On May 19, 1917, the Christian Science Monitor, a major national newspaper, published the following:
Mule and Horse Buying
Washington, D.C. - Orders have been issued by the [U.S.] War Department, for purchase of 250,000 horses and mules for the Army, at a cost not to exceed $100,000,000.
(in 2017, one hundred years later, this $100 million would be equivalent to $1,940,666,660, or nearly $2 billion.)
The British felt that, for political reasons, their buying operation should be headquartered in the British commonwealth country of Canada. But it was well understood that Canada did not have nearly enough animals to meet the need, and that most of the purchases would actually come from the U.S.
With the huge numbers that were involved, the operation in the U.S. was streamlined early-on, using experience and contacts forged by the British only a few years earlier, as they bought animals for another conflict, the Boer War, fought in South Africa. The last Boer War horses left the U.S. in 1902, and a decade later, it was not hard to re-start the procurement operation.
An extensive network of British buyers fanned out across the U.S., inspecting and accepting or rejecting animals based on age, conformation, size, weight, and overall suitability. It was not necessary for the animals to be well trained; in fact, many were hardly what would be called “green-broke.”
They could not have any physical issues that would lead to early breakdown, such as crooked legs, swollen joints, deformed hooves, eye problems, or evidence of chronic disease. Ideally, they would be of a stocky build and not overly tall, since most of these animals were being bought as draft animals, not as riding horses.
The British had their own ideas as to what constituted the ideal cavalry horse, and what the U.S. Army wanted as a cavalry horse did not meet the British requirements. As well, it soon became apparent that the cavalry as a fighting force was not going to play a large role in the fighting in France. Officers still were issued horses, just as today they might be allotted a Jeep and driver, and those horses were of the general cavalry specification, not draft horses.
But the vast majority of horses and mules bought and sent to France or other fronts were draft-type animals plus some pack mules.
Whether bought by European countries before the U.S. entered the war, or by the U.S. in 1917-1918, they began their journey on a farm, horses coming usually from the American mid-west but sometimes from as far west as Texas, Wyoming, Idaho, or Montana. Mules came from Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia – states that raised cotton, and used hundreds of thousands of mules in the cotton fields.
Dealers assembled groups of animals from farms to show the buyers, who looked at hundreds of horses or mules a day. The exclusive overarching contract with the British was held by Guyton and Harrington of Lathrop, Missouri, and they then contracted with dealers around the country.
As soon as it was agreed that a particular animal passed the buyer’s scrutiny, it was branded, mainly to keep some tally of which were accepted and which were rejected. Some of the rejects were also marked, usually on a hoof, to make sure they were not presented the next day!
Did This Cause Breeders To Increase Their Herds?
With this new demand causing a spike in the horse and mule market, were the sellers motivated to breed more animals in hopes of making yet more money the next year?
The answer is no.
It is important to remember that every horse or mule that was used during the war was already foaled and on the ground by 1914. There was no increase in production in the horse and mule industry, as happened in, for instance, the wagon industry.
The foals of 1914 would have been only three-year-olds by 1917, ready for training and possibly sold into service that year or the next. All the other horses that went to war were born before 1914, and bred before 1913 (an equine pregnancy lasts 11 months). And, not knowing how long the war would go on, but with no real reason to believe it would last for even a decade, breeders were not moved to try to increase their breeding operations.
Horse dealers (as opposed to breeders) did grow their businesses, reaching out to larger numbers of farmers and breeders to pull together herds of animals for inspection and purchase by the military.