For approximately 75 years, from the 1850’s into the 1920’s, horses formed a key element of firefighting companies. Prior to the introduction of horses, humans pulled the firefighting equipment to blazes. The superior strength and speed of horses allowed longer ladder wagons, and larger pumpers and chemical wagons to be used, and the equipment and firefighters arrived to the scene of the fire much more quickly.
Horses chosen for service with the fire department had to meet certain criteria. Often departments had specific weight requirements for horses. For example, the weight requirements in the Detroit fire department were as follows: Horses pulling hose wagons must weigh at least 1,100 pounds, to haul a steamer 1,400 pounds, and for a hook and ladder wagon 1,700 pounds. Both mares and stallions were eligible for service. The key traits necessary included strength, speed, obedience, intelligence, and fearlessness.
After their frantic dash to the scene, horses were expected to stand calmly amidst the chaos while their human partners fought the fire.
At the fire station, the horses were housed in stalls next to the equipment they were to pull. When an alarm sounded, the stall doors would open and the horses were trained to dash to their positions in front of the wagons. Harnesses suspended above them were dropped onto the horses’ backs, specially designed collars were snapped closed, and the team was charging out of the station house in only a few seconds.
This video from The Aurora Regional Fire Museum’s exhibit, Getting There • Getting Water • Getting Rescued: 150 years of the tools and technology used to fight fires and save lives, shows the fire horses in action. We can see how quickly the team responds to an alarm, and how excited the horses are to jump into action. The various types of wagons used can be seen, including pumpers and a ladder truck, as they roll out of the station.
The fire horses were well cared for and received daily exercise and grooming. Some departments were large enough to employ their own veterinarians and farriers, and some had horse ambulances to support their equine members. Working together in such strenuous and stressful conditions, it is not surprising that the firefighters developed strong bonds with their horses. This can be seen in the numerous tributes to specific horses as they retired or died in the line of duty.
The members of the Rochester Fire Department petitioned the local cemetery to allow them to bury fallen fire horses in the fireman’s plot. When the cemetery refused, the local chapter of the American Legion erected a bronze plaque in honor of all the horses that served in the fire department. It reads,
Glorious in beauty and in service;
We cannot call them dumb
Because they spoke in deeds
In every hour of danger
Enshrines their loyalty and courage
By the 1920’s fire departments began exchanging their horses for trucks. In many towns ceremonial “last runs” were held in which the fire horses responded to a false alarm and the public lined the streets in tribute.
Although their day had passed their contributions to the community were honored and they still feature prominently in many firefighting museums across the country.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail