Having recently been lent an original copy of the ‘Treatise on the Diseases of Horses’ written by William Gibson, Surgeon, in 1751, it has been interesting to compare horse lore then to now. This article looks at one of the early chapters.

Written in the old English manner with ‘f’s instead of ‘s’, it does not make easy reading, but it is fascinating, not least in the fact that little seems to have changed in the last 300 years of our relationship with horses. The chapter on ‘Such Faults and Defect as ought chiefly to be avoided in buying of Horses’ does not read very differently to the advice to be found in any horse magazine or book today!

The author opens with the statement ‘I believe most of those who have had any great dealing in horses will readily agree to this, that few things in common life are more difficult than the buying of a horse well, and I have know many who have boasted of their skill and dexterity that way, and made greater pretence than others in the knowledge of horses, very much deceived’. Ah, well, yes – still very true today, though more poetically put perhaps.

Gibson says that long experience and good taste regulated with some judgement is necessary when buying a horse, ‘otherwise a man is like to make but an indifferent choice’.

Of course, 300 years ago buying a horse must have been more like buying like buying a second hand car today. A horse was a necessity if you wanted to get around, plough your farm or carry your goods. It was not the luxury it is nowadays, and a hobby, but the only mode of transport and a way of life. Today many mistakes are made when purchasing horses, but imagine how much worse it would have been when your livelihood depended on it!

Gibson says that there is so much advice that could be given that it would fill up a whole volume, and indeed points his readers to other books that were available at the time – that of the Duke of Newcastle for example! To show nothing much changes, today, this type of advice is found in nearly every edition of every horse magazine sold.

Nowadays we advise new owners to try and take a horse for a trial period – Gibson also recommends this, noting that ‘several defects in a horse are of such a nature, that they cannot be easily discovered till a person has had him a short time in his own keeping’. Visible defects, which should automatically be avoided, include specks on his eyes, ‘if he startles or flies off at the sight of common objects, if his feet are so plainly bad as to make him go crippling along, if he heaves at his flanks and coughs: these and many more of suchlike are defects that cannot be hid even from those who perhaps know but little of the horse’.

Unfortunately, this is the one chapter in the book where some pages are missing; however it is interesting to see the order in which Gibson refers to the main points which should be inspected. The first few pages are devoted to examining the eyes, which we don’t talk much about today. This is followed by a discussion about the foot, before he moves onto look more at the form, starting with the shoulder. Unfortunately it is at this point the pages are missing, and from this particular volume we can gain no more advice from 1751.

Much weight is given to the eyes, which can apparently fool even experienced people. Horses apparently should have ‘transparency’ of the eyes, but because of the way they are growing, up until the age of six their eyes can appear better than they really are. It is important therefore to look at the ‘form and manner of the eye, which includes not only the body of the eye, but the eyelids’ and eyebrows. Apparently ‘many good ey’d horses have a heaviness in their countenance with a lowering brow, yet great numbers of this aspect go blind with cataracts when they are about seven years old’.

A tip for examining horses eyes is given ‘Most people in examining a horse’s eyes lead him under a gateway or some shade that they may see perfectly the colour and transparency of the eyes, but the best way is to observe his countenance when he comes first out of a dark stable into a strong light; for if he has any weakness in his eyes he will wrinkle his brow, and look upwards to receive more light’. ‘If the pupil lessons upon his coming out into a strong light it is almost an infallible sign that the eye is good’. Gibson also mentions the link between poor eyes and spooking, or ‘startling’ as it was put 300 years ago, although he dismisses what ‘some suspect that all horses that startle to have bad eyes? for many horses startle merely out of fear’. Although he does ‘imagine not a few [startle] from some defect in vision’. All horses may at some time see something ‘indistinctly’ which causes them to spook, but a horse which spooks frequently when nothing is in front of him might be doing so because of something wrong with his eyes!

Judging a horse from his feet is apparently easier than judging the state of his eyes, but is considered of great importance, as ‘bad feet in a horse is like a horse that has a weak foundation’. He describes the problems which make them more prone than others to lameness or ‘at least makes them unfit for the most common uses, as hunting and travelling’.

It is not enough, according to Gibson, simply to judge the condition of the horse’s feet just by seeing them walking as ‘there are other things to be considered, without which a good horseman may be deceived’.

A ‘thin foot’, where the ‘crust or horn is thin’ can be easily seen when the shoe is removed, but Gibson recognises ‘this trial will seldom be allowed in buying of a horse’, but can be seen by examining where the shoe nails are clenched and riveted. Even strong feet can cause problems if they have been neglected on a long journey, by too much hard riding, ‘especially on dry stony grounds, or when they stand long in a hot dry stable’ as they can go lame and tender, although will have no visible defect. A very hard strong foot is the ‘greatest inconveniency’ as is subject to rifts and fissures.

Narrow heels are another defect described, although ‘some horse’s feet are tolerably good even where the heels are narrow’. Both forefeet too, should be looked at to ensure that they are of equal size, although he says that this can occur from the horse ‘using one leg more than the other as it happens to working men who use the right hand and arm more than the left’. A ‘very high heel is another extreme which greatly lessons the value of a horse’ and is a ’cause of unsteadiness in a horse’s going’ and ‘exposes him often to trip and stumble’. A large foot which is disproportioned to ‘his other parts’ is also to be avoided, and may have damage ‘which not only denotes weakness, but heaviness and inaptitude to any brisk and vigorous action, and therefore unfit for the coach or saddle’.

Gibson does not agree that white feet are generally worse that any other colour, stating ‘I have seen white footed horses have their feet such as the ablest judges could not find fault with’. He continues; when a foot is smooth and tough, of a middle size without wrinkles, neither too hard and brittle nor too soft, and when the heel is firm, open and no ways spongy or rotten, and the frog horny and dry, and the sole somewhat hollow like the inside of a dish or bowl, whatever be the colour, such a foot will for the most part turn out good’. Though he does note that a ‘dark or black hoof where it resembles that of a deer is generally the best’, and that this is the reason people will avoid buying a horse with too many white feet!

Moving to the shoulders, both too heavy or narrow shouldered horses should be avoided. Heavy (by which he means flabby as opposed to muscular), as they cannot move well, and narrow as ‘such horses are generally weak’. Heavy shouldered horses can sever for a wagon or team, but are not fit for saddle or coach.

Although the next few pages of the chapter are missing, it was interesting to have been able to gain an insight into what buying a horse was like 300 years ago, and to see the similarities with today. An important purchase in those days, yet equally as difficult to judge a good horse then as now.

There are many tricks used today, as there probably were 300 years ago, to get the unsuspecting owner to part with their money. Horses can be drugged to appear more docile than they really are, might have been lunged to get rid of their excess energy before you ride, and of course, the seller will probably talk up their good points and avoid making mention of the bad!

Nowadays it is recommended that horses are always subject to a vet’s inspection prior to purchase. The vet will ask what you intend to do with the horse (use for pleasure, jumping, driving etc.), and will judge the horse’s fitness for that purpose, and provide you with a report on his health. The pitfalls that Gibson describes emphasises to the modern novice horse owner just how important the eye of an experienced person in animal husbandry really is!

Contributed By: Trish Haill

Trish Haill is the Webmaster for Limebrook Farm Riding School and Livery Yard. This ever growing website is a great resource for riders and horse lovers everywhere. Check out the site at www.limebrook.com/index.html