From Horsepower to Horse Power. When Trucks stop, Horses start.

Preface. Before the industrial revolution there were only four sources of mechanical power of any economic significance. They were human labor, animal labor, water power (near flowing streams) and wind power.   Work done by animals, especially on farms, was still important at the beginning of the 20th century and remained significant until mid-century, when trucks and tractors displaced horses and mules (Ayres 2003).

Just as horses were indispensable the past millennia, so have the cars and trucks of the 20th century become essential to our way of life.  If one horsepower equals the power one horse can generate (this is roughly true), then the 268.8 million cars and trucks in the United States, let’s say with an average horsepower of 120 HP, then that’s nearly 32.3 billion horses.  If each needs an acre of pasture, then that’s over 50 million square miles of land. But the U.S. is only 3.5 million square miles.  Clearly we can’t go back to horses – except we have to at some point because oil is finite (I’m assuming you’ve read my book When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation to understand why biofuels, CTL, batteries, overhead wires, natural gas, and hydrogen can’t replace petroleum powered internal combustion engines).

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

Eric Morris. April 1, 2007. “From Horse Power to Horsepower”. Access Magazine, University of California.

The horse was the dominant mode of transportation for thousands of years. Horses were absolutely essential for the functioning of the 19th-century city—for personal transportation, freight haulage, and even mechanical power. Without horses, cities would quite literally starve.

From 1800 to 1900, US per capita GDP rose from $1,148 to $4,676 (in 2000 dollars). This meant greater trade, and virtually all goods were, at some point in their journey, transported by horse. In ten major US cities, the number of teamsters rose 328 percent between 1870 and 1900, while the population as a whole rose only 105 percent. At first glance, it might seem as if the railroad would have offered relief from the horse pollution problem. But in fact it exacerbated it. Railroads were as much a complement for horses as a substitute for them. Nearly every item shipped by rail needed to be collected and distributed by horses at both ends of the journey. So as rail shipments boomed, so did shipments by horse. Ironically, railroads tended to own the largest fleets of horses in nineteenth-century cities.

This situation was made even worse by the introduction of the horse into an area from which it had been conspicuously absent: personal intra-urban transportation. Prior to the nineteenth century, cities were traversed almost exclusively on foot. Mounted riders in US cities were uncommon, and due to their expense, slow speeds, and jarring rides, private carriages were rare; in 1761, only eighteen families in the colony of Pennsylvania (population 250,000) owned one. The hackney cab, ancestor of the modern taxi, was priced far beyond the means of the ordinary citizen.

This changed with the introduction of the omnibus in the 1820s. Essentially large stagecoaches traveling fixed routes, these vehicles were reasonably priced enough to cater to a much larger swathe of the urban population. By 1853 New York omnibuses carried 120,000 passengers per day. Needless to say, this required a tremendous number of horses, given that a typical omnibus line used eleven horses per vehicle per day. And the need for horses was to spiral even further when omnibuses were placed on tracks, increasing their speeds by fifty percent and doubling the load a horse could pull. Fares dropped again, and passengers clamored for the new service. By 1890 New Yorkers took 297 horsecar rides per capita per year.

Horses need to eat. According to one estimate each urban horse probably consumed on the order of 1.4 tons of oats and 2.4 tons of hay per year. [7600 lbs/year = 21 lbs a day One contemporary British farmer calculated that each horse consumed the product of five acres of land, a footprint which could have produced enough to feed six to eight people. Probably fifteen million acres were needed to feed the urban horse population at its zenith, an area about the size of West Virginia. Directly or indirectly, feeding the horse meant placing new land under cultivation, clearing it of its natural animal life and vegetation, and sometimes diverting water to irrigate it, with considerable negative effects on the natural ecosystem.

And what goes in must come out. Experts of the day estimated that each horse produced between fifteen and thirty pounds of manure per day. For New York and Brooklyn, which had a combined horse population of between 150,000 and 175,000 in 1880 (long before the horse population reached its peak), this meant that between three and four million pounds of manure were deposited on city streets and in city stables every day. Each horse also produced about a quart of urine daily, which added up to around 40,000 gallons per day for New York and Brooklyn.

Horse manure is the favored breeding ground for the house fly, and clouds of flies hatched in it (one estimate is that three billion flies hatched in horse manure per day in US cities in the year 1900).

Flies are also potent disease vectors. Flies pick up bacteria and other pathogens on their feet, hairy appendages, and proboscides, then transmit them as they fly between filth and humans and their food. They also deposit germs through their feces and vomit. Flies transmit dozens of diseases, and studies have found that nineteenth century outbreaks of deadly infectious maladies like typhoid and infant diarrheal diseases can be traced to spikes in the fly population.

Horses killed in other, more direct ways as well. As difficult as it may be to believe given their low speeds, horse-drawn vehicles were far deadlier than their modern counterparts. In New York in 1900, 200 persons were killed by horses and horse-drawn vehicles. This contrasts with 344 auto-related fatalities in New York in 2003; given the modern city’s greater population, this means the fatality rate per capita in the horse era was roughly 75 percent higher than today. Data from Chicago show that in 1916 there were 16.9 horse-related fatalities for each 10,000 horse-drawn vehicles; this is nearly seven times the city’s fatality rate per auto in 1997.

The reason is that horse-drawn vehicles have an engine with a mind of its own. The skittishness of horses added a dangerous level of unpredictability to nineteenth-century transportation. This was particularly true in a bustling urban environment, full of surprises that could shock and spook the animals. Horses often stampeded, but a more common danger came from horses kicking, biting, or trampling bystanders. Children were particularly at risk.

