Evolution of the Hackney Horse
Learn about the evolution of this wonderful, noble breed; it's versatility and current uses. Misinformation abounds about the Hackney Horse and Pony. I have owned, bred and shown Hackney Horses in a variety of disciplines for 20 years.
The Middle Ages
The foundation of this breed began in England with the tradition of trotting horses. The speed of these horses made them more suitable for war than the ambling horse with it's slow pacing gait. In 1542, King Henry VIII required the wealthy to keep a specified number of trotting horse stallions. The breed was well established in Norfolk and later became known as the Norfolk Trotter.
The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Breeders mated Norfolk mares to the foundation sires of the Thoroughbred. The first Hackney as we know the breed today is said to be The Shales Horse, foaled around 1755. The Norfolk Trotter became the all-around travel horse of this time. In another area of England, the same breed was known as the Yorkshire Trotter. Both breeds were alternately called roadsters. It is common to see the term Norfolk/Yorkshire Roadster/Trotter in books describing the history of horses. Regardless of the name, all are the same breed of horse. They were used under saddle as the quickest means of travel in areas where there were no established roads. The breed was known for it's ability to carry a heavy man for great distances at speeds up to 16-17 m.p.h. Trotting races, usually under saddle, were very popular in the early part of the the nineteenth century and this breed excelled in them.
In the early 1880's the name Hackney was chosen for the breed as it was non-geographical. The British Hackney Horse Society was formed in 1883 to provide a registry. During the nineteenth century, the Hackney was sought after by many governments for crossbreeding to improve their military stock. Hackney stallions were actively exported to France, Italy, Germany, Australia, Finland, Holland amp; Hungary. Monsieur de Thannberg, an adviser to the French government, stated that "they invariably transmit to their off-spring all their qualities, their action, their courage".
Crosses with Hackneys contributed to many other breeds including the Gelderlander, Dutch Warmblood, Friesian, Standardbred and American Saddlebred to name a few. It is also widely believed that Justin Morgan, the foundation sire of the Morgan Breed, was a Norfolk Roadster. Hackney horses were imported by Canada, Argentina and the United States to be used as fancy carriage horses. The American Hackney Horse Society was formed in 1890. When trotting races began to lose their popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century, the breed was gradually transformed into the specialist show horse that we know today. Up to that point, there were 2 types of Hackney - the heavier coach type and the light horse similar to today's horse. Progressive minded breeders realized that the future of the of the Hackney lay in the show ring and stallions which produced that type became fashionable. The Hackney pony evolved in the span of a few years in the 1870's in England by crossing Hackney horses with Fell and Welsh ponies. The pony has all the speed, action and courage of the horse but is a true pony with pony character. The pony was actively imported by United States as the horse was.
The Twentieth Century
The show harness reached it's hey day in the early part of this century, reaching 626 entries at the London Hackney Show in 1911. Interest in driving began to decrease between the 2 World Wars due to the increased use of the automobile and during World War II it was felt that the breed was heading toward extinction since the Hackney was viewed as a specialist show animal. Land on Hackney farms was even taken by the British Government for crops as it was felt that these horses contributed nothing to the war effort. Fortunately, by 1948 the demand for Hackneys began to recover.
Few breeds are static and stop developing. With any breed, including human beings, there is rarely a point where they can be said to have reached their full potential. The same can be said of the Hackney! Breeding of successful show horses has established a link between conformation and the predisposition to step high. This natural action does not preclude it from being used as a riding horse. For example, Silver Shales was used for polo in the 1950's amp; 60's. And, the ability of the Hackney as a jumper has been known for many years. Confidence jumped 7 feet 2 inches at the New York National Horse Show in 1910 and later cleared 8 feet 1 1/2 inches at a show in Syracuse. Sir Ashton (later renamed Greatheart) jumped 8 feet 2 inches at the North Shore Country Club Horse Show in Chicago and later went on to win the New York National High Jump in 1915. There are not many present day jumpers capable of clearing that height. Between the 2 World Wars the show jumping scene was full of Hackneys. The half-Hackney mare, Tosca, was the Gold Medal winner for the German team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
From the 1940's on, the focus for the breed remained in driving. It was rare to find the Hackney shown in any other arena. It has been said that they are not suitable for work under saddle as they are an uncomfortable ride. This may be true of the fine harness horse whose high step has been accentuated through various training methods but it is hardly true of the pleasure horse! The pleasure horse with it's natural high step is a very comfortable ride. Many people in the United States are again using their Hackneys under saddle and rediscovering their athletic ability and versatility. There is a Hackney used out West for punching cattle and several who are used regularly for Hunter/Paces and trail riding. In Canada there are Hackneys used as school horses and one doing Dressage. The only limits for the use of this breed is one's own imagination!
The Twenty-First Century
I published the above in 1995. How are we doing today?
Hackneys have made their presence known in Combined Driving. Macy Hill and her Hackney Horse, Hurstwood Admiral, were short listed for the United States Equestrian Team for the 2000 World Singles Championships. The United Kingdom has had several compete for their country in the World Championships. Allison J Meyer competed in the first World Pony Championships with her pair of Hackney Ponies for the United
States Equestrian Team. In the 2019 World Singles Championships, the British took the gold with Hackney horses