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From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, in North America and Australia, how common were horses?

Was it easy for every man or boy to own a decent riding horse, or were they relatively expensive and valuable based on availability and quality?

It seems the average cowboy owned a very cheap, low quality horse, but how big was the market and availability for good horses, such as were deliberately bred well and not just mustered up and broken. How were horses sold?

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I specified which "turn of the century." We had one more recently than 1900. –  Tom Au Apr 16 at 23:43
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Without documentary evidence to cite, my understanding is that horses were always expensive and not for everyone. That's why horse stealing was such a serious crime. The "average cowboy" often rode his employer's horses. –  andy256 Apr 17 at 0:06
    
I always get confused with the turn of the century thing. So yeah, around 1900 –  Duncan Apr 17 at 0:19
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You can probably think of it like having an RV or pickup today. If you need it for your job, you have one. In a city it too much trouble and you go without. Otherwise, it depends on having some extra money and the desire to own one. –  Oldcat Apr 18 at 20:26

4 Answers 4

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I found an interesting paper that gives some numbers similar but slightly different from those in Pieter's source.

U.S. Equine Population During Mechanization of Agriculture and Transportation:

1900 21,531,635
1905 22,077,000
1910 24,042,882
1915 26,493,000
1920 25,199,552
1925 22,081,520
1930 18,885,856
1935 16,676,000
1940 13,931,531
1945 11,629,000
1950 7,604,000
1955 4,309,000
1960 3,089,000

But I also found a copy of 1900 Census information that shows the number of horses per 100,000 residents in the largest cities of the US (at that time). If I'm reading it correctly, cities with populations over 25,000 averaged 4,396 horses per 100,000 citizens.

As far as "how were horses sold," at least some were sold via newspaper advertising. In the Seattle Times, January 24, 1900:

18 HEAD of cheap mares and horses left, no work for them. One pair of 2,800 lb. horses, $200; one pair of $2,700 lb. horses, $160; one 1,000 lb. horse, $50; one pair of mares, 2,400, $225; one 1,100 lb. mare, $70; one 800 lb. horse, $25; one 1,200 lb. mare, $100. Cheap horses and buggies and wagons; trial allowed. Model Stables, 9th and Mercer.


Ladies' fancy gaited saddle horse; can take 5-foot hurdle; has won several races; took blue ribbon at state fair; with saddle and bridle, $250. Also tan riding boots, size 6. Mrs. Johnson, 3718 8th South.


$25 buys good work horse, weighs 1,350, age 8, guaranteed good worker every way; a prize for a man with little money. Bal. 1658. Phinney car to 8521 Dayton, Greenwood Stable.


The Seattle Horse Market, at 1737 1st Ave. S., holds regular auction sales every Tuesday at 1 p.m. All kinds of stock sold on commission. Main 3761. N.T. Jolliffe, prop.


WANTED--Sound, gentle driving horse, 8 or 10 years old, used to city life. Write 204 Marion Bldg.

There are a ton more ads in that day's paper, and they are fascinating, but I will stop with these. It really does seem similar to the way cars are sold today, doesn't it? And the cost of a horse could be relatively cheap, but like cars today, even an inexpensive horse was probably difficult for someone who was quite poor to afford to own and maintain.

I think, however, that people in cities and towns then were somewhat less likely to own a horse than a modern city dweller is to own a car today. And the reason for that is not so much the cost of the horse, but that our culture hadn't shifted to being car-centric yet. People did expect to walk more, but their lives were also more easily lived without personal transportation than ours are today. Back then groceries and prescriptions were commonly delivered, and every tiny area had its own shops. (In the early 20th century, there were six small groceries within 4 blocks of the house I live in today. Not to mention the hardware store, bakery, butcher, etc.) There were streetcars all over the place.

Now much of our environment is car-centric. We have big-box stores with giant parking lots where we can stop on our way home from work. We have areas that are very pedestrian-unfriendly. The streetcars are mostly gone, and buses rarely run as frequently as the older streetcars did. Not having a car in that kind of environment can be a hardship. But not having a horse in 1900, when the environment was far more friendly to getting around on your own feet, would have been far easier.

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The Wiki-biography on George E. Waring Jr., Street Commissioner of New York City 1894-1898, is informative. At the time of his appointment to this post NYC was awash in (mostly) horse manure, shin-deep, with predictions that the city's first floors would soon be manured under. Outfitting his workers in sparkling-clean white uniforms, and instilling an entreprenurial spirit in them that encouraged innovate techniques and hard work, the citizens of New York granted the Street Commission workers a parade through the city in 1896 in recognition of their success.

This street filth is the origin of the traditions:

  • that a gentleman escorts his lady on the outside of the pavement or boardwalk, so that his black coat will block the spray from passing vehicles;

  • wears boots rather than shoes at most times; and

  • on occasion will even lay his jacket down over the muck for his lady-love to walk on.

To summarize:
Common enough to create shin-deep manure-muck throughout the streets of New York City despite a large full-time (albeit ill-motivated) street-cleaning staff, and to scare the residents into believing their city was actually being buried in the stuff. That seems really very common to me.

