Friday 19 November 2010

Public transportation 3: Horse Power

Horses and carriages clop past my Dublin office every day, and while they are mostly for tourists, a few country folk still drive them around our land. They are almost unknown across much of the Western World these days; even here they are rare enough that children point and wave when a horse goes by. A hundred years ago they might have shrugged at the ubiquitous presence of horses and run shrieking towards an automobile, and it’s possible their great-grandchildren might do the same a century from now.

When I mention the possibility of using horses in the future, mainstream folk tend to burst into … well, horse laughter. That will never be necessary, they tell me – we will just invent fusion, build electric cars, use bio-fuels as easily as we do petrol now, or create something new. Doomer blogs and forums, on the other hand, sometimes mention a return to horses, as does the odd post-apocalyptic film or novel – but too often as a defeated post-collapse fate, like moving back with your parents. Too often people in both camps treat horses as abstractions, with no sense of the work or limits involved.

Horses would be difficult to introduce into today’s traffic in most Western nations; although town and suburban drivers could get used to them as Dublin drivers do, and eventually there might be more need for horses and fewer cars. Certainly they wouldn’t be our first choice for transport of any kind; rather, governments and communities should invest in trains and streetcars, preferably electrified and powered by miles of solar panels and windmills. They could keep buses running through several methods I have mentioned – using unwanted vehicles, packing them tightly with passengers, driving more slowly, growing bio-fuels and so on. Together we could continue to move people to jobs, families, hospitals and allotments, and move dry goods across the world. All these things could happen, and we should push for them.

But let’s say, just for a moment, that they don’t. Let’s say your city doesn’t build a streetcar, that your county doesn’t double or treble the number of buses, that your national government doesn’t build new train tracks. Or let’s say these things don’t last; at some point fossil fuels will be gone, the materials and machines they created broken or corroded. If that happens we will still possess the original horse-power we had for 6,000 years – but we would need to re-learn what they can and cannot do.

The good news is that horse-drawn cars worked, not just for ancient chariots or Conestogas but for mass urban transit into the 20th century. For a hundred years, from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, Europe and America had cities of at least a million people that ran on a massive, sophisticated network of carriages and streetcars. By 1880, according to historian John H. White, Jr., US cities had 415 horse-drawn railways running, with 18,000 cars on 3,000 miles of track, carrying 1.2 billion passengers a year. Most of these lines continued decades into the age of electricity and coal, simply because the horses worked better than any other option.

Horses have several obvious advantages over cars; they require no fossil fuel imports and contribute nothing to climate change beyond the occasional burst of methane. They are not the fastest transportation option, but neither are cars in city traffic – and in a crisis, slow movement is better than none. They can mow lawns and parks for us, although they need far more food than what our urban areas could offer.

They generate rich organic fertilizer for suburban homeowners who want to grow their own food but have thin, housing-development soil. They build more of themselves in a way that diesel engines, when left together, do not, and their children can be trained and ready to work in a few years.

Of course, horses bring massive problems with them, and if we ever consider bringing them back for transportation use, we need to become familiar with their limits again. For one thing, they have the same problems we do with extreme temperatures, and refuse to work in heat waves or blizzards. Disease can also lay them up – during an epidemic of horse flu in 1872, White wrote, “American commerce nearly came to a halt,” and companies resorted to teams of oxen or humans to pull streetcars through cities. He noted that some cities used mules, which worked better in hot weather, but of course could not produce offspring.

For another, horses required a great deal of feeding; according to historian J.R. McNeil, each horse required two hectares, enough to feed eight people, so that in 1920 a quarter of American farmland used for oats to feed horses.

Horses also required massive stables in the middle of city neighbourhoods, for they could not walk long distances into town and then walk all day. Nineteenth-century stables, White wrote, had to be two or three stories high to make room for the horses, hay and grain storage, shoeing, harness repair and manure. Food and maintenance of the horses consumed up to 50 percent of the revenues from the business, not even including the cost of paying human workers.

Horses produced 10 to 20 kilos of manure per day, and as tens of thousands walked through any major city every day, the manure was thick on the street, turning into fetid swamps in the rain and noxious dust in dry spells. Historians Joel Tarr and Clay McShane write that the omnipresent manure caused widespread typhus and other diseases.

