The inspiration for my blog post this week stems from the unfortunate fact that for the past few months, my horse Taco has been experiencing a plethora of medical issues. No matter what I do, I cannot seem to keep him sound. As soon as I solve one problem, another one pops up. It has been a depressing and expensive cycle of chiropractic work, creams, lotions, supplements, and vet visits. I know that fellow horse owners out there (especially Thoroughbred owners) can relate.
One day, while doing research for another project, I stumbled upon a book called Every Horse Owner’s Cyclopedia. Written by John Henry Walsh, Ellwood Harvey, and John Elderken and published in 1871, it claimed to be “the most complete work on the horse ever published” and had an entire section on treatments for various diseases, ailments, and vices. Considering the desperate situation I had found myself in, it piqued my interest. Maybe there were some helpful ideas in there that had been lost in the sands of time?
Once I started reading, I could not pull myself away – the information was fascinating. On one hand, it demonstrated how much veterinary medicine had changed over the past century. However, I could not help but be surprised at how much continuity was revealed as well – some of the treatments that I use on my horse today were already being recommended over a century ago. Listed below are some of the most interesting and unique entries from the book. Just a heads up, some of them are not for the faint of heart!
Known in modern times as cribbing, this is an issue near and dear to my heart. Taco is a voracious cribber and it has caused many problems over the past four years. When horses crib, they latch onto an object with their front teeth, arch their neck, and draw air into their esophagus. It is a learned behavior that can be brought on by stressful environments and digestive issues. It can cause many long term issues including dental problems and colic if left untreated, and is highly addictive once horses start. The Cyclopedia says that there “has never yet been a cure discovered, except on the principle of restraint” (202). There are several recommended deterrents for cribbing that exist today including sprays, muzzles, and cribbing straps. I have found the cribbing strap to be most effective – it goes around the neck of the horse and applies pressure when they attempt to suck in air. However, according to the Cyclopedia, these impede the blood of the brain from returning back to the heart (so I might have to reevaluate my choice). Instead, the book proposes the use of an invention by Mr. Cook, Saddler of Long Acre, called a bar muzzle. Unlike the muzzles used today that go around the horse’s entire mouth, it consists of a halter with a set of two prongs placed just in front of the lips. The author espouses this method as “entirely harmless, perfectly effectual” with “the sole objection to it being the fact that it proclaims the wearer to everyone who looks into the stable as a cribber” (203). The horse can still eat and drink but is unable to latch its teeth onto anything. Perhaps this is something I need to look into?
Known today as indigestion, dyspepsia in horses can be caused for a variety of reasons and there are many different treatments. However, the Cyclopedia proposes that indigestion stems from the fact that horses are forced to eat the same thing every day with no variation. The author states that “Every domestic animal suffers in health if he is constantly fed on the same articles, and man himself, perhaps, more than they do. Partridges are relished by him early in September, but toujours perdrix would disgust the most inveterate lover of that article of food” (354). The entry goes on to suggest that a complete change of food should be implemented if the horses starts to suffer from indigestion and a lack of appetite. It recommends green food of some kind if it can be obtained, or if not, carrots or even steamed potatoes (355). It also suggests that a handful of malt dust be added to the food once or twice a week to alter the flavor. At the end of the entry, it adds that “the use of ‘fashionable horse feeds’ of the present day will serve the same purpose” such as Thorley’s food or Henri’s food, which is promoted in the advertisement below (355).
Tearing the clothes off
Under the section on stable vices, this amusing entry describes a solution for horses that cannot seem to keep their blankets on in the winter. This is by no means an uncommon problem, even by today’s standards. However, the contraption that the Cyclopedia recommends is something truly unique. It consists of “a pole of ash about three quarters of an inch in diameter, with an iron eye attached to each end. One of these is fastened, by means of a short leather strap and buckle, to the right side of the roller pad while the other has a strap or chain about a foot long, which attaches it to the head collar” (204-205). According to the author, “it is a very simple and cheap apparatus, and any village blacksmith can make and apply it” (205). The next time you wake up to blankets on the stable floor covered in manure, consider showing the diagram below to your local blacksmith in order to solve your pesky blanket problem!
Thrush is a problem that afflicts many horses in this area, especially during the muddiest parts of the spring. Essentially, it is an infection of the frog (a part of the horse’s hoof) caused by dirty and damp conditions. The Cyclopedia characterizes it as “an offensive discharge from the frog” (401). The recommended treatment it proposes is a dose of physic, food of a less stimulating quality, and regular exercise, in addition to maintaining a cleanly environment (401). If the condition persists, it says that a bran poultice should be applied for a few days and then tar ointment should be put directly on the frog. It also recommends a solution of chloride of zinc. Today, treatments for thrush vary, but include applying iodine, diluted bleach, and trimming the dead tissue from the affected area. One thing that I would like to make note of in this entry is the line about administering “a dose of physic” to the horse. I found this part especially confusing because there seems to be no clear definition of what goes into a physic. However, upon further research, I discovered that it is most likely a being used as a term to describe the administration of medicine in general. There is an entire section of the Cyclopedia dedicated to the creation of various types of physics and their administration. The two main ways of giving a horse internal medicine during the time period were through balls or drenches. Balls are solid mixtures which were put directly into the mouth of the horse, and drenches were poured down their throat using a type of funnel.
One of the first things that I searched for in the Cyclopedia was scratches, because it is a problem that has afflicted Taco for months now. I found it under an entry labelled “grease.” Today, it is sometimes still referred to as “greasy heel,” although “scratches” and “pastern dermatitis” are more common. The Cyclopedia defines scratches as a “slight swelling of the skin of the heels and adjacent parts which soon cracks, and from the fissures there exudes an offensive discharge which looks greasy but is really watery” (395). Pretty disgusting stuff in my experience. However, I was struck by the similarities in the treatments recommended for scratches by the Cyclopedia and by my veterinarian. Both advised applying glycerin to the area and trying to keep it clean and dry. However, the Cyclopedia suggested applying chloride of zinc, while I was instructed to use zinc oxide. In addition, the Cyclopedia stated that if the growths were bad enough, they could be sliced off and cauterized. This is not exactly something that I ever want to attempt at home. In a serious case of scratches, the text suggested that other organs could be damaged “unless the unhealthy state of the blood is attended to” (396). Supposedly, the fluid secreted through the scratches is drawn from the blood and pulled from the digestive organs, thereby weakening them. In order to counteract this effect, the author recommends feeding the horse arsenic with its food. He admits that “how it (the arsenic) acts has never been made out” but assures that in small doses it will produce no injurious effect. Nonetheless, I think I am probably going to keep the arsenic out of Taco’s daily feed regimen for now.
The Cyclopedia is full of interesting information, and provides a valuable window into what equine medicine was like in the 19th century. However, it left me feeling extremely glad that as a horse owner in the 21st century, my vet is only a phone call away!
Walsh, John Henry, et al. Every Horse Owner’s Cyclopedia. Porter and Coates, 1871.
Victoria Peace is the summer 2020 Curatorial Intern at the National Sporting Library and Museum. A junior at Georgetown University, she is double majoring in Art History and French. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her OTTB Taco, trail riding, and playing polo. Email her at email@example.com.