The Globe & Mail, Canada / London’s Working Horses / © Lisa Young 2006
It’s rush hour in London. Nose to tail traffic spewing obnoxious fumes, irate drivers - hands on horns, cyclists with a death wish, motorbike couriers menacingly weaving their way through impossible gaps and there amidst this urban chaos plod London’s working horses – a majestic breed of gentle giants.
Whether delivering beer barrels to public houses, packages to palaces or policing the busy London streets these majestic equine marvels can be seen performing their daily routines as much a part of the quintessentially British city scene as black cabs and red buses.
Of course working horses aren’t new to London – they had their heyday in the first quarter of the 20th century when they were the mainstay of transport and industry in a way generally unappreciated. The post war years and the advent of faster and cheaper mechanised transport saw their presence decline rapidly until a revival took place in the 1970s and 80s and as we enter the 21st century there is every sign that their presence is here to stay.
Their historic influence lives on in an old law which stated that all hackney carriages must carry a bail of hay in their cart on Sundays to feed the working horses when everything was closed and they could not buy hay. To this day the law has not changed, so motorised Hackney cabs (black cabs) are, by law, required to carry a bail of hay in the car.
An essential aspect of the working horse’s revival has been the part the horses themselves played in marketing and promotion. The breweries which have continued to use them for their beer deliveries in town, led the way, with their heavy horse operations becoming part of their public relations departments. Their appearance in their smart drays in London and other towns publicised the breweries products and drew attention to the majestic nature of the animals themselves. Whitbread's, Young's, Ind Coope, Fullers and Samuel Smith’s to name but a few have all promoted the revival of the working horse.
In fact the tallest horse in the world once walked the London streets delivering beer from Young’s breweries. Goliath, a huge horse of immense character, who died last year, travelled the country for ten years as the senior member of Young and Co’s Brewery team of show horses. He featured in the Guinness Book of Records for over eight years.
Then Public authorities such as the Royal Parks took on heavy horses for tasks such as timber and grounds clearance, harrowing, rides and general promotion. And of course horses have always played a major part in the life of London’s monarchy. Recently the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations have seen an unusually large horse presence on the streets. It is the unique privilege of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment to meet the requirement to carry out the mounted ceremonial duties on State and Royal occasions.
Harrods, the famous Knightsbridge store uses horses for delivering goods to the stars and the stars to the goods. A team of horses regularly deliver celebrities such as Diana Ross or Joan Collins to the store in one of their special carriages enabling them to arrive in style on such occasions as the opening of the famous Harrods January Sale or perhaps the launch of their latest book. They are owner, Mr Al Fayed’s pride and joy and when not working the London streets compete all over the country in various horse shows.
Harrods first opened its doors over 150 years ago in 1849. For many years the store’s deliveries were carried out by horse drawn transport and before long Harrods was also operating as a high class job master, hiring out horses and carriages - mainly to the gentry who would drive them to nearby Hyde Park to join the social parade. However, increasing mechanisation and motor transport led to the dwindling of the equine operation and since 1940 Harrods neither owned nor used horses.
Then in 1985 Mohamed Al Fayed bought Harrods of Knightsbridge and quickly expressed an interest in establishing a horse drawn delivery service for the store and now the store boasts eight Friesian horses - four stallions and four geldings. Purchased from Holland as three year olds they are introduced to carriage driving soon after. However it takes many months of training before the young horses are finally allowed to mingle with London traffic. The horses work on a rota system generally spending six days at a time in Knightsbridge before they return to Mr Al Fayed’s estate in Surrey for a well-earned rest.
The Harrods horses can be seen on London’s streets most days and leaving around 9am for their daily deliveries to local hotels and palaces within a four mile radius of the store working mornings and afternoons up to 5 hours a day driven by the Head Coachman David West.
In this era of road rage it would seem that the biggest problem out on the streets is not the traffic so much as the behaviour of inconsiderate drivers who would get frustrated at the slowness of the equine pulled vehicles. Often people in cities simply don’t have the awareness or sensitivity necessary to give horses the room they need to manoeuvre. Although, surprisingly David West, Head Coachman for the Harrods team told me “it is very rare the horses are injured by cars, generally people have a lot of respect for them and give us plenty of room and time to cross roads. The horses’ shoes take most of the wear and tear, so they are shod every four weeks so their feet don’t become damaged”.
To train the horses to calmly deal with the unpredictable nature of daily traffic Young’s Brewery horses are put through their paces at a yard which backs on to the congested and noisy London South Circular. By the time they get their first real street experiences they are completely comfortable with the smell and noise of traffic besides being familiar with the large forklifts and lorries that constantly deliver to the yard. In over 30 years of working there have been no reported traffic injuries – a remarkable accomplishment for today’s congested roads.
The breweries use Shire horses rather than Friesians as they can pull the heaviest loads. Each company has a different colour horse. All the horses at Young’s brewery are black with four white socks and a blaze (white strip down the face).
Each Shire horse weighs slightly over a ton. Their daily feed consists of best hay, bran, molasses brewer’s grains and occasionally a pint of beer. As a reward for their hard work during the year, the horses are put out to grass for two weeks in the summer when they get a chance to rest their legs and get fit for another year of service.
They have to be five years old before being used as working horses. If they are broken in too early in can lead to ill health in the form of arthritis and damaged ligaments. They develop their muscles by building up the weights gradually. Eventually a team of two can pull up to three tons. Today’s average weight of a delivery is about two and a half tonnes of beer kegs. There is a 3-mile delivery radius in London and the horse teams only deliver to local Young’s pubs.
The horses are exercised everyday. The cart they pull is called a dray. When they are finally let loose on the streets an older horse is always paired with a younger horse in order that it can teach it how to behave in traffic. Voice commands are used to control the horses. They are taught to respond to these verbal cues from an early age and as a result the driver never has to pull on the reins to stop them.
All the Shires used are geldings and cost about £1000 upwards to buy. The price can depend on who sired the horse, its limbs and even the joints. The more they do the more they are worth and once trained their value increases further. They can work up until they are 18 years old.
No qualifications are required to drive the carts just experience. There is also no road tax for horses in London, although they do require a license plate, so they are quite cheap to keep especially as it only costs about £20 per week to keep each horse.
Astonishingly despite daily exposure to pollution these massive beasts are not prey to lung disease or chest problems and generally are retired off at a ripe old age to enjoy their final days in green pastures. They are shod every 4 – 6 weeks, even if their shoes are not run down – so their feet don’t get worn or split. If they are healthy they will only see a vet once a year for yearly jabs.
So how are they received by the public? Landlord, Tom Dunlea, of the Old Sergeants Pub in Wandsworth says: “everyone loves them; it’s friendlier to have the horses deliver. Once they thought of taking them off the road but locals rallied around and asked for them to be kept on the road. People love them, kids stroke them and stand watching them” So despite the impact of urbanisation horses working the streets of London looks set to remain a firm fixture of the new millennium.
All information was correct at time of publishing.