Of course, that age had many hygiene problems aside from horses. Pigs were often herded through city streets – almost half a million in Cincinnati alone, according to historian Otto Bettmann – and rubbish piled so high in the streets that old photographs show it in traffic-blocking mounds. Future urban residents might hold their streets to higher standards of hygiene. Manure can be collected in bags under horses, and residents of an area can hire workers to keep streets clean. White even relates the claim of 19th-century city officials that mules could be toilet-trained.

Certainly a horse-and-carriage future would not allow us to live with the conveniences we have become accustomed to today. In a serious crisis, though, even a slow and old-fashioned method of moving people and goods from place to place could save lives.

All this is academic, however, unless at least some small percentage of the populace learns to drive horses. Television action heroes can jump on a horse or wagon, shake the reins and gallop away, but in this world it takes years of training, and there are few teachers. The horses require training for their jobs as well, and few today are.

Such a system would require the return of several professions, in fact, most of them newly rare: smiths to make horseshoes, farriers to put them on the horse, leather-makers and leather-workers to make straps, and horse veterinarians. We would need carpenters who can build vehicles sturdy enough to hold passengers and freight and lightweight enough to be pulled. We would need iron-workers, wheel-wrights, coopers and livery workers. You might not picture call-centre supervisors and telemarketers leaping forward to become farriers and smiths, but as time goes on it might become steadier employment, and there might be fewer of the positions we have now.

Most of all, we would need to increase the number of horses. The USA, for example, has a little more than six million horses not used for racing. At the dawn of the horseless-carriage era, there were 21 million horses in the USA, for a nation with a third of today’s population. To provide services for today’s cities, then, we would need to increase the number of horses at least tenfold – probably many times more than that, for few of the existing horses are the muscular draught breeds.

This, then, is my modest proposal: if you believe that fossil fuels are running short, if you are not certain whether fusion power or a hundred new nuclear plants are around the corner, if your government is not investing in trains or trolleys, if you are sceptical that we can grow enough bio-fuels for a bus system, then I would ask what kinds of transportation you see us using in a few decades, and what you are doing to create that system.

If you have no better ideas, then I would encourage you to learn some of these skills that were so widespread and fundamental for so long, so that at least a few people in your area have such knowledge and can teach others should it become necessary. I’ll be doing the same – let me know how it goes.


“The Centrality of the Horse to the Nineteenth-Century American City,” Joel Tarr and Clay McShane, The Making of Urban America, NY: SR Publishers, 1997.

“From Horse Power to Horsepower,” Eric Morris, Access, No. 30, Spring 2007.

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, J.R. McNeil, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

The Good Old Days--They Were Terrible!, Otto Bettmann, Random House,1974

“Horsecars: City Transit Before the Age of Electricity,” John H. White, Jr., Walter Havighurst Special Collections.

“Horse Power,” John H. White, Jr., American Heritage Volume 8, issue I, Summer 1992.


David Veale said...

My family and I recently started a farm in Michigan, which we're running primarily with horses. We're near a number of Amish communities which use horses for their buggies (as well as their farming). I decided this summer to purchase a horse and buggy, custom made in one of the nearby buggy shops, so you might say this article is preaching to the choir when I read it. I'm hoping to never purchase another car, and am currently easing into the idea of buggy transportation.

First impressions: Horses will travel about 8 miles/hr. It's about 10 minutes to harness up a single driving horse, and a little less for unharnessing. Travelling much more than 10 miles one way means the horse will start to slow down a bit. Our maximum daily range is about 20 miles each way.

All in all we've had no problems, but horses are often afraid of odd things on the side of the road, like the wind blowing a halloween ghost decoration. Ours hasn't caused any problems, but he's clearly disturbed and will veer away from such things. Some horses are better. The more they get out, the better they get.

Driving a buggy is a bit like being in a car with slightly neurotic driver to whom you can offer suggestions. Generally he goes where you ask, but not necessarily.

We pay about $50 for shoeing every other month, and the horse eats hay and grass grown on our farm. Oats aren't necessary unless he's travelling extensively (we currently drive about 10 miles a week).

Anonymous said...

