If you are a horse lover or have horses in your background, my new book Horses of the Country: An Homage will entertain, as well as shed light on the vital role of horses in the lives of our ancestors. Grounded in extensive research into rural history, and filled with striking vintage photographs and anecdotes, this book pays homage to strong, hard-working horses – the partners, the rascals, the friends.
Horses have been a life-long love of mine – the look of them, the smell of them, the welcoming nickers, the rocking rhythm of a canter. The first horse that came into my life was pulling a milk wagon on the street at my grandparents’ home in Belleville. Every summer when I visited, I watched for the milkman, followed the horse and wagon down the street, and patted the horse whenever it stopped.
I have been collecting rural history from elderly farming families in eastern Ontario since the mid-1980s. Photograph albums, ancestors’ farm diaries, and so many horse memories were shared around kitchen tables, in old barns, and while walking fields to see log or stone vestiges of farming times past.
Although the majority of Canadians now live far from farms and fields, horses are deeply rooted in our collective psyche, still alive in our conversations. “He’s a dark horse.” “I grew up in a one-horse town.” “It was a real horse race.” Young people may “kick over the traces” when their parents try to keep them on “a tight rein” and parents shake their heads and say, “He’s got the bit between his teeth these days.”
The story of horses in eastern Ontario began slowly. Oxen were the working beasts on pioneer farms and in the 1850s, only one farm in four had a horse. Gradually the oxen were replaced, although on many early farms, teams made up of a horse and a cow were shared between two families to work the fields.
Clydesdales were imported from Scotland in the 1840s, and at first, were used mostly in central Ontario. In the later decades of the 1800s, the farms in eastern Ontario became more prosperous and Clydesdales and Suffolk Punch horses worked hard in the fields. Percherons were first imported in the late 1800s, Belgians in 1902, and as their reputations for strength and versatility grew, so did their popularity.
Horses were everywhere in days past. There were the heavy horses ploughing, moving rocks from fields, cultivating, mowing, haying, reaping grain, and drawing threshing machines. Some farm families had general purpose horses that were used for both the farm work and yet could travel quickly to go to town, church, meetings, and picnics.
There were horses prancing in circus parades, pulling hearses in funeral processions, delivering the rural mail, and pulling steam fire engines at top speed. In towns and villages, horses delivered ice, bread, and milk, while through the countryside, they pulled company wagons with dry goods, organs and pianos, large boxes of tea, wood stoves, and even small fruit trees. Horses also provided the power for sawing, threshing, and well-drilling machines as they walked in circles on a “sweep power.” There were even horses on sweep powers to operate newspaper presses in the last half of the 19th century.
On special occasions, like a neighbourhood sawing or threshing, or a ploughing match, horse-proud farmers had brass ornaments shining on their teams’ harness. Country fair days saw heavy horses trotting proudly into show rings with highly polished harness decorations.
The 1960s saw fewer and ever fewer horses working in fields or pulling sap tanks in maple sugar bushes. The last working horses pulling town refuse drays, and milk and bread delivery wagons, were taken out of service in the early 1960s. Draft-horse clubs are the last bastions of working horses today.
Heavy horses steaming in the fields, light horses trotting to mill or market, blacksmiths, and veterinarians are all in the pages of Horses of the Country An Homage. The book is full of folklore and arcane horse information, such as peddlers buying horsehair for stuffing chairs, buggy and sleigh seats, horse collars, and for packing under the floorboards of dance halls to make springy dancing surfaces.
Recent readers’ memories were jogged, resulting in these two tales that I wish were in the book. A woman remembered that as a youth, she wanted to get to play in her summer evening ball game but had to finish raking a hay field first. Although she knew better, she trotted the horse on the dump rake and a neighbour saw her and told her father, who was “not best pleased with her.” Another woman recounted “My mother told me that as a child she often rode in the buggy with her minister father when he went on visiting calls. She sat on a little bench at the front of the buggy, and she remembered the horse’s tail swishing the back of her head.”
Horses of the Country An Homage was reviewed in the spring 2022 issue of The Wayback Times. This book “delivers on so many levels. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read and chronicles our past in a very effective manner. It would make a worthy addition to anyone’s library. I give this literary gem two hooves up.”
Christmas is coming and if you have a horse person or a horse lover on your Christmas list, they will be treated to a gallop through fields of pioneering and country history that pays tribute to the all the horses that served with their muscles, sinews, hooves, and hearts.
To order a copy of this book that embraces our rural past and gives a glimpse into a page of our Canadian narrative, please visit claudiasmith.ca
By Claudia Smith
Claudia Smith has been collecting horse artifacts and rural history for more than 40 years. She has documented the colour of rural life in eastern Ontario in eight books that include Gypsies, Preachers and Big White Bears ~ One Hundred Years on Country Roads and Barns ~ A Reflection of Changing Times.
For more information about her latest book, Horses of the Country An Homage, visit claudiasmith.ca
[Editor's Note: Who would have thought that attending a summer garden wedding reception would lead me to Claudia Smith and her wonderful book? But, yes, it did. First, I met Ron DeVries, who asked if I had met Claudia, and did I know about her book? Of course, the answer was "no, but how do I do so?" We thank both Ron and Claudia as this is a subject that I know will be of interest to so many islanders. Enjoy.]
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