Horse Power!

With George being a historically horse-drawn short boat, I felt it would be appropriate to share with you a few facts about horse boating in the early days of the canals…

Our Window on the World project will use this traditional means of canal boat traction to tow George along theLeeds & Liverpool Canal. Horses will take a lead role in transforming George into a moving historical attraction for our visitors to experience during the spring and summer seasons…

The ‘Hayday’ of the Horse

As historian P.J.G Ransom professed: ‘The principal means of propulsion for canal boats and barges, for over 150 years, was the horse’. Horses were absolutely essential to the Britain’s industrial revolution, and they remained at work on canals until the mid-20th century. Donkeys and mules were sometimes used for the same purpose, though horses were undoubtedly the most popular.

Both long and short boats were originally all-wooden craft, towed by a single heavy horse. Features of the typical horse drawn craft would be a feed box or a 'proven tub' on the after dock and a water barrel, with a five gallon capacity, mounted on a deck still in a sideways position. 

Canal horses needed high energy food to aid their long tiresome journeys along the waterways. They mainly lived on corn, crushed oats and chopped hay that had been prepared for them. A hard-worked canal horse had to be very well fed at regular intervals to wade off fatigue. Horse-drawn boats therefore required a huge amount of work to be done by boatmen and their families.

At the end of each working day, horses needed a stall in a stable to get some well-earned rest. As a result, every warehouse, dock or canal side pub had to contain stables. Furthermore, blacksmiths were also in demand in canal side locations to keep the industry running smoothly – boat horses could easily wear out a set of shoes somewhere between four and six weeks.

No horsing around!

Maintaining the horse’s wellbeing was a very serious affair for most boat owners. Horses were considered to be their most valuable possession (after the boat of course!) They had to ensure that their horse was in full health and well-fed and rested at all times – or else the business would suffer.

For many boatmen and women, carrying goods along the canal provided their only source of income. Without a horse to haul the boats along the waterways, boatpeople found themselves in hot water, as they had no means to transport goods to earn themselves a living.

Horses were therefore generally very well-treated by the families who owned them. A minimum of two people were required to work a horse drawn boat – one to steer and keep the boat in deep water and the other to drive the horse. It was frequently the man and his wife who occupied these roles. If they had children, they would also help out to set the locks when passing through them. 


Last date edited: 16 March 2016

About this blog

National Waterways Museum

The National Waterways Museum is home to the most comprehensive collection of artefacts that tell the story of Britain’s canals and navigable rivers over the last 300 years. With sites at Ellesmere Port and Gloucester, the museum holds over 12,000 historic objects and 68 historic boats and is designated by the Arts Council England as of national importance. The National Waterways Museum Ellesmere Port is also home to the Waterways Archive including over 100,000 papers, drawings photographs, plans and books relating to the waterways – a vital part of our national cultural heritage.


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