Thursday, June 26, 2008

Notes from A Private Stable

Years ago a friend gave me an old de-accessioned library book called Private Stable. Published in 1903, this stable management reference offers information and advice to the affluent stable owner. I've been perusing it at my leisure. While I've highlighted some unusual practices here, the care and management of horses has not changed as much as I thought. Here are a few things that I found quaint, surprising, informative, amusing, or whatever...

From the Spanish Inquisition?
"Boots are made on two general principles, one as a protective and one as preventative." Guess this would fall under "preventative," huh? I assume it is designed to "train" the horse not to move in such a way that he intereferes or clips himself. If I were the horse, I think I'd pretty much give up on moving at all, period. The author has no shortage of opinions but is strangely silent on the use of this device.

Singeing: They did this in the barn?
Has anyone heard of the practice of singeing?

"Stable men have long been in the habit of singeing away the long, loose hair which grows about the jaws, through, neck, belly, and quarters of horses that have been much exposed to the cold; a flame is applied and the hair is allowed to blaze for a moment, then it is extinguished by drawing a hand or a damp cloth..."
I can see why this one didn't stand the test of time. I'm glad we've stopped setting our horses on fire. Good decision there.

On horsewomen

"The task of personally conducting the management of a stable is one that a lady is advised not to undertake even with a good servant in charge. If a lady desires to maintain a stable, she will find it to her advantage to place the supervision of it in the hands some relative, even though he lacks experience in such matters."
The author goes on to suggest that no stable hand would accept direction from a mere female. So better to enlist the help of an incompetent male than to try to manage your own stable.

The author also speaks of the qualities of a ladies' riding horse. Rearing, he writes, is an "unpardonable error" in a lady's riding, horse:

"..because when he is in the act of coming up, it is almost impossible for her to lower her hands and through her weight forward, like a man can do, or to jump off to get clear of danger."
At first it seems an indictment of the riding abilities of women (and not the first in this book), but then I read the section about sidesaddles. The female rider cannot mount or dismount without the assistance of a groom, and the process described was rather elaborate. What a hindrance -- like Ginger Rogers learning to dance backward in heels. Many lady writers in the book are quoted saying how difficult to fit and uncomfortable many of these saddles are. If they're going to be handicapped in almost every sphere of the Victorian/Edwardian life, at least they got to whine about it.

On grooming
There was a big section on personal grooming for stable and carriage hands. The breeches to the left are white, and all leather. Geesh.

The entire grooming section made me feel guilty. In talking about the qualities of a good groom, the author stresses that grooming is "hard work" and offers a rule of thumb that the daily grooming should take a minimum of 45 minutes. Ouch. I can't remember the last time I spent that long, except if you count those occasions when Harv is totally encrusted in mud. He also asserts that a sign of a poor groom is one that does not have his tools at the ready. He pokes fun at the incompetent groom who can be seen "searching amidst the straw for a currycomb." I stopped reading at this point and made a note to organize my tack box.

Old horses
"Another great mistake is made by many persons in considering that old horses should be indulged by an extra allowance of rest... The incentive of such a practice is amiable, but it is a mistaken one. Old horses cannot bear entire rest; exercise is life to them, it keeps their vital functions going; and limbs that regular and daily exercise keep pliant, become stiff and rigid by continued absence of motion. Young horses, on the contrary, require considerable length of comparative rest to recover from unusual exertion. They have not been long enough accustomed to it..."

Hear that Harv?

What is most amazing about this book is that 90% of the book is perfectly applicable today. The equipment, the grooming supplies, the basic horse care are pretty much the same. The beauty of the animals depicted in the photo plates, and the excellence in conformation was remarkable. I even learned a few things -- for example, did you know there was more than one type of straw (barley, rye, oat) and that rye or wheat straw is best? And that the average horse will need 100 lbs of sawdust a week? This book was well worth reading, for fun, for information, and for a sense of the history of the horse.


  1. What a fun find! I must admit, I bristled a little bit when I read the part about ladies not being able to shift forward or dismount quickly ... until I saw the explanation about the sidesaddle. Thank goodness us women have been able to adapt our clothing to be able to ride most effectively, rather than our riding to our clothing style.

  2. One of the boarders at Foxton had a sidesaddle and I remember that she let us try it out. It was impossible to mount on your own unless you had a really high mounting block! It certainly made me all the more impressed by the women I would watch riding sidesaddle, hell-for-leather after the hounds in old footage.

  3. It was fun to read the women's comments about side-saddles and how ill-designed the were. One woman advocated for a new design -- while it was still a side-saddle her design ideas were much like today's modern saddle -- a curved rather than a flat cantle, etc. No one seemed very happy with the sidesaddle, I'm glad they didn't suffer in silence.

  4. The one that really got me was "a flame is applied and the hair is allowed to blaze for a moment, then it is extinguished by drawing a hand or a damp cloth..."

    The key word being "blaze"--my horse tolerates many of my anal-retentive grooming rituals, but I don't think he'd be so keen on being set "ablaze".

    Thank god for Oster!

  5. Actually... the practice of Singing is not as outdated as it might seem! I learned about it in the mid to late '80's from a BHS trainer I worked with.. it's not quite so barbaric as it sounds, but it takes a VERY quiet horse to tolerate it!

    Clippers are MUCH more straightforward, and of course, they have the advantage of not being something horses have an inborn phobia of....

  6. If my 2 year old doesn't learn to tolerate clipping better than he does now, I may have to resort to singeing!

  7. Singeing isn't apperently that bad! HAve a look on this video, it shows Brian Higham at the Badminton Estate Stables who demonstrates the dying art of singeing with a hand engraved tool :)

  8. You brits, you do all things equestrian so well! I've always wanted to try banging with a whisp.

  9. Really, really interesting stuff.

    I was at first shocked at the singeing, then not. Now that I think about it, I'm surprised that's not part of modern women's grooming rituals. It can't hurt or be any more damaging than spike heels.

    And speaking of spending 45 minutes grooming -- I wish I had that much time to spend it on grooming myself!

    This is such an interesting blog. You do a great job. I'm behind on visiting my bloggy friends and hope I'll have some time over the holiday weekend to catch up.

    Happy summer!


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