During World War II food shortages, horse meat once again found its way to American tables, but the post-war backlash was rapid. “Horse meat” became a political insult. “You don’t want your administration to be known as a horse meat administration, do you?” the former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia demanded of his successor William O’Dwyer. President Truman was nicknamed “Horse meat Harry” by Republicans during food shortages in the run up to the 1948 “Beefsteak Election.” In 1951, reporters asked if there would be a “Horse meat Congress,” one “that put the old gray mare on the family dinner table.” When Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1952, he was also taunted as “Horse meat Adlai” thanks to a Mafia scam uncovered in Illinois when he was governor.
The last British pit pony retired astonishingly recently in 1999. Between the mid-eighteenth century and the very start of the twenty-first century, stout “pitters” (short-legged Shire crosses), Welsh cobs and British native ponies of all stripes hauled coal underground and above ground and worked pumps to keep mines from flooding. They were often stabled in the mines themselves. Conditions were grim in some (but not all mines) until the 1920s, when the Pit Ponies Protection Society was founded and began to make some legislative headway to improve welfare standards. Have a look at this section of Hansard, where pit pony health is discussed in detail in the House of Lords, including the problem of “roofing”, where horses and ponies suffered injuries to their withers and backs because the ceilings in some tunnels were simply too low.
Here are three Pathé shorts on pit ponies. This one shows pit pony races in Yorkshire, with twenty local pits racing their lads and ponies against one another. Doesn’t look like all that much fun for the ponies given some of the riding, but their lads seem proud of them. I love the bells on some of the ponies’ bridles, too.
And here is “Horses’ Bank Holiday” from 1952. It’s a reel of unedited, silent footage showing Tondu Veterinary stables in Wales, where some working “pitters” or cobs are being treated and turned out to gambol with rather stiff legs about the hills. I hope to have more info soon, but alas the British Pathé site is down.
This one is just a fragment: Welsh miners and their pitters come to the international horse show at Olympia in London. Some of the horses have been in work for twenty years, and they look pretty splendid scrubbed up.
Wonderful news for overworked writers who don’t have time to maintain their blogs: British Pathé have uploaded their stock of vintage film clips to YouTube. As the old slogan of the British tabloid the News of the World used to claim, “all human life is there”, and quite a bit of horsey life too. So where shall we go today?
Maybe to Soviet-era Dagestan to watch the locals ride:
Or a ladies’ point-to-point in 1920s Britain, with half the field sidesaddle and half riding heels-first like sulky drivers:
To 1920s Vienna, where the lipizzaners at the Spanish Riding School look as though they are about to join in the human conversation to clarify some of the finer points of the piaffe:
And Liverpool’s cart horse parade in the 1920s, featuring shires got up in elaborate floral rigs and stepping out for the lady mayoress. For more about the tradition of the parade, click here.
The Guardian has a piece on the plight of the Dartmoor Hill Pony. Apparently prices are falling, and by the close of a recent auction only 20 of 60 animals had been sold. The piece goes on to say that “in the last century” the hill pony thrived.
This isn’t strictly true. I’ve blogged about this before – pony prices frequently tumble, causing fears that there will soon be no ponies on the moor. There’s also a long-standing debate as to whether the Hill Pony should even be there in the first place – purists think the “true” Dartmoor pony has a better claim than the Heinz 57 Hill Pony. On the whole it’s one long decline, which is unsurprising as a) ponies have fewer uses these days, thanks to cars and b) we’re in the middle of a long recession.
Here’s a 2010 piece which echoes a 2001 article and one from 1998.
And here are historical sources including one from 1928, showing concern at the end of the Dartmoor Pony breed, and one from the 1950s that makes the distinction between the true Dartmoor Pony and the Hill Pony. Both are pretty fascinating reads if you want to understand more about the story. Even with no adjustment for inflation, the ponies sold in 1928 fetch more than those in 2013.
This is a 1920s letter from Ada Cole concerning the shipment of Dartmoor Ponies to Belgium for slaughter.
Mum and a friend's horse, Beauty, with a red rosette.
Ponymadbooklovers have a good information page on Golden Gorse, as does Jane Badger. The only pony I ever got to Christmas was an Exmoor “adopted” from the Moorland Mousie Trust in Devon, who work to preserve what is now sadly a rare breed. They have commissioned a hardback re-issue of the novel, complete with original illustrations by Lionel Dunning: impossibly good value at £11.99.
The Pony Club has a downloadable history available on their home site, as well as a collection of classic old photos of many generations in Pony Clubbers in action. Health and safety fanatics look away now!
For other pony book authors like the Pullein-Thompsons, Primrose Cumming (Silver Snaffles), Joanna Cannan and Ruby Ferguson (the Jill books), there’s Jane Badger’s comprehensive site.
This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.