Jobs for Horses: What Work They Did in the 1800s

Plenty of jobs for horses existed in the nineteenth century. For instance, because these animals were the primary means of transportation, “every pound of freight that traveled on the … railroad network required local delivery, and in most cases, horses provided the motive power.”[1] Because of such work requirements horses were plentiful in the 1800s as noted in the article, “The Horse as an Urban Technology”:

“In an age of rapid urbanization, horses flourished, and … nineteenth-century cities with populations over 100,000 averaged roughly one horse for every fifteen people, although the ratio of humans to horses varied widely from city to city.”[2]

Example of seven different horse-drawn carts, coaches, and carriages. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Because of the horse’s prevalence there were numerous jobs for horses. Some of these animals were responsible to transport people in vehicles like cabs, carriages, horsecars, or omnibuses. Others moved goods by pulling boats, barges, or vans. These animals were also needed to haul the dead, help with the delivery of mail, and plow a farmer’s fields. The Pony Express would not have existed without horses and doctors’ lives would have been much more difficult if they were not able to climb into their buggies and rely on their horse to speedily take them to a sick patient.

It is difficult today to imagine what nineteenth-century life would have been like without the horse. So, here is list of some of the ways that horses helped humans and the jobs they did in the 1800s in the United Kingdom and America.

Barge or Boat Horses – In the early days of the Canal Age, from about 1740, barges and boats were towed by horses, mules, or donkeys. These jobs became even more important during the Industrial Age. Animals that towed canal barges or boats were adept at taking the strain of getting a heavy load moving from a dead stop and they could pull fifty times more cargo this way than an animal moving a cart or wagon on the road. The horses that pulled barge and boats were generally led or ridden on the towpath, although sometimes they also walked free with a nosebag to ensure that they did not stop to graze along the way.

Bathing Machine Horses – Another of the jobs for horses involved pulling bathing machines into the sea. Bathing machines were roofed and walled carts or huts often with doors front and back. They started to gain popularity in the 18th century and allowed swimmers to change out of their clothes into swimwear. The etiquette and modesty associated with them was particularly enforced upon women. Occupants entered the water from the seaside discretely by going down steps into the water. Once the occupant was in the water, the horse was unhooked and ridden back to shore where it was exchanged it for a fresh horse, which would pull the bathing machine out of the water when the swimmer was finished. Although it was hard work for horses, by the end of the summer season any unsound or injured horse had usually recovered from the frequent saltwater baths and they were therefore able to perform well on land.

Jobs for horses - bathing machine.

1796 etching of various bathers in the foreground with a horse-drawn bathing machine in the background. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Brewer’s Horses – Another of the important jobs for horses was pulling the vans of brewers. The horse required for this job was usually a Shire because it was weighed over a ton and stood more than 17 hands high. A brewer’s horse could pull the heavy van that weighed around 2 tons when empty and when loaded with 25 barrels could weigh between 5 to 8 tons. Because of the heaviness of loads the horse owners paid particular attention to their animals feet to prevent problems or lameness. One way they did this was to have custom made shoes that were fitted to each foot. These horses worked either in tandem or in unicorn fashion with three horses, two at the pole and one as leader. The brewer’s horses rested on Sundays, moved light loads on Monday, and worked long hours the rest of the week, sometimes putting in as many as 16 hours and beginning work as early as 5:00am.

Cab Horses – One of the common jobs for horses was pulling Hansom cabs (horse-drawn carriages designed and patented in 1834 by Joseph Hansom that were lightweight, pulled by one horse, and maneuverable) or Clarence cabs (closed, four-wheeled vehicles named for the Prince William the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, that had projecting glass front and seats for four passengers inside with the driver sitting outside). Both cab types were plentiful in London and most of the cab horses used were imported from Ireland when they were four years old. These horse lasted only about three years because of the distance they traveled, which was about two hundred miles per week over a six day period. The most popular horses for pulling Hansom cabs in the 1800s were brown in color and the least popular were grey because their hairs would blow onto customers and show on their dark clothing. However, greys were accepted and even popular with women and housemaids, who usually preferred Clarence cabs partly because they were considered more proper and dignified to travel in than Hansom cabs.

