Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Horses Wearing Snowshoes

by Anita Mae Draper

Woodcut from Historia Delle Genti, by Olaus Magnus, 1565 edition. Library of Congress 

While researching my Lapp & Finn heritage, I happened upon the above image of a woodcut from a book published in 1565 about the history of northern people. Intrigued, I soon discovered that North Americans also put snowshoes, and even mudshoes, on their horses when needed to distribute their weight over a larger area to keep them from sinking into the snow or mud.

In 1888, James Mason Hutchings wrote In the Heart of the Sierras, a comprehensive work of natural and human history of Yosemite. On the topic of traveling through snow, he experimented with wooden snowshoes on horses and came to a successful conclusion which he describes in his book in detail, including this next illustration which shows the underside of the wooden snowshoe.

In the Heart of the Sierras by James M. Hutchings (1888). Public Domain

Concerning the snowshoes, Hutchings wrote that, "...Each animal seems to have an intuitive knowledge of what they are for, as of the duties expected of them; for, carefully lifting the foot higher than he would under normal circumstances, with a somewhat rotary and semi-oscillary movement, he throws his foot forward, and one shoe over the other, with such intelligent dexterity that they rarely touch each other...There is no confusion or even awkwardness in their use, although there is in appearances when seeing horses in such ungainly-looking appendages."

Similar horse snowshoes were used in the British Columbia goldfields as shown in this next image from the book, Prospectors, Promoters and Hard Rock Miners by Ian McLeod (with Holly McNeil). 

Bill Stewart with a horse on wooden snowshoes in Stewart, B.C.; Courtesy of Stewart Historical Society Museum

In 1891, Edward James Glave led an unoffical exploration from Seattle to Alaska with the purpose of finding a transportation route with adequate forage for horses. Such a route would enable Alaska to receive food and goods as well as send furs and gold south without depending on water routes. Instead of staying close to shore, Glave headed inland and then north, following the valleys where his animals had no problem finding nourishment. Glave's horses had been trained to walk the narrow paths on mountainsides when they needed to find a pass through, but when he encountered deep snow, he taught them how to walk on snowshoes...human snowshoes...

In the article, Alaskan Exploration in 1891 by John Bonner, published in The Californian Illustrated Magazine Oct 1891 to May 1892, Glave said, "They were the ordinary Canadian snowshoes, oval in shape, and rather small. At first the horses were awkward with them; but after a time they learned the trick of spreading their feet apart, and seemed to understand the purpose of the unusual hoof gear."

Around 1881, Edward Whymper engraved a winter scene showing a horse with a different type of snowshoe pulling a cutter in Eastern Canada. More open than the solid wood type, these round snowshoes were crafted of wood, metal and leather, based more on the traditional look than the wooden type.

Horse in Snowshoes, Pulling Cutter, Eastern Canada, ca.1881; Courtesy of Glenbow Archives

A close-up of the above snowshoe style is on display online through the digital website, of the Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Museum of Cultural History) where they are called hestetruger (horse snowshoe). 

Similar to the underside of the solid wooden snowshoes, the metal chains and leather straps help to keep the snowshoes from slipping on ice and snow. Here's an image from the McCord Museum in Montreal that shows the underside of the snowshoe as a man puts one on the horse.

Putting Snowshoes on Horse, about 1900; Courtesy of the McCord Museum

Although this next image looks like a line of mounted antique baby shoes, what you're looking at are ca.1900 horse snowshoes displayed at the Canadian Museum of History. This type of horse snowshoe isn't as common as the others, probably due to the expense of crafting the leather "boots". I wonder if they were made for a particular horse, or could they be adjusted to fit different sizes?

Horse snowshoes, circa 1900. Canadian Museum of History

The history timeline of Bradford, Ontario, Canada, states that in 1872, "Bradford prospered with businesses such as lumber and mattress making using Marsh hay. Horses used in the harvesting of the hay used wooden snowshoes like clogs strapped to their front feet to prevent them from sinking into the marsh."

Using the Library of Congress Chronicling America website, I found numerous newspaper articles that mention snowshoes on horses including these topics:
- Idaho County Free Press (Grangeville, Idaho), January 2, 1902 (Horses on Snowshoes common in the Buffalo Hump District)
- Mountain Home Republican (Mountain Home, Idaho) April 8, 1922 (Horse on snowshoes to take the mail and supplies through)
- The Owyhee Nugget (Silver City, Idaho) December 7, 1911 (The shoes the horse wears are round, similar in construction to those worn by men)
- Wood River Times (Hailey, Idaho) April 11, 1887 (If the breaking team were provided with horse snowshoes, such as have been used in the mountains of California)

Although the above newspapers are from Idaho, you can see that snowshoes were used in other mountain regions when the path became treacherous due to the weather. They weren't only used in the west, either. I've mentioned that they were used in Eastern Canada, but did you know they were used in New England as well? Check out the article, Collector's Antique Tools, Gadgets in Good Hands, about the Sheffield Historical Society in Sheffield, Massachusetts, and how it's preserving the past, including a photo of the actual size of a wooden horse snowshoe. 

Did you know that horses wore snowshoes? What do you think? 


Anita Mae Draper is a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces who served twenty years on Air bases with her eyes on the skies. She uses her experience and love of history to pepper her stories of yesteryear's romance with hardship, faith, and joy. Anita Mae Draper's published stories appear in Barbour Publishing, WhiteFire Publishing, and Guideposts Books. Readers can enrich their story experience with visual references by checking out Anita's Pinterest boards. All links available on her website at www.anitamaedraper.com


  1. Fascinating post! Thanks for sharing. I live in New England where we get lots of snow, but I've never heard of horses wearing snow shoes. It makes sense. I'm going to see if our historical society or library has anything about this. :-)

  2. Very interesting! I didn't know horses would perform with extra footgear. They are such amazing animals! Even my husband has not heard of them.

    1. I know, eh. I thought it was the strangest thing until I read the articles about the ease to which the horses took to the new footgear. One compared them to "Norwegians wearing skees". LOL

      Thanks for stopping by, Connie.