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19th Century Horse Snowshoe

Horse Snowshoe
1875-1900, 19th century
Wood, Forged Iron
9"l x 8"w x 4"d
M.878.541.21062
© Vintage Winter Museum

Legend says that Paul Bunyan, the mythical giant logger, was the first to make a set of snowshoes to fit an animal. One winter the snow was so deep that Big Blue, Paul’s faithful ox, couldn’t see over it and kept running into Paul and knocking him down. Paul was not one to stand for such treatment and made the shoes so that Big Blue could see where he was going.

We now believe that horse snowshoes were used over ~800 years ago. In more recent times horse snowshoes were made famous in the 1912 Antarctic expedition by Captain Robert Scott. It is now believed that if Captain Scott was not talked out of leaving behind horse snowshoes by his equine expert Captain Lawrence Oates they would have survived. 29 sets of horse snowshoes were left behind at Cape Evans while only 1 set was carried on the expedition. After the only set was placed on one horse Captain Scott noted: “the effect was magical. He strolled around as though walking on hard ground.” Immediately after he sent men back to the expedition base to fetch the snowshoes. Unfortunately breaks in the sea ice prevented the men from reaching Cape Evans.

Horse snowshoes were widely used in Newfoundland for pulpwood logging to enable the animal to draw bigger loads and work in deeper snow. An article in the 1931 January edition of The Canadian Illustrated Forest and Outdoors magazine describes and illustrates very clearly how they were made.

For the basic style, three holes were drilled in the upper surface of an oblong birch plank (9″×12″×2) to fit the calks – or metal knobs – of the horse’s shoe. Three other holes where made through the plank to accommodate 1/2" hemp rope, two loops of which buckled in front with a leather strap to hold the shoe to the horse’s hoof. Strips of wood were nailed to the plank’s under surface to prevent the horse from slipping when the pull came.

A more elaborate and perhaps better type had a rim (12" to 14" in diameter and an inch or so thick) made of hardwood sapling or metal rod. This rim was connected to a central ring by rope, chain or wire. The shoe was attached to the hoof in a manner similar to that of a wooden shoe.

It was said that the shoes could be attached in about five minutes and cost between $2.50 and $10.00 for a set of four depending on the make. If the teamster was careful and removed the shoes when the horse was traveling on hard roads the shoes would last for several seasons.

The use of snowshoes was said to decrease the ground pressure of the animal per unit of area by three or four times, making it approximately the same as a man (about seven pounds per square inch).

Snowshoed horses were used for breaking roads in deep snow or for off-road skidding and wood hauling when the snow was deep, but not excessively loose. On warmer spring days the shoes were used to prevent horses from punching holes in logging roads with their hooves; this saved on horseflesh and allowed the horses to do more work. The shoes were also used in summer, especially in Newfoundland, to prevent horses from miring when working in swamps.

Text provided by Vintage Winter, Jim Ferguson and the Antarctic Conversation Blog.  Please check out these sites as they have great photos and further information on the subject.

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