Carriage Horses – For those who owned their own carriages, such as Eliza de Feuillide, Madame Récamier, or Laura Bell, they required horses to pull them. There were a variety carriage horses that people could choose from but most were light, quick, and agile. Furthermore, the horse required to pull a cabriolet was different than one needed for a chariot (vehicles known under different names, such as the post chaise, posting chariots, dress chariots, town chariots, etc.). In the case of a cabriolet, the horse was usually smaller, better bred, and had more favorable conformation than what was needed for a chariot. It was also fashionable among carriage owners to match horses in color, size, and conformation. Cleveland bays were among the most popular horse breeds used to pull carriages in England while in America many families relied on Morgan horses.

Carrier’s Horses – Among the jobs for horses in the 1800s were those where horses needed to pull various types of vans or drays full of goods to and from railway yards. A carrier’s horse needed to have a strong constitution and was required to have good legs and feet. These horses were also usually at least five years old before they faced the tough streets of a city and like the brewer’s horse, these horses worked six days a week with Sundays off. Because of the carrier’s horse strenuous work schedule, it usually only had a work life of about five years.

Coal Horses – These horses looked like a carrier’s horse and usually had some sort of Shire or Clydesdale strain running through them. This horse purportedly went back to the grey Shire stallion, known as Shaw’s Grey Horse of Scotland. Like other draft, draught, or dray horses, they worked six days a week, but in their case, they hauled coal, as much as three tons in a single load. Because their loads were heavy, they avoided steep hills and if they found they had to travel up such a hill, they accomplished the pull through improvised tandem where they lined up one behind another, all facing in the same direction.

Dust-cart Horses – Another of the jobs for horses in the 1800s was working as a dust-cart horse. These horses were raised on farms and hauled heavy loads of trash that weighed around three tons. The dust-cart horse traveled on a variety of streets that ranged from wooden surfaces to cobblestone streets to asphalt paved roadways. In addition, because it was important that these horses obeyed, special steps were taken to ensure a perfect match between horse and driver and this partnership lasted a lifetime. Among the skills that these horses needed was that they had to be just as adept at moving backward as they were at traveling forward.

Farm Horses – These horses were generally the Suffolk Punch, Cleveland Bay, Clydesdale, Old English Black (“a strong, vigorous, and active kind of horse, capable of enduring great hardship; its stature rather low, seldom exceeding fourteen hands; the body round and compact, its limbs strong, and its head thick”[3]) or the large, strong Lincoln cart-horse. That was because there was no definitive race required for working horses on the farm. At the end of the 18th century, the Suffolk Punch, the Clydesdale, and the Heavy Black Horse were being improved by crossing them with heavy horses imported from Flanders and the Low Countries (the Netherlands and Belgium) resulting in larger, stronger animals.

By the 1800s farmers tended to like the moderate-sized, strong, active horse over the bulkier and slower animal of former days because they saved time when doing chores, although farmers also generally agreed that a compact and heavier horse ate less and did more work. By the 1800s, farm horses were usually around fifteen hands and two inches high. In addition, a horse with a shoulder thicker, lower, and less slanting than a hackney coach horse was best suited to the collar, which was chiefly what was required of draught horses for the farm.

Jobs for Horses - plowing a field

Plow horses shown plowing a field between 1880 and 1890. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The jobs for horses on small farms often differed from what was required of them on a large farm. Farmers with small places tended to prefer mares to geldings, both for riding and driving partly because they lasted longer, and they could be bred. That meant they were more marketable and small farmers got a higher price when they sold them. However, when it came to draught related work, particularly on large farms, geldings were the choice and the habit of gelding the colts young (rather than waiting to see if any showed promise for breeding) resulted in stallions generally being in short supply.

Fire-engine Horses – This is probably one of the more fascinating of the jobs for horses in the 1800s. Yet, but it did not start out that way. The earliest fire engines were small enough, they could either be carried by four men or the engine was mounted on skids and dragged by men to the fire. These small fire engines were then replaced by four-wheel carriage mounted engines that were still pulled by hand to fires. However, as the engines grew larger and heavier, men were unable to pull them and so animals were needed, which then resulted in the introduction of fire-engine horses.

