Hay is for horses, and other early modern wisdom

That old ‘hey is for horses’ line is pretty old: Jonathan Swift used it in A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation from 1738. More generally, the number of equine metaphors are indicative of how important horses have been to human (excluding sub-Saharan African and pre-contact American) history: rein in, saddle up, hoof it, jockeying for position, champing at the bit are just a few of the English sayings that remind us of our special relationship. [Note: I tried to limit this post to just three equestrian puns, but horsing around is too much fun.]

The combination of a logistical thread promised much earlier in the year and previous discussion of cavalry leads logically to a separate post on fodder, which only makes sense since, as mentioned in the inaugural logistics post, fodder was likely the third-most important foodstuff for the men (after their own food and drink), and probably the first for the horses (water could be first, but I’ve read somewhere that green forage tended to have a fair amount of water content). The whole topic leaves me with all sorts of questions, so this is just a first attempt to delve into the details of how horse supply worked. Gavin or somebody could probably point me to better discussions already in print. I should probably have looked at a few of the secondary sources on the topic, but that’s why this is a blog post and not an article manuscript. So what follows is a somewhat rambling first attempt to get my head around the subject. You can lead a horse to water…

I’ll preface this post by admitting my ignorance here, for my knowledge of the details of early modern logistics is far less than it should be, although I think that is largely a function of the lack of literature on the subject. In addition to previous comments I’ve made on the difficulty of studying logistics, understanding fodder is particularly difficult for us today because it deals with horses, beasts which most moderns are unfamiliar with, as well as with agriculture, the details of which most moderns are equally unfamiliar with – Erik might refer to an agricultural knowledge economy or some such. Then too, it requires us to look outside of military history (narrowly defined) to the history of agriculture, rural society, and transportation. So I’m admittedly stretching here when talking about the details. Don’t take it from the horse’s mouth: let me know where I screw up. [I’m going to ignore more exotic beasts of burden like oxen, mules, donkeys, burros and their ilk…]

Which end of the horse do I feed? Oh wait, never mind…

So we need to start with the mechanics of feeding a horse. Various websites will give you the nutritional needs of horses, especially the proper amount of fiber, vitamins and protein. I’ll assume that these guidelines are equivalent to early modern horse requirements, although I’d guess there will be some variations from breed to breed. As a random factoid, I recall reading that northern European horses had a hard time serving in Spain: not only did they have to survive the sea voyage, but they had difficulty acclimating to the more sparse (vitamin-deficient?) vegetation in the Mediterranean climate.

Wikipedia says that forage technically refers to plants still on the ground eaten (“foraged”) by grazers, whereas fodder consists of harvested greens provided to them, e.g. hay. From the few primary sources that I’ve checked, contemporaries refer to “fodder magazines,” but also “dry forage” and “forage parties” (although it’s possible the ‘forage’ party was referring to the action rather than the resulting cut grass). Green grass was preferable (more vitamins, more moisture, also more volume required), and there were all kinds of crops that a grazer could eat, which was useful since the three-field rotation system meant nitrogen-fixing legumes (alfalfa, clover) were planted on all that fallow land. Then there were whatever plants grew on ‘waste’ lands, swamps and broken terrain. I assume that contemporaries tried to avoid direct competition between human and horse food, i.e. that horse fodder was not wheat or other cereals (rye, barley…) that humans would bake into bread. Anyone know for certain?

All the aforementioned greens could be harvested and once properly dried, turned into hay, of which there are several kinds (legume hay, grass hay, seed and crop hay…). The horse’s diet also needed to be supplemented with other foodstuffs, e.g. small amounts of oats, and of course they love apples and carrots (saw that in a movie). Do not, however, feed them Beef-a-reeno.

During the winter months green grass was unavailable, though horses might be able to pasture on the dead grasses. Grain might have supplemented the massive amounts of hay that was stored for the winter – it looks like most fodder magazines were intended to maintain the horses during the long winter quarters. (Anybody know if feeding grain to horses is a recent practice?) This lower level of winter nutrition meant that the spring campaign season couldn’t begin until after the horses had been refortified with green grass. Of all these munchies, a balanced diet of grass/hay and oats are the most important. A grain-heavy diet (too many carbohydrates) or eating too many sugars or too much nitrogen can lead to founder, which leads to the hoof disconnecting from the bone, which sounds extremely unpleasant.

How much did a horse eat? During the campaign season, horses ate whatever green forage was around them, perhaps 40 lbs per day?, supplemented by hay and other items as necessary. Our records for specific horse rations tend to relate to the magazines established during winter quarters, which means hay, oats and maybe grain. A 1746 regulation for British cavalry in the Low Countries listed a daily ration as 24 pounds of hay, 6 pounds of straw (I think straw was mostly used for bedding), and three-quarters of a peck of oats (those apple bags in the grocery store are half a peck). The 24 pounds of hay matches modern recommendations I’ve found online: 2% of a horse’s weight per day (24 lbs. for a 1,200-lb. horse).

That’s a bunch of horseshit

Once we know how much a horse should eat in a day and what they ate, we need to figure out how many horses an army might require. This will obviously vary by their availability and according to the theater’s terrain, with mountainous and broken terrain encouraging fewer cavalry, as well as operations requiring extensive siegecraft. To start, we need to distinguish between the horses which people rode on (cavalry and dragoons mounts, plus horses for infantry generals and some officers), and which presumably were brought from outside the theater of operations, from the horses used to transport supplies, which were most likely hired or requisitioned from contractors/civilians in the theater.

First up, the army’s personal horses (is there a contemporary term for such mounts?). I don’t know the number of horses in an average cavalry squadron/regiment (the number of troopers per squadron might average 150) or in an infantry battalion/regiment, and frankly I’d rather not ballpark it till I find some real numbers from contemporary sources. Presumably one horse per cavalry trooper is reasonable, but I really don’t know how many horses the average infantry unit would have: officer’s horses certainly, possibly some other horses for volunteers, any for the NCOs? Nor do I have any idea how many horses would be added to this total when we include the camp followers and sutlers in each regiment. When I have time, I’ll try to find some contemporary mention of real numbers – feel free to help out in the comments. We can also get a sense of these number from the figures for rations discussed later, but it’d be nice to approach the question from several different types of sources.

In addition to an undetermined number of horses carrying the men, just as many (more? fewer?) were needed for logistical transport. Horses were needed to convoy bread from the magazine/ovens to the army, to haul the artillery and munitions, to carry each regiment’s baggage and tents, as well as serve as ambulances for hospital service (and to haul barges on canals/rivers). As far as these supply horses are concerned, we can do much better since we have some detailed contracts. Drawing liberally from John Stapleton’s diss (soon to be a book), we can add the following details from the 1694 campaign as an example: the civilian bread contractors provided 850 wagons (2,556 horses) plus another 802 draft horses for transportation of ammunition, the artillery train, as well as ambulance service. I’ve seen some anecdotal evidence that empty munition wagons could serve as ambulances on the return trip. The Dutch army (around 70,000 men) required another 1,702 wagons and 6,000+ horses to carry their regimental baggage and tents. So that’s almost 10,000 supply transport horses in theater for the year 1694, just for the Dutch troops. Then we have the English contingent of the Allied army, which contracted for another 700-800 bread wagons, probably another 2,500 horses, plus I don’t know how many wagons and horses for baggage, but let’s assume a similar number to the Dutch, another 5,000. The Spanish had a smaller number of troops, and there were also many German mercenaries. So at the least, the Allied army in Flanders in 1694 required well over 15,000 horses for supply transport alone. [John: correct me if I missed something. I don’t want to look like a horse’s ass.]. The number of horses may have surged much higher in time of extraordinary transportation demands. It’s said 16,000 horses were required just to haul the artillery train and munitions for the  massive 1708 siege of Lille. No wonder contemporaries noted the unique nature of the theater’s sieges, when they could haul hundreds of pieces to a siege site.

It’s unclear how much overlap there is between the number of mounts and various types of transport horses; I don’t know whether the theater had that much spare horsepower, or whether they would import horses from neighboring regions to deal with peak demand. It’s clear that in some cases they would redirect horses from other duties until the priority task was complete. During the 1703 siege of Limburg, for example, the Allied officers’ horses in the main army were enlisted into transporting the siege artillery across the hilly Ardennes before being returned to their owners. Civilian horse stock was similarly called upon from time to time: the Duke of Marlborough’s correspondence frequently included reminders to local villages to provide a certain number of wagons, horse-teams and drivers to a certain place by a certain time, often for siege-related operations.

We can use another measure to look at it from a different angle: the number of rations for a given unit, often attached to costs. This won’t directly tell us the number of horses, but it will give us a sense of how much they ate. A British document from 1701 mentions 560 forage rations per day for a cavalry regiment and 60 rations per day for a regiment of foot – if we assume this ration is the same as the 24 lbs of hay discussed above, that would equal 13,440 lbs. of hay for a cavalry regiment and 1,440 lbs. for each infantry regiment per day. So if we had a field army (we’re ignoring garrisons here) of 50 foot regiments and 150 squadrons, that would require over 2 million lbs. of hay per day. Over a 160-day campaign, we’d be talking 334,680,000 lbs. of hay. Sounds like a lot to me. Presumably some agricultural history might give us a sense of how these numbers would compare to the agricultural output of a given region or acreage, or the demands from the civilian horse population (itself dependent on whether military horses were in addition to the local horse population, or simply temporarily ‘re-purposing’ civilian horses for military tasks). There is also an important caveat here: most of these ration figures refer to winter quarters, so we would need some other sources to figure out green forage during the campaign season (Perjés provides some theoretical guidelines).

We could ballpark the number of personal horses per regiment from the above ration figures, until we remember that it’s not as simple as just assuming 60 forage rations per infantry regiment per day tells us that there were 60 horses per foot regiment. As with human food, the higher-ranking officers received more than one ration per day. Scouller, Armies of Queen Anne, 147 provides an example for winter quarters in the Spanish Succession, possibly even the same as the 1701 example above: 40 rations for the General of Horse, 4 for an Aid-de-camp, 40 for a General of Foot, 30 a Lt-Gen, 24 a Maj-Gen, 12 rations per Brigadier, 3 per Brigade Major, 6 for the Quartermaster General, 6 the Deputy Paymaster, 4 the Judge-Advocate, 3 for the Provost Marshal, 2 for the Wagon Master General, and 60 rations for a troop of dragoons (an English troop of dragoons having 50-65 men), as well as the 60 rations for each battalion. For 200 days (100 days at the beginning of the year and 100 days at the end of the year), this fodder and wagon money cost the English army 174,000 guilders, or about £16,600. It seems this was paid to the troops in specie, with which they would acquire local supplies, but I’m not sure.

If I had more time, I’d look around for real figures on the number of horses in an army. Maybe I’ll find some less theoretical and more solid figures provided by contemporaries. Or maybe you’ll find some and share.

So what have I learned? Logistically, we have a variety of ways to estimate figures:

  • Demand per horse (horse eats 24 lbs. of hay per day/year)
  • Demand per unit (foot regiment & cavalry regiment require X amount of rations per day/year)
  • Demand per army (an army of X size requires X number of rations per day/year)
  • Supply per horse (i.e. ration size)
  • Supply per unit (i.e. number of rations per unit)
  • Supply per army (i.e. number of rations to be provided, usually specified in price)

We have much better supply information for winter quarters as provisioners provided the fodder magazines, whereas how much horses ate on campaign is less clear since it appears this was either foraged by the individual riders and their mounts, or amassed in giant forage parties, which probably didn’t track their haul very closely. In either case, it doesn’t seem like this forage was centrally provided by the logisticians who kept good records. (I don’t know if localities attempted to quantify such claims when they complained to military officials.) In short, all of these measures require some calculation on our part – I’m still looking for a source that would give us the total amount of hay/grass used by an army through the campaign season.

The above discussion is admittedly sketchy, with much speculation, and many large gaps in my knowledge. So now it’s your turn: what are my calculations missing? Has somebody already written all about this, making this post a colossal waste of time? Let us know in the comments.

