Quar­ter Horses adapt to a new cen­tury

As the 20th cen­tury dawned, in­fu­sions of Thor­ough­bred blood con­trib­uted to the creation of a new style of short-track racer.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Deb Bennett, PhD

As the 20th cen­tury dawned, in­fu­sions of Thor­ough­bred blood con­trib­uted to the creation of a new style of short-track racer.

The Gay Nineties in Amer­ica were a decade of enor­mous op­ti­mism, when tech­nol­ogy, mech­a­niza­tion and the rise of unions ma­te­ri­ally im­proved the lives of mil­lions of white mid­dle-class wage-earn­ers. Progress came at a cost, how­ever. In­dus­try in this era de­pended for its en­ergy needs largely upon coal; the foggy, smoggy Lon­don in which Sher­lock Holmes sleuthed is an ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion of the real Gay Nineties town in which Arthur Co­nan Doyle lived and worked.

As a new cen­tury dawned, “en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism” was un­heard-of in the in­dus­tri­al­ized West and the con­cept of sus­tain­abil­ity was on no­body’s mind--rather the thrust was to­ward max­i­mum ex­ploita­tion of nat­u­ral re­sources. Yet the long-stand­ing ef­fects of air pol­lu­tion cre­ated by burn­ing coal were pal­pa­ble to me even dur­ing the 1970s when I was a stu­dent worker at the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in New York City and at the Na­tional Mu­seum

of Nat­u­ral His­tory in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., There, in “the na­tion’s at­tic,” I worked with horse bones and fossils col­lected dur­ing the mid to late 19th cen­tury. De­spite be­ing care­fully housed in great mu­se­ums, the spec­i­mens were cov­ered in a gritty, black­ish-gray dust now rarely seen but com­mon in all ur­ban ar­eas be­fore 1945: coal ash mixed with tiny clink­ers.

Taken as they were by the won­ders of coal-fired elec­tric­ity, which in the 1890s be­gan to power ev­ery­thing from home light­ing and tele­phones to steel man­u­fac­ture, few peo­ple fore­saw the im­pact that an­other fos­sil-fuel burner---the gasoline-pow­ered en­gine---would soon have on ev­ery as­pect of life. Ger­man in­ven­tor Carl Benz be­gan sell­ing his Benz Patent Mo­tor­wa­gen in 1888, the first com­mer­cially avail­able au­to­mo­bile. Henry Ford built his first car in 1896 and founded the Ford Mo­tor Com­pany in 1903. Ford’s vi­sion was to man­u­fac­ture ve­hi­cles af­ford­able to the av­er­age

worker. Assem­bly-line pro­duc­tion al­lowed mass man­u­fac­ture in Ford fac­to­ries, so that the price of a Model T went from $850 in 1908 to $360 in 1916, less than the price of a good horse. In 1924, Ford sold two mil­lion Model Ts for $290 each. Com­peti­tors soon fol­lowed suit, in­clud­ing Ran­som E. Olds, the Stude­baker broth­ers and Louis Chevro­let and his part­ners at Gen­eral Mo­tors.

The Model T de­sign, mod­i­fied as the Model B, be­came the first gaso­linepow­ered ma­chine to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate a muddy Mid­west­ern field for spring­time plow­ing and seed­ing. Fit­ted with cleated steel wheels and a tow bar, the noisy, un­re­li­able, smoke-belch­ing, hand-cranked, twocy­cle Ford­son, with its 16-hp en­gine, her­alded the end of the horse-drawn plow, wagon and reaper. John Deere be­came Ford’s ma­jor com­peti­tor in mo­tor­ized farm equip­ment first with the Water­loo Boy tractor and later the Spoker Model D. In­dus­trial mag­nate J.P. Mor­gan ac­quired the McCormick Har­vest­ing Ma­chine Co. in 1902, com­bin­ing it with sev­eral smaller firms to form In­ter­na­tional Har­vester. Dur­ing the 1920s its Far­mall tractor com­peted di­rectly with the Ford­son, but the real losers were all the breeds of draft horses, draft mules and util­ity-grade wagon horses that had pre­vi­ously pow­ered Amer­i­can agri­cul­ture. By the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, the draft horse pop­u­la­tion in Amer­ica had fallen

al­most to zero, so that the mag­nif­i­cent Bel­gians, Shires and Cly­des­dales now seen in pulling com­pe­ti­tions, at state fairs and hitched to the An­heuserBusc­h beer wagon de­scend al­most en­tirely from im­por­ta­tions made af­ter the end of World War II.

Riding horses took a se­vere hit too, their num­bers plum­met­ing along with the gen­eral level of horse­man­ship knowl­edge. For the first time, books on “how to ride, han­dle and train” were writ­ten for peo­ple who had grown up riding bi­cy­cles and whose early ex­pe­ri­ence of “glid­ing” on wheels made it dif­fi­cult for them to get the nec­es­sary feel of the horse’s in­di­vid­u­ally step­ping feet. As horse-drawn de­liv­ery wag­ons for such com­modi­ties as ice, milk and news­pa­pers faded from sight, home­own­ers in towns across Amer­ica con­verted sta­bles to garages. The horse trailer was in­vented, en­abling breed­ers to in­crease a stal­lion’s “book” by haul­ing him in a wide cir­cuit from farm to farm dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son, in­stead of wait­ing for mares to be rid­den in or shipped by rail.

For a time, in­con­gru­ous interactio­ns be­tween horses and au­to­mo­biles seemed en­ter­tain­ing: Cir­cus acts were cre­ated with clown-cars hu­mor­ously de­rid­ing the rat­tle­trap, back­fir­ing, smelly auto; pho­tos of horses pulling dis­abled ve­hi­cles were pub­lished in news­pa­pers with “it’ll never fly, Orville” cap­tions, and races were staged at county fairs be­tween horses and cars (the horse in­evitably win­ning at dis­tances of less than one mile). Ital­ian cavalry of­fi­cer Fed­erico Caprilli’s new and ef­fec­tive “for­ward seat” was widely pop­u­lar­ized in news­reels show­ing horses jump­ing over sa­loon cars, a spec­tac­u­lar form of advertisem­ent that did much to con­vert Eu­ro­pean and Amer­i­can cavalry gen­er­als, who at first were highly skep­ti­cal of the new tech­nique.

Thor­ough­bred rac­ing was one of the few con­texts that re­mained largely im­mune to the changes brought about by the au­to­mo­bile. Dur­ing the early decades of the 20th cen­tury, it con­tin­ued un­abated at ma­jor venues in Amer­ica. Avail­able races re­mained nu­mer­ous, purses were gen­er­ally high, and we had our first Triple Crown win­ner---Sir Barton---in 1919. The great Man o’ War did not com­pete in the Ken­tucky Derby in 1920 but won both the Preak­ness and Belmont that year while also out­pac­ing Sir Barton in a fa­mous match race. Af­ter Man o’ War’s spec­tac­u­lar 100-length win in the 1920 1 5/8thsmile Lawrence Re­al­iza­tion Stakes--essen­tially an ex­hi­bi­tion in which the

The horse trailer en­abled breed­ers to in­crease a stal­lion’s “book” by haul­ing him from farm to farm dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son.

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