Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bells on Bob Tails

Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

John Cordrey's 1806 A Gentleman with his Pair of Bays Harnessed to a Curricle shows regency carriage horses with stylishly docked tails.

It's the time of year for decorations and presents and carols--including the first carol every child learns, "Jingle Bells." I was thinking just today about this line from the song:

Bells on bob tails ring
Making spirits rise.

So what is a bob tail?

A bob tail is a horse that's had its tail docked, or cut short. Nowadays,

Sailor, the winner of the 1820 Derby, is one example of a "bob tail nag" used in racing.
one doesn't often see a "bob tail nag" (as the song Camptown Races puts it), but during the regency bobbed tails were practically de rigeur on quality horseflesh, especially carriage horses. At first, docking was done for practical reasons, to prevent a horse from entangling its tail in its harness. The practice was even thought to benefit the horse's health--removing the caudal (tail) vertebrae was thought to make a horse's back stronger. Eventually, the reasons for docking evolved from simple practicality into a matter of taste and fashion. Not just carriage horses but also riding horses, hunters and racehorses routinely had their tails bobbed.

In this image of foxhunting, Full Cry, every one of the hunters has a bob tail.
(It wasn't just horses that had their tails docked, either. It was formerly common to dock the tails of all working dogs. The practice was meant to prevent injury to dogs when hunting [as when spaniels charged into deep brush after a bird] and fighting [for example, when bulldogs were still engaged in "baiting" bulls for sport]. Though the practice of docking is now illegal in the UK, until 1796 working dogs were actually taxed if their tails weren't docked. Docking the tails of certain breeds is still common in the US, where in many rural areas dogs are used in field sports like hunting.)

As "Jingle Bells" suggests, horses' harnesses were often decorated in the winter with sleigh bells--the "bells on bob tails" that ring in the song. And could there be any more charming sound that sleigh bells at Christmas time?

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's newest regency romance is A Tryst With Trouble, the story of an arrogant man's man and an outspoken spinster who must join forces to solve a deadly mystery. It joins her first two regencies, Lord of Secrets and Ruined by Rumor. Alyssa hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you.

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