Next installment in the series, I’ll look a bit at what my sources from the campaigns can tell us about the impact of forage on operations.

Suggested Readings:

See the blog’s Zotero library, Logistics and Cavalry subgroups (link to the right).


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12 responses to “Hay is for horses, and other early modern wisdom”

  1. jegrenier says :

    And to think my wife just bought a horse on Monday. Trying to keep Bo in hay (with the drought) and not break the bank is going to BA a challenge.

  2. Erik Lund says :

    Here’s a link to Garnet Wolseley’s  discussion in his Pocket Handbook. After reading this, you’ll probably want to make a joke riffing on Gilbert and Sullivan. Don’t. All the good “model of a modern Major-General” lines are already taken.

    So that’s it for the feeding end of a mid-Nineteenth Century army. It carries the usual risks of anachronism in talking about the Early Modern, of course. Here’s Dorian Gerhold pushing it back a little with a close look at the records of Russell’s Flying Waggons. Here’s the synthetic overview he published back when he was pushing a “Transport Revolution” with the guys at the Journal of Transportation History. It’s good, and I wish I knew what he was up to at the moment.

    On the question of calculating the requirement downwards from army records, the “Grand Convoy” of Lille is a good example of the pitfalls. The “16,000 horses” required is a frequently cited statistic, but the actual total is 60,000, including reliefs for some, but not all, of the horses. (Genuine archival research alert!) Is that a lot of horses for the region? Well, Braudel hauls estimates of 2 million people in the Lowlands and 1 horse per 20 people out of ..well, where the fertiliser comes from, I suspect. (Warning: that’s a wave at a very big book, and off hand I don’t even remember which.) So, yeah. Lots of horses. The same point can be made out of ration strengths. They were commuted to money, and are usually included in compensation discussions, leading me to strongly suspect that not all of the horses “allowed” to an officer even existed. It’s stock options for Early Moderns. Then when we count sabres we need to estimate the number of dismounted men, while if we’re looking at trains we should be alert to things like the time that Schmettau notes (with much self-congratulation) when he attaches an extra train of pack string to each company to carry blankets since new recruits tend to suffer from the chills. (Wow: It’s available on Google Books in a 1786 edition. I’m going to pretend that the revision makes my page number citations useless and not go looking for them.)

    The takeaway here is that I don’t think that the top-down approach is either feasible or helpful. There’s a buttload of horses out there, and a buttload of grass. It’s a question of operational warfare whether they meet, and those interested in understanding this through the lens of finance are better off looking at the final accounts, since the specific costs of conducting of foraging operations aren’t going to be broken out of the total costs of war. Sometimes, an authority will tell you when an operation is conditioned by the exigencies of forage, but I generally find it more rewarding to consider forage as POL for the early moderns. No-one could conceivably fight a modern war without knowing where the gas is coming from, and in the same way, grass is the substrate of all operational planning in an agricultural economy of knowledge.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the cites. I’ve always wondered about the facility with which historians take some theoretical figure (e.g. ration per X) and then blithely multiply it times several thousands of Xes and voila, the supply needed! My first encounter with this was Engels on Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Army – it seemed a bit too neat and tidy to my untrained eye. Of course it’s a lot easier to do that way – just find a contemporary manual that ballparks it, and there you go. Instant logistics.

      FWIW, I will have a future post on major-generals, but won’t attempt any jokes.

  3. learnearnandreturn says :

    A few thoughts:
    Were all the wagons, etc drawn by horses? What about oxen or mules? I’m sure mules would have been widely available in Spain, for instance.

    I’m sure a ‘foraging party’ is a description of what they did, rather than what they were collecting. It is much more efficient to steal / liberate grain by the sack, than hay by the hurdle.

