Before cars, horses were ubiquitous . . . or were they? Not long ago, my Minnesota friend Sally Skjaret and her husband Tom had this good-natured argument: Tom (from rural Minnesota) contended that the majority of Americans would’ve owned horses in 1900. Sally (from Connecticut) disagreed, thinking
population had tipped by then toward urban growth. Knowing I'd been researching 19th century life for my upcoming novel GALLOWAY'S GAMBLE, Sally asked what I knew about the "horse to people ratio," circa 1900.
Honestly, I had no idea. But I was curious, so I dug in. Start with human population: in 1900, it was 76,212,168 Americans -- up 21% from 1890, when it was just 62,979,766. Up another 21% to 92,228,496 by 1910. Horse population (well, horses and mules) in 1900 was about 21.5 million, reaching a peak of 25 million in 1920, then dropping to 14 million by 1940, as low as 3 million by 1960. So, from 1900-1920, the U.S. human-to-equine ratio was about 3-1. Around 2000, equine population stood between 4 and 9 million -- but up 25+% from 1990. (More rich people buying horses for their teenage girls?)
In 1900, overall, America was 40% urban to 60% rural. This varied state to state, region to region: the South was 18% urban vs. 82% rural, Minnesota 66-34 rural -- but New York state was 73-27 urban (since most New Yorkers were urban downstate residents). You’d think there would be more equines in rural areas since they were needed both for farm work and transportation. But, then again, in rural areas, a farmer might only own a few horses -- whereas a city dairy might have a "fleet" of work animals.
According to a 1900 source comparing human and horse populations in different towns and cities, Manhattan had 1.8 million people and 3700 horses. But more-rural Queens, NY, just across the East River, had 150,000 people and 6800 horses. Baltimore: 500,000 and 3800. Boston: 500,000 and 4500. Minneapolis: 202,000 and 6500. Fort Worth, TX: 25,000 and 10,500. Many smaller cities (under 50,000) had as many or more horses as the big cities.
It’s likely some minimum number of horses would've been required for work in any decent sized town, whether it was farming on the outskirts, or hauling and transportation in a population center. But bigger cities didn't appear to need a proportionally larger number of horses.
Most people who lived in cities didn’t really need a horse of their own, and had no place to keep one -- as many urban dwellers today don't own cars: too costly, no parking, and public transportation serves their needs. By the second half of the 19th century, larger cities had horse-drawn "mass transit" trolleys in addition to livery service coaches for hire. Even out west, many working cowboys used horses supplied by their employers, since owning horses would have been too costly for poorly-paid cowpunchers.
So I had to award the debate victory to Sally. By the numbers, it doesn’t appear that the "majority" of Americans owned horses in 1900, no matter where they lived. As far as I know, Sally and Tom remain happily married.
When my wife Susan and I visited Wyoming in June 2016, we took a tour to visit a herd of 150 wild mustangs, living on protected rangeland outside Cody. Though most were wary of vans carrying humans, this handsome horse was curious enough to come closer than is actually allowed (forcing us to retreat). It was cool seeing the mustangs roam free -- which ranchers don't like, because they think they should be the only ones to use public land, for profit, of course. But that's a whole other debate. Me, I'm rooting for the horses.