Horse Power, Hurray?

Watch out for the bump in the road!
Watch out for the bump in the road!

To everyone driving today in your car feeling incredibly guilty for destroying the environment, let’s get some perspective. The automobile was once rightly hailed as an environmental savior. I think most horses if they could talk would agree. In movies the horse drawn carriage looks pretty romantic, but imagine living in a city with a burgeoning population in the 19th century.

The roads were choked with horse traffic and urine and manure and flies and carcasses–in summer. In many cases it was deemed easier to let the body of the often overworked and sickly horse rot a little before coming in, chopping it up and moving out of the road to some dump. Imagine walking by in your pretty clothes.

Speaking of dumps, people back them weren’t as ignorant as we like to think (or as smart). The farmers early in the century were happy to pay for soil enriching manure, but as time went on and the influx of immigrants rose, more horses and more manure meant a glut on the market. By century’s end cities couldn’t give the crap away–especially in summer when farmers needed to be on their land so mountains of manure rose to epic heights on city lots. And lovely little flies formed clouds of swarming disease.

Insurance companies penalize young male drivers nowadays for being a little reckless–add to that a spooked horse, or a horse who’s slipped on cobblestone or a horse on its last leg. Financially it made more sense to work fewer horses to the bone and replace them when they dropped dead than to house more horses in a city where real estate was at a premium. We think cars kill. But not as much as horses killed.

I worked on a horse-powered organic farm for a summer and watched in dismay a man who’d been with horses for years lose control of a team of his horses at a summer fair crowded with young kids. I watched as this same man trained another guy to cut hay in the old way–again another near-death experience. This good intentioned man kept the horses on pasture when he was in a hurry because while it looked beautiful to see the chunky, powerful work horses loping along, it just took too long to get things done.

Do horses cause global warming or cooling? Do cars? Does the sun cause global warming? Maybe cows and people eating hamburgers–or maybe it’s all a big set up; a morality play with an ever shifting backdrop of problems and solutions and new problems.

Read all the details here in a great paper about horse power in the 19th century

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