Fire-engine horses significantly improved the response time of firemen and to ensure a quick response such horses had to be capable of reacting quickly and galloping to the scene. This then resulted in the use of Greys of the vanner type, which were also known sometimes as Gypsy horses. Vanner horses were stocky, powerful, and well-built bodied horses. They had excellent temperaments and calm natures and had been raised to pull caravans.

To ensure that fire-engine horses were instantly ready to fight fires, fire-engine horses wore lightweight harnesses with the traces (the straps by which the animal pulls) hooked to the swingletree or singletree so that fire fighters could quickly attach them to the fire engine. Thus, when a fire started the fire-engine horses were connected quickly and dashed off with bells on to warn people of their imminent approach. Self-propelled steam-driven fire engines later replaced these hardworking animals.

Jobs for horses - fire-engine horses.

Firemen on a horse-drawn fire-cart in 1869. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Funeral Horses – Funeral horses were wanted more for their appearance than their ability to pull. The horses used in London were known as the “Black Brigade” and were black stallions. When they appeared, their presence was obvious because they were also flashy having glossy coats, outstanding manes, and fabulous flowing tails. They were also generally 3-year-old Flemish stallions that arrived from the “flat of Holland Belgium by way of Rotterdam and Harwich.”[4] They took a year to train and had a work life of about six years.

Black Brigade horses were generally kept by jobmasters, better known as black masters and rented out by undertakers as needed. Sometimes, when cholera or the flu struck, these horses rolled out with their undertakers as many as four times a day, six days a week. Moreover, according to the Shoreditch Observer, there were about 700 of these stallions in London and the chief “black masters” were said to be the Dottridge Brothers of East-road, who accordingly did certain things when naming their horses:

“Over every horse is … named from the celebrity, ancient or modern [names included Charles Dickens, Franz Mesmer, Henry Ward Beecher, General Booth, and a mixture of poets, politicians, artists, actors, and musicians], … But the practice of naming horses after church and chapel dignitaries is being dropped owing to a superstition of the stable.”[5]

The Black Brigade horses needed to look good when they pulled funeral hearses featuring large glass windows with silver fittings. So to ensure they had glossy coats and looked good, their diets were restricted. These horses generally ate oats, hay, and rye bread and rarely dined on anything like beans or clover. Once a week, usually on Saturday nights, a mash of linseed and bran was also fed to them. In addition, to prevent other than black horse from being born, these horses were kept away from other horses.

In America, funeral horses within a community often became a cherished asset. This meant a horse’s status was known so if a horse died or a new horses was purchased everyone usually knew all the details having read them in their local paper. Moreover, any undertaker having a smart team was viewed in a better light by the community and usually got more business.

Although great emphasis was put on training a funeral horse, they were plenty of accidents. For instance, in 1889, after five men were killed in an explosion in Rockland, New York, a funeral was planned for October. When the funeral procession of five hearses headed to the burial grounds its progress was interrupted because the team attached to the rear hearse became frightened and bolted. According to the Springville Journal:

“A collision with the hearses seemed inevitable. However, the hearses in the lead were driven to one side of the road and the runaway horses with the fifth hearse attached dashed wildly down the road. The driver could not hold the frightened animals and when alongside the third hearse, the hearse to which the runaways were attached upset with a crash and was smashed to pieces. The horses finally broke loose … and ran into the woods, where they were caught. The driver was thrown from the hearse … and badly hurt. Eventually the casket containing the body of the one of the victims of the explosion was placed in a wagon and in this manner was conveyed to the cemetery.”[6]

Horsecar Horses – Jobs for horses in both the United Kingdom and America also included pulling horsecars. These were trams or streetcars that were a form of public transportation developed during the Industrial Age. They ran along the omnibus routes and were local versions of stagecoach lines where they picked up and dropped off passengers on a regular route. They were an improvement over the omnibus because they allowed horses to haul greater loads and the horsecar gave riders a smoother ride. Moreover, horsecars combined the low cost, flexibility, and safety of animal power with the efficiency, smoothness, and all-weather capability of a rail right-of-way.