Here in Pennsylvania I'm half-way through putting up farm fencing on 8 acres of pasture. Plan is to find a team of horses as "the end" nears. (They aren't unusual in our area.) Fortunately, my two of my neighbors grew up drivings teams of horses, so I have some ready consultation available should the need arise. "Lots of work", they both told me.

Now if I could just find an anvil at a reasonable price!

Ronald Langereis said...

Hi Brian,
I don't suppose I'll live to see horse traction returning to our streets in Amsterdam. In my early youth, the decade after WWII, our municipal transport system was still using horse power, not for the streetcars themselves, but for the heavylifting and transport of rails. It took two big horses and two 'mallejans' [lit. transl. 'odd jacks'] with two rails suspended between them. I found pictures of the contraption here:

Unknown said...

To David: horses are not afraid of being hurt, they are afraid of being eaten - because they are prey animals. They can see movement three miles away - so when they seem to spooking at "nothing" - it should better be described as "nothing the human eye can see". And horses have one main defense - run away. They are not truly equipped with any real way to stop a predator or pack or predators from consuming them. So now, you're a horse, you're trundling along and the predators most likely to eat you tend to jump out of trees or spring up from hiding in long grasses or behind obstacles or such - then something unexpectedly moves on the side of the road. Sound unreasonable from that perspective to spook? Nope not really, it's just good survival strategy. Also horses have no depth perception when it comes to water. So where you can see a tiny trickle of a stream, to them they can't tell it's not a hundred miles deep - also makes sense why they tend to balk at crossing water.

Additionally Brian? I have a friend who is a farrier (shocking, I know :P) and did you know that long term use of horse shoes are bad for horses? In fact many things we do to make horses a "tool" rather than an animal is quite bad for them. I'd really rather not return to the days when "beating a dead horse" was not just a figure of speech...

kjmclark said...

I'm betting mainly on bicycles. I plan to have passed on all my bike-mechanic knowledge to my kids by the time they leave home.

However, if that doesn't work out, my daughter is a quite capable equestrian, even if that's just for saddle horses. She's also planned in the past to be a vet, and she's smart and strong enough to do well at it. My son is mechanically inclined so far, and also smart enough be an engineer or doctor. I think they'll be alright.

We're also in Michigan (hi David!), and also started a small farm, though we're using old mechanized farm equipment at this point. Don't know how things will turn out, but the kids should be ready for anything.

I would love to read about water transportation in Ireland. For that matter, I'm going to have to go back and read the rest of your blog. I looked at a few pages just now, and it's a real delight!

Charles in Texas said...

We now have 6 million horses, we increase 10 fold...60 million. What do you do with 60 million old horses? I know from experice here in TX (where we have a lot of horses). When you can't get rid of the old horses, no body makes young horses and if/when you do, you can't sell them because it cost more to breed and train them than you can get for them.

Suzanne, Kiva Fellow, Graduate Student, and Mom said...

Actually, in Central Europe horses were used quite a bit for farming and transportation until the past five to ten years. Poor agrarian societies must still rely on horses because of their double duty as transportation and providers of fertilizer. It would be interesting to see how efficient the horses worked until modernization. If you'd like more specific facts I can ask my Bosnian friend the logistics of her family sharing a horse with other community members until the early 2000's. :-)

Anonymous said...

Part of the answer to "What do you do with 60 million old horses?" is eat them. People will learn if they have to.

Brian Kaller said...


Thank you very much! I plan to learn myself come spring, and enjoy hearing from someone who can report back from experience. I know how easily startled horses can be -- my six-year-old had her first fall off a horse recently when it shied, and while she’s fine now, it was a lesson learned.

If you don’t mind my asking, how big is your farm, and what do you grow? How much land do you give them? How do you find driving amid auto traffic?


Glad to hear you have neighbours who can show the way. Let me know how it goes, and good luck with the anvil. Do you have experience blacksmithing? I just have a single weekend of training, but would like to do more.

Brian Kaller said...


Good luck with your adventure – it sounds like you’re well on your way. I haven’t mentioned bicycles – of course they are a very effective means of transportation, but they have their limitations.

They can only carry so much freight, for example, and they require rubber or plastic for the tires, pneumatic pumps and many other things. They also become harder to move on gravel roads, and I think we will see fewer paved roads in the years ahead.

