Wellness Wednesday - What Horses Used to Eat: Feeding Horses in 1856

A veterinary surgeon named John Stewart, professor of veterinary medicine in Glasgow, Scotland, wrote a book that was published in 1856 called The Stable Book: Being a Treatise on the Management of Horses. A reader in the twenty-first century might giggle at the frequent mentions of draughts and cordials for horses (according to Dr. Stewart, a cordial helps many an ill or over-worked horse), tonic balls (an herbal preparation made into a ball with honey that is fed orally) and a physic (herbs and other concoctions directed by a veterinarian). Blood letting is mentioned as treatment for some disorders. But the real focus of the book is feeding.

It is quite surprising to read about some of the foods fed to horses in the 19th century: turnips, potatoes, parsnips, sugar beet, mangel-wurzel (beets),  carrots, and yams. These root vegetables are all boiled or steamed before feeding with the exception of the carrot., and mostly fed in winter. “A work horse getting from between eight to twelve pounds of grain may have four pounds deducted for every five pounds of carrots he receives.” Dr. Stewart recommends turnips for farm and cart horses as well as the horses in coaching stables. He recommends the Swedish variety of turnips, which per 100lbs equals in “nutriment” 22 pounds of hay. As a modern day horse owner, it’s hard to imagine feeding 100 lbs of turnips per day.  

Other foods:

Wheaten bread (recommended for horses that are invalid or off their appetite), linseed, hempseed, oats, barley, and beans. Dr. Stewart does not recommend bran except for a horse that is off his feed because he says: “bran has no nutriment; its laxative properties can not be true since bran is constipating to dogs. A shillings worth of oats is a great deal more nourishing than a shilling’s worth of bran.”

Foods Fed from other countries:

Dr. Stewart provides a travelogue of the foods fed to horses in different countries: pumpkins, apples, sweet potatoes, and corn stalks in America; figs and chestnuts in Spain and Italy; dates mixed with camels’ milk in Arabia;  dried fish in Iceland and Norway; black bread, rye, malt, and rye bread in Germany and Holland. In the East Indies “meat was boiled to rags to which is added some kinds of grain and butter”; and “sheeps heads were boiled for horses during campaigns in India”; cows’ milk in England was given to stallions during the “covering season.”

Feeding in 1856:

Dr. Stewart provides various feeding schedules based on the type of horse: cart, carriage, hunter, cavalry, race horse, and saddle horse. For most horses he recommends feeding five times per day: 6am, 9:00am, 1:00pm, 5:00pm, and 8:00pm with a total consumption of 12-16 pounds of grain (oats, and beans in a 5:1 ratio) with 12 pounds of hay. He recommends feeding boiled food in the winter at the last meal of the day and adding turnips. He believes carrots should be given raw throughout the day. He recommends adding barley for horses in laborious work. The ratio then being 6:3:3 (oats to beans to barley) plus hay. 

What Not to feed horses:

Dr. Stewart does not recommend distillery grains or brewers grains, which he calls “the refuse of breweries”. He claims when fed regularly “they produce general rottenness, which I suspect in these cases is caused by disease of the liver. They also contribute to producing staggers and founder.” Dr. Stewart also doesn’t recommend raw wheat because “fermentation, colic and death are the consequences”; however, he says that if wheat is boiled and given with beans, some oats, and chaff that it “can be useful.” He also stands strongly against the feeding of eggs (so stated because some stallion owners recommend it to increase the stallions’ sexual potency), because he believes that eggs play no role in stallions’ “readiness”.

Keep in Mind:

It is clear from reading Dr. Stewart’s book, that feeding horses largely depended on what food was available, depending on the country. And while we may think of horses in the 19th century as living bucolic lives, in truth these horses worked daily, worked hard, and had limited access to pasture because they worked 6 days a week either carrying riders, as mail or stage horses, pulling coaches, carts, plows, and wagons, or galloping into battle.   The amount of food required for a working horse in the 19th century vastly outweighs the food requirements of most present day sport horses.

Without the arsenal of pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, and augmentative therapies like chiropractics, and accupuncture that we have, the book is a fascinating look into the care of the horse based on food, and herbs, and basic horse care.