It’s All About That Horse Power

Have you ever checked the horsepower of a vehicle you’re planning on buying? There’s a reason it’s called that. Horsepower is not a metaphor. It’s literally the amount of power a horse can generate.

Since the Lac La Biche Museum isn’t a living heritage site, we don’t have live horses. However, we do have some horse-related items. Let’s explore some roles of the horse through the museum’s collection.

Horse collar on white background

A cushioned horse collar allows a horse to pull a heavy weight with its full strength. The modern style of horse collar seems to have been developed in China in the 5th century C.E.

Painting of a yellow harnessed horse figure on a dark background
Cave mural depicting a horse collar, c. 477-499, Northern Wei

Horse collars spread to Europe in about 920 C.E. and were common by the 12th century. The horse collar is credited as one of the factors that ended the feudal system in the Middle Ages. Horses were faster than oxen and horses pulling with more power generated more surplus food, allowing farmers to take on other roles.

Two horses pulling a wagon
The collars in this picture are very similar to the one in our collection

A bridle is the gear that goes around a horse’s head. Most bridles have a bit, the part of the bridle that touches and controls the horse’s mouth. Early bits were made of rope, bone, horn, or wood. These days, they are almost always made of metal, although some bits have plastic or rubber components.

Closeup of horse's head with bridle
Bridled horse with bit in mouth

The Lac La Biche Museum doesn’t currently have any bits or bridles in its collection, but it does have these:

Hackamore shank

These are shanks from a mechanical hackamore. A hackamore is a bitless bridle. Instead of a bit, the bridle presses down on the face to provide guidance. Hackamores can be useful for young horses, horses with mouth injuries or horses that are resistant to the bit. However, it’s important to note that a hackamore is not automatically easier on a horse. A rough hand on the bridle can damage the horse’s face. Also, some horses enjoy being able to toy with the bit.

Pack saddle, leather and wood

Did you realize that this was a saddle? It isn’t used for riding. Instead, this is a pack saddle. Packhorses were used frequently in the times before cars and helicopters to carry supplies long distances and over difficult terrain (wagons work okay on roads but aren’t very useful in forests!). Items could be piled on top or anchored to hang from the sides. Packhorses carried all sorts of things, including food, bedding, children, or even small cannons.

In North America, these days packhorses are mostly used for long distance pleasure riding. However, they’re still sometimes asked to carry things out of tricky locations. Modern palaeontologists, for example, sometimes experiment with using horses to transport fossils.

Photo of woman and two horses in a forest
Alice Manfield (known as Guide Alice) with a pair of packhorses on Mount Buffalo. From the collection of the State Library Victoria.

We rarely need horses for transport anymore. Most modern horses are pets or used in sporting events. But it’s not a coincidence that, after thousands of years of being our most dependable transport, we still measure our vehicles’ power in horses.