Horses and carriages clop past my Dublin office every day, and while they are mostly for tourists, a few country folk still drive them around our land. They are almost unknown across much of the Western World these days; even here they are rare enough that children point and wave when a horse goes by. A hundred years ago they might have shrugged at the ubiquitous presence of horses and run shrieking towards an automobile, and it’s possible their great-grandchildren might do the same a century from now.
When I mention the possibility of using horses in the future, mainstream folk tend to burst into … well, horse laughter. That will never be necessary, they tell me – we will just invent fusion, build electric cars, use bio-fuels as easily as we do petrol now, or create something new. Doomer blogs and forums, on the other hand, sometimes mention a return to horses, as does the odd post-apocalyptic film or novel – but too often as a defeated post-collapse fate, like moving back with your parents. Too often people in both camps treat horses as abstractions, with no sense of the work or limits involved.
Horses would be difficult to introduce into today’s traffic in most Western nations; although town and suburban drivers could get used to them as Dublin drivers do, and eventually there might be more need for horses and fewer cars. Certainly they wouldn’t be our first choice for transport of any kind; rather, governments and communities should invest in trains and streetcars, preferably electrified and powered by miles of solar panels and windmills. They could keep buses running through several methods I have mentioned – using unwanted vehicles, packing them tightly with passengers, driving more slowly, growing bio-fuels and so on. Together we could continue to move people to jobs, families, hospitals and allotments, and move dry goods across the world. All these things could happen, and we should push for them.
But let’s say, just for a moment, that they don’t. Let’s say your city doesn’t build a streetcar, that your county doesn’t double or treble the number of buses, that your national government doesn’t build new train tracks. Or let’s say these things don’t last; at some point fossil fuels will be gone, the materials and machines they created broken or corroded. If that happens we will still possess the original horse-power we had for 6,000 years – but we would need to re-learn what they can and cannot do.
The good news is that horse-drawn cars worked, not just for ancient chariots or Conestogas but for mass urban transit into the 20th century. For a hundred years, from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, Europe and America had cities of at least a million people that ran on a massive, sophisticated network of carriages and streetcars. By 1880, according to historian John H. White, Jr., US cities had 415 horse-drawn railways running, with 18,000 cars on 3,000 miles of track, carrying 1.2 billion passengers a year. Most of these lines continued decades into the age of electricity and coal, simply because the horses worked better than any other option.
Horses have several obvious advantages over cars; they require no fossil fuel imports and contribute nothing to climate change beyond the occasional burst of methane. They are not the fastest transportation option, but neither are cars in city traffic – and in a crisis, slow movement is better than none. They can mow lawns and parks for us, although they need far more food than what our urban areas could offer.
They generate rich organic fertilizer for suburban homeowners who want to grow their own food but have thin, housing-development soil. They build more of themselves in a way that diesel engines, when left together, do not, and their children can be trained and ready to work in a few years.
Of course, horses bring massive problems with them, and if we ever consider bringing them back for transportation use, we need to become familiar with their limits again. For one thing, they have the same problems we do with extreme temperatures, and refuse to work in heat waves or blizzards. Disease can also lay them up – during an epidemic of horse flu in 1872, White wrote, “American commerce nearly came to a halt,” and companies resorted to teams of oxen or humans to pull streetcars through cities. He noted that some cities used mules, which worked better in hot weather, but of course could not produce offspring.
For another, horses required a great deal of feeding; according to historian J.R. McNeil, each horse required two hectares, enough to feed eight people, so that in 1920 a quarter of American farmland used for oats to feed horses.
Horses also required massive stables in the middle of city neighbourhoods, for they could not walk long distances into town and then walk all day. Nineteenth-century stables, White wrote, had to be two or three stories high to make room for the horses, hay and grain storage, shoeing, harness repair and manure. Food and maintenance of the horses consumed up to 50 percent of the revenues from the business, not even including the cost of paying human workers.
Horses produced 10 to 20 kilos of manure per day, and as tens of thousands walked through any major city every day, the manure was thick on the street, turning into fetid swamps in the rain and noxious dust in dry spells. Historians Joel Tarr and Clay McShane write that the omnipresent manure caused widespread typhus and other diseases.
Of course, that age had many hygiene problems aside from horses. Pigs were often herded through city streets – almost half a million in Cincinnati alone, according to historian Otto Bettmann – and rubbish piled so high in the streets that old photographs show it in traffic-blocking mounds. Future urban residents might hold their streets to higher standards of hygiene. Manure can be collected in bags under horses, and residents of an area can hire workers to keep streets clean. White even relates the claim of 19th-century city officials that mules could be toilet-trained.
Certainly a horse-and-carriage future would not allow us to live with the conveniences we have become accustomed to today. In a serious crisis, though, even a slow and old-fashioned method of moving people and goods from place to place could save lives.
All this is academic, however, unless at least some small percentage of the populace learns to drive horses. Television action heroes can jump on a horse or wagon, shake the reins and gallop away, but in this world it takes years of training, and there are few teachers. The horses require training for their jobs as well, and few today are.
Such a system would require the return of several professions, in fact, most of them newly rare: smiths to make horseshoes, farriers to put them on the horse, leather-makers and leather-workers to make straps, and horse veterinarians. We would need carpenters who can build vehicles sturdy enough to hold passengers and freight and lightweight enough to be pulled. We would need iron-workers, wheel-wrights, coopers and livery workers. You might not picture call-centre supervisors and telemarketers leaping forward to become farriers and smiths, but as time goes on it might become steadier employment, and there might be fewer of the positions we have now.
Most of all, we would need to increase the number of horses. The USA, for example, has a little more than six million horses not used for racing. At the dawn of the horseless-carriage era, there were 21 million horses in the USA, for a nation with a third of today’s population. To provide services for today’s cities, then, we would need to increase the number of horses at least tenfold – probably many times more than that, for few of the existing horses are the muscular draught breeds.
This, then, is my modest proposal: if you believe that fossil fuels are running short, if you are not certain whether fusion power or a hundred new nuclear plants are around the corner, if your government is not investing in trains or trolleys, if you are sceptical that we can grow enough bio-fuels for a bus system, then I would ask what kinds of transportation you see us using in a few decades, and what you are doing to create that system.
If you have no better ideas, then I would encourage you to learn some of these skills that were so widespread and fundamental for so long, so that at least a few people in your area have such knowledge and can teach others should it become necessary. I’ll be doing the same – let me know how it goes.
“The Centrality of the Horse to the Nineteenth-Century American City,” Joel Tarr and Clay McShane, The Making of Urban America, NY: SR Publishers, 1997.
“From Horse Power to Horsepower,” Eric Morris, Access, No. 30, Spring 2007.
Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, J.R. McNeil, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
The Good Old Days–They Were Terrible!, Otto Bettmann, Random House,1974
“Horsecars: City Transit Before the Age of Electricity,” John H. White, Jr., Walter Havighurst Special Collections.
“Horse Power,” John H. White, Jr., American Heritage Volume 8, issue I, Summer 1992.