Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Introduction to Winter Traction: Finding the Roots of Today's Safety and Fun Under Foot in Snow and Ice

Like a scene from Black Beauty, a horse goes down in the shafts of a delivery wagon on a Boston street, sometime between 1917 and 1934. From the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

A blizzard hit the Northeast Corridor of the United States today. For the next few days, we might be hunkered down, with or without power and wifi. But no matter how bad it is, we'll be back on the highways in a few days at most.

FedEx will deliver. The airlines will fly. The supermarkets will re-stock their shelves.

But it wasn't always that way. Winter was a different story 100 years ago, when horses had to travel the streets of cities and towns in order for the mail to move, or trains to be unloaded, or even for the roads to be plowed.

First and foremost, horses had to stay on their feet. And many days, that was no easy feat.

The Hoof Blog would like to share with you not only that winter can be dangerous for horses (and people), but how much more dangerous it was not so long ago, and what people did about it.

The problem was, and is, traction. Or, the lack of traction. But not too much traction. Horses not only had to stay on their feet in the ice and snow, they had to lean into a load to pull forward and gain momentum to get a heavy load rolling. And when and if they stopped, the wagon behind them needed to stop as well. It was dangerous work for horses and humans alike.

"Somebody, do something." Historical research shows that cities were pleading for solutions to lost work time and injured horses during bad weather. Some of the solutions may surprise you, as may the sources of the some of the solutions.

This series will be illustrated with some heartbreaking old photos and also some heartwarming ones. The only think tanks to solve problems like horse traction were the opinions and pencil sketches of the fellows down at the shoeing shop on a Saturday morning who might try out a new shoe design they'd seen in The Horseshoers Journal.

For the most part, the problem of traction could and would only be solved by the people who knew hooves firsthand, the farriers.

There was no Apple, no 3M, no DuPont; you couldn't take your delivery horse to the Genius Bar. Your father and uncle and grandfather told stories about down horses and wrecks in their day. If you wanted to change it, you'd have to invent something they hadn't thought of yet. So they did.

This series will cover the traction devices that have survived--and remember that some, like the snow rim pad, are quite new. It will also cover the ones that didn't survive but that were so clever, you wonder why their inventors didn't become rich and famous and why we don't have them now.

The names of most of the inventors are lost. But maybe their old ideas will give some modern day entrepreneurs and inventors some ideas to try.

In the meantime, traction today means that horses can be used to have fun in the winter, like this Morgan horse and its owner in Maine. This little video shows them having fun, and the basics of how the horse's shoes were adapted for ice with studs and snow rim pads.

I'd be scared to death that someone had been ice fishing in that lake, but I'm sure that they checked it out.

Half a world away, we can only imagine what the Mongolians do to their horses' feet to be able to have ice sledge races. How do they see where they're going? But it looks like fun.

Finally, here's an interview with our friend John Deans, a farrier in Maine (below). He knows the ins and outs of snow safety very well, both from years of experience and out of necessity in keeping his clients' horses safe over a long, long winter.

If you're not familiar with contemporary winter shoeing materials, John's explanation will be helpful for you to understand what is available today. However, most of the things he mentions have been around only for about 20-25 years. They never were an option before that, at any price.

This series will look at the challenges people met before the snow rim pads, bubble pads, pin studs and ice nails that we take for granted today. Along the way, winter traction was at the root of a major US commerce law.

Traction devices of the early 20th century are still being talked about in high places--just ask any law historian.

A segment from a much longer interview with Maine farrier John Deans on BlixxHorses series.

As it turned out, I began writing this article as the storm began and never dreamed it would be as bad as it would turn out to be. Since the snow is up to my waist in places, it's not a safe day to be a horse out there. How did they cope in the old days?

I am sorry I don't know the source of this clipping, but I can tell it was a Swedish book. These platform shoes were used on horses, much like the bog shoes we have here for taking horses out in the salt marshes. The attachment on these Swedish "shoes" is more sophisticated than the bog shoes.

They work on the same principle as snowshoes for humans, by displacing the weight so that the foot doesn't sink directly and deeply into the snow. They're less about traction and more about flotation.

I could have used a pair or two of these today. I probably could have sold some to the neighbors, too.

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