In addition, the vehicles themselves (especially the omnibus) presented safety hazards. They were difficult to brake, and the need to minimize friction meant that they required large wheels. These made for top-heavy, ungainly carriages prone to capsizing, a problem exacerbated by winding street layouts. Moreover, drivers had a reputation for recklessness.

The clatter of horseshoes and wagon wheels on cobblestone pavement jangled nineteenth-century nerves.

Congestion was another problem. Traffic counts indicate that traffic across the nation more than doubled between 1885 and 1905. Not only was the number of vehicles rising rapidly, but the nature of the vehicles themselves caused tremendous problems. A horse and wagon occupied more street space than a modern truck. Obviously, horse-drawn vehicles traveled at very slow speeds, and horses, especially those pulling heavy loads or hitched in teams, started forward very slowly, a great difficulty in stop-and-go conditions. Streets of the era were not adequate to handle the traffic, and hills caused problems.

In addition, horses often fell, on average once every hundred miles of travel. When this took place, the horse (weighing on average 1,300 pounds) would have to be helped to its feet, which was no mean feat. If injured badly, a fallen horse would be shot on the spot or simply abandoned to die, creating an obstruction that clogged streets and brought traffic to a halt. Dead horses were extremely unwieldy, and although special horse removal vehicles were employed, the technology of the era could not easily move such a burden. As a result, street cleaners often waited for the corpses to putrefy so they could more easily be sawed into pieces and carted off. Thus the corpses rotted in the streets, sometimes for days, with less than appealing consequences for traffic circulation, aesthetics, and public health.

Falls were not the only reason horses expired in the streets. One might think it would be in the interest of horse owners to keep their animals in good condition; a horse was a fairly large capital investment. But unfortunately, economics caused owners to reach quite the opposite conclusion. Due to the costs of feeding the animals and stabling them on expensive urban land, it made financial sense to rapidly work a small number of horses to death rather than care for a larger group and work them more humanely. As a result, horses were rapidly driven to death; the average streetcar horse had a life expectancy of barely two years. In 1880, New York carted away nearly 15,000 dead equines from its streets, a rate of 41 per day.

In addition to frequent whippings and beatings from drivers, urban horses faced another peril: the condition of the street surfaces. Paved streets were far more slippery than the dirt roads they replaced. They were especially slick when wet or frozen. Horses, shod in iron shoes providing poor traction, frequently lost their step and tumbled, often to their deaths.

Stables were generally dark and lacked ventilation; some were rarely cleaned and reeked of excrement. Due to the expense of urban land, horses were crowded into them. This was not just uncomfortable; it was deadly as well, as it left horses open to the ravages of infectious disease. The Great Epizootic Epidemic of 1872 killed approximately five percent of the urban horses in the Northeast and debilitated many others. Transportation halted, food prices soared, goods piled up at the docks. Fire ravaged downtown Boston because there were not enough healthy horses to pull the fire trucks.


Ayres, R.U., et al. March 2003. Exergy, power and work in the US economy, 1900–1998. Energy Vol 28 #3 219-273.

Clay McShane. Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Lawrence H. Larsen, “Nineteenth-Century Street Sanitation: A Study of Filth and Frustration,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 52, no. 3, Spring 1969.

Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr. “The Centrality of the Horse in the Nineteenth Century American City,” in The Making of Urban America, ed. Raymond A. Mohl (Wilmington DE: Scholarly Resources, 1997).

Nigel Morgan, “Infant Mortality, Flies and Horses in Later-Nineteenth-Century Towns:

A Case Study of Preston,” Continuity and Change, vol. 17, no. 1, 2002.

Joel A. Tarr, “The Horse: Polluter of the City,” in The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective, ed. Joel A. Tarr (Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1996).

Francis Michael Longstreth Thompson, ed. Horses in European Economic History: A Preliminary Canter (Great Britain: British Agricultural History Society, 1983).



This entry was posted in Life Before Oil, Muscle Power and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to From Horsepower to Horse Power. When Trucks stop, Horses start.

  1. Jeff says:

    This book clearly has an anti-horse agenda – too bad as there are lots of upsides to using horses and mules to farm and haul things short to medium distances. I’m personally not at all concerned about a reversion back to equine power.

    I’m also not worried about not having enough acres to support horses; once the industrial civilization collapse induced human die-off has bottomed out there will be plenty of acres.

  2. Apneaman says:

    They’ll be back.

    • energyskeptic says:

      I think Ugo Bardi is brilliant, but most of us in the peak energy community can not fathom how he could possibly imagine that fossil fuels are replaceable with electricity, which is only 15% of our energy use. My book “When trucks stop running” explains why without trucks our civilization would fail within a week – and why trucks can’t run on electricity, and why a 100% renewable grid is impossible. Nor can blast furnaces and cement kilns run on anything but fossil fuels. Or the 500,000+ products made with fossils as well as the energy source to make them: plastics, chemicals, and s on.

  3. twat says:

    horseshit. they won’t be coming back. ain’t enough pastureland to feed horses for 7.6 billion people to use.

    • energyskeptic says:

      After the dieoff there’ll be plenty of land — and homes to retreat to as sea level begins to rise. Without diesel fuel, there’ll be no choice but to go back to horses, the “trucks” of the past…

  4. Notin Personal says:

    We can totally go back to an animal and human powered civilization — just not all of us. Personally I feel there are too many humans anyway, regardless of the technology level. Let the die-off begin!