Man has been protecting his feet for thousands of years. A shoe found in the ice in the Italian Alps with the remains of a man who died more than five millennia ago was made of deer hide, with a bearskin sole, a bark strip lining and grass padding. It may be that foot protection for animals also dates back that far, but there’s little archaeological evidence.
It is known, though, that the Ancient Greeks and Romans used to protect the feet of their horses, particularly those that rode into battle. The hooves of pack animals too were subject to excessive wear and injury and they were often provided with shoes. These would be portable and probably only used on rough terrain or for prolonged work. Any footwear that was lightweight and comfortable was of necessity not very durable.
Hoof protectors in the form of leather boots or rope bindings were being used hundreds of years before Christ. These would quite quickly wear out and the grip on steep or dusty surfaces would be poor. The Romans tried various modifications. One of which was to put metal studs into the soles of the leather shoes to prolong their life and improve traction. They also developed a strap-on iron hoof-plate called a hipposandal. This must have been very cumbersome and unless carefully fitted, one can imagine it caused more problems than it solved.
Battles were won or lost if war horses became incapacitated because of sore feet. This was apparently a problem for Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC. Fixed, nail-on iron shoes were not in widespread use until the 11th century, so before that, if you waged war on horseback, you had to be prepared to add vast numbers of replacement horse (and mule) shoes to the inventory of supplies that had to be carted with you into battle.
It wasn’t just warhorses and pack animals that suffered from foot injuries. When the Romans were in Britain from 43AD till they left at the beginning of the 5th century, they needed a considerable army of occupation to maintain their dominant position. The troops had to be fed, and livestock was herded, sometimes hundreds of miles, to provide them with meat, and it’s likely that these animals too were provided with some form of footwear.
The practice of driving animals from rural areas to centres of population persisted throughout the Middle Ages until droving declined in the 19th century when it became possible to transport stock by rail, and even by sea. When cattle were herded across country for many miles there is evidence to suggest that certainly in the 17th century it was common practice to protect their feet. This would probably be in the form of nailed on shoes, similar to fixed horse shoes but allowing for the cloven hooves. Draught oxen working on farms would often have worn the same sort of thing. No certain evidence of anything more flimsy being used has survived.
Cattle weren’t the only animals that had to trek for miles. Huge flocks of geese and turkeys were gathered together and driven to market and their feet are not at all suited to route marching. The geese may have had one wing clipped so they couldn’t fly off and they’d probably be fitted with little leather boots. An alternative method of protecting birds’ feet was to dip them first in tar and then in sand. Turkeys were usually given this treatment.
Imagine struggling to wrap or dip the feet of an indignant bird that was no doubt very free with its beak, whilst surrounded by its honking, flapping compatriots – what a task! It would be hard work and time consuming but worth the effort. Any bird that didn’t survive the journey or arrived in poor condition at its destination meant revenue lost.
Occasionally other animals march. Many army regiments traditionally adopt a mascot, such as a goat, which if required to parade with the men could potentially get sore feet. Its uniform in addition to decorative headgear and a coat in regimental colours might also include its own set of carefully crafted smart leather boots.
Covering hooves and claws to prevent damage wasn’t always enough. Sometimes toes and soles still suffered injury, so special therapeutic shoes and boots were developed. Initially they’d have been made from leather and would incorporate some form of cushioning, or they might be fashioned to accommodate a poultice to be applied to treat the foot problem. In the past these types of boot were mainly for horses. Many museums have examples, but the one associated with Waterperry Gardens near Oxford has a splendid collection. (It’s worth visiting for that alone, but there are many other fascinating bygones there too, including a set of regimental goat boots!)
Sometimes the terrain on which animals had to work presented its own set of problems. Draught oxen or horses would be expected to work in snow and ice, and their hooves would slide on slippery surfaces. Just in the way that tire chains might be fitted to car tires to give a better grip in wintry conditions, so horses might be kitted out with snow boots -their version of hobnail boots – to help them to be sure-footed.
There were also occasions when animals were fitted with footwear to prevent damage to the surface they were walking on. For centuries lawn tennis was popular amongst the aristocracy, and until the 1830s when cylinder mowers were developed, men with scythes would cut the grass by hand. Later horses would be used to pull the mowers over the courts. Hoof prints would be undesirable, so the animals wore boots that evened out the pressure of their feet.
The development of vulcanized (toughened) rubber in the 19th century eventually broadened the scope of footwear for everyone – rubberised boots, that we now find indispensable, evolved and animals weren’t left out. Scald and footrot are common causes of lameness in sheep and can result in serious economic loss as well as pain and discomfort for the sheep. Before vaccinations and antibiotics were available the application of antiseptic solutions and prevention of further damage were the only options. Hence the patenting of the Dunlop sheep boot in 1936!
These rubber boots were available as a wrap-around style with a buckle at two shillings and eleven pence a pair, or with a front zip fastener for three shillings and sixpence. They were produced in five different sizes and came with a set of veterinary instructions for use. The Waterperry Museum has some of these too. It’s doubtful whether their application was widespread. The difficulties and cost of fitting unco-operative sheep with zipped or buckle-up wellies, and regularly changing and replacing them probably outweighed their advantages.
Some of these old-fashioned methods of covering the feet of our domestic animals might raise a smile, but manufacture and sale of animal boots is a flourishing industry today.
The range of footwear for dogs covers a wide spectrum of use. Many of us who own a dog have had the frustrating experience of trying to persuade a stubborn animal that the snazzy boot the vet provided, probably at significant expense, must be kept on to protect an injury and not treated as a substitute chew bone.
There are dog boots for other purposes. Agility dogs may wear them to prevent skid injuries, and boots for sled dogs stop snow and ice accumulating between their toes. There are special boots available for greyhounds with corns, and sometimes police dogs wear work boots. A vast array of designs, colours and materials is available too. Leather still features – dressed cowhide remains popular for boot soles, but the uppers are often made from weatherproof, man-made fabric and they range in colour from country green to neon brights, with prints and monograms optional. Your pooch can be laced, zipped or velcroed into his footwear. The choice for horses is just as broad.
In our fashion conscious times although animal footwear is still mostly primarily functional, there’s an increasing nod to what’s trendy. (But does a dog really care if his boots match his onesie or tone with his owner’s coat?). The pets of the rich and famous may sport jewel-encrusted collars and designer footwear and the rest of us may consider it 21st century frivolity, but there is a historic precedent.
Two millennia ago, one of the most infamous celebrities of all time, Nero, Emperor of Rome, is reputed to have demonstrated his wealth and importance by having silver shoes made for all his mules – and he owned thousands of them. His wife, Poppaea, was determined not to be outdone (or outshone!) and in an expression of super extravagance she ordered gold coverings to decorate the hooves of her mules. Unlike the practical leather footwear of the prehistoric Italian iceman, the lavish mule boots that dazzled onlookers in the sun of Ancient Rome were surely just for show and definitely not made for walking!
Thanks to the Waterperry Museum for permission to photograph exhibits.