Page 8, 27th November 1936

27th November 1936
Page 8
Page 8, 27th November 1936 — FIRST THOUGHTS by Michael

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Locations: London


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A Horse Centenary

Sickness and senility are two recognised excuses for reminiscences and centenary articles. We will take advantage of the fact to be reminiscent about McAdam.

Our earliest recollections concerning him are of a joke. It was based on the statement that he constructed roads by binding stones of a size that would just tit into an ordinary human mouth. It pretended that he chose gangs of workmen with mouths of standard size and employed a. dentist to accompany them at their work.

It does not sound enormously funny now that we write it down, but it imprinted an indelible impression of McAdam's method; and to this day when we see one of the dwindling number of macadamised roads under repair we automatically look to see if the stones would really fit into a mouth. Few schoolmasters would have accomplished so much.

The next time we ran across McAdam (esscept in the literal sense) was when we were reading how the horse supplanted the ox as the general utility animal in England. For this did not take place in ancient history. It was in the second half of the eighteenth century when Arthur Young, the farmer-economist, conducted a practical enquiry into the relative value of the horse and the ox in agriculture. And the recent exclusion of horses from certain London streets came only a hundred years after the death of the man whose invention did more than any other single cause to make horses for a brief spell the universal drawers of vehicles on the English roads.

When McAdam was a young man the conditions of the problem were, with one notable exception, much as they had been in medieval England, when the ox was definitely the more useful animal to farmers.

On country roads that were little more than rut-ways it was more sure-footed. Its spreading hoofs sank less into ill-drained land. It combined with strength the greater endurance that is an asset under any conditions; and though the horse could move faster when the going was good, the farm labourer of the day would not let it go faster than its rival.

Finally, the ox could be eaten by men of sound teeth when its working days were done. The eating of horses had been stamped out in Western Europe by the Church owing to its association with pagan rites, since which time all good Europeans have professed a 'horror of horse-flesh, which few have knowingly tasted.

Where similar conditions prevail Tss'--day, the ox still holds its own, even among white men. It did so in South Africa until the advent of the Ford a few years ago.

What McAdam did was to cover England with roads on which the ox's hooves were too soft and the horse's speed could tell and horses of inferior strength could make themselves generally useful.

We spoke of one notable difference in the conditions of the problem in the eighteenth century and in the Middle Ages. In the earlier period there were practically no large horses available for agriculture. The only large breed was the war-horse, bred ever larger and larger. For it had to carry knights in armour, and the armour was made heavier and heavier.

At last the day came when men made it heavy enough to stop the first bullets and found when they had done so that they could not manoeuvre in it. Then the great breed lost its purpose.

You can read the story in Ridgeway on the thorough-bred horse.

Kings legislated to preserve the breed, and there were still the rich pastures—in Lombardy, Flanders and the English shires —where it had originally been built up. (It was a giant cross between the light North African and Arab horse and the short stocky North European pony).

So it was preserved until new uses were found for it. First came the harnessing of horses in carriages, and the Elizabethan carriage-horse was bred from it, and afterwards the famous English coach-horse. In the seventeenth century the craze for horseracing obtained its hold upon the English gentry and the old stock was gradually blended with imported " Barbary " and Arab horses to produce the English thoroughbred, while old fogies protested

against thus weakening it. Similarly it went to the making of the English hunter.

Lastly, where men could accustom themselves to using it for menial labour, it gave its strength to make the cart-horse. Three centuries before a road was macadamised, at least one of the heavy English breeds was in existence. And these breeds could for most purposes surpass the ox even on its own ground.

They were the last great contribution of the great breed to Europe. The first was to her liberty. When the Saracen cavalry passed the Pyrenees mounted, like Hannibal's before them, on light North African horses, the heavy Frankish knights of Charlemagne withstood their charge at Tours on the first heavy horses of the mixed Western strain.

That also was before McAdam. Indeed, some would say that what McAdam did for horses was what the other pioneers of industrialism did for men—to promote the survival of the less fit and subject them to less honourable labour.

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