is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing Culture, 1800-1920

Author(s):Derry, Margaret E.
Reviewer(s):Blackford, Mansel G.

Published by EH.NET (September 2006)

Margaret E. Derry, Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing Culture, 1800-1920. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. xvii + 302 pp. $60 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8020-9112-1.

Review for EH.NET by Mansel G. Blackford, Department of History, Ohio State University.

An adjunct faculty member in history at the University of Guelph and an associated scholar with the Institute for the History and Philosophy at the University of Toronto, Margaret Derry has written a history of horses in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States emphasizing intersections between ideas and practices in breeding, markets, and usage during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She tells her story in the full contexts of intellectual, cultural, and social changes — and an important story it is, for horses were essential to military, urban, and agricultural life into at least the 1920s. In her first chapter, Derry explains the history of purebred breeding as a prelude to the rest of her book. Part of a more general effort to improve farm livestock, purebred breeding in horses, especially Thoroughbreds in Britain, vacillated between the conflicting ideas of race constancy and possibilities for race improvement. “Allegiance to the genealogical purity found in pedigrees” won out, Derry notes, and this victory, she shows, influenced much of horse breeding well into the twentieth century (p. 17). A North American demand for pedigreed horses reinforced the tendency of the British to produce only such animals from the 1870s and 1880s onward. Following this introductory chapter, Derry divides her book into four additional sections.

In Part 1, Derry devotes separate chapters to the history of the breeding and marketing of light horses, heavy horses (draft horses), and farmers’ horses. Derry stresses the importance of breeding Thoroughbreds in Great Britain — a cross of imported Arabian stallions with local mares dating to the early 1600s — in setting an emphasis on pedigrees as recorded in stud books. In North America, however, the breeding of light horses for saddle, driving, and agricultural use took a somewhat different turn, at least at first — one placing the general “type” or line of a horse above its actual breed or pedigree. The Standardbred, the leading light horse in North America, became known as a breed not on the basis of registered ancestry but on the basis of its ability to maintain a certain, or “standard,” speed at the trot. Other light horse breeds developed in similar ways, but a glut of light horses on the market, brought on in part by technological changes, especially the development of the automobile, temporarily caused a serious decline in breeding light horses about the time of World War I. Such was not the case, however, for heavy horses. Derry shows how urbanization and industrialization greatly increased the demand for heavy horses (they were used much less in farming, where light horses predominated). British Shires and Clydesdales, along with French Percherons, were much in demand in North America; and Derry shows, in particular, how American preferences for purebreds led European horse raisers to adopt purebred breeding practices, sometimes against their wishes — such was the power of the American market. General-purpose farm horses, called “chunks,” were less specialized than heavy horses and were in decline by the 1920s, as automobiles and tractors became increasingly common.

Part 2 examines the international horse market in three chapters, focusing especially on the trade in horses for military purposes. Derry begins with a chapter on the acquisition of remounts for the British army from the Crimean War through the Boer War. There was no doubt that the British government needed an efficient system, as 240,000 head died in the latter conflict alone. The British depended largely on the United States and Canada for remounts, as shown in two additional chapters. Unlike Germany and France, Britain relied on private enterprise and markets — not government-owned breeding programs — for remounts. The United States, again in contrast to Great Britain, developed a government remount program which lasted until 1949 and which, Derry asserts, had a major impact on America’s postwar pleasure-horse industry by stimulating the production of Arabians.

Part 3, composed of three chapters, may be of most interest to business and economic historians. Derry looks in detail at how national governments sought to regulate the breeding and marketing of horses, and how those efforts were related to changing scientific ideas. Beginning with an important British government report in 1890, authorities sought to define diseases and defects in horses. It was then a relatively short step to pass legislation aimed at eliminating them through the regulation of breeding. American states and Canadian provinces did so through the Progressive era, as did the national governments of Ireland and Great Britain — often urged on by purebred breeders and frequently opposed by framers, who viewed the legislation as a form of market control. In a final chapter, dubbed Part 4, Derry looks at a hodge-podge of issues to demonstrate the pervasiveness of horses in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century trans-Atlantic cultures, topics ranging from the development of veterinary science to the painting of pictures about horses.

Derry’s account is valuable on several counts. It should be of considerable interest to scholars. Thoroughly researched in primary and secondary sources, it explores government-business relations in three nations, looks at how changes in scientific ideas did (and did not) affect agricultural practices, and examines the functioning of international markets. Non-scholars may also find parts of this work useful; certainly any horse owner should read this account. In Chapter 8, for example, horse owners will learn with dismay that many of the same diseases and defects identified in the 1890 British report remain to plague horses today, everything from the “heaves” to navicular hoof conditions. Written in accessible prose, this study is graced by relevant, well-reproduced illustrations. A bibliographic essay and endnotes lead readers to additional readings.

Mansel G. Blackford works in the field of business history at Ohio State University. He and his wife own and ride registered paints and quarter horses.

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII