When horses ruled: How equines shaped today’s world


Working animals played a fundamental role in Britain’s past and were a familiar part of everyday life, even for large parts of the 20th century. But, despite their importance in history, they are now a distant memory and 40 per cent of people in the UK don’t know what a working animal is, according to research by international animal charity SPANA.

For centuries, working horses were the main source of power – the driving force of agriculture, transport, mining and warfare. They have been replaced by cars, buses, tractors and trains, but in 1900, almost every vehicle on the streets of London was horse-drawn and pit ponies were still working underground in British coal mines in 1999.

The Bank of London in 1890 and 2017.
The Bank of London in 1890 and 2017. © GL Archive, Alamy / SPANA

To mark International Working Animal Day on June 15, SPANA has produced a new set of images that highlight how our streets, fields and workplaces were filled with working horses in the past. From Westminster Bridge to Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and the docks of Liverpool, the images show the stark contrast between modern life and a bygone era.

International Working Animal Day aims to raise awareness about the vital role that working animals continue to play in developing countries around the world. Working animals – such as horses, donkeys and camels – are relied upon by one billion of the world’s poorest people for their livelihoods.

Covent Garden Station. ©  Museum of London / SPANA
Covent Garden Station, 1920-1933 and 2017. © Museum of London / SPANA

Some 200 million working animals do the jobs of trucks, tractors and taxis, making it possible for impoverished families to earn a small income. However, these animals often lead short, painful lives, with tough working conditions, inadequate nutrition and no access to veterinary treatment.

SPANA Chief Executive Geoffrey Dennis said the term ‘horsepower’ today, tends to mean fast cars and the like. “But, in Britain, working horses were our engines for thousands of years. They helped build our towns and cities, farmed our land and were our main form of transport. Their contribution to British economic and social development is indisputable. Yet, it’s a bond many have forgotten.

Paul O'Grady
Paul O’Grady

“In many developing countries today, working animals are still as vital as they were here a century ago, providing an income for the poorest families. But this vast global workforce is largely unknown and ignored,” Dennis said.

“We believe that these animals deserve greater recognition. And, more importantly, they need our help. Many animals live and work in appalling conditions, without the care they need. But a life of work shouldn’t mean a life of suffering.”

TV star Paul O’Grady is a big supporter of SPANA. “It breaks my heart to see how hard horses, donkeys, mules and camels have to work around the world, pulling carts and carrying heavy loads,” he said.

“Despite how important they are, many will lead short, painful lives. Hardly any receive even basic vet care when they’re sick or injured, as it’s often not available and their owners simply can’t afford it. They deserve better.

“We need governments and aid organisations around the world to recognise the massive contribution of working animals and to make sure they get the treatment, care and compassion they deserve,” O’Grady said.

SPANA works in developing countries worldwide, providing free veterinary care to sick and injured working animals, as well as improving animal welfare through education and training for communities. But, the sheer number of working animals globally means that there are still millions of animals that currently have no form of veterinary treatment available to them.

Westminster Bridge. © GL Archive, Alamy / SPANA
Westminster Bridge, 1909 and 2017. © GL Archive, Alamy / SPANA


2500BC – The domestication of horses, and their use to pull vehicles, had begun in Britain 

1086 – Over 95% of draught animals on the land were oxen, according to The Domesday Book

1100s – Horses were used for harrowing land for arable crops, and horses and carts increasingly transported farm goods

1400s – Horse-drawn four-wheeled wagons introduced in Britain, means that heavier loads could be hauled by horse teams on poor quality roads. Pack horses were also used for transport.

1500s – Horse teams were beginning to replace ox teams in ploughing work, due to their greater speed, strength and agility

1669 – Use of fast horse-drawn coaches (“Flying Coaches”) began

Piccadilly Circus, London, 1907 and 2017.
Piccadilly Circus, London, 1907 and 2017. © Chronicle, Alamy / SPANA

1750 – First recorded use of ponies underground in Britain, at Durham coalfield

1774 – There were just over 200,000 working oxen in England. For two thousand years, oxen were the main beasts of burden on British farms and roads, but by 1840 they had all but vanished, replaced by horses

1784 – First regular mail coach service ran, between Bristol and London. Horse-drawn vehicles continued to carry the Royal Mail in Cornwall until 1919

1878 – Over 200,000 pit ponies were estimated to be working in British mines 

1900 More than 300,000 horses were needed in London, pulling carriages, cabs, buses, trams and delivery vans. Almost every vehicle on London’s streets was horse-drawn

1901 – An estimated 3.25 million horses were working in Britain, with half used on farms

1915 – Horse buses and trams had disappeared in London, and motor taxis outnumbered horse-drawn cabs

1917 – Britain had over one million horses and mules in service in the First World War (over the course of the war Britain lost more than 484,000 horses)

Tottenham Court Road, London, in Victorian times and 2017.
Tottenham Court Road, London, in Victorian times and 2017. © Alamy / SPANA

1921 – London Fire Brigade said goodbye to its last horse-drawn fire engine

1940 – Britain’s railways used 11,163 horses

1942 – Horses still outnumbered tractors on British farms by 30 to 1. Tractor numbers overtook horses in the 1950s and working horses had virtually disappeared from agriculture by the 1970s

1942 – The British Army still employed 6500 horses, 10,000 mules and 1700 camels in the Second World War

1950s – House-to-house deliveries of milk and coal were still made by horse and cart throughout Britain, with refuse collections carried out by the ‘rag-and-bone man’

1967 – The last British Railways horse was retired

1978 – Only 12 ‘rag and bone men’ were still working in Manchester and Salford, using a horse and cart for collecting waste and trading. By 1965, only a few hundred remained in London

1999 – The last two pit ponies working underground in British coal mines were retired in South Wales


Latest research and information from the horse world.

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