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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Farrier's Ax: A Museum Restores a Gruesome Tool of Mercy Designed to End the War for Horses

Courtesy of National Army Museum, London

As people in the US prepare to line up at movie theaters to see War Horse over the Christmas holiday, here's some farrier background about a tool you may even see in the movie. I am not sure when they stopped actually using this tool, but no one has stopped talking about it, that's for sure.

It's the farrier's ax, and you'll see one close-up in this video from the National Army Museum, which currently has a major museum dedicated to war horses staged at its London galleries.

This is the ax of the Royal Horse Guards' farrier, courtesy of

The ax, as the video says, served two purposes: the spike was used to mercifully end a horse's suffering. The sharp blade was used to hack off one of the horse's hooves. The farriers returned from the battlefield with the severed hooves, which would be counted and analyzed. Each hoof was burned with inventory numbers that told the quartermaster department a lot about the horse that had died--was it an artillery horse? a cavalry mount? a mule?--and what would be needed to replace it.

Something you don't see anymore: these antique hoof guards, worn for decoration, were probably from India. They are on display at the National Army Museum in London for the War Horse exhibit.

The history books state that the burned numbers in the hooves not only helped keep track of horses killed in battle; they prevented a soldier from selling his horse to civilians in war zones. They were desperate for transportation or (perhaps) food.

The Household Cavalry still burns numbers into three out of four of each horse's hooves. The near hind bears the horse's army number, the near fore his squadron number and the off fore has the regiment's initials.

Their farrier also still parades with his regiment through the streets of London--and carries his ax wherever he goes.

War Horse 2
Here are the hind hooves of the famous War Horse puppets in the stage play in London. The play is also on Broadway. (Geoff Marston photo)
Watch for more information about war horse hooves in the weeks to come--and make plans to go see War Horse over Christmas.

War Horse 1
Even a puppet War Horse needs a farrier--and who better than England's David Gulley? Mr. Gulley, who is from Leicestershire, was on-stage in London's West End with the War Horse cast and he had to check out what was on the bottom of Joey's front foot. David, an ex-military farrier, saw the play with a group of veterans recently. Luckily he wasn't carrying an ax. (Geoff Marston photo) 
Why Is That Guy Following Prince William and Kate Middleton Carrying a Big Shiny Ax? Because He's the Farrier, That's Why! (farriers at the 2011 Royal Wedding in London)

David Gulley Elected President of European Federation of Farrier Associations

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Andrea said...

YEOW I can't imagine having to go out into a battlefield and spike a horse in the head to put it out of its misery!!
Do we have a date on the photo with the stack of severed hooves? Those are some honking huge caulks on those shoes!

Margaret said...

Fascinating... The axe is beautiful and gruesome at the same time.

Dave Millwater said...

That axe looks like it's do the trick alright... Hopefully the old farriers practiced on some insensitive targets first though. Inaccuracy could be pretty ugly, I imagine.

Think I'll stick with a .45 revolver. Easier to carry as well.

PeaksView Forge said...

If you wonder why farriers got a bad rap, look no further than the farrier's axe!