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Looking at the huge amount of cargo this horse is carrying, you’d expect the poor animal to keel over any moment. Japanese horses, in spite of their small size, were as strong as European horses, though, and regularly carried enormous loads. It also looks like this particular cargo consists of charcoal, so the load is probably not as heavy as it appears from the volume. Notice the flimsy “horse shoes.” They were made of straw, and naturally wore out extremely quickly.
English traveller and writer Isabella Bird (1831-1904), who in 1878 travelled through the backcountry of Japan, complained about the “clumsy” horse shoes in her book Unbeaten Tracks in Japan:
The descent was steep and slippery, the horse had tender feet, and, after stumbling badly, eventually came down, and I went over his head, to the great distress of the kindly female mago.1 The straw shoes tied with wisps round the pasterns are a great nuisance. The “shoe strings” are always coming untied, and the shoes only wear about two ri2 on soft ground, and less than one on hard. They keep the feet so soft and spongy that the horses can’t walk without them at all, and as soon as they get thin your horse begins to stumble, the mago gets uneasy, and presently you stop; four shoes, which are hanging from the saddle, are soaked in water and are tied on with much coaxing, raising the animal fully an inch above the ground. Anything more temporary and clumsy could not be devised. The bridle paths are strewn with them, and the children collect them in heaps to decay for manure. They cost 3 or 4 sen3 the set, and in every village men spend their leisure time in making them.4
The mago (packhorse drivers) were so used to these straw horse shoes, that removing them and putting on new ones apparently only took about two to three minutes. All this changing also had a benefit. Because the horse shoes only lasted for a certain distance, mago were able to measure the distance they had traveled by counting the number of horse shoes used.
Horses saw them as beneficial, too. They had a tasty snack when their regular meal was delayed.
1 A mago (馬子) is a packhorse driver.
2 A ri (里) is a Japanese unit of distance measuring about 3.927 kilometers or 2.44 miles.
3 A sen (銭) was one hundredth of a yen.
4 Bird, Isabella L. (1911). Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An account of travels in the interior including visits to the aborigines of Yezo and the shrine of Nikko. John Murray: 42.
5 These straw horse shoes are called waragutsu (藁沓).