Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hoofcare History: Japanese Hoof Sandals Gave Horses Removable Traction

T. Enemi image of horse wearing sandals courtesy of Rob Oechsle
This amazing photo from Japan shows the traditional straw sandals worn by horses there. The sandals attached with straw ties around the pastern. Notice that this horse's hind feet are left alone. (T. Enemi image courtesy of Rob Oechsle)

As much as I love reading the history of hoofcare and lameness from British and American historical perspectives, it's the other countries and other parts of the world that keep my reading lamp on at night. There is so much we don't know about how hooves were cared for in other cultures.

From my reading, it almost seems like horseshoes were one of the things that European merchants and explorers brought with them to new lands--and left behind, along with Christianity. They converted the people to Eurocentric religions and their horses to iron shoes.

But what were they using before the Europeans showed up, and is there something that we can learn from them?

Language is always a barrier but I found that one of the best sources was the little letters sent to the Horseshoers Journal or Blacksmith and Wheelwright from farriers in faroff corners of the world. Once in a while, they sent drawings or photos of unusual horseshoes or shoeing methods in other parts of the world.

So say hello to the ancient straw horse sandals, known as umugatsu, of Japan, which appear, at first glance, to have been the EasyBoots of their day. Or were they?

This hand-colored lantern slide is from an amazing collection of Japanese images from the Meiji and Taisho eras by the famed photographer T. Enemi. (Image courtesy of Rob Oechsle).

T. Enemi image courtesy of Rob Oechsle

Notice that in this photo, the woman leading the horse is barefoot but the horse she is leading wears sandals.

But before you jump to conclusions about these sandals being horseshoes, as we know them, think again. Why would anyone choose to place soft straw matting under the weight of a horse?

The sandals did cover the feet, but they were worn by humans, cattle and horses alike to keep from slipping on the steep terrain; the rough straw surface offered some surface friction, even if they were hanging on by a thread. They were probably only worn when needed.

According to Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan by William E. Deal, the sandals were widely used by the military, both to give traction on wet terrain and to muffle the sound of the horses' hooves; Deal is the first author I've found who mentioned that the sandals were used somewhat for protection, as well.

Western-style iron shoes came to Japan with the Europeans but the steep-slope work horses needed their straw sandals for centuries longer.

This cluster of Japanese horse sandals is on display at Hida Folk Village in the mountainous area of Hida Takayama. According to an article from the 1800s published in Scientific American, the sandals were inexpensive and easy to replace when they wore out, which it didn't take them long to do.

An article in the late 1890s in Horseshoers Journal tells us a bit more; a globetrotting correspondent of the day wrote: "In Japan...Even the clumsiest of cart-horses wear straw shoes, which, in their cases, are tied around the ankle with straw rope, and are made of the ordinary rice-straw, braided so as to form a sole for the foot about half an inch thick. These soles cost about a halfpenny a pair."

I know that the Hoof Blog is read by many of our friends in Japan, so maybe we'll hear more about umugatsu.

--by Fran Jurga

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