Horsecar horses were found in both the United Kingdom and America in the 1800s. Horsecar horses typically worked in a team of two with their shifts lasting about four or five hours and consisting of them pulling the horsecar a dozen miles or so. Because their shifts were so short, systems usually needed ten or more horses in a stable for each streetcar that operated. It was also expensive to house, groom, and feed the horses, and it became even more problematic because the horses produced prodigious amounts of manure, which then had to be disposed of or stored. Furthermore, because these horses had stressful jobs the average life expectancy of a horsecar horse was only about two years.

Mail Horses – Working as a mail horse was another of the interesting jobs for horses in the 1800s. In this case these horses worked every day although they rested between 10:30am and 4pm on Sundays. The rest of the time these horses were busy pulling mail coaches that collected and gathered mail and took it to and from major towns and Post Offices. Mail horses began working as such when they were five or six years old and did so for about six years. Part of the reason they could be used for so long was special attention was given to them by stables because they received high quality food and extra good care.

The type of draught horse that pulled the mail. Author’s collection.

Omnibus Horses – This was one of the most important jobs for horses in the 1800s. That was because by the end of the nineteenth century there were well over 10,000 omnibus horses used by the London General Omnibus Company to carry passengers. Omnibuses were sometimes carried as many as 28 seated passengers. The type of horse needed to pull an omnibus was a “heavy vanner type” and a double deck omnibus would move along at about 7-8 miles per hour. They traveled about twelves miles a day and ate meals of roughage, about six to seven pounds of hay and chaff, and about ten pounds of corn. Because their jobs required them to frequently stop and start, they only lasted about five years.

Jobs for Horses - Omnibus in London

Detail from a drawing of an omnibus in London at Hyde Park, ca. 1851, by James Pollard. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Physician’s Horses – Country doctors in America needed a reliable way to visit their patients living in rural areas or in the mountain. So, one of the jobs for horses in America in the 1800s was to fulfill this requirement. The breed preferred by doctors and physicians was the Rock Mountain horse. It became popular in the late 1800s but was not registered until 1986. The Rocky Mountain horse originated in the foothills of Kentucky’s ‎Appalachian Mountains and when American doctors learned that these horses were sure-footed, pleasant, and versatile with easy gaits, they immediately began to favor them to pull their buggies. Moreover, besides offering reliability, Rocky Mountain horses could also gallop to emergencies when necessary and when there was no hurry, they willingly moved along at a gentle amble.

Pony-Express Horses – One of the jobs for horses in America in the mid-1800s that required a swift horse involved the Pony Express. That was because it was a fast mail service that crossed North America from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast and reduced the time it took for mail to travel between the east and west coasts. However, the Pony Express existed for only a short period and disappeared when the First Transcontinental Railroad was finished.

The Pony Express operated from April 1860 to November 1861 with messages being carried by relays of horse-mounted riders. They traveled across America’s prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains. Among some of the more famous Pony Express riders were William Cody (Buffalo Bill), Robert Haslam, Jack Keetley, and Billy Tate. Further, the horse most often chosen by these and other Pony Express riders was the Morgan horse because these horses were hardy, cobby, and well-muscled, with sweet dispositions.*

Pony Express rider stamp issued for 1869. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Working Horses – Jobs for horses on America’s frontier and in the Wild West varied so much it became imperative that any working horse be highly versatile. A horse might need to herd cattle, pull a wagon, or plow the earth. This thus resulted in the breeding of the American Quarter horse, a horse that was hardy, heavily muscled, calm, maneuverable, and highly intelligent.** However, the American Quarter horse was not just great for work. They were also great for racing and could outrun any horse, including Thoroughbreds.

*This was America’s first recognized breed. During the American Civil War Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and Union General Philip Sheridan both rode Morgan horses.
**The first recognized American Quarter horse was foaled in Kentucky and named Steel Dust. As a yearling he arrived in Texas in 1844 and then became recognized as a distinct breed.


  • [1] J. A. Tarr and Mcshane C., “The Horse as an Urban Technology,” Journal of Urban Technology,, p. 5.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] R. Beilby, A General History of the Quadrapeds (Newcastle Upon Tyne, 1792), p. 10.
  • [4] Shoreditch Observer, “The Black Brigade,” June 11, 1892, p. 3.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Springville Journal, “Funeral Accident,” October 26, 1899, p. 8.

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