Henry Bracken's 'Farriery Improved, or a Compleat Treatise upon the Art of Farriery': A milestone in equine veterinary medicine

Henry Bracken's Farriery Improved was the first systematic attempt to pull together knowledge about how to tackle equine veterinary problems. It was first published in 1837, and ran to several editions, so there was a strong interest in equine veterinary medicine in the 18th century. The horses  owned by rich men tended to be worth a lot of money, and were generally more valuable than cattle, sheep or dogs, so wealthy men were prepared to pay for equine veterinary care and knowledge.


The book starts on p1 in Chapter One with a short diatribe against 'common farriers' ... 'generally an ignorant set of coxcombs', whose prescriptions could often impede the recovery of horses. Bracken goes on to criticise the fanciful usage of the concept of humours, which he describes as 'blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy' (p3). Some contemporary writers argued that you could tell from a horse's appearance which of these humours predominated, but Bracken was more cautious. He did not completely abandon the notion of humours, arguing that abundant secretions should be discouraged, and sparse secretions encourage, but his approach was more conservative.

Caution is the watchword of 'Farriery Improved'. In Chapter Two, for example, Bracken urged  caution on blood-letting, though he did describe it as possibly useful for certain horses. Candidates were 'young horses which are pretty fat', secondly, horses that have had little exercise so may have stagnating blood 'for want of proper airings' and thirdly a horse that has fallen into water, so might have its pores blocked (p10). Bracken went on to argue that administering medicines at random can be harmful rather than beneficial, and stressed that good food and exercise are better ways of keeping horses healthy.

Bracken, then, held ideas which seem quaint in the 21st century, but which were an improvement on the practices of his time. It was just as well that he was generally cautious in his interventions, because some of the medicines used at that time could kill or cause permanent damage. There is an appendix near the end of the book with a list of medicines used in farriery. They included cardamoms, coriander, fenugreek, euphorbium,  honey, juniper berries, white lead, mercury, opium, turpentine, saffron, sprit of wine, and black soap. 'Farriery Improved' is a pocket-sized, practical, 'how to' book. The prices of these 'medicines' were listed, and after the list, there is an index of diseases and symptoms, for quick reference. It was not a 'coffee-table' book, but designed to be used by working vets of the time. The copy that these quotes come from have handwritten copperplate notes at the end. The notes were written by a vet who owned the book, describing a case he encountered of a five-year-old mare that died on the 30th October 1793, and was found to be infested with worms. The vet tied this in with one of Bracken's descriptions in Chapter 26 of 'Farriery Improved', on 'Worms, Bots and Truncheons'.



It is easy to believe that we are cleverer and more 'scientific' now, in the days of blood tests, ultrasound and antibiotics, yet Bracken's advice was built on decades of  observation, note-taking and analysis, practices that are as useful today as they were then. He did not take conventional wisdom for granted, but checked it out, setting out his findings for others. In this methodical approach, Bracken was truly scientific, and could rightly be called the father of modern equine veterinary science.

Further reading

Quotes come from the 5th edition of Farriery Improved, or a Compleat Treatise upon the Art of Farriery, published in 1745.

Some useful recent equine veterinary and horse care guides:

Frape, David (2010) Equine Nutrition and Feeding, Wiley-Blackwell

Hastie, P. Stewart (2006) The BHS Veterinary Manual (British Horse Society), Kenilworth Press Ltd 

Knottenbelt, Derek C. (2005) Saunders Equine Formulary, Saunders (W.B.) Co Ltd

Lavoie, Jean-Pierre and Kenneth Hinchcliff (2009)Blackwell's Five-minute Veterinary Consult: Equine, Wiley-Blackwell

O'Brien, Kieran (2007) Essential Horse Health: A Practical In-Depth Guide to the Most Common Equine Health Problems, David & Charles

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