Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Horse Doctors of the 19th Century

By Davalynn Spencer

"Horse doctor" was the first common moniker for the profession we recognize today as a veterinarian. "Quack horse doctor" was also bandied about, because most farmers in the 1800s believed they knew just as much as the newly arrived, newly minted veterinarian. But they didn't mind sending for the schooled doctor in the middle of the night to relieve a bloated horse or help the milk cow deliver her ill-positioned calf.

During research for my latest book in which the hero is a 19th century veterinarian, I learned that the father of iconic Western writer Louis L’Amour was a veterinarian. Dr. Louis Charles LaMoore (original spelling of the family name) was a large-animal veterinarian who arrived in Dakota Territory in 1882 and worked in Jamestown, ND. He also served for a short time as the Livestock Inspector, certifying the health of all the cattle that came through the area.

As a veterinarian in the 1880s, Dr. LaMoore would have assisted in difficult births of horses, cattle, pigs, and goats; purging, splinting, suturing, and springtime surgeries such as castrations and dehorning.

Veterinarians were also responsible for “floating” a horse’s teeth—filing down the rough and uneven edges to balance the bite and remove sharp points. Often a tooth had to be pulled. Unlike human teeth, horse teeth continue to grow.

Modern depiction of "floating" a horse's teeth. Today the animal is sedated and its head
supported in a stand. Photo by Stefan Isaacs
from Seattle, WA, Wikimedia Commons.
In addition to taking care of a horse’s teeth and checking them for lameness, a veterinarian often trimmed their hooves as well.

Veterinarians could have acquired the "horse doctor" moniker because horses were a highly valued animal on farms and ranches, racetracks, and breeding farms. They were used to plow, pull wagons and hay sleds, and served as transportation for people. 

By the end of the 19th century, historians tell us there were 21 million horses in the United States. Within 15 years, automobiles overtook carriages, and the number of horses declined.

Most farmers relied upon their own experience or that of their ancestors when it came to “doctoring” farm animals. Traditions and superstitions also served farmers, as well as folk medicines, herbal remedies, hot or cold packs, and purges with laxatives such as sulfur and molasses.

Horse doctor giving medicine to a horse, German, 18th century. Wellcome. Wikimedia Commons
"Medical" information was often shared via letters to the editors in newspapers,  as well as in horse-care handbooks. Methods for treating some maladies were also tried out on humans.
DeWitt's Complete American Farrier
and Horse Doctor, 1870.
Wikimedia Commons.
In 1800, 83 percent of the United States’ labor force was farm related. Prior to trained American veterinarians who came on the scene in the latter part of the century, livestock disease, epidemics, and accidents could economically cripple a farmer, if not wipe him out completely. Ninety percent of the population lived on farms; today it is around one percent, according to a feature by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Iodine as an antiseptic had been long accepted for surgical sanitation, but with bare-handed and bare-faced surgery, antibiotics didn’t do much good because of the presence of so much infection. 
Germ theory was not fully accepted until the late 1890s and most surgeries were completed in a stall or on grassy areas. So much for a sterile procedure.

Consider the challenges of laying a horse out on a table in preparation for surgery. Not easy. Therefore much was done using local anesthetics on a standing animal unless it was cast (thrown) down and tied up as needed for the surgical procedure. Anesthesia was often an encouraging word or kind hand, but if the horse struggled, the human helping was encouraged to get out of the way.
General anesthetic was limited to noxious chemicals that lingered in the horse’s body and led to violent awakenings. Often the horse ended up in worse condition than it was prior to the surgery. 

Gas inhalation improved equine surgery since it left the body more quickly and was less toxic. 

Horse in a sling. Wikimedia Commons
A horse with a “cold” in the 1800s often received warm mash, a little green meat, and an extra blanket or two. 

Medicines were often opium or alcohol based. Tapeworms were treated with turpentine, liquor arsenicals, tincture of iron, extract of belladonna, and a couple pints of good ale. Common remedies also included aloes and calomel drenches, tobacco-smoke enemas, and injections of train oil. Poor horses.

Bloodletting was a common practice and a fallback cure for nearly everything. Many horses may have died from the so-called cure.

Western farmers in states with herd laws were required to fence out all livestock to protect their crops. Herds roamed freely on “open range” and prairie pastures which meant disease could spread easily and rapidly among the livestock.
According to the Iowa Veterinary School website, “…veterinarians were medical pioneers.

“Their work in eliminating diseases such as hog cholera and bovine forms of malarial fevers provided ground work for later advances in human immunization, disease theory, and food safety inspection.”

Veterinarians also used pins and screws for repairing shattered bones as well as artificial joints in animals before such things were used on humans.

The Veterinary College of Philadelphia was the first veterinary school in the United States, established in 1852. In 1883, the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania opened, and it is still in operation today.

Iowa State University claims the first U.S. public college of veterinary medicine, established in 1879. 
A license to practice veterinary medicine was not required until the turn of the century. 

However, the oldest veterinary school in the Western Hemisphere is listed as Mexico City’s National School of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine, established 1853 (a year after the Philadelphia school). Today it is known as the National Autonomous University of Mexico School of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Husbandry.

     “I need a stout beam and large box stall for this fella. He requires sutures, and I doubt he’ll stand for it without … assistance.” 
     At the mention of sutures, Sophie’s hunch burrowed deeper. All Clay had ever talked about was becoming a horse doctor. A veterinarian. 
     Erik set his beefy hands at his hips and scowled. “And you might be …” 
     Without taking his hand from the stallion’s neck, the handler tipped his head toward its hind quarters. “I might be in a hurry to save this horse’s life.”

Davalynn Spencer writes Western romance set along the Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. She is the wife and mother of professional rodeo bullfighters and an award-winning rodeo journalist and former crime-beat reporter who caters to Blue the Cowdog and mouse detectors Annie and Oakley. Connect at


  1. A very interesting post! Loved the tidbit about Louis L'Armour's father.

  2. Thanks for the post! So informative! I, too, loved the info about Louis L'Armour's father.

  3. Thanks, Connie. Sometimes research turns up the most interesting things.

  4. Our grandson wanted to be a veterinarian, but because of his Cystic Fibrosis, the doctors advised against it. He graduated from LSU and is now looking for a job that works with animals. So this information was very enlightening to me. I'm going to share this post with him. Thanks.

    1. Best wishes to your grandson, Martha. I too wanted to be a veterinarian, but I knew I couldn't keep up with the math and science requirements. So now I write about them! Thanks for stopping by.