Horse-mad in the 18th century?

I’ve been giving this some thought over the last week…as a result of the last post I put up about the lads.  And one of the questions which I found myself reasoning through was, why were the British so horse-mad in the 18th and early 19th century?  What made Britain different in this way?  Why could carriage making and horse breeding be so advanced here as opposed to elsewhere. 

And I believe I have two answers.  Money.  And the state of the roads. 

Unlike the countries of continental Europe, Britain led the way in terms of the industrial revolution in the mid-18th century.  And this created huge amounts of new wealth.  Some of which, obviously, would have benefitted those aristocractic families who had investments.  But there were also the new possessors of that new wealth eager to acquire the finer things in life–and that would have meant, at least to some, fine horses and the latest fashion in carriages.  (Garrick makes a joke of this in his play, The Clandestine Marriage…)

There’s also an interest in breeding better and faster horses.  Stubbs’ paintings detail many horses being bred from newly acquired Arab stock.

But what do you need for all these fine horses?  You need good roads for them to run upon–and in that Britain excelled. 

The countrywide system of turnpike roads, with a fee collected locally–at the turnpike gate–and locally used to maintain the stretch of road, meant that Britain had the best roads in Europe.  Our stagecoaches and mailcoaches were infinitely faster–due to the state of the roads–than the French diligences.  And after reading about Beethoven’s struggles in the mud tracks which were the best of the German roads (Sir Thomas Lawrence also found them less than pleasant…), you can get a feel for just how bad bad roads could be in the rest of Europe. 

So, there’s money–and keeping horses requires a great deal of that–but also good roads, so that the London to Brighton race was even a possibility among those who could afford the horses.  The records for that race are something in the region of 4 hours and 15 minutes, or so.  Not bad, eh? 

And that would have been a racing carriage pulled by four horses.  Or Four-in-Hand as they called it. 

Cool, eh?


3 comments on “Horse-mad in the 18th century?

  1. junebugger says:

    Who wins the carriage race all depends on how strong and fast the horses are, I suppose?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Nothing so straightforward as that, sadly.

      An inferior team might well do better than a top team of horses based on many things:
      — How skilled the driver is and whether he paces his horses well or springs them and then they run out of puff;
      — how well the driver takes his corners and uphills;
      — whether one horse spooks, thus spooking the rest of the team and all becomes chaos;
      — whether a wheel or a pole comes loose;
      — if the leader is a stallion and he smells a mare in season along the way and gets resty;
      — whether a slow vehicle pulls into one’s path and one cannot safely overtake;
      — whether the better horses and carriage are on this side of a farmer starting to cross the road with his herd of cows for milking;
      — sheep in the road;
      — geese in the road;
      — whether the horses are ‘in the mood’ that day, because they definitely have their ‘no, I can’t be asked’ days;
      — whether the team takes offense at the other team and become unmanageable;
      — whether there are new and unexpected potholes in the road;
      — one of the horses gets a stone in his foot and the team has to be stopped in order to remove the stone;
      — one of more of the horses pulls up lame mid-race…

      Or, as happened to a friend of mine who was driving down a road, all well, when for no apparent reason, the left rear pony fell over. Just fell over. Nothing wrong with it, just fell over. The rest of the team kept on, dragging their mate along…straight into a BMW before which the two ponies at the front parted, one to the right and one to the left, around the car…I know they didn’t have BMWs back then. The horses were all fine, once she’d got them stopped and untangled and had scraped the fallen one off the pavement. The Beemer didn’t look so good though. Ha ha. Anyway, this friend is a highly skilled driver, one of the best in the country.

      But it just goes to show…

      • junebugger says:

        I just read this today!

        Sir, your replies are like blog posts in itself. So informative.

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