by Jonathan Hopkins
Veterinary surgeons – don’t you just love ’em?
My gripe with horse vets is that when you call them out they always ask what the problem is. So you tell them, they look at the horse, agree with you, and when the bill arrives they’ve charged you for their diagnosis!!
But - in the small hours of a wet and windy winter morning and you have a colicky horse you can’t do anything for? That’s when you really appreciate them; when you’re eternally grateful most still abide by Siegfried Farnon’s famous assertion to James Herriot in that author’s semi-autobiographical series of books - ‘You must attend.’
Where would we be without our vets, eh? Probably still reliant on farriers, or reaching further back the village healers, ‘wise women’ herbalists. But they treated man and animal alike, whereas a farrier really only treated horses. Frankly, horses were that important.
In fact the term ‘farrier’ has obscure origins in this context (it’s generally believed to derive from the Latin for ‘ironworker’) because, up until fairly recently, a smith shod horses while a farrier was a horse doctor. ‘Farrier’ didn’t become synonymous with shoeing until the 18th century. Work that one out.
As in most trades, farriers served an apprenticeship, but with few standard medicinal or surgical treatments for any specific disease there must have been a wide variety of skill levels. The problems this could cause were recognised as early as the 12th century, when the mayor and aldermen of London approved the formation of the Marshals of the City of London, with powers to inspect the work of farriers operating in and around the capital. (Did you know 'Marshall' comes from the original Frankish for 'horse-servant'? Nor me).
Unfortunately the Great Fire disrupted many livery companies to such an extent that in 1674 a new charter was granted by Charles II to the Brotherhood of Farryers within our Citties of London and Westminster, an organisation which eventually became today’s Worshipful Company of Farriers, the UK training and licensing body (together with the Farrier’s Registration Council) for Registered Shoeing Smiths.
A lot was known about horse anatomy by the 18th century, yet despite George Stubbs sensational series of etchings based on his dissections and published originally in 1766, there was still no real scientific approach to the treatment of their ailments, at least in the UK.
The very first veterinary college had been founded in Lyon, France in 1761 and one of its graduates, Charles Vial de St. Bel, hit upon the idea of opening a similar institution in Britain. On a visit to England he was fortunate to meet up with Granville Penn, great-grandson of Admiral Sir William Penn (and thus related to the founder of Pennsylvania) who had the same idea and managed to raise funding where St. Bel had failed. As a result the Veterinary College, London eventually opened its doors to students in 1792, with St. Bel at its head.
A veterinary school was particularly good news for the army which was desperate to reduce losses of expensive horseflesh on campaign. So in 1796 cavalry and artillery colonels were ordered to employ a graduate in each regiment as ‘Veterinary Surgeon’ (to differentiate him from the Regimental Surgeon), the first time such a designation was used.
How existing army farriers felt about this usurpation of their responsibility isn’t known - perhaps that’s when they began to take an interest in horseshoes, or maybe such duty was foisted upon them. They’d have certainly felt aggrieved that as a Warrant Officer, in 1806 the Veterinary Surgeon was paid 8 shillings a day (rising to 10 shillings after 3 years service) compared to a Farrier and Smith’s rate of 3 shillings and fourpence, three-farthings. But employing qualified vets helped to begin standardising treatments for certain animal ailments, and, as had been found with surgeons, dealing with battlefield and campaign casualties helped push the boundaries of veterinary knowledge.
One of the biggest problems farriers and vets faced was the increase in incidence of infectious disease. As urban populations grew, so did the number and size of livery and haulage yards to service them. A burgeoning equine population, together with the generally insanitary conditions of the time produced ideal breeding grounds for bacterial and viral infections when these ailments were not understood as such.
Probably the nastiest of these, and the one appearing most frequently in novels, is Glanders which, according to Clater (ii) has ‘baffled the farrier more than any other to which this useful animal is liable.’ In fact this bacterial infection producing lesions and ulcers in the respiratory tract was known to pass from animal to animal (though the mechanism of transmission was not understood), so suspected cases were usually destroyed as swiftly as possible. Despite this, Clater proposes treatments to an isolated horse, by balling, drenching, injection or anointing, including such gems as a ‘Nitrous Acid Drink’
Let one ounce of nitrous acid be mixed in three pints of water and sweetened with four ounces of treacle – To be given to the horse (as a drench) once a day or…as may be thought proper…
Yes, we might laugh today, but at least he was trying – Lowson’s (iii) advice on the subject was an unequivocal ‘shoot it’. And it might surprise you to know that even though, through our use of antibiotics, glanders has been eradicated from most western nations, it’s still endemic in parts of Africa, Asia the Middle East and South America.
Another novelist’s favourite, The Farcy is a disease I’d never heard of before reading old farriery books. Lawson (i) says ‘Clater, and other ignorant farriers, erroneously suppose that this disease is seated in the veins!’ Nice, huh? He also says ‘This disease may be brought on by the same causes which produce the Mange’ so he wasn’t as clever as he obviously thought!
They were both wrong - it’s actually the same disease as Glanders, but appears in different parts of the body. Clater also says ‘The farcy and the glanders appear to originate from the same source’ so he was on the right track. As a direct comparison, Strangles is still fairly common in the UK today, a highly contagious bacterial disease causing lesions in the lymph glands around the lower jaw and throat. This can also appear elsewhere in the body, but since we know it’s the same organism the variation is called Bastard Strangles to differentiate.
These diseases were serious, and for farriers or vets of the time just about incurable. But plenty of others were treatable - wounds, strains and sprains, surfeits (you’ll have to look that one up!) most colics, foot abcesses, fistulous withers, colds, worms, spavins, and ringbones, to name but a few.
So what about Mallenders and Sallenders?
Mallenders was scurfing to the skin of the foreleg, at the back of the knee and down the tendon; Sallenders was scurfing to the skin of the hindleg at the front of the hock and down the shin. Nasty, itchy complaints. Difficult and expensive to treat, according to period farriers and vets.
In fact the pathology of both these ‘diseases’ proved to be perfectly normal or completely benign: they weren’t real ailments at all!
That’s horses for you. And vets ;)
(i) A Lawson: The Modern Farrier (1820)
(ii) Francis Clater: Everyman His Own Farrier (Original 1783. This edition revised 1861 by D McTaggart MRCVS)
(iii) George Lowson: The Complete Modern Farrier (1848)
Jonathan Hopkins is a saddle fitter and horseman with a keen interest in the cavalry who fought for Wellington and Napoleon. He is the author of two novels, Walls of Jericho and Leopardkill (due out in 2013), both set in Spain during the Peninsular Wars.
His author site is www.cavalrytales.co.uk and he writes occasional articles on period horsemen at Cavalrytales Blog