    When I lived on a farm as a child, we would NEVER feed horses any wheat at all – it’s far too dangerous as the horses founder. Oats would be standard fodder in northern Europe – but did oats and barley grow in Spain? If not, what was the alternative. (another reason why mules might be preferable for the baggage trains)

    There was an important export trade in cavalry mounts for the Indian Army from Australia, from about 100 years from the 1830s. I realise this is a long way from your interests, geographically and chronologically, but there’s an excellent book about the trade – A.T Yarwood, Walers: Australian horses abroad (Melbourne University Press, 1989). Sandy was a good historian AND a good horseman, and his book covers some of the practical problems of transporting live animals by sea.

    The reason the Indian army needed to import horses was that they didn’t breed well in Indian conditions – and replacement of cavalry horses is another issue. Mares were unlikely to breed under cavalry conditions, and a mare in season would be disruptive, so I suspect the preference was for geldings. And breaking in horses is time-consuming so was probably undertaken before they reached the battlefront.

    Cheers, Marion

    • jostwald says :

      There will be theater variations – I’m told Napoleon’s crossing the Alps was by donkey (mule?) rather than that majestic stallion David has him riding.

      I know in the Low Countries wherever possible they used waterways – if I’m remembering correctly, in 1709 the Allies shifted their siege train from Tournai to Mons (a short distance as the crow flies to the east) by circuitously moving it back up (i.e. north, or downriver) the Scheldt to Gent, then over to the Dender and then upriver (south) to Mons. Admittedly, siege trains carried much heavier objects than fodder, but less volume.
      Even with water transport, you’d still need a few towing steeds for going upriver. I think John Stapleton has looked at the contracts for such conveyance.

      I’ll bet Gavin’s bibliography probably has lots of details on horse breeding/trade in the period.

  4. Gavin Robinson says :

    I might have to do a whole post on this as I’ve got so much material from the English Civil War, but here are some quick points. There are some figures for numbers of horses in my War in History article (open access version). My PhD thesis includes a chapter on fodder that isn’t great but better than nothing.

    “excluding sub-Saharan African” Sandra Swart might disagree there. See her essay in The Horse as Cultural Icon.

    Oats were the usual hard feed in most of 17th century England, but some areas fed horses on peas and beans. This seems to have been more common in East Anglia.

    The British Army’s 1908 Animal Management manual said that horses need between 8 and 16 gallons of water per day, depending on climate and how hard they’re working. Water is almost completely invisible in ECW records.

    In the ECW, feeding horses on dry fodder bought or requisitioned from civilians seems to have been more common than grazing them on standing crops. There are claims for losses usually arranged by parish that can give an impression of how much wasn’t paid for. I’ve photographed most of the surviving accounts for Buckinghamshire and put them on Flickr but have only quantified losses of horses, not fodder.

    Plans for the New Model Army required 6,000 cavalry troop horses, 1,000 dragoon troop horses and about 1,000 draught horses for artillery and ammunition (this was only a field train containing 6 and 12 pounders; extra horses were needed when siege guns were brought out). Officers’ horses are less certain but maybe up to 1,500. Draught horses for transporting food are mostly invisible because only a minority were paid for by the state, and most food was sold direct to soldiers by private victuallers (see Nusbacher’s PhD thesis and EHR article).

    Erik’s point that allowed horses didn’t necessarily exist is important. I’ve seen certificates from the ECW stating that an officer kept his full allowance of horses in actual service, but it still might not be true. Financial records are full of all kinds of fictions. I’ve found that Fairfax’s warrants ordering horses to be issued to troopers are just an after the fact accounting procedure and that the horses hadn’t physically changed hands.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the info. Looks like there’s still lots to be done. A far cry from the simplistic discussion we seem to have in the literature now.

      Re: foraging for green vs. dry. This would presumably depend on when in the season we’re talking: before vs. after harvest season. I’d guess dry fodder would be easier to control, distribute, etc. given its concentration.

      Officers kept non-existent soldiers on the rolls for their pay, so why not horses too!

  5. Erik Lund says :

    Wolseley gives weights per bushel for feeding transport animals, in order, of oats, barley, wheat, rye, maize, buckwheat, beans, peas, potatoes and onions (86). For the purposes of home campaigning (exercises?) he offers bushels per acre of possible fodder crops in the order above, then appending turnips, cabbage and carrots. (Russells’ archives list carrots, along with apples and bran, as “medicine” rather than as fodder.)

