Planes, Trains, Automobiles, Horseboxes And Caravans

Jun 2, 2010 - 4:26 PM
Horses are still transported by boat these days, but shipping standards have greatly improved. Photo by Coree Reuter at the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Ky.

I’ve been writing so much about trailers lately that my brain is constantly revolving around goosenecks, GVWRs and visions of a shiny new truck and trailer.

I couldn’t help but wonder who invented horse trailers in the first place. To discover that, we must go a little further back in time.

Way back in the day, horses were transported by boat. The earliest record came in the form of a seal impressed with a horse in a boat from 1500 B.C. Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides noted in the 5th Century B.C. that the Persians transported horses in boats when they were fighting Greece.

Of course, in the age of exploration, Spanish explorers brought horses across the Atlantic quite frequently, including back to America in the 1500s, but that is another story for another blog. However, the journey wasn’t always kind to the horses. The ship holds had poor ventilation and slippery footing, and since there wasn’t an easy way to bring horses on and off the boats, many were simply tossed overboard upon arrival.

Horses were transported by boat for centuries, and they still travel that way today throughout the world. Obviously, transport standards have significantly improved.

It is believed that the first horse trailers were actually horse-drawn ambulances that fire departments used to get their wounded horses away from accidents.

The first real record of transporting a horse overland came in the form of the great British racehorse, Eclipse. Because Eclipse had bad feet, he could not travel long distances under his own power. In 1771, a special carriage was built just for Eclipse so he could travel to a stud farm for his new career. This trip became the first recorded appearance of a “horse trailer.”

However, it wasn’t until 1836 that transporting horses became a trend rather than a rare occasion. The racehorse Elis lived a fair distance from the Doncaster races in England, so his trainer, John Doe, convinced the horse’s owner to drive him to the track to compete in the St. Leger stakes. Elis performed so spectacularly in the race that famed horse trainers all over Britain began vanning their horses to meets. (Vanning meant the horse was put on a horsebox and hauled by “inferior” horses.)

Of course, there were the usual protests about a new-fangled way of horsemanship. Old school trainers scoffed at the idea, insisting that the act of transport was insulting to the superior workings of a racehorse’s mind.

Even before Elis’ transport in 1836, though, the horsebox was facing its death. In 1833, people testified that moving animals on trains was much more economical than driving them on the road. But traveling by rail was never as safe or easy as many people thought. Horseman still had problems loading and unloading horses, and many horses jumped out of the container in fright.

The conditions of railroad transport fell under the scrutiny of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the last part of the 19th century. J. Wortley Axe pointed out that tethering methods and the size and conditions of the boxes needed to be improved, and he predicted that accidents would continue to happen if research was not conducted.

At this point the concept of protective gear for horses made an appearance. Special shipping blankets were produced, and the first version of head bumpers were created.

Vincent Horseboxes of Reading, England, became the first company to mass-produce motorized horse boxes in 1912, though the actual design was supposedly created in 1902. Vincent’s designs weighed three tons and were used by the British Army in 1914 to transport horses during WWI. Many horses were injured during the war, and more horse ambulances were developed in order to save some of them.

Vincent Horseboxes also built boxes for two British Monarchs, members of the Royal Family, Indian Maharajahs and numerous members of the racing and hunting communities. They produced their last horsebox around 1981. As these horseboxes became more prominent, people realized they were much safer than their railroad counterpart.

Until automobile engines became more powerful in the 1950s and 1960s, large trucks and vans transported most horses. Cars were often used to tow small trailers over short distances, and trucks with bed rails were also utilized.

The horse trailer as we know it today began its development about the late 1950s. Over the decades, the concept has evolved from a crudely put together box on wheels, to sleek, smooth riding luxury trailers designed exactly for the needs of the horses and the people who travel with them.

Of course, many horses travel by plane these days, offering horsemen a time and cost-efficient method of getting their horses from A-to-B.

Now that I’ve been writing so much about horse trailers, I’m a little bit horrified to know that I hauled my horse around with a single axle hunk of junk and a beautiful El Camino. But I guess it could have been worse. I don’t imagine my horse would have liked a boat.

For more information on the history of shipping, check out HappyTrailsTrailers.com.

One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it’s occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: “History was written on the back of a horse,” she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.

 

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