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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Why They Run: The Hoof of Fire Horse Number 12

In all the excitement about this Saturday's Kentucky Derby, this little history lesson on one horse's heroic run to the finish seems appropriate to share. 

Not all running by horses is done on the racetrack. It's not always done for prize money or glory in front of a cheering crowd. Sometimes horses run because they know that is what they are supposed to do. 

And that's exactly what Horse Number 12 did.

This article is republished courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

--Fran Jurga

In the early morning hours of March 30, 1890, in Washington, D.C., the collision of two horse-drawn fire wagons racing to answer an alarm seemed a minor matter. The vehicles—a hose cart and a heavy steam engine—continued on their way to the fire.

As they raced across town, the driver of the hose cart noticed that one of his two-horse team, Horse No. 12, limped somewhat. When they arrived at the scene of the alarm, the horse pulled up lame. 

The driver made a shocking discovery. The animal had lost its left rear foot, apparently run over and cut off in the collision with the heavy engine. 

The beast had galloped to the fire—nearly a mile—on its stump. 

Through the tears of attending fire fighters and policemen, it was quickly put down with a shot.

Catalog card for horse hoof, typed and handwritten text
Catalog card, horse hoof, United States National Museum

No one had ever known such an animal as Horse No. 12—conditioned by the chaos of the city's emergencies that in this instance was his last. In an era in which horses and horse-drawn vehicles predominated in daily life, the newspapers noted that the "equine hero" had "performed a service that was perhaps never before equaled." 

The story went viral. Such was the outpouring of affection for the beast that one reader in Indiana suggested that the city's authorities might have saved it with a bandage and retired it to pasture—contrary to practice at the time.

Horse hoof
Number 12's shoe, hoof and what appears might be his distal limb up to the pastern joint were found a mile from the fire. His foot was probably run over by the other wagon or a horse. (Gift  to the museum by the District of Columbia Fire Department, 1902. Photo by Richard W. Strauss.)

Cauterized and preserved with a coat of shiny black enamel, the hoof of Horse No. 12 lived on as a memorial in the District of Columbia Fire Department. The Smithsonian exhibited the hoof as a loan, and later accepted it as a gift through the department’s chief engineer, R. W. Dutton. 

Its placement in the National Museum, Dutton hoped, would "perpetuate the memory of an animal whose bravery and devotion to duty placed him high upon the department roll of honor."

William L. Bird has also blogged about pocket-sized souvenirs in the collection. Other souvenirs, keepsakes, and relics in the museum's collection (although not this particular hoof) are on display in the Smithsonian Castle in the exhibition Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios

Sources for this post include correspondence from R. W. Dutton to Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley from the object's accession file (#39400) as well as two Washington Post articles. "A Pipe Found Beside Him" was published in the Washington Post on March 30, 1890. "Killing of an Equine Hero" was published on April 9, 1890.

The Hoof Blog would like to thank the Smithsonian Institute and the Smithsonian's "O Say Can You See: Stories from the National Museum of American History" website for allowing this article to be shared with you and a special thanks to Facebook friend Colleen Cain for linking to it in the first place. 

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing; Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is the news service for Hoofcare and Lameness Publishing. 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 headlines-link email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to  
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