During America’s early days, from the first settlers to around 1900, horses were the power that transported us, tilled our fields, and pulled the wagons that brought us goods. Knowledge about horse care was handed down through families. Many of the traditions and remedies have survived. Some are solid. Some are silly.
The first that comes to mind is how everyone, worldwide, is taught to approach and mount horses from their left side. Coming at them from the right would have worked equally well, but the left side is what horses are used to. Because they are creatures of habit, even more than us, this is a tradition that makes sense. A horse approached from the right is apt to shy. Imagine having to approach your dog only from one side. Dogs are more like, “whatever, let’s just play!”
There was a Standardbred racetrack in Lewiston, Maine, until the late 1980’s. It was there that I was first exposed to some of the old horse superstitions. I remember Charlie’s barn in which there was a big bulb of whole garlic nailed to the wall in each horse stall. I asked him about it. The old horseman replied that it kept shipping fever away. I asked how he knew that. “My father always did it, and it’s always worked for me.” When I suggested vaccinating his horses for flu, to keep his horses healthy, Charlie scoffed. End of discussion.
At that same track I learned another thing not taught in vet school. In the racing community there is a prejudice about horses with white feet. The saying I used to hear in Standardbred circles was:
One white foot try ‘em.
Two white feet deny ‘em.
Three white feet, feed ‘em to the crows.
There are a number of variations on that ditty to be found online. It is interesting that in some breeds like the American Saddlebred and the Clydesdale, white legs and feet are desirable because they make those horses flashy. True confession: in my years of practice, it really did seem like a white foot on a horse was more subject to the bacterial condition of feet called gravel. Just sayin’… I have no numbers to back that up.
Over 40 years ago I visited a classmate who was a Thoroughbred race track vet in New York. His daily calls included working the backside at Belmont Park. One day I accompanied him on his rounds at that famous track. I was surprised at some of the old traditions that are deeply set in the Thoroughbred industry. For example, when Standardbreds are to be groomed and harnessed, they are always taken out of their stalls. On Thoroughbred tracks all horse preparation is done in the stalls. The horses are secured by a light chain that runs from their halter to an eye bolt screwed into the back wall. Administering medications, grooming, and any fussing with them is never, ever done on the barn floor. When I asked a trainer why they didn’t take them out and cross tie them in the barn alley way like trainers and grooms of other breeds, he was amazed.
“Why, that would break their spirit!” If I asked the same question today I’ll bet today any horseman on that track would say the same thing. Old ideas die hard.
There are a variety of liniments available for horses’ legs. They fill the tack trunks of every race stable in the country. Most of the liniments have secret formulas, but almost all contain some iodine. It makes the liniments dark and pungent. The idea behind liniments is to increase the circulation to the legs. I often saw owners rub liniment on a newly injured leg. I never understood why anyone would put something warming on an already hot leg. It’s like throwing gasoline on a fire. The thing to do for any acute leg injury in horses and people is lots of ice or cold water for a few days to cool things down. Then the liniments can do their job.
I remember some of the old timers on the track putting a slab of raw steak on a swollen leg and securing it with a leg wrap for 24 hours. It always seemed like a waste of good meat to me. I was never convinced that it did much except attract flies.
Curious horses are apt to get porcupine quills right on the sensitive end of their noses. Owners often called me to ask if they should snip the quills to let the air out so they pull easier. That’s an old wives tale which doesn’t help. Quills are hard to pull out because the pointed ends of quills have hundreds of tiny barbs just like those on a fishhook. The quills are hollow, but snipping them doesn’t make it easier to remove them. If there were just a few quills, I’d tell owners to use needle nose pliers to try and pull them. It hurts, and most horses will only put up with so much of that. A nose full of quills usually means a vet visit and some heavy sedation.
Four leaf clovers and horse shoes have been thought to be lucky for hundreds of years. It is a tradition to nail a shoe over entrances. They are commonly seen in horse barns over stall doors. There is some debate as to whether the opening of the shoe should be up or down. Some say up so the luck doesn’t spill out. Others say down so good luck pours out. When a new client was trucking a horse to my place, I always gave our road name and then would say, “turn right when you see the horseshoe on the telephone poll.” I never considered myself superstitious, but I was aware that I nailed that shoe a certain way, and never for a minute considered doing it the other way. That would have been unlucky! You’ll welcome to visit anytime to see which way it’s nailed on.
There has always been interesting lore surrounding horses. Some of the traditions go back centuries. It’s one of the things that made being an equine practitioner such a rich and interesting experience.