The Weald & Downland Museum near Chichester in Sussex is a fantastic place. Not only are there over forty rescued and reconstructed buildings, they also run courses teaching traditional skills and crafts – everything from making natural dyes, through polelathing or coppice management to ploughing . It was probably predictable that the heavy horse driving day would be the one that I booked for a friend as a gift. Obviously I couldn’t just let her go alone, I had to go too, to keep her company. Honest.

Learning to harrow with a Shire

This excellent day course was taught by Mark Buxton, ably assisted by some really hardworking volunteers. The horses were both Shire geldings, Mac & Major. I hadn’t previously had much experience with Shires (Well, except for that one time during a “seeing practice” stint as a veterinary student….. I was given the task of removing a front shoe from a lame Shire horse. In an ordinary yard the experience would have been merely back-breaking, but this was at some sort of theme park farm, so a fairly large audience gathered to witness my struggle. Things like that make you look at farriers with renewed respect).

We were shown how to put their harness on & took turns at learning to drive with a roller and a chain harrow. Ominous warnings were given about not letting the harrow get tangled up (hence my preoccupied expression in the photo above).
I was really impressed by the sensitivity of both horses to the voice, particularly the voices of strangers. And they were far more energetic than I had anticipated, any lapse in concentration could find the driver sprinting behind the harrow. They also did some fairly fancy lateral work when turning at the end of a line – I asked how they were taught to do this & apparently it just came naturally …. I could wish that some riding horses I have known were that smart.

After lunch, (perhaps predictably a Ploughman’s), we took it in turns to drive the pair of horses pulling a wagon. Compared to the power of an engine it might not sound that much, but a real two horsepower was pretty impressive.

So now all I have to do is figure out how I justify booking the ploughing course, or maybe the logging with heavy horses.

We were also lucky that the museum opened its archive on the day when we were there. They have been given a lot of rural bygones and antiques over the years & haven’t anywhere to exhibit them permanently. So, there is a store of old tools etc in their administrative building that opens on certain days. They have a fine collection of bits, horseshoes, horse brasses, and even more lawn boots than I have.

Old lawn boots
Old horseshoes

Old horseshoes : note the heart-bar shoes and the wavy-edged examples

dravelling snaffle

Old bits, including a dravelling snaffle

Old horse bits

And more bits

horse brasses

Horse brasses & harness

Piece about bells

A note about the latten or team bells

Latten or team bells

Latten or Team bells

Team bells

Team bells


Tie-up bobbins

These things sit in my office & intrigue all who see them. I have heard them described as “Tie Up Bobbins”, “Manger Balls”, “Tying up blocks” and “Manger blocks”.
They date back to a time when there were many working horses, particularly in towns and cities. Many of these horses would have been housed in stalls, there simply wasn’t enough space for individual loose boxes or stables, let alone anywhere to turn the horse out.

So, a horse is to rest, tied up, in a stall. The animal should be able to lie down and stand up comfortably. I don’t know about other people’s experiences but I have met an awful lot of horses & ponies for whom the term “accident prone” simply doesn’t go far enough. Faced with a looping rope that would allow them to lie or stand easily these individuals would inevitably put a leg over the rope & get into an awful mess. With a shorter rope they will merely throttle themselves while trying to lie down.

The solution to this problem? The Tie Up Bobbin. These heavy wooden balls have a central hole. The rope passes from the halter or headcollar, through a tying up ring or bar on the stall wall and then through the tie-up bobbin. A quick release knot is tied on the other side of the bobbin. The block now acts as a counterweight, eliminating any looping in the rope. Cunning eh?

The ones shown are made of a very heavy wood, sometimes called lignum vitae. They have a marvellous patina , they do have some of the scars you would expect from use. A chain joins the three together, with a loop for hanging.

Dimensions: the larger two measure 3½” (9cm) x 4″ (10cm) x 4″ (10cm), the smaller one measures 3¼” (8.5cm) x 3½” (9cm) x 3½” (9cm). They are understandably heavy (2.5kg) and will have to be shipped by courier.


For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

A rhyme that dates back centuries. Today we understand it as a proverb – neglecting the small details of a project can lead to its failure.