    Earlier (74) comes one of those famous pedantic passages where he discusses , apparently, everything that has ever been fed to horses, from elm and bamboo leaves to roof thatch. It’s worth bearing in mind here that armies aren’t farms, however much the army is drawn from the working economy. Wolseley cites German statistics (the best kind!) showing that an army has to replace 40% of its horse stock each year, in line with Ann Hyland’s 100% turnover every two years.

    In summary, every early modern military historian should read the Pocket Handbook as a remarkable artifact of an age when people were still fighting wars of grass in an era of quasi-modern record and statistics keeping. At the ever present risk of anachronism, it is an awesome source on the everyday history of war.

    Trying Wolseley’s recipes for lemonade and figgy pudding on your next camping trip is optional.

  6. Björn Thegeby says :

    I think the additional forage rations for officers are linked to their allocations for wagons. I would not see any point in a senior officer having 40 horses otherwise.

    I am less certain about the opportunities to requisition/liberate/steal (depending on rank) replacement horses on the march. Horses are by definition mobile and the local population would no doubt happen to be without horses that day, particularly in the Spanish scenario where the Luso-Anglo-Dutch army in 1706 spent six month with limited communications with friendly territory. The commander of the Dutch contingent, Friesheim, described his men as ” in rags, ten days without bread, surviving on little meat and grapes”.

    The British cavalry was already unhappy with the quality of the horses they were supplied with in Portugal and several regiments served on foot in 1705 (two thirds according to later sources). When reinforcements arrived with Lord Rivers a third of his men had died or otherwise become casualties and I suspect the horses were not much better off. A later source also speaks about “great scarcity of provisions for men and horses” and horses “almost dead with fatigue” and “scarcity of forage, the straw and barley not being good for the large English and Dutch horses”. While some of that can no doubt be ascribed to a wish to explain away the subsequent defeat, it paints a picture of a cavalry at the limit of its usability.

    There are two conclusions I would draw. One is that the rations of forage would only materialise where the organisation was in place, which in my view for the WSS means either a French or a Dutch commissariat. The second is that the roll calls of cavalry regiments indicate the number of troopers, but with only a certain proportion actually being on horseback.

    • jostwald says :

      The extra officer rations could be for wagons, it could also be a perk of the position. This would particularly make sense if the rations were actually paid in cash (like, I believe, it was for soldier’s bread rations). But I’m not sure if that’s how it worked with fodder.

      If the anecdotes about the tables generals were expected to offer guests is true, maybe they needed that many horses to transport their silverware?

      Maybe there were other ‘hidden’ horse needs that a senior officer might require – servants (included with the wagons?), runners (riders) and the like…?

      Re: local horses getting requisitioned. In the Low Countries you can find Allied complaints about local resistance to providing wagons. But the orders (and resulting transportation) is regular enough that at least some of them must have showed up. Working through a central contact point, usually the local authorities (e.g. the letters are usually addressed to the Estates of Brabant or the echevins of a particular town/county…) probably helped get some degree of cooperation. I can imagine that the horse supply in Iberia was much worse, but then my mental map of most of Spain is dry, high desert and mountains.

      • Björn Thegeby says :

        It would make sense if the fodder followed the wagon allowance, but if both or none were paid in cash, this must be known in advance. No QM would accept, or forward, a delivery of forage that is not clearly assigned

        It is always more easy to relieve your allies of your property than your enemies, partly because there was an outside chance the chits would be honoured, but more probably because it is more difficult to hide stuff.

        On Spain, horse country is Andalucia in the South, which was never occupied. The three main East-West rivers (Guadiana, Tajo and Duero/Tormes) provide enough water to water horses and an army, but at least Tajo runs in a ravine below desolate plains. The siege of Badajoz on the Guadiana had been a dismal failure. Tormes is running through wheat country and is flat and was chosen. This is as far from horse country as you can get. (Good fighting bulls, though.)

  7. Erik Lund says :

    Yes, there is a monetary commutation for forage as well as for the pain de munition issue. Well, from the Reichstag, anyway.

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