Thursday, March 12, 2015

Chain Reaction Traction: Anti-slip Horsshoe Chains Took the Farrier Out of the Equation 100 Years Ago

chain overshoes for hoof traction 1920

This is the latest chapter in the Hoof Blog's series on the history of hooves vs. snow and ice. To read other articles in this series, scroll to the bottom of this article for links.

When Harry Weed invented snow chains for automobile tires in 1904, he was just following a trend. He had seen people wrap grapevines and ropes around their tires. There was a lot of snow where he lived in Canastota, New York and Harry understood that for people to use cars year round there, they needed more traction. He patented his invention and, as they say, the rest is history. Steel tire chains based on his principles are still in use today.

And when horsemen saw automobile owners wrap Harry's steel chains around their car tires, they thought it should work if they wrapped smaller chains around their horses' hooves on snowy, icy roads. A clever Massachusetts veterinarian was waiting in the wings with a hoof strap that held chain links to the bottom of a hoof. You could strap it on and take it off without removing the shoe. It promised to keep horses on their feet and working, no matter the weather.

But would it? And what would horseshoers think of it?

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When Dr. George Kinnell's chain overshoes won the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) $500 prize for an anti-slip horse hoof invention in 1911, it was big news. It was the first time a prize had been offered for a safety horse hoof invention. 

The pressure was on to make the city streets safer for working horses. Prize money would be increased as the years would go on; it would soon be five times that amount.

But the first time the prize was given, it went to the chain overshoe, invented by Pittsfield, Massachusetts veterinarian George Kinnell. Truth be told, George had an in. The Scottish immigrant had been out for a drive with a horse wearing chains when wealthy Pittsfield summer resident Mrs. George Westinghouse saw that the horse wasn't slipping on the smooth pavement. She was impressed. She was also a friend of Mrs. James Speyer, mentioned in the previous chapter of this series for her work with horses on New York City's streets on behalf of the Women’s League for Animals.

Statistics recorded in the 1909 Annual Report of the ASPCA reveal that in one winter day alone, the group’s horse ambulance had been called on 48 times to remove horses from the streets. The report tells us, “When the pavements are slippery, the agents of the Society devote much of their time to street conditions--assisting fallen horses to their feet, destroying horses found to be injured or sick past recovery, suspending smooth-shod horses from labor, or sending them to the blacksmith to be roughed and sharped, causing teams to be doubled, loads to be lightened, spreading steam cinder on slippery pavements, and in other ways relieving the trying situation.”

All the inventions entered in the inaugural competition were tested on horses in New York, according to the ASPCA. Apparently George’s was the standout. His obituary tells us, “The result was that in a short time numerous societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals recommended its adoption. The New York mounted police and fire department were among them. He also was adopted by the Black Horse troop for the presidential inauguration in Washington.”

As most readers will know, the custom at the time was for horsemen to take their horses to the forge repeatedly throughout the winter for continual re-sharpening of calks and replacement of worn shoes.

This was a pivotal time in horseshoeing history and it may well be that the timing of George Kinnell’s invention opened Pandora’s Box. Remember, his invention slipped on over the horse’s shoe, if the horse was shod. It in essence by-passed the forge, the farrier, and even new nails. His chains were even re-useable from one year to the next if the previous winter hadn't required heavy use.

There was something for everyone in the horseshoeing business to dislike about the new overshoes and the prize system that would reward them.

A low grumble was starting to be heard. It rose from the chimneys of forges from one end of Manhattan to the other.

• • • • • • •

winter traction overshoe for city horseTwo years after George Kinnell won the ASPCA's prize, he had sold two million hoof chains. Even the German royal family ordered them. George's factory in Pittsfield couldn't keep up. He had to sell out to American Chain Company of Bridgewater, Connecticut. The demand was too great.

Now, let's stop a minute and consider this.

Have you ever seen a chain overshoe?