I’m glad you like the blog – thank you! I’ve read through yours as well. Our front gate opens onto one of Ireland’s old canals, and we see houseboats pass every day. A little down the road there is a structure for loading barges, and old rails extend from it into the Bog of Allen – horses pulled freight cars loaded with peat from the bog to the canal, where horses would pull barges into Dublin.

I’ll write more about it in the future.

Brian Kaller said...


I hope I don’t grossly offend readers by saying this, but horses are no less edible than cows, which we readily eat. Dogs also need feeding, and pigs are omnivorous. I would never want to see animals treated cruelly, but I can see them humanely culled.


Please do – I’d like to hear more about it.

The Naked Mechanic said...

An interesting proposal Brian.

I am skeptical of biofuel and alcohol crops on a scale required for transportation and working horses are thin on the ground down here, a small town in SE Australia

We will most likely end up with a horse and cart (or bullock and dray) economy and that is not a bad thing as the spacing between country towns here was set by the range of the Cobb and Co coaches mail run, but the infrastructure is no longer there and it will take time to build up; so here is my return proposal to this and your article on Hummers and Booze

Gas producers as a transitional technology.

This article in Lowtech Magazine gives good background on gas producers and their limitations, I'll wait 'till you read it before continuing as it says a lot in a short article ...

I can see this getting us through a few decades while the horse and cart infrastructure is being assembled, arable farmland will be needed for food (for humans AND working animals) while woody biomass can be grown and gathered from more marginal areas.

Restore and modify trucks, tractors and useful vehicles while you can, it will give some work to local businesses and add to community cohesion, a flatbed truck and a mini-bus in each small town would be ideal

Slow revving spark ignition engines (two to four litres) from the seventies and eighties are most suitable as the high tech and high revving modern motors will be near impossible to maintain without a dealer network.

We will run out of bearings, joints, tyres and other spares at some point, but we will have gained valuable breathing space while other arrangements are being tested


Anonymous said...

Horses will not be in wide usage again, unless/until there is a big die-off of humans. If a horse is going to eat, several humans won't. There is only so much sunshine to shine on crops to feed humans and their beasts.

Unknown said...

Dear Brian,

I read your post with much interest.
Like you, I believe that fossil fuels will be running short very soon, and that horses can help with the quandary we will soon be in.
At the Irish Workhorse Association, we do not "treat horses as abstractions, with no sense of the work or limits involved", as all of us have horses, and work them.
We are also acutely aware of the problems of training both horses and people, and some of us currently organise training courses, or take in horses for training.
You might like to look at our website or contact one of us directly for more information about our association.

to Mary. I know very well that putting shoes on horses is bad for them, I am promoting barefoot driving, and my horses are worked (and driven), barefoot.

Christophe Mouze
Secretary Irish Workhorse Association

Brian Kaller said...


Interesting pictures – I wish I could read Dutch as well as, it seems, all Dutch people can speak English. :-)

Was this a historical re-creation?


I think you are exactly right about the reasons for horses’ jumpy behaviour. On a slight tangent, one thing I always found fascinating is that horses evolved in what is now the Americas, where they had to outrun things like three-metre-high bears and Smilodons – but all those species were wiped out when humans first arrived. There used to be many species across the Americas, Eurasia and Africa, and only a few – horse, donkey, zebra – have survived, while only the horse and donkey can be domesticated.

About mistreatment: I discovered in my research that the abuse of streetcar horses led one man to start the ASPCA, and we need to make sure that such abuse does not resurface.

On the other hand, the historian John White commented cynically that horses were the most well-treated of all the components in the system, and wonders why no one started such a society for the human workers.

Brian Kaller said...

Naked Mechanic,

Great to meet you, as it were, and thanks for the link. I love Low-Tech magazine, as you can see looking at my favourites list, and think Kris DeDecker’s articles should be front-page news the world round.

A number of people have written back about bio-fuels – as I mentioned, I understand we can never run our current auto fleet on them, but I allow we might be able to run buses or emergency vehicles. Your link, however, opens up a whole new set of possibilities, and I especially like that you have first-hand experience. I will continue to follow your projects – thank you.


