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History of Horse Transport

"The earliest known reference to equine transport was a seal impression of a stylized horse in a boat, dating from about 1500 B.C. ( AJ Evans 1905). Scholars have noted that in the 5th century B.C. vessels transporting horses were recorded by Herodotus and Thucydides as part of the Persian expeditions against Greece ( Morrison 1976). "

      "Shipboard transit across the Atlantic took heavy toll of the Spanish conquistadors' horses. In stalls not unlike the twentieth century horsebox/trailer, the Spanish equines were slung, cross tied, and hobbled - devices still recommended for modern surface transport of horses. (Pattie, 1975).

     "Little changed between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. British cavalry horses sent to the Crimea in 1854-6 suffered airless holds, tightly secured heads, and slippery footing. Close confinement and crude disembarkation methods - in which the horses were literally tossed overboard - decimated equine lives ( Compton 1970). Even Lord Cardigan, the notorious Light Brigade commander, with little solicitude for equine welfare, was appalled by the poor condition of the serving cavalry mounts ( Woodham-Smith 1973)


     "There is no convincing record of horses being transported across land before the late eighteenth century. If there were cases unknown to history, it may be assumed that such hoses suffered less that their sea borne brethren. Once surface transport of horses began, it became clear that it offered little of the discomfort associated with pitching, rolling ships, with their slippery and unventilated decks. The first surface horse cans drawn by other horses at a few miles per hour, while obviously confining, were quite airy and were stopped frequently for exercise and fresh provender. These early horse vans, while apparently loaded as modern trailers are with the horses facing the direction of traffic, did not have high speed, quick braking, or most other traffic problems of their present day successors."

     "The first known instance of a horse being shipped by land was the vanning to stud in 1771 of the great British Thoroughbred racer, Eclipse (Lonrigg 1972). Eclipse could not travel under its own power because of the poor condition of its feet, neglected by its half owner, Col Dennis O'Kelly. Because the animal could not walk comfortably, "a carriage was purposely constructed" in which Eclipse rode not only to stud but into history, the earliest recorded occupant of a horse trailer (Lawrence 1830, Willet 1970 ).

     "Nearly forty years passed before the next horse was vanned in 1816. Sovereign, a race horse belonging to John Terret, was conveyed to Newmarket racecourse in a "caravan" previously used to transport bullocks to agricultural shows. It seems to have been Terret's trainer, John Doe (sic), who suggested that the horse be vanned, probably, as in the case of the bullocks - to spare the animal wear and tear of self-propulsion ( Vanplew 1976).

"The caravan for the conveyance of the bullocks was fixed on the axle - tree without springs; but on Doe's recommendation the bottom was removed, and a new one substituted with springs underneath. The inside was also padded, to prevent the horse from being bruised by an accidental jolt. the caravan thus fitted up, was drawn by three strong heavy horses, two at wheel and one in front, after the manner of what is called a "unicorn team"; and it traveled at a rate of forty miles a day, about twice the distance usually performed by a race horse when on a journey (Spirit of the Times 30 June 1838).

     "Another twenty years elapsed before vanning horses became common practice among wealthy horsemen, especially race horse owners anxious to minimize strain upon animals entered in important racing meets. It was again trainer John Doe who advised his latest employer, Lord Litchfied, to van the latter's horse Elis to the Doncaster races in 1836. Elis was stabled so far from Doncaster that Litchfield's colleague, Lord george Bentinck, had wanted to withdraw the horse from the prestigious St. Leger stakes. but the odds against Elis were so high that Litchfield and Bentinck decided to confound the bookmakers by having

The London coachbuilder Herring construct an enormous wagon... It was backed up to a high bank and Elis and another Litchfield horse the Drummer were led in. This amazing vehicle covered 80 miles a day; it got Elis well rested to Doncaster, where he won the big race (Longrigg, 1972).

     "Elis's spectacular showing in the 1836 St. Leger initiated a trend. Such pace setters of the British racing world as Lord Chesterfield, the Marquis of Exeter, and trainer John Day had caravans constructed upon the Doe-Bentinck)Litchfield model, gradually "improve" in response to loading and vanning experiences. The comfort of the horses - at least as interpreted by owners and trainers was emphasized." "Contemporary reports suggested that the horses were not quite so enthusiastic about the vanning experience as their owners and trainers. The timidity of some horses about being loaded and unloaded was frequently remarked upon ( Spirit of the Times, 27 May, 1837).

     "There was also resistance to innovation by conservative horsemen, as powerful in the nineteenth century  as it is today. Old fashioned trainers complained against the "conveyances" in no measured terms, insisting that such an "unnatural mode" of transporting horses was "decidedly injurious to the ticklish constitution of the trained running horse"  (Spirit of the Times 18 May, 1939). 

