Who would have guessed that the world’s oldest horse lived from 1760 to 1822 — that’s right, he was 62 years old and lived to that ripe old age at a time when horses were work animals and veterinary care was primitive at best. Even today, the life span of the “average” horse is only 25-35 years old. However, the evidence that Old Billy really lived that long is pretty compelling. Bred by Edward Robinson, a farmer, at Wild Grave Farm in Woolston, Old Billy was trained by Henry Harrison, who was 17 when he began to train Billy as a 2-year old as a plow horse and then took care of him when he was retired, appointed by the navigation company who owned him to look after him.
As a bit of a local celebrity, Old Billy was painted several times, most notably by Charles Towne (the featured image for this post) and by William Bradley, whose portrait of the famous horse in 1821, included Henry Harrison.
Although described as a “barge horse”, who would have pulled barges on the canals, Billy was also described as a “Gin” horse. This has nothing to do with liquor — gin was short for engine, and gins were wooden wheel devices on a spindle that was pulled round by a horse attached by a harness to a beam. As the horse walked in circles, it powered the pulley wheels.
Billy could have been put to work at both tasks over his long working life. It’s reported that he worked until the age of 59 (!) at which point he was retired to the estate of William Earle, one of directors of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company that owned him.
When Earle invited the artist Charles Towne to view and paint the pensioner horse in June 1822, Towne was accompanied by a veterinary surgeon, Robert Lucas and a Mr. W. Johnson who wrote a description of the horse as having cropped ears and a white hind foot. Johnson noted that the horse had “the use of all his limbs in tolerable perfection, lies down and rises with ease; and when in the meadows will frequently play, and even gallop, with some young colts, which graze along with him. This extraordinary animal is healthy, and manifests no symptoms whatever of approaching dissolution.”
Johnson had also been told that until Old Billy reached the age of 50, he had a reputation for viciousness, “particularly shown when, at the dinner hour or other periods, a cessation of labor took place; he was impatient to get into the stable on such occasions and would use, very savagely, either his heels or his teeth (particularly the latter) to remove any living impediment….that happened, by chance, to be placed in his way…”
Old Billy even had a published obituary. On January 4th, 1823, the Manchester Guardian stated that, “Wednesday se’nnight this faithful servant died at an age which has seldom been recorded of a horse: he was in his 62nd year.” (He actually seems to have died on 27th November 1822.)
In view of his celebrity status, it’s perhaps not surprising that Old Billy was commemorated in two museum displays. His skull is in the Manchester museum. Oddly, his head, which was taxidermied, resides in the Bedford Museum.
I’ve known several horses that hunted into their 20s and even early 30s. But to work until 59 is quite a feat (although, based on the photos, Old Billy was looking pretty thin in his later years)
What’s the oldest horse that you know?