A fair point, but horses can do valuable work to help us grow food, and to help bring it to market – and for themselves, they can eat things like grass that we cannot. I fear greatly that we might extinguish everything except that which produces food for us, and I hope we take a different course.


Keep me posted about your courses -- I might like to take some. Good luck in your new endeavour.

Alana said...

Hi Brian, excellent post. I've thought quite a bit as of late about a return to horses, wondering how it would work here in Southern Ontario. The words 'very awkwardly' came to mind, at least in Toronto and the GTA.

There is a small rural equestrian community about an hour north of Toronto call The Grange, very beautiful and very exclusive. I guess it goes without saying that horses have become synonymous with wealth. Ontario has a thriving horse culture but it seems to be centered largely on Eventing like dressage or jumping or racing. And since horses have ceased to be useful to society in the general ways of years ago, they have been relegated to the 'expensive hobby' category. Most people I know see horses as something to go for a trail ride on or wager on at the track. There would need to be a pretty big paradigm shift for people to consider them in a new (old) way.

I am not sure how many police forces have horses but the Toronto police have had a Mounted Unit for decades. Toronto also has riding stables located mid-town called Sunnybrook Stables although their focus is on riding and dressage. Unless the municipalities here move toward horsepower on a larger scale, I would agree with kjmclark, bikes are what I see most people gravitating toward. But for those in more rural areas and small towns, horses will be more viable sooner, simply because those communities are better equipped.

A couple of years ago I had a dream that I took my horse to work and left it hitched up in the buildings' parking garage beside all the cars. Perhaps the dream was prophetic.

David Veale said...

In regards to the comment about horses competing for food with humans...

I agree with Brian that horses can eat grass, which humans cannot. But there's more to it than that...

Food grown for humans is typically grown on ground which is frequently tilled, exposing all of the important organic matter to the air, thus oxidizing it. This is one of our greatest sources of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, in addition to the fact that it also destroys the productivity of the soil by greatly reducing organic matter. Tillage is bad, no matter how you look at it, but it's a necessary evil. The fact is that you really don't want to till everything.

With that said, tillable ground is not the shortage facing humans and our food sources. A very small amount will feed a lot of people.

When you to till soil for growing crops, you need fertilizer to replace the lost nutrients and organic matter. Manure -- from pasture grazing animals such as horses -- is your best source for this. So by keeping grazing animals, you rejuvenate soils by keeping them in pasture, and you also produce a farmer-directable source of fertility for the soils that you do have to till.

And finally -- horses aren't just for transportation -- they help us grow food directly, as they do on my own farm. Attempting to plow a field by hand will make you appreciate a horse very quickly!

Brian Kaller said...

Knitting Bouvier,

Thank you! I think horses are an expensive hobby many places, but at least there is a horse culture, a place from which an infrastructure could expand. I would love to see you and KJM be right about bicycles – not just because I want people to ride, but because it implies a level of industry I hope we have indefinitely.

I’ll see your dream and raise you mine; an abandoned Sam’s Club store turned into a livery stable. :-)

Charles in Texas said...

Brain -- I agree with you, horses can be eaten just like cattle. The problem is our federal government decided to close those facilities that processed horse meat. What that means is you can't sell a horse for anything close to what it is worth unless it is a high end horse no one can afford because people still have horses that are 20+ years old and have limited use. You certainly aren’t going to be seeing any young work horses out there. Let the government make the rules and I guarantee you it will be a mess.

Camino a Gaia said...

El futuro viaja a lomos de mula.
Un saludo

Nikolay Ivankov said...

Perhaps I am about 7 years to comment on the topic, yet since I'm here, some other people may want to reat the post in the future. I am not a specialist, though being working in agriculture for about 2 years. But just to give you the number: feeding horses is not about what you grow, rather about how much area you need for that. So, to give you a number: in XIX century about a quarter of all area dedicated to agriculture was used to "power" horses (Source: Jurgen Osterhammel, "Metamorphose of the World"). Fields, on which horses just ate grass, counted among them. And this at the times when railroad was available.

Producing just enough food and giving just enough space for horses to power something on the scale of modern public transportation system will take a comparable fraction from people to horses. Or new grounds will be needed - and that means forests. I don't think this is such a good idea.