I haven’t, either. And I live in Massachusetts, the home of Kinnell's overshoe. I go to a lot of antique stores, auctions, and flea markets. I love to poke around the Berkshires, where Pittsfield is located. I've never seen a chain.
I've never seen one on eBay. I've never seen one in a horseshoe history exhibit. Perhaps I haven't looking for them.

But where did they all go?

Chain overshoes were famous and useful and in use briefly, but their use coincided with the time when the horse was fading from the city scene not because it wasn’t useful but because it couldn’t work on slick pavement and because the automobile had better salesmen working for it. It was that simple.

Had the city been zoned with more hoof-friendly routes that left cobblestones undisturbed, things might have been different.

Tire chains would make the difference, in the traction department, for an automobile. Its wheels go round and round. They have momentum as they turn. Tires function best with the least possible friction.

A horse’s legs are not wheels. The hoof wants to push off against the ground. It needs some resistance. Clunky cobblestones and calked shoes had worked very well, but smooth pavement would require an abrasive hoof surface to prevent slipping, whether pushing off or landing, and borium wasn’t around yet, or hadn’t been applied to shoe surfaces.

winter traction city street horses
When American Chain Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut purchased George Kinnell's product and started manufacturing it, the company made an obvious effort to reposition the product as farrier-friendly. This is one page of a two-page ad in a 1920 edition of Blacksmith and Wheelwright--the same journal that had given the product such a lukewarm review when it was awarded the ASPCA prize

An editorial statement appeared in the journal Blacksmith and Wheelwright, commenting on the ASPCA awarding its prize to the Massachusetts veterinarian:

“Possibly the award may have been merited but nothing yet devised under the sun will prevent a horse from slipping on a smooth macadam paved street, because no matter how good a calk or holding projection may be fastened to the hoof, it will be of little benefit if it has nothing to hold to. It is true that some kinds of material have more friction than others, as for instance rope (does), or any surface of a loose composition that wears unevenly, but even smooth rubber will slip on a smooth surface.

“Sharp calks will prevent horses from slipping on snow or ice because the calks cut into it and thus furnish a hold for the foot, but they are not of much use on smooth pavements where the horse is obliged to pull a heavy load.

“The only device that will prevent a draft horse from slipping on smooth or icy pavements is something of very large surface made of rope, rubber, leather, or some other friction material. But of course a surface large enough to give the necessary holding equality would be so large as to be awkward if not absolutely dangerous to the horse.
“Rubber hoof pads and rope inserts are the best anti-slipping devices yet invented for smooth city streets. They wear out quickly and are not easily put on or taken off, but nothing has thus far been made that will take their place.”

George Kinnell even sold his hoof chain overshoes in saddle shops, like this one in St. Louis. Notice that they are called snow shoes, although they are more like a bracelet, not a shoe at all. (Missouri Historical Society photo)

There was something else that the horseshoers didn’t like about the overshoes. There’s a hint of it in the review: the horsemen seemed enamored of the ease with which they could put it on and take it off...themselves. Without any help from a horseshoer.

But even more important was that the Kinnell chain overshoe was sold at hardware stores, not through horseshoers. You won’t see George Kinnell run an ad for his overshoes in the Horseshoers Journal. It was unheard of to sell a hoof product directly to the horse owner or teamster without going through a master horseshoer.

This was just the beginning. In the years to come, the horseshoeing industry would be ripped apart by its protectionist policies. The masters would have to stand and face the United States Supreme Court on charges of monopolizing products by refusing to allow horsemen to purchase them from the manufacturers' agents.

George Kinnell’s overshoe was the shot fired across the bow, the beginning of a war over the hoof: who owned it, who could buy and sell it? Drowned out in the shouting was the most important question: will anything really keep the horse safe on smooth pavement in winter?

To learn more:

 Please read the previous entries in this series (most recent at top):

3. Traction History: Non-Skid Overshoes Were the Humane Society's Gift to the Horses of New York City
Related articles:
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