant, colorful, and “sporty” types of confirmation, harking back to the 1800s ideals of horse breeding reshaping horses to fit needs of society.

Driving saw a great resurgence in the 1970s with Prince Phillip’s interest in the new sport of combined driving, which was loosely based upon the English mail coach system of the early 1800s. Specific speeds, accuracy of negotiating obstacles, and distance were paramount. In decades past, there were still many opportunities to see driven horses compete and exhibit at local shows and agricultural fairs around the USA, throughout the year. These shows used to bring in large amounts of exhibitors and spectators. What happened? Urbanization, changing public interests in things agricultural and historical, changing generations – an aging population, economics, growing indoor entertainments, and so forth.

What can be done? As our numbers decrease, so do our opportunities to participate. Shows and events cannot continue if they aren’t supported by numbers and financing. Some regions are very active in certain disciplines more than others.

What I observe is this: An aging horse-owning population of participants not being replaced by new owners and participants. Events needing to draw from a population within a certain circumference of mileage and hours. For a one-day event, traveling more than two or three hours is the norm. But it if takes more than three hours, the event must have stabling and be a multiple-day event to attract participants. Costs must be kept to a minimum, but enough to not lose money putting on the event. Also, an aging population has less physical energy and strength, and often will just chose to not participate.

Trends, needs and popularity. As in the “old days,” horses, harness, and vehicles changed as the needs of society changed. Popular disciplines change with trends and needs. The trend at the moment is in combined driving events — cross country, driven dressage, cones, and hazards, with its specialized, modern carriages. Antique vehicles used to be very desirable, but the trend has moved away, and what once were very pricy vehicles can be purchased quite reasonably now. Popularity drives the sport and the cottage industry providing the supplies- vehicles, harness, training, and so forth.
So, our sport of driving has always been in constant change, and what was once old becomes new again.


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