     "Gradually the objections of critics of vanning were overcome and some early opponents even acknowledged their conversion

There appeared something very uncouth in the van's appearance, something very un English in its use; yet custom has reconciled me to one, and common sense to the other. Traveling on the roads must be injurious to the feet of the racer... to say nothing of collateral considerations. Supposing a nag has one hundred miles to travel, it will occupy four days, during which he cannot receive his food with that systematic regularity which characterizes the proceedings of the training stable while his proper exercise is superseded by leg wear walking on hard and uneven road. The caravan conveyance obviates all this; one hundred miles can thus be accomplished easily in tow days, the horse in a comfortable stable while traveling, with time for exercise at the place where the animal and his cortege happen to stop for the night ( Spirit of the Times 19, October 1839).

Transport by Train 

     "The era of the horsebox was short lived, and its death knell actually had been sounded several years before the epochal vanning of Elis in 1836. Witnesses before the Select Committee of the House of Connons on the London and Birmingham railway Bill testified in 1833 that despite the increased expense, transporting livestock to market by the new railway was more economical than driving them by road. Driving livestock to market, it was claimed, led to footsoreness, fatigue, and weight loss. Animals on the road were a nuisance to other road users were exposed to the vagaries of the weather. Shipment by sea was no better, cattle reaching London from Scotland by steamship appeared "stupefied" and in a state of suffering from fatigue" (Improvement in inland transport, 1834).

    "Until the coming of motor driven vans and horseboxes, horse owners saw the railway as the cheapest, fasted, safest, and most efficient medium of equine transport. It enabled horses, in some instances, to leave home the morning of a race, thus reducing the chances that they might be "nobbled" or "got at" by persons of malign intent."

     "Rail transport of horses was never as safe or comfortable as most horsemen - without seriously studying equine reactions assumed. Loading and unloading remained at least as difficult as with the horse drawn van. it was not unknown for frightened horses to jump clear of their container - horseboxes (Spirit of the Times 26 May, 1853).  During the last quarter of the ninety century, the protection of animals transported by rail became a major concern of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. J. Wortley Axe, one time president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, in 1905 wrote a scathing indictment of existing conditions on railways. Speaking of the common three compartment railway horsebox, Axe (1905) wrote sarcastically that

"every portion of it appears to have been designed with the special object of making the most alarming noises calculated to frighten the inmates. The same description applies with even greater force to the doors, which open upon the platform, or "dook" as it is called. It is too heavy for a man to let down steadily, and the traditions of the railway would be altogether violated if it were not allowed to fall with great violence upon the siding. Everything about a horse box come undone with a jerk and closes with a bang. Some horses absolutely refuse to enter a box of the kind, and much might be done to render them less fearsome to those unaccustomed to travel."

     Axe went on to point out the need for improved methods for tethering horses in boxcars, and for allowing a horse enough room to maintain its balance while in transit. He observer that as long as no scientific study was made of equine safety during rail transit "we may expect accidents to continue, and litigants to press the advantages of one system in order to fix blame on another."

     Entrepreneurs were quick to take advantage of the hazards threatening horses in transit by rail. To save expensive horse blankets from the literal wear and tear of transport, cheaper jute "shipping blankets" were offered. One enterprising purveyor of turf goods patented a flexible rubber head bumper said to be "an absolute protection to horses' heads when shipping" ( Fenton catalog 1893).

Motorized Transport

      The earliest motorized van for conveying horses was apparently designed in 1902 ( Robertson, 1974). It was not until 1912 that horse boxes fitted to internal - combustion motor car chassis began to be mass produced by Vincent Horse Boxes of Reading, England. The Vincent motorized horse box was a three ton motorized horse box - similar to today's horse vans. They were used by the British army in 1914 to transport horses to war The disadvantages and dangers of rail transport of horses began to loom larger than it's benefit. During the 1920's the railway's fought the take over of bloodstock transport by road haulers".

"there was no doubt in the minds of trainers that the advantage of sending their horses by road were inestimable. Train journeys were not only tedious but highly strung Thoroughbreds did not take kindly to being shut up in an often darkened box whilst their train shunted and jerked, rushed noisily through tunnels and was passed by other thundering railroad giants. At least one Derdy winner was only boxed onto his train at the eleventh hour by the brute force of some dozen men, and many trainers complained that their horses arrived on racecourses after long train journeys having lost weight and condition (Seth-Smith, 1972 )

Horse Trailers

     Before automobile motors became more powerful in the late 1950's and early 1960's, most motorized horse transport was accomplished in large trucks and vans. For short trips cars were used to tow small light weight trailers. Trucks backed up to ditch banks or ramps were also used with bed rails. The horse trailer as we know it today has evolved 


Taken from Alleviation Surface Transit Stress on Horse

Sharon Cregier 1980

Full thesis available from University Micrfilms International, Ann Arbor MI OR

Your local public university library interlibrary loan program

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