Last week, two local farriers, Steven Griffin and Simon Curtis, visited the Wessex Archaeology Finds team in Salisbury to offer their insights into a collection of early 20th century horseshoes found during excavations on Salisbury Plain as part of the Army Basing Programme for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO).

With years of practical experience, the pair was instrumental in identifying various types and uses for the horseshoes. Their information revealed some interesting insights into the shoeing practices of the military at a time when horses and mules were both practical and prestige assets.

Horses in the First World War

When the First World War broke out, the army’s supply of horses numbered just 25,000. Cavalry and artillery units had used horses for centuries, with officers responsible for their own mounts and horses, donkeys and mules used for the movement of supplies and weaponry. 

At the dawn of a new type and scale of conflict, the army recognised the urgent need to source a large number of animals. This led to the requisition of around 120,000 horses from civilians around the country; only animals that were needed for the war effort at home, like farming or transport, were exempt. They also looked overseas, purchasing horses from countries including America and Canada. The Army Remount Department were responsible for sourcing and readying the horses. 

By the end of the war, the army had bought nearly half a million horses, mules and donkeys. 

Site photo showing the early 20th century horse shoes in situ

Shoeing army horses

Horses were required to march with their troops over long distances. Horses’ feet grow in much the same way as human fingernails, meaning that their shoes become ill-fitting after around five to seven weeks of wear. Regiments therefore had a farrier that travelled with them, usually a non-commissioned officer (NCO), whose primary job was to trim hooves and fit the new shoes, using the same techniques we use today. 

The selection found on Salisbury Plain includes shoes for donkeys and mules as well as horses of a wide variety of sizes and types. Simon and Steve identified both hand- and early machine- made shoes designed to suit purposes ranging from hunting to traction and use on hard surfaces, such as cobbled roads, or soft, muddy ground. From the style of, and wear patterns visible on, some of the shoes they could identify the use of animals suffering from conditions such as curb and bone spavin – and the efforts the farriers had gone to in order to help them and keep them working. Sometimes, they could even suggest conformational features of the animals, such as the presence of a big chested horse, this feature causing it to be even more pigeon-toed than is usual for horses, resulting in distinctive scuff marks on the outside heel of its front shoe.

The shoes include examples of high-quality craftsmanship, but also some very sloppy work (such as one nail driven into the horse’s hoof and left with its point intact inside), as well as unfinished ‘practice’ pieces probably made by apprentices. An anvil fitting used to shape iron bars to the correct profile for shoe-making was also found, along with a hand-forged, fire-welded trace hook and short length of very robust chain – these two items indicating that the farriers did more than just shoe horses. The manufacture of trace hooks like this one is still part of forging exams today.

We would like to thank Steven and Simon for taking the time to visit us and applying their 21st century expertise to these historical artefacts. 

By Madeleine Gilbert, Communications & Marketing Manager