Horse-boating on the Waterways

Working the Waterways: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2019

Christopher M Jones

Chris M. Jones investigates the use of horses, mules, ponies and donkeys on both canals and rivers

Over the years, artists have depicted boat horses as magnificent heavy-draught animals, striding along towpaths pulling loaded barges. In reality, heavy horses were little used on the Midlands canals. Some large draught horses did work the waterways of the North, or the lower Grand Junction and river navigations in the South East, hauling river and canal barges. Generally, however, boat horses were small, often referred to as ‘halflegged horses’, of about 16 hands or 63 inches in height. (A hand is 4 inches measured to the top of the withers, or the ridge between the shoulder blades, which is the tallest part of the horse). This not only kept the purchase and running costs of the animals down, but was also for practical reasons, such as negotiating low canal bridges with narrow towpaths and some tunnels. However, some boatmen are known to have kept horses of almost 17 hands, or 68 inches. The purchase price of a horse varied widely, depending on the age and size of the ani…

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