Until well into the 20th century, most city buildings and houses were made primarily of wood. Hundreds of structures caught fire every year. Fighting fires was a major, often heroic effort, and firefighters depended upon horses.
Every city fire-fighting brigade kept a team of horses in special stalls within the firehouse. Fire horses had to be fast, agile and smart. They also had to be strong. Fire wagons, containing all the equipment needed to put out a fire, weighed as much as 4,000 pounds.
Whether they pulled a wagon with ladders and hoses or one containing either hand or steam pumps, the horses had to be able to race from the station, haul the wagon through dense city traffic and get to their destination as quickly as possible.
Three-horse teams pulled most fire wagons, although two horses were sometimes used to haul lighter equipment. The horses were usually medium in size and were always perfectly matched. The horses were carefully selected and highly trained to ensure that they were as responsive to a fire alarm as the human firefighters were. The horses were the pride and joy, not only of the firemen, but of the people who lived in the neighborhood. Locals paid daily visits to the station to pet the horses, feed them lumps of sugar, carrots, and other treats, and even teach them tricks.
Fighting fires with horses was so effective and admired that many cities and towns were reluctant to give up their horse-drawn equipment after motorized fire engines made their appearance. When the last team of fire horses in New York City made its final run in 1922, thousands of people lined the streets to get one last look at the sight. Eight years later, 50,000 spectators gathered in Detroit to bid farewell as the city’s last horse-drawn fire brigade made its final dash through the streets.
Until the early 1900s, thousands of police officers in the United States performed their duty on horseback. Mounted police continue to serve in remote and metropolitan areas where their day-to-day function may be picturesque or ceremonial, but they are also employed in crowd control because of their mobile mass and height advantage. Increasingly, mounted police are used for crime prevention and high visibility policing roles. The added height and visibility that the horses give their riders allows officers to observe a wider area, which helps deter crime and aids people in finding officers when they need them.
Horses have also been used to transport patients to medical facilities since the Crusades of the 11th century. Horse drawn ambulances gained popularity during the American Civil War.
In January 1862, William Hammond was appointed Surgeon General of the Army and is credited with several innovations in military medical treatment. Hammond is considered the Father of Modern Ambulance Services. His greatest achievements to care for the wounded involved the innovation of transportation. Hammond designed a superior ambulance-wagon.
In the history of ambulances, this was the first purpose-built vehicle. Hammond demanded one ambulance for every 150 soldiers and two medical supply wagons for each regimental corps. His improved transportation system proved so good that at the battle of Antietam, his ambulance-wagons had every one of the Union Army’s 9,420 wounded soldiers off the battlefield before the day ended.