A History of Horses in the Fire Service

Horses in the Fire Service -- in 1832, the New York Mutual Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 volunteers purchased a horse to pull their engine. One of the reasons may have been due to a shortage of firefighters caused by a yellow fever epidemic. The other stations were unsympathetic. One evening the anti-equine element crept into the stable, shaved the horse’s mane and tail and painted a white stripe down the horse’s back, embarrassing the company. To add insult to injury, the Oceanus volunteers beat the horse-drawn Mutuals to a fire.

As steam engines gained popularity they grew in size and weight. Firefighters reluctantly accepted the need for horses. As Ditzel quotes: “A firehouse ain’t no place for no stinkin’ horse!” At first horses were stabled near the stations. When the alarm sounded, it took valuable time to unlock the barn, fetch the steeds and harness them to the engine. Before long, the horses lived at the station and the reluctance to accept them was replaced by a deep affection for the noble animals.

The stalls were positioned behind or next to the rigs. In 1871, a quick hitch was developed. Two years later, Charles E. Berry, a Massachusetts firefighter, created a hanging harness with quick-locking hames. His invention was so popular he left the fire department and sold his patented Berry Hames and Collars nationwide.

Not every horse could serve as a fire horse. The animals needed to be strong, swift, agile, obedient and fearless. At the scene, they needed to stand patiently while embers and flames surrounded them. They needed to remain calm while the firefighters fought the blaze. This was the case in all weather conditions and in the midst of a multitude of distractions.

The fire departments carefully selected their horses. Veterinarians for the departments evaluated each animal. Both stallions and mares were eligible to serve.

In Detroit, weight requirements were issued for the animals. Those pulling hose wagons must weigh 1,100 pounds, to haul a steamer 1,400 pounds, and to cart a hook and ladder 1,700 pounds. Stations also tried to create matched teams of two and three horses when possible.

Some cities had training stables but most provided on-the-job training. Detroit had a horse college. They claimed to be the only fire department that trained their horses by this method. Ditzel says: “There was a fire station with apparatus, training stalls, hanging quick hitches, a feed room, a horse hospital, and a 700-foot racetrack.” Each horse received progress reports and report cards at the conclusion of the their training. The horses that successfully completed their education were placed in the city’s fire stations. Departments added horse ambulances and horseshoeing wagons to their city’s rigs. A horse might work at a station for four to ten years. In 1858, the Philadelphia Fairmount Engine Company gave their fire horses a vacation. This became a tradition in the Philadelphia fire department. This was long before firefighters received vacations.

In the fall of 1872, a form of distemper, called epizootic spread among the horses. Within a period of twenty-four hours, 300 horses died in Buffalo. The epidemic spread rapidly to many cities. The cities relied heavily on horses for transportation and became paralyzed. Fire became a major concern. It was late October in Boston. Out of a total of 75-90 horses, four had died and 22 were unfit for duty. Until the epidemic ended, firefighters with the aid of citizen volunteers often found it necessary to drag the equipment to fires manually. On November 9, the Great Boston Fire burnt continuously for sixteen hours. It consumed 776 buildings, left 20,000 unemployed and 1,000 homeless. There were fourteen fatalities, including eleven firefighters. A century later John P. Vahey, a Boston fire chief, wrote about this catastrophe and renamed it the Epizootic Fire, after the disease that felled so many horses.

It was a sad day at the fire station when a horse was declared unfit for duty. Many retired fire horses continued to work for the city in less strenuous positions. Some were put out to pasture. Occasionally the noble beasts were put up for public auction. The gallant steeds might be purchased by junk drivers and delivery men. At times, the fire horses would forget their new roles and charge down the streets hauling a wagon after hearing a fire gong.

Ditzel, Paul C. Fire Engines, Firefighters: the Men, Equipment, and Machines, from Colonial Days to the Present. New York: Crown, 1976.

Smith, Dennis. Dennis Smith’s History of Firefighting in America: 300 years. New York: Dial, 1978.