Posted 15th Feb 2018
'Horsepower' is a term which we will all be familiar with, with the notion being a horse can pull something which is many times its own body weight
However, a horse can move almost 50 times more weight in a boat than it could in a cart on an old-fashioned road.
A horse pulling a boat or barge will waste minimal energy through friction, and this efficiency calculation led to the development of Britain's canal system in the 18th Century.
The canal age reigned supreme until the advent of the railways revolutionised the transport industry. However, the simple and romantic practice of horseboating continued in Britain until the mid-1960s, lasting for nearly 200 years.
Horseboating - nuts and bolts
It may seem to be slow and laborious, but horseboating was hard work, with thorough knowledge of the canals essential. Boatmen had generations of skill in boat and horse handling to draw on, with the entire infrastructure of the waterways built for the horsedrawn era - smooth curves on bridges and buildings (to avoid snagging towlines), along with well-maintained and unobstructed towpaths, along with a wealth of canal furniture which all combined to help horseboats go smoothly.
These boatmen also relied on tools such as forethought, 'smacking whips' and 'strapping posts'.
Horseboats do not have brakes - the act of stopping a boat loaded with cargo would take a supreme effort. This came from a knowledge of the canals and experience of where boats were likely to meet obstacles including lock gates or boats coming in the opposite direction.
The name may sound barbaric but smacking whips were not used to punish the horse - instead they created a loud 'smacking' noise, which would act like a gunshot to warn of the boat's approach.
Commonly made of wood or iron, these would be set in the ground close enough to the canal for the boatman to wrap the 'strap' around them. The 'strap' would typically be a strong piece of rope attached to the boat, which, after being wound around the post, would slow the boat down or, at junctions of sharp bends, allow it to change direction.
Horseboating in the present day
Horseboating is still practiced over the national waterway network thanks to organisations such as the horseboating society - however, you must obtain permission before helping on a horseboating journey.
Information and imagery courtesy of the Canal & River Trust