In Regency times, there were hundreds of thousands of horses in England, all needing food every day. Whilst highly bred horses might be fed grain (usually
oats, the same as today, and sometimes linseed mash), most horses had a
major part, or all of their food in the form of hay. (so did many cows, especially
in winter) That sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
But… if you think of hay today, you think of bales of hay – either big round
ones, or smaller square ones. And that’s where this gets interesting. The
machines that squash hay into bales and tie the bales up were not invented until
the mid 1800s. Before then, hay was just a loose pile of dried grasses or grain stubble. Not very compact, and very easy to make a mess with.
When the hay was harvested, it was piled up in big haystacks in the fields. Then, they came along with huge wagons, and used pitchforks to put the hay up onto the wagons. The wagons were taken to their stables, and the wagon was actually driven inside the building, where men stood on the back of it and used the pitchforks again, to ‘pitch’ the hay up into the hayloft, which was basically a big empty second storey over the stables.
Why did they store it up in a loft, instead of at ground level?
For a number of reasons:
- It was easier to keep tidy when it was constrained in a building.
- Being up of the ground, it did not get wet (as wet hay goes mouldy and makes horses sick)
- It allowed them to simply shovel some down through the loft hatch each day, to be fed to the animals
- In winter, when it was snowy outside, the hay was already in the building where it would be used, warm and dry
- In winter, that layer of hay above the stables worked like insulation, and kept the whole building warmer
The only disadvantage to this, is that a loft full of hay is a rather large fire risk – so care had to be taken, in an era when lights at night were candles.
So, next time you are reading a Regency story, and someone goes to feed the horses, spare a thought for the fact that they had to climb up into a loft, shovel great piles of loose hay down through a hatch, then pick it all up in loose bundles to carry to where it needed to be. (And loose hay is itchy scratchy stuff….). Nowhere near as easy as cutting the strings on a neat square bale, peeling a single ‘biscuit’ off and carrying that!