The most popular genre by far on nighttime television through the 1960s? Westerns. While children were allowed to watch some of them, several shows specifically geared towards the younger set were shown on Saturday morning. Watching heroes — Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, and Zorro, three of the best — escape tense situations and catch bad guys was unforgettable.
Among the skills of any cowboy star (or stuntman stand-in) worth his salt were the hurried mounting and high-speed dismounting of horses (usually their own faithful steed, of course). It’s an impressive feat when you consider that horses are pretty high off the ground — which brings us to our main subject: how to get down off a horse.
If you’re on the ball, you just now mentally delivered the famous punchline “you don’t get down off a horse … you get down off a duck!” And for that setup, you’re welcome.
The subject here was once a serious consideration that folks of the automobile age had no concerns about because car bottoms were so low to the ground. But during the horse age, anyone other than nimble, athletic riders and passengers faced issues while mounting and dismounting horses, or exiting stagecoaches, buggies, buckboards, and the like, which typically had a few feet of ground clearance. How did children and short people manage? Or the physically impaired? How did females avoid tripping on their long dresses, or maintain modesty before pants for women came into vogue?
So many questions, and a few different answers, one of which was used for centuries (even added to the Appian Way when improvements were made back in 631 AD) and was common in New York’s North Country: the horse block, as it was known where horseback riders were the most frequent users. The alternate name, applied often where horse-drawn vehicles used it most, was carriage block. Basically, they were stepstools, bridging the gap between ground and stirrups or ground and vehicles, making mounting and dismounting much easier.
Horse blocks came in many forms, limited only by the imagination of the builder, although “selector” would be more accurate for the most basic type — any hunk of rock deemed large enough to serve the purpose. That category of horse block was most often found in front of farms and country homes. The size of the rocks varied widely, with some described as boulders. Installation involved nothing more than deciding where the best placement was for visitors to disembark. Town and city homes often used thick, flat rocks that were sometimes modified in appearance and anchored in the ground, or in cement.
Many customers paid stonecutters to create professional-looking horse blocks that ranged from large, polished pieces of marble to those with steps and engravings (as producers of gravestones, carving was among their services). Some stonecutters used limestone, but most turned to marble for creating aesthetically pleasing blocks, or ones that made a statement (usually about the owner’s affluence). In the 1870s, Robert Delong of Malone offered horse blocks carved from some of the best marble in the country, sourced from the famous quarries on Lake Champlain’s Isle La Motte in Northern Vermont.
Just as most towns had liveries and blacksmiths, many also hosted stonecutting businesses. A check of newspapers spanning just five years yielded horse-block advertisements by firms in Chaumont, Ogdensburg, Malone, Plattsburgh, Willsboro, Glens Falls, and Saratoga (the ultimate horse town).
At the same time, some area firms offered cast-iron horse blocks with elaborate filigree ironwork (see the illustration). Wooden horse blocks were sometimes nothing more than a tree-trunk section (a good, solid choice), while others were specially constructed by carpenters or home handymen. In the early 1900s, when cement was increasingly used for barn floors and sidewalks, companies began selling horse blocks made of cement, which could be easily molded into any size or form desired. Like marble, wood, and iron blocks, some of the fancier models included rings for hitching horses.
Horse blocks were ubiquitous, and were not just found at private homes. Nearly every church had one or more to accommodate parishioners, especially for weekend services. Many schools had them, making it easier for parents to drop off their children. Hotels and inns were expected to have horse blocks for the convenience of patrons (White’s Hotel in Massena, the Chester Hotel in Chestertown, and the Warren House at Warrensburg are just three examples). Stores often had them out front as a way of welcoming patrons. Train depots, civic organizations, banks, and many other businesses had them as well.
Aside from their practical function, horse blocks became a part of everyday life. If you’ve ever sat with friends on a stoop, watching people and cars go by or just shooting the breeze, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of another purpose horse blocks served. Just like the post office or the barbershop, men gathered around them to hang out, chat, gossip, and solve the world’s problems.
Another common but unofficial use was by sweethearts on evening walks. Couples in populated areas strolled to darker locations lit only by moonlight, and sat on horse blocks to secretly smooch. Locales with gas streetlights were avoided, and when electric streetlights became common, romantics bemoaned the loss of a once-safe place to get in some necking.
Horse blocks also played a role in romance at, of all places, churches. When parishioners arrived in buggies, young men politely waited at the blocks to take the hands of young ladies and assist them. In many cases, after the family disembarked, the young man drove the buggy to a parking area, and when services ended, he drove the buggy back to the block and helped passengers board. The romantic opportunity was in holding the hands of young ladies, when a subtle squeeze by either party indicated an interest that might be followed up on later. Remember, of course—it was a time when any sort of public physical contact between the youth of opposite sexes was frowned upon.
Of no romantic interest whatsoever was another use of horse blocks — by politicians “on the stump.” Seeking elevation to address a crowd, they literally used tree stumps, but often more available and convenient were horse blocks, which were called into service for the same purpose. Another function came about during the bicycle craze of the late 1800s. Many early bikes carried their riders well above the ground, making mounting and dismounting very difficult without risking injury. It became common for cyclists to start and stop at horse blocks.
Next week, the conclusion: giving way to progress.
Photos: Carriage block, Lafayette Square, St. Louis, MO, where many blocks are preserved (2019); Advertisement, cast iron horse block (People’s Journal, Greenwich, Wash. County, NY, 1879); Chester House, Chestertown, NY … click image to enlarge, see girl on right, standing on horse block (ca 1920)
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.