WW2 horseshoe case with sword frog

WW2 horseshoe case with sword frog

WW2 horseshoe case with sword frog

WW2 horseshoe case with sword frog

However, in the not-so-distant past the saying could be taken much more literally. The army regularly used horses right up until the end of the second world war. The spare horseshoe case shown on the left was a standard piece of equipment.
It is made of good quality tan leather and it would have been attached to the saddle. On its outside there is a leather loop or sword frog. Inside there is the pocket for the horseshoe and a small section for spare nails.
Neither of these compartments appears to have been used. The small pocket is stamped “Cliff.Walsall 1940″ with an ordnance mark. Under the flap it is stamped again “60″ with another ordnance mark.
WW2 horseshoe case with sword frog
I am woefully ignorant about cavalry equipment, there are many people who are very knowledgeable about the subject . The Society of the Military Horse is a good place to find out more.

The regulations governing the design of these cases changed over time. Variations in how the case closed, the presence or absence of the sword frog, how the case attached to the saddle – all these things can tell us about the date of the case. The horseshoe case shown below is an earlier example, probably dating from the beginning of the twentieth century.

1901 horseshoe case with sword frog

The spare horseshoe case was only one very small piece of equipment carried by mounted troops. Their saddles were specially designed with extensions behind the seat (fans) and in front (burrs) they had many loops and D rings.
I will try to find some images to illustrate this


Old railway poster foxhunting

This is a poster for the hunting season from the Great Western Railway.

It advertises reduced rates for horses and for grooms – I’m not sure what that says about grooms’ status at the time…

After an afternoon trawling the internet for references I have seen several examples of purpose-built horse boxes for the railways. There is one at Swindon railway museum that has space for three horses and accomodation for three grooms. It’s not far from here, I should visit the museum to see it.

I had always assumed that in the days before motorised horse transport everyone would hack to meets. Many people did, of course – apparently Melton Mowbray was such a popular centre for hunting because it was in the middle of three hunts, the Quorn, the Cottesmore and the Belvoir. In the early twentieth century a keen hunt follower could hunt six days a week.
Ladies could have their groom ride their horse to and from a meet, special groom’s pads would fit on the sidesaddles converting them for use astride.

Rail transport of horses for hunting and racing reached a peak in the 1920′s to 1930′s. GWR proudly advertised that they could transport horse & rider from Paddington in London to hunting country in the New Forest in one & a half hours.

It was still a major undertaking, if you have ever spent any time trying to load a reluctant horse into a box just imagine if the box were attached to a steam locomotive… Maybe they loaded the horses far away from the engine & coupled the box to the train afterwards…. I need to research this further.


A leather hat box

The equipment required was fairly remarkable too – travelling light wasn’t really an option. As well as ordinary tack there would be a top hat in leather box, heavy leather suitcases, wooden boot trees (lovely, but not exactly as light as modern plastic & metal). And there would be flasks, sandwich cases, rugs….
A couple of years ago I saw a beautiful small portable saddle horse made of oak with cupboards underneath and a top section that could fold out into a table. It had wheels and a metal loop at one end where it would be anchored in the train carriage so that it could not roll around.


antique blacksmiths tool

How’s this for recycling?
This set of hoof pincers have been made from a pair of old files or rasps. You can see the ridges of one file in the detailed image below.
They are probably late nineteenth or early twentieth century. I think they show an ingenious use of materials & skill. New tools were probably expensive at the time, and old steel was softer than modern stainless steel. This meant that rasps could wear out – but they could also be worked into a new shape and find a new use.

antique blacksmiths tool


Drenching bit

antique horse bit

antique veterinary bit

Medicating horses has got so much easier – or so I tell myself as I scrape worming paste out of my hair. And I do wonder how effective a wormer is once it has disappeared up a horse’s left nostril.

I was fascinated to learn about an “Easy wormer” bit on one of the horse forums – it’s a plastic bit that you put into the horse’s mouth and then squeeze the wormer into the bit. I think there are other makes.

Sound familiar? The bit on the left is an antique drenching bit. Again, the bit is placed in the horse’s mouth & secured in place with the leather strap. Medication would be poured into the funnel, and the metal bar used to raise the animal’s head so that the liquid would pass back & be swallowed. Obviously a large lump of metal attached to a resisting horse is a bit more hazardous than the modern plastic version, but the principle’s the same.

