B ack in the day when nothing was motorized, humans relied on the help of horses to do most of their daily tasks. That also applied to transportation (today’s buses and taxis), police work, medical work (ambulances), and even firefighting. The last one mentioned is this article’s topic, namely how fire horses contributed to the work of the fire service.
What are Fire Horses?
Fire Horse was the title given to a stallion or mare trained to respond to fire alarms by allowing its handlers to strap it to the gear connected to the wagon which it would pull to carry the heavy equipment required to put out any building that was ablaze. These horses were usually bought after they passed the 3 years old age mark, as they had to be trained beforehand to accept being equipped with a harness and how to respond to the signals received through the reins. The names firefighters gave them were usually monosyllabic or disyllabic like Ted or Beauty, but some exceptions were made, like in the case of Searchlight, a stallion widely known for being able to find the quickest shortcuts, particularly during the nighttime.
Those horses were usually on duty for 5 years, and some even went up to 10 years, and while that might not seem to be a long time that is how much they lasted because:
- They had to run at exceptional speeds
- The loads they carried were incredibly heavy
- The impact of the hooves hitting the hard city pavement created a lot of damage to the legs and joints
- The weather wasn’t always favorable (heavy rain which caused the roads to be muddy, thick snow, heat waves, etc.)
To help them along, there were many attempts made involving rubber horseshoes, cloths, or wooden shields, but none came out particularly successful. No other gear was involved other than the harnesses since the animals were tied to carriages and no one needed horse saddles, although there are stories of an old fire chief named McRobie who used to ride his horse Frank bareback to make way for the fire wagons behind him. The firefighters didn’t have all that much protection either, other than their wide-brimmed helmets made from very tough leather, very different from today’s horse riding helmets.
When were they used by firefighters?
The era in which fire horses have had a spot in the hall of fame began in the year 1877 and ended sometime in the late 1930s, though most of the rides in the 30s were final calls that signaled the retirement of the horse units.
Hose Company 1 was the first to employ the service of equines and they started by acquiring two steeds for the job of pulling the equipment. After that, many other Fire Engines followed suit and soon horses became an emblem for the fire departments, acclaimed by the public and well taken care of by the fire chiefs and other workers. Whenever there was a fire, you would instantly hear the siren, the loud thumping hooves across the pavement, and the barks of the Dalmatians that accompanied the carriages. Their popularity rose so much that everyone was sure this would be the standard practice for centuries to come. However, as motorized engines started to appear and be integrated into the fire departments, it slowly became clear that sooner or later the horses would have to retire. By 1921 almost all of the engines in use were already motorized, and the final calls to include horses would be happening on the 10th of April in 1922 in Detroit and on the 6th of February in 1923 in Chicago for false alarms in the U.S. In Canada, they were last used in the winter of 1936 in Winnipeg for a few real calls, due to the horses’ ability to make their way through the heavy snow, and until 1938 in Fredericton, the last city to retire them.
What breeds were often used as Fire Horses?
Firefighters often looked for one of two breeds that could bear the loads and also be easily trainable, and those were:
- Morgans: leaner and faster | a height from 14 to 15 hands high | used for less strenuous jobs
- Percherons: bigger and more muscular | a height from 15 to 18 hands high | used to pull spectacular weights
The colts they sought out were bred from purebred stallions and crossbreed mares, and the reason for this is that half breeds were less pretentious when it came to maintenance, but they were also faster and cheaper to buy. As previously mentioned, the age of the animal had to be between 3 and 6 years old so that they were old enough to have already had their basic training and young enough to be used for a long time. The colt’s adult weight also had a say in future responsibilities, and so they were separated into lightweights for hose wagons, middleweights for steamers, and large for heavier loads.
Fire Horses and Dalmatians
There was also a second animal that was just as often seen running in front of a fire engine, and that was one or more Dalmatians. These packs were used by firefighters for a few main reasons, those being the horses’ and carriages’ safety and the loud barks. People had long since noticed that dogs and horses get along, and that was because the canine companions had a calming effect which was perfect during the long waits as the fires were being put out. The dogs also protected everything left behind by the firefighters from thieves. Lastly, when the engine was pulled through busy streets the loud bark was extremely important because people could hear from very far away that they needed to clear the path.
Nowadays, firefighters don’t have to rely on horses as means of transportation to tend to fires thanks to the improvements made to the motorized fire engines. Those who might still have to rely on their steeds to carry water containers in case of a fire emergency are the people who live in remote locations, too far away from fire stations. And, although animals aren’t used in the heat of the action anymore, the memory of their faithful and reliable services still lives on, since many fire departments still have a Dalmatian as their mascot to remind everyone of the olden times.