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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Lieutenant Boniface's Lost Notes on Shoes (or No Shoes) in U.S. Cavalry History, Part 1


Lieutenant Jonathan Boniface, US Cavalry, used this shoeboard as an illustration in his book, The Cavalry Horse and Its Pack, in 1903. The shoes shown represent the typical shoe used by several different nations' cavalry farriers, as well as some corrective shoe designs. Reading the fine print in Boniface's book gives a new perspective on how, when, and if shoes were used on military horses of different nations, and echoes many of the discussions going on today for work and pleasure horses.
In this series, Hoofcare + Lameness goes back 100 years to the golden age of cavalry. Through the transcribed words of US Cavalry Lieutenant Jonathan Boniface, we’ll see not only how cavalry horses were shod in different nations, but if they were shod.


First published in 1903, Boniface’s book The Cavalry Horse and His Pack is one of the few resources in English that documents how cavalry horses’ hooves of different nations were tended in the years leading up to World War I. It is one of the most often consulted historical references in the Hoofcare and Lameness office library, and has recently been re-printed in a fac simile edition.

In this first installment, you will read that from the first line on the first page, he feels compelled to confront one of the arguments raging at that time: namely, that a barefoot cavalry could be possible. He argues against it with many of the same defenses of shoeing we hear today, but wait until you see where this series is going.

Unfortunately the book does not have a lot of illustrations and some seem to be from other sources and are not accurately described. The shoe board (above) is explained as the shoeing section progresses.

The following text is a direct excerpt from this book (complete with Lt. Boniface's complicated sentence syntax), which is highly recommended above and beyond the few short passages that will be shared on The Hoof Blog. This excerpt is used with permission of the reprint publisher, The Long Rider Guild. (A link to purchase a reprint edition of the book is at the end of this post)

TO SHOE OR NOT SHOE the horse has been a question discussed and experimented with for ages. While the wild horse, running at large across the vasy grassy plains and valleys, where food is most accessible and water nearby, may go for years without any protection to the feet other than that which Nature has given him, nevertheless the domesticated animal must be furnished some durable artificial covering for the crust of the hoof where it comes in contact with the ground, if his rider would save him and get fair wear and tear out of him; and in the cavalry services of the world, it is safe to prophecy, shoeing will never cease to be practiced and cannot be dispensed with.

The shoeless experiment has been tried over and over again, but always with the same result--a return to shoeing.

In dry weather, the hoof becomes very hard, and it is wonderful how much wear it will then stand on the hardest of roads; but in wet weather the hoof becomes soft and then friction on hard roads or mountain trails soon prohibits work without shoes.

If work is persisted in under such circumstances, the hoof rapidly wears away and lameness, perhaps permanent, results.

The advocates of the unshod horse say “Rest the horse when he becomes a little lame, until he recovers” but the cavalryman can afford no such luxury; his horse must always be available, always ready, and always strong and sound.

Xenophon, our most ancient authority on the horse, tells us that “in respect to the horse’s body we must first consider his feet.” Let us, then, do so.

The foot is perfect, generally, as Nature made it, but cavalry service has taught us that we cannot leave it so for the work he must perform, as work and soil rarely harmonize.

It is said that on the sands of Arabia and Northern Egypt the horse is generally unshod and that his feet are as Nature made them. The climate is hot and dry and the soil flinty, yet the horse’s foot is said to be perfect, hard and dense, firm and small, and able to stand the wear and tear upon it; yet no cavalry has ever gone through either of these countries with unshod horses, if it could be avoided.

Boniface then describes the basic parts of the foot, ending with a suitable-for-framing statement equal to the "Catch 22" of hoof problems:

Perhaps no other organ does an injury so soon produce a return at compound interest, for the inevitable first result is a malformation of the hoof, and this again only adds to the original mischief. Hence it is that in the foot, more than in any other part even, prevention is better than cure, for in many of its diseases it happens that a cure cannot be obtained without rest, and yet it is also a fact that the secretion of horn will not go on perfectly without the stimulus of necessity afforded by exercise.


(This completes the introduction; click on the link below to purchase the book. A second installment, to follow, continues Lieutenant Boniface's explanation of the United States' national military policy on hoofcare as well as another polarizing subject of the day: the pros and cons of hot-fitting shoes.)




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