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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Historic Hoofcare: The Ice Harvest

What you are seeing in this video is a pond in the Pocono Mountains region of Pennsylvania. This particular project is to cut ice for one residence. The video follows the workers from the measurement of the thickness to the cutting of the ice to the removal of the blocks, loading the wagons, a visit from the man who had hired them, and then the transport and unloading of the ice.

It's hard to say how much ice a residence like the one in this film would require for a year, or even if the house is a year-round residence or not. But it was important to get the ice in, and if there's a saying for the summer months about making hay while the sun shines, there must have been a similar saying in the old days about cutting ice when the mercury's down in its bulb and the roads were clear of snow drifts.

I've been thinking a lot about ice lately. The heater isn't working in my car, which means that the defroster isn't, either. It's been below zero (Fahrenheit) and ice forms on the inside of the car while I'm driving. I'm not sure why, unless it is the condensation from my breath. But all the scraping (while holding my breath) gives me plenty of time to think about ice.

My conclusion: ice is great when it's where you want it (in a hockey rink, on an event horse's pastern, in your gin and tonic). But on the inside of your car, on your house steps, and especially in the form of black ice on a curvy road at night: not so great.

To say that we take ice for granted is an understatement.

But it wasn't always that way. Ice was an industry, and that industry used a lot of horses. And ice wasn't all created equal. Different climates, different water, and all sorts of different conditions affected the quality of the ice harvest. Some years have gone done in history for either the quantity of ice that was harvested or the quality--crystal clear blocks of ice were what they wanted to pull out of a pond. A warm winter sabotaged the preservation of perishable meat and foods the next summer.

So even though horses grow winter coats, they don't grow winter hooves. Crafty yankee horsemen had to figure out how to make their horses useful 12 months of the year. And so, it came to pass, that what we call "winter shoeing" was born.

Here's the ultimate in winter shoeing: four drive-in studs, a rim of borium, anti-snowball pads and frost nails on the hind foot of a Hanoverian driving horse who is in a serious training program in Vermont this winter. He's kept fit with regular sleighing work, but changing conditions mean that he can be on hard pavement, soft or hard-packed snow, ice, mud, or state-of-the-art indoor arena footing--or any combination of those. It's ok, he's ready for anything.
Winter shoeing these days is all about special anti-snowball pads, frost nails, studs or borium (or sometimes all of these!) to prevent slipping on multiple surfaces, or in some cases, studded removable hoof boots. Where we used to un-shoe horses for the winter months, many horseowners now opt add to their horses' shoeing complexity in the hope of making their lives safer. Many stables don't allow winter calks on hind feet for obvious reasons if horses are turned out in groups or blanketed.

In the old days, the concern was less about slipping in the paddock and more about helping the working horse stay on his feet and dig into the soft snow or hard ice to be able to pull a load, which was usually on some sort of a work sled in the winter months. Horsemen became connoisseurs of calks--just the right calk for that horse, that day, that road, that load.

An exception was the unusual contraption shown in the photo at left. This strap-on ice shoe was on display at the Monetta Farrier Specialties booth at the American Farrier's Association Convention in 2009. You might scratch your head over that one, as I did, since that company is located in South Carolina, where they were importing ice, not making it! But...collectors are collectors.

This shoe is similar to the strap-on and bolt-on shoes worn around here for salt marsh haying so the horses didn't sink into the boggy ground. Except where those shoes have a platform bottom, these have a steel shoe on the bottom, with welded projectile calks protruding around perimeter. This device would have been easy to remove so the calks wouldn't be worn down on a paved road but could be used when a horse need to grip in the snow or get up a hill. I wonder why we don't see more of these, and why Never-Slip calks were used so extensively instead?

The ice industry relied on very cold weather (like today) but without a lot of snow. The conditions had to be right, and when it was, it was a community effort to harvest the ice. The horses had to be shod so they could walk out onto the ice, and that part of the history of ice shoes was made universally possible by the invention of Never-Slip interchangeable calks. Otherwise, a change in weather meant a trip to the forge to add or remove or sharpen calks. And an expense.

Harness racing on Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. From an article by Caperton Tissot in the Adirondack Almanac about ice racing. In Minnesota, the horses raced on the Mississippi River.
Here in New England and in Maritime Canada, it wasn't just the draft horses who needed ice shoes. The speedy trotters  and their sleighs set out on the lakes and ponds and often raced across the ice. In Maine, I believe they still have Standardbred racing on the ice. I've always wanted to see that (from inside a cozy warm ice-fishing shack.)

This is what an ice-racing horse would probably wear on its feet; they are still worn today, if you can find the legendary races. It is a lightweight steel shoe with a very thin roll on the edge, into which tungsten tips are embedded, using copper solder. I've seen these shoes made in farrier competitions--they are not easy! I believe that this antique shoe is from Michael Wildenstein's collection.

One of the most interesting things I've learned about ice racing was that trainers used the snow season to spell the good horses, since there was no Florida racing until the 1930s, and only the trainers with the wealthiest clients could afford to go south. What the local trainers learned is that their good horses benefited from a rest over the winter, but that sore-footed horses that couldn't race in the summer and fall when the tracks were hard often excelled on the ice and some even went back to racing the following summer. I don't know how they conditioned horses for ice racing, but it's a cinch that the ice-cold footing, the low impact and the return to use (and its resulting stimulating effects on the circulation to the foot) were a formula for salvation for a lot of horses. Or maybe they were just going faster to stay warm.

The next time you walk over to your refrigerator with the automatic icemaker and fill a glass with cubes, think of these fellows out cutting the ice on a very cold winter's day, and think of the horses diving into their feed bags because they knew they were going to have to haul the heavy ice straight up a steep hill. Maybe those calks did a little double duty.

This is one of my favorite Hoof Blog photos, from back in 2008 when a terrible ice storm paralyzed New England.
Thanks to Adirondack Almanac, Minnesota Historical Society, Cape Pond Ice, Prelinger Archives, Farm Collector Magazine, Birch Hill Farm, Emily and Sarah Schwartz and all the people who've told me all the stories about the legendary ice races in Maine. I believe they exist. Somewhere.

To learn more: Right on cue, an article on the history of harvesting ice from the Hudson River was published in Friday's Troy Record in Troy, New York.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing; Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. Please, no use without permission. You only need to ask. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a digest-type email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). To subscribe to Hoofcare and Lameness (the journal), please visit the main site,, where many educational products and media related to equine lameness and hoof science can be found. Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to
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