The Development of the Working Horse in Scotland

MFC Paper 24 by Lesley R Joughin 1978

Modern horses have a long and involved history from the days when they were small shaggy animals first hunted then tamed by mid-Asiatic nomads. After dogs had been domesticated and put to herd and protect flocks, horses were used for greater mobility in stock farming as well as for food and porterage. Early in their migration across Europe and North Africa, they divided broadly into two main streams, the Cold Northern and the Hot Southern, which continually met and interbred giving rise to many intermediate breeds. Roughly speaking, the Cold Northern type (characterised by power for size, tolerance to cold climates and a tendency to a convex profile) are the ancestors of the Great Horse of Europe and of the original British ponies from different combinations of which with the Hot Southern Arab breeds descend modern breeds of British ponies and horses.

It is not known how distinctive breeds were by the time Britain became separated from the rest of Europe about 8000 years ago, but there are many historical references to the tough agile ponies, about 44-48 inches high, which pulled the British war chariots at the time of the Roman invasions. It seems reasonable to suppose that the native ponies of Scotland at that time were no bigger than those bred on the lusher pastures of southern England. The modern highland pony or garron is thought to derive from Percheron stallions presented by Louis XII of France to James IV for crossing with pony mares to improve the size of the Scottish horse in general.

The shetland pony has the highest strength to size ratio of any breed in the world. From its similarity to the Icelandic ponies, Shetlands may well have a common Scandinavian origin. Modern Icelandic ponies are pure bred descendants of animals brought to Iceland by the original Norse settlers from the 9th.Century AD It is thought by some that as early as the 6th. Century AD there were ponies at least in Orkney where the later Norse invaders named the mainland Hrossey or Horse Island. The Shetland and Icelandic are among the purest breeds in the world having had no recorded outcrossing in historical times.

Early Brythonic Celts expressed their wealth in cattle but at least as early as the 6th century AD horses in Britain were valued more highly and sometimes wore elaborate ornamental trappings. A good horse suitable to be presented to a monastery was worth from 3 to 5 cows. Gradually strains of grasses and other fodder crops on which to feed all stock were improved and agricultural implements and the means by which animals could be yoked to them were invented. Lack of methods of preserving fodder and rudimentary winter shelter kept all farm animals stunted in size but ensured that only the toughest survived. With the invention of the ploughshare and a kind of sledge, oxen, probably in Britain Bos Longifrons, the Celtic Longhorn were used for draught, while the lighter more active ponies were still kept largely as pack animals.

In Roman times there must have been considerable interbreeding between the native ponies and the Arab type horses brought by the Romans, to their mutual benefit.

It is curious that the horse has inspired many more portraits than any other animal and it is possible to speculate that the horse depicted on the so called Pictish Stone at Inverurie is at least partly of Hot Southern breeding; vide the arched neck, concave face and high tail carriage. It could have been either captured or gifted and if so would have been greatly admired for its superior speed and size. The Romans also introduced shoeing which greatly extended the use which could be made of horses.

The Saxons further improved British breeds by importing horses from, among other places, Spain but they were not generally ridden until the practice was introduced by the Norseman. In agriculture the first mention of horse and ox being yoked to the plough together is in the 12th. century. With many ups and downs of poor seasons and years of plague both animal and human, with gradual development of improved methods of agriculture producing better fertility and crops, parallel with the invention of more efficient implements, harness and carts, the Middle Ages passed into modern times with urban growth demanding improvements in food supply and distribution. Steadings for shelter and the preservation of winter keep enabled farmers to keep their beasts in better condition and to carry out winter and spring work more readily and economically. With the invention of the modern horse collar, the horse could put its full strength to draught work where previously it had half choked on a breast girth.

Meanwhile in Europe there had been evolving, largely in Flanders, the Great Horse of Europe which, crossed with the more active Neapolitan breed, eventually made possible the heavy cavalry horse of the Middle Ages, which was used between battles for draught and agricultural purposes and from which descend the cart-horses characteristic of the different regions of Britain. In the mid 18th. century farmers in Lanarkshire then known as Clydesdale imported a new selection of heavy Flemish stallions to breed to their local mares which were not unlike the modern Highland ponies, though coarser. The result soon became popular all over Scotland and the north east of England. The Clydesdale developed into a powerful handsome horse of greater activity though rather less weight than the English Shire and with exceptionally hard wearing legs and feet. Great care was taken to produce horses with legs well planted under shoulders and pelvis to give greater leverage and which lifted their feet cleanly, not scuffling over rough ground.

The Clydesdale Horse Society was founded in 1877 and their first stud book had an entry of over a thousand stallions — an indication of their great popularity both on farms and for street work, where a good horse could pull 2.5—3 tons on level ground. If not first used too young, a working life of ten to twelve years could be expected, and the average Clydesdale would then still be fit for a few years lighter work.

One of the most influential early stallions was Glancer from whom descended Broomfield Champion known as the Aberdeen Champion who left a lasting impression on the breed in the North East. Later a system was established whereby selection committees from all over Scotland met annually at the Glasgow Stallion Show to select stallions to travel their districts thus ensuring the effective distribution of good sires, while the publication of the Annual Stud Book from 1878 also ensured the purity of the breed and contributed to its continuing improvement.

Great and famous individuals are too numerous to chronicle but mention should be made of DUNURE FOOTPRINT considered by many horse enthusiasts to be the all time outstanding specimen of all heavy horse breeds. Foaled in 1908 he won every possible prize and was in greater demand than any other sire before or since even at a then record service fee. Luckily for his many admirers he was well up to the task and left an impressive number of high class sons and daughters. In modern times, of course, the tractor and lorry have almost entirely ousted the heavy horse, but there are still enthusiasts. Some breed Clydesdales to take to shows as a hobby and sometimes to export, often to Canada where they can command high prices. Some believe a horse can be more economical for some agricultural and urban jobs, though continuous, economical agricultural use is difficult to achieve round the year. At least the horse requires no oil and breeds its own replacements, but shortage of farriers, saddlers, loriners and other craftsmen is an extra difficulty. However admirers of these splendid animals can be — and are — optimistic about their continuing existence.

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