Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Jumping barge horses

As someone who is always curious as to how things work, we had been puzzling how the canal horses work on the Chelmer Navigational system when there were horse drawn barges, and they had to get from one side to another. Well I stumbled on the answer today, they jumped on to the barges of course and were taken across, this fascinating article by Dudley Courtman explains the how; comparing my handsome black horse to Constable was the clue, it was a Constable picture of a rearing horse that held the truth...........

Jumping Barge Horses on the River Stour
Some of the celebrated paintings of John Constable illustrate this fact most clearly. The White Horse shows a horse being ferried from one bank to the other. The riparian owners of the time had to be persuaded to agree to provide access to their land, consequently the tow path constantly changed sides. It would have been too expensive to build lots of bridges, which meant that a horse had to jump on and off a barge 40 times on the 26 mile journey from Sudbury to the sea. Special jumping stages were provided. It would seem that the barge would be poled close to the bank and, at the optimum moment, the horse would leap aboard, or off, as the case might be. It is recorded that not all jumps were successful and some horses were injured. As if the horses did not have enough to cope with they also had boundary fences to overcome. These had to be at least 2ft 10ins high so that the horse could jump them and the cattle couldn't!
Brian Osman in his article, Barge horses on the River Stour, draws our attention to Constable's painting; The Leaping Horse (1825) is a vivid illustration of how the horses performed a standing leap. The horse is gathering himself up ready to tilt over the fence. This position is the same as that used by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna , where, depending on the angle the horse's body makes with the ground, it is called Levade( 30 degrees) or Pesade (40 degrees). John Constable's picture is carefully observed. The horse is posed ready to tilt forward. The swingle tree lies on the ground attached to the traces, which are slack. A figure half hidden by the tree appears to be taking up the slack in the towrope that is attached to the boat. He may also be lifting it over the fence rails beside the river. The tow rope is not disconnected: presumably frequent disconnections would be too time consuming. The tilt forward would have to be carefully controlled so that the swingle tree did not fly forward and clobber the horse or its rider. It is possible the figure on the ground would have been ready to check the rope to prevent this. ................


  1. How fascinating! As a rider and "horsey" person myself, it is even more so to think of something the size of a Shire jumping in such a controlled way that the swingle tree didn't snap up sharply afater him and clobber him on the hocks. At least the horses had a bit of fun anyway - not just plodding along all day long!

    Thinking about it, they must have initially been taught to jump without the swingle tree, and learn the proper technique - probably why the lad has such a tight rein on the horse, to stop it taking even a stride forward on landing. If the horse just see-sawed over the "jump" then the swingle tree could be lifted over behind him. Hmmm. Interesting.

  2. Yup its surprising what you learn on the internet, actually I'm a bit confused on the 'swingle tree' and they were such large creatures to jump in such a controlled way - bless them. But you would definitely have to keep them on a tight rein, I suppose practise makes perfect.