Horses ‘utterly horror-stricken’


“For those who did not drive one, automobiles were an unmitigated nuisance and often provided even dangerous situations. A team of horses became frightened at dogs and attempted to run away, but they retained some sense. After the dogs ceased their chasing, either because of fatigue or the bark of a six-shooter, the team calmed down and could be controlled usually in a quarter or half a mile. When the automobile began to invade the road it was quite a different matter. The team was frightened at the dogs; sometimes, indeed, it seemed to me they used the dogs just as an excuse for the exhibition of pure cussedness. But when they met the unknown gas wagon they were not frightened but utterly terror-stricken.”
– Dr. Arthur Hertzler,
Horse and Buggy Doctor, Copyright 1938

One question I have long contemplated seems to be answered in the autobiographical account of an old country doctor; Why were there so many people killed in horse-train accidents in days gone by?
“My closest call had nothing directly to do with the practice of medicine but with a horse with a mind far ahead of his time,” the doctor writes as he looks back on his life of making house calls in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the heartland of America. “This horse had a mania for trying to beat a train to a crossing.
“One very cold day I was returning to town and had to pass a mill which obstructed the view of a railroad track. As we emerged from behind the obstruction, my horse spied the on-coming train. My hands were encased in heavy fur mittens.”
As the horse lunged for a start, the lines slipped from the doctor’s hands.
By the ears. “Quickly throwing off my mittens I caught one line with both hands and pulled with all my might. I succeeded in jerking him parallel with the track just as the engine whizzed by. The engineer told me afterward that he could have caught the horse by the ears. The car step missed the buggy wheel by a bare six inches.”
The doctor observes, “This horse had certainly saved my life on three occasions but for some perverse reason tried to commit a suicide pact like those one reads of in the papers.”
Obituary mystery. I have indeed read many accounts of horses and their riders involved in fatal railroad accidents in the olden-day obituary accounts and wondered how in the world such a thing could have happened.
Finally, I think I understand the sequence of it all. It still seems as though a “driver” would bail out of the buggy, but I can picture the speed with which this all must have happened. I can also imagine that the horse was a valuable commodity in many ways to the person in the buggy.
Extreme nuisance. At last, I can grasp why such obituaries seemed to appear with great frequency in old newspapers. The good doctor certainly saw the advent of “gas-powered buggies” as an extreme nuisance. He tells of his very first trip in an automobile, in which the old chain-driven Cadillac broke down eight times on the way, and he was then given wrong directions by an excited individual.
He questioned the supposed “progress” of the automobile many times.
“At any rate, I found the place all right, a very sick man and a very anxious family. As it was, I arrived only in time to predict that he would be dead before morning. Of course, having been unable to be of any service, I was not entitled to any pay. But the trip was made in record time, 120 miles in fifteen hours. I paid the car owner eight dollars for making the trip.”


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.