Although motor cars and buses replaced horse-drawn transport in the Lake District at the end of the First World War within a matter of years, working horses were by no means redundant on the farm or in the woods. A good, solid horse measuring maybe over seventeen hands high might cost about £20 from an auction in Manchester or Liverpool and could pull cartloads of timber the whole day through with just a couple of feeds from a good big 'mouthbag'. In this part, in the last of the present series on animals, "The Way We Were" recalls working horses, how they were bought and sold, worked and cared for.
When buying a horse, age was an important factor and one that the buyer could often only guess at for himself:
"A horse is worth the most and is the fittest for work at five year old. That's the golden age for a horse to be worth the most money - rising five. You might say its developed as much as it ever will really. It will never get any bigger, its usually finished growing about five.
"There's very few people can tell how old they are when they get above eight, they're bad to tell. They can't fiddle their teeth that much at all, they can't alter teeth. When you're buying a horse you've a few things to be careful about. Some can bite, some can kick. There's some nasty horses, you know. There's some what they call broken-winded, touched of the wind. There's click leg, what they call a shiverer as well, string halt; and there's bog-spavin and jack-spavin, that's on the hocks. Thurrapin - that's another fault of the hocks. There's side-bones and splints, them's all faults in horses' legs", one old horseman recalled.
"They can drug 'em, you know. There was a man at Witherslack, dead and gone long ago, and he bought a horse at an auction at Kendal and he came up to Low Wood Farm, that was half a mile from his home. He says, 'By gum, the horse I got yesterday, he's been a dirty beggar that had it - it's never been cleaned. I'se going to have a real good go at it when I git home'. By damn me, he did git his brush and currie comb - and he was damned glad to git out of stall! It worried him with its mouth and kicked him with its damned feet - Oh, he knew why it was dirty then!" The horse,
too unruly to be groomed at all, had been temporarily drugged for the auction just to get rid of it. No wonder horse dealing had the reputation for trickery that it had; there were many ways to conceal the true condition of a horse, or even to make it temporarily lame:
"There was a man at Barrow, carting bricks and sand, and one day this feller says to him, 'Can I have the day off tomorrow?' 'No', he says, 'We're too busy'. So next day he says t'boss, 'Roger's lame.' 'Not fit to work, my horse?' No. He'd thought he'd git the day off then, but boss said he must stop and bathe it with saltpetre and suchlike. It would be a week or two later when he came for a 'sub, for booze you know. He says, 'Can I sub ten bob till weekend?' 'Well', he said, 'If you'll tell me how Roger was lame that day and next day it was alright, I'll give you ten bob.' 'Well', he said, 'I nobbut nobbled it, didn't hurt t'horse... I pulled two or three hairs out of its tail, long hairs, and parted the hair round above its hoof, round its fetlock - and tied the hair. It was lame, but it wasn't lame really.'"
"There's all tricks in all trades. If a horse was a bit flitchy, not sound, they'd tie summat round t'other fetlock and they'd look both alike. If you tie anything round a horse's fetlock it would stamp up, you know, step quick, then both fetlocks look alike and it doesn't look lame. There's all sorts of tricks in horse-dealing."
A 'cold shouldered' horse was also known as a 'stecked-'un':
"It took steck - same as asking you to do a job and you say No, I'm not doing it. So you don't do it, and you've a hell of a job to make them do it. A proper stecked horse, they call them cold shouldered really, they only pull when they think and they can just stop. You can do anything you like but they'll not move. They might stop an hour and a half."
There were drastic measures thought up to move a stecked-'un:
"I've heard of a horse stecking at Witherslack with a potter (tinker) coming round. It was stecked in Stott Wood at Witherslack, and they put a fire underneath its stomach. And do you know, it didn't move, even then. Its skin was taken off before it moved. That horse stopped till they damn near burned its skin off afore it jumped. They used to even lift the tail to put a hot 'tatie under the tail to try and make 'em go when they were a stecked-'un. Aye, a hot 'tatie under the tail, they used to do them jobs."
Horses were used to shift felled timber in woods, and to cart bobbin wood, oak basket material for swills or smarts for hooping gun powder barrels. Because Manchester was a major centre for buying and selling horses, many of the animals had never seen anything other than city cobbles and setts. One heavy old horse astounded its new Lakeland owner by loading a wagon of timber its very first day out of Manchester:
"A big horse called Charlie out of Manchester, it did it next day after it came out of Manchester, loaded a wagon without a man hold if its head. Aye, by gum, marvellous! Seventeen hands three high, that's nearly six foot behind the collar. Imagine how high it was when it got its head up."
A horse like Charlie, harnessed by someone standing on a box, started the working day at four in the morning with a good feed or two, and worked throughout the day with plenty of water and a good mouthbag at lunchtime before evening and a couple more good feeds before sleep. In summer country horses were put out to grass in the evening after their last feed. Work finished early on Saturday , leaving Sunday as a day of rest.
Well fed, well groomed horses never needed clipping, and there were usually six horses in a team, with two men working full time to look after them. Feed a horse hay, and it has to eat all night just to fill itself, rather like doing a hard day's work on dry bread. So a good mouthbag was vital:
"There was crushed oats and chopped hay and straw mixed, and bran beans... very little chop. A good horse could eat one stone of rolled oats a day and more - I should say a stone and a half, working hard, of what we called Mill Feed which was beans, crushed beans, cracked Indy and rolled oats."
Roadside troughs provided the necessary water for horses during the working day and the animals were always fed before the men:
"First thing you did when you got in was to get their gear off them, and then you feed them, and then you go and get your tea, then you come back and feed them again, and then you give them a brush down and then you bed them down but you have to keep offering them water as well.... if you feed them well and clean them and groom them well, they'll have a nice shiny coat, like silk."