The millions of war horses that were part of World War I required a lot of grooming. In fact, proper grooming care turned out to be critical to the success of the British military.
Perhaps artillery horses at the front couldn’t be properly cleaned and groomed all the time but all horsemen know that a horse in a dirty muddy harness is more likely to get sores than a horse in a clean and oiled harness. That meant a lot of oil and saddle soap. There was no synthetic harness like we have to today, and probably no hoses to clean the horses. The grooms probably were as wet as the horses.
One of the biggest problems that the British military faced was that it was losing more horses to disease and exposure than to enemy fire. Horses tied in a picket line at night allowed for the easy spread of the mange mite from horse to horse. Early in the war, the British solution to widespread mange was to clip every horse from head to toe. That would be fine in summer, but it meant that the horses needed blankets when the weather turned cold, or else the mange would come back. Next problem? Those blankets were constantly soaked by rain. You can imagine how the horses suffered.
But the grooms had to not only struggle to keep the horses dry and the harness clean; they had to make sure that the harness fit properly, or there would be just as many problems with sores. And as the horses lost condition because of poor quality hay–or complete lack of hay–and overuse, their harness may or may not fit properly. It’s said that the most important tool a groom had was a hole punch and that they were in constant use.
And we all know that you will eventually run out of leather; there will be no place left to punch a hole.
Artillery horses also required properly fitting collars. Collars don’t have much range of adjustment. They either fit…or they don’t. Do you remember the scene in War Horse where Frederick stuffs the rag under Joey’s collar?
Grooms today are often the unsung heroes of the horse world, and their World War I counterparts were just as under-appreciated by historians. The photo provided by Nick Stone shows that this group of grooms wasn’t too serious, but there’s also a possibility, from Nick’s notes, that the photo was taken in Cambridgeshire before either the horses or grooms or both were shipped overseas. They probably sobered up pretty quickly if they served at the front.
To learn more: Grooms today have a new home on the web. Visit Liv Gude’s proequinegrooms.com for information about the profession and tips from the pros on how to care for your horse.
Photo of grooms courtesy of Nick Stone.
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