In Mosemann’s Illustrated Guide there’s even a picture of a small version of one being used in a dog. This strikes me as a bit excessive, surely you can get a dog to swallow just about anything with nothing more sophisticated than a sausage?

Another antique tool for medicating horses was the balling gag. Medication would be moulded into ball-shaped pills. The wooden gag below would be put in the horse’s mouth.

a drenching gag

A tube would be passed through the hole in the middle of the gag, pointing towards the back of the poor horse’s throat. A pill would be placed in the free end of the tube, then one would blow down the tube (quite hard, I assume), delivering the pill to the back of the tongue. I have heard someone wondering what would happen if the horse blew back….


Spring finally seems to be here – good. And the end of the financial year, which means an inventory check – not so good. Somehow I acquire stuff at a much faster rate than I can catalogue or photograph it. I finally started to go through a few boxes of rusty bits & spurs that I bought some time ago & came across a few interesting bits.

Handmade African horse bit

The monstrosity above is a ring bit, said ring is suspended from the top of the port, and passes under the horse’s chin, acting as a very severe curb. Sometimes called a Mameluke bit, this old design probably originated in Arab cultures. The Arabs carried it south through Africa & north through Spain into Europe & the Americas. This example is handmade from steel. Such bits are, unfortunately, not uncommon – what made this one interesting was its label which read “Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust Replaced Bit”.
Of course this made me go & look up the trust – They work in a similar way to the Brooke (, helping poor communities by helping their horses, mules and donkeys. I thought the idea of a bit exchange was brilliant.

Handmade African horse bit
Another exchange bit from Gambia. At least this one’s a snaffle, but made from thin ribbed steel rods used in construction

After last year’s spring clean / inventory check I sold a lot of unwanted things on Ebay & raised quite a lot of money for the Brooke. I should do the same this year but include the Gambian charity – I’ll link any listings to my Facebook page.

Handmade African horse bit
Another ring bit; at least someone wrapped the ring in cloth to protect the horse’s curb groove

Antique riding whip with serpents

This whip has a beautiful silver handle & collar, decorated with cast coiled serpents.
Unfortunately the covering of the shaft or stock has suffered some damage. Looking on the bright side – this does let us look at the construction of an antique whip.
The body or core of the whip is made of whalebone or balleen. This material is not actual bone but comes from the fibrous plates in the whale’s mouth, used for filter feeding. Whalebone was used for many purposes before the advent of plastics & fiberglass, because it was strong and flexible. Hopefully the images at the end of this blog show its layers or lamellae.

This core was wrapped first in thin paper (sometimes newspaper was used, which can be useful in determining the age of the whip ) . A layer of braided material would cover the paper – the imprint of this can still be seen on the paper. The braided material could be catgut, linen or more whalebone.

The grip of this whip is covered in braided whalebone – I believe this whalebone was cut into strips and steamed to make it flexible enough to be braided, similar strips of whalebone were also used on violin bow lapping.
Special looms were used to create the tubular covering, unfortunately not many of these survive, so I am looking into ways to get the whip re-covered.

Antique riding whip with serpents
Detail of whip showing exposed balleen and paper
Antique riding whip with serpents
Antique riding whip with serpents
Antique riding whip with serpents
Antique riding whip with serpents
Antique riding whip with serpents

I have just found a box of old harness decorations. They come in many forms : simple solid badges, some interlocking monograms or ciphers and some depicting parts of crests or coats of arms.

Harness Insignia

This decoration features a bloodhound. The French motto translates as “Search & you will find”, rather a nice pun.

They were not solely decorative. If we think back to a time when several guests, each with their own carriage & up to four sets of harness, might have visited a country house – the potential for confusion between sets of harness would have been enormous. So, these decorations served as rather elegant identification tags.

“Templa Quam Dilecta” translates as “How beautiful are your temples”, it is a pun on the family name Temple and is associated with Stowe School and Archbishop Temple’s School

Motto from harness

They could be made of brass or a white metal, some were hollow & lead-filled, some silver plated. Generally they had pins on their reverse sides which would be inserted into the leather.


A muzzled dog – rather a strange emblem

Harness decoration

Back of harness decoration

There are more at