In New York City:
Every milkman had a wagon drawn by a nag.
Every tinker had a cart drawn by a small pony.
Every delivery vehicle was drawn by a team of four strong draught horses.
Every cab was drawn by one or two fast horses. Every gentleman kept a stable with at least two decent riding horses for himself, and a team of two to draw a small cart or four to draw a small sedan wagon.
Every ladder and pump truck in every fire house required two teams of 4 or six kept in harness and alternated. etc.

The only way to get anywhere (on land), faster than 3 mph walking pace or with baggage, was on horseback or in a horse-drawn vehicle.

From here:

HISTORICAL DOMESTIC [EQUINE] POPULATION – US

1867 – 8,000,000
1915 – 21,500,000
1949 – 6,000,000
1950’s (early) - 2,000,000
1957 – 750,000 (*unreliable source? See sources below)
1960 – 3 million

HISTORICAL WILD/FERAL [EQUINE] POPULATIONS – US

1971 – 17,000 (first census)

Late 1800’s – Over 1,000,000 in Texas alone
End of 1800’s – 2 million

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@andy5256: Better now? –  Pieter Geerkens Apr 17 at 0:18
    
The population of the US in 1870 was 38.6 million people. –  Razie Mah Apr 17 at 0:33
    
Yep - answers the question :-) –  andy256 Apr 17 at 1:08
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Combining your answer with the comment from @Razie we get 1 horse for 8 people. The total horse numbers would include the breeding and immature stock. They were common, but because of the ownership patterns you describe most families didn't have one. –  andy256 Apr 17 at 1:11
    
Another great answer, but can anyone answer the last part about breeding and marketing? –  Duncan Apr 18 at 5:33

As you don't state which country you are interested in (not sure how much specificity to take from your use of "cowboy"), I offer an answer for Norway, which has very good statistics. Similarly to the US (and differently from many European countries) it still had a large agricultural sector in the early 1900s.

A time series for the number of horses and other animals from 1835 to 1999 (!) is at the webpage of the Norwegian statistical agency (direct link). (Google translate correctly gets the headings but translates "domestic animals" as "pets".). Horses are in the first column.

Some numbers:

 - 1835: Horses: 113,000 Population: 1.2 million Horses per 1000 people: 94
 - 1855: Horses: 154,000 Population: 1.5 million Horses per 1000 people: 102
 - 1891: Horses: 151,000 Population: 2.0 million Horses per 1000 people: 75
 - 1930: Horses: 177,000 Population: 2.8 million Horses per 1000 people: 63
 - 1960: Horses: 109,000 Population: 3.6 million Horses per 1000 people: 30
 - 1990: Horses: 20,000  Population: 4.2 million Horses per 1000 people: 5

Note that there were a lot of children around in the nineteenth century, so the number per adult (or per family) is a lot higher.

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It was much like cars are today. If a person has a car today, you can imagine that same basic type of person would have had a horse in 1900. To answer your next question, yes, a lot of people had really crappy horses. Much like most people today drive around in crappy old Civics and Corollas and F150s (although it may not seem this way to you if you are middle or upper class).

If you go back to 1850, a significant number of people rode around on mules, but by 1900 nearly everyone could either afford some kind of horse or be able to borrow a horse from a parent or relative if needed.

From some of the comments above, I think some people have the idea that a horse was some sort of luxury, which is not true at all. In 1900 you could get a good, solid horse for about $150 and an old nag for as little as $10. An unskilled laborer made about $20 a week and skilled laborer made double that. A professional, like a good lawyer would make a lot more. So, even a relatively low earning worker could make enough for quite a good horse in about 2 months. Even a person making almost nothing, a beggar, could probably scrounge up a worthless old nag if they wanted to, just like today you can get a junk car that runs for about $350, the cost of scrap. In 1900, the equivalent was the "glue" value of a horse, about $10.

Nowadays, an unskilled worker has a take home pay of about $12 an hour or about $500 per week. In 2 months, that is $4,000, enough to buy a decent car. For example, I drive an old Volvo 850 with leather seats, power everything and a sunroof which cost me $3,000 in cash.

Thus, you can see, things have not changed as much as you might think.

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If that is true, why were horse-drawn cabs so common in large cities? Also, where were all those horses kept by those who rented accommodation? Do you have evidence for any of these assertions? Remember that cities were much more compact than today, so much more transportation was on foot and by rail. –  Pieter Geerkens Apr 18 at 19:05
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@PieterGeerkens The question was not about cities, it was about horse ownership in general. In 1900 60% of the population was rural. Also, in 1900 most "urban" people lived more what we would call suburban life today. The number of people who lived in apartment buildings or tenements was relatively small, and many of those people could afford a horse, if they wanted one. For example, in Boston where I live in 1900 there were 500,000 in the city (out of 3 million in Mass), but only about 200,000 lived in downtown tenements. Most people lived in houses. It was common to use rental stables. –  Tyler Durden Apr 18 at 19:21
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In the cities it might be more costly to support a personal mount. Very good answer, do you have any sources I could follow up? –  Duncan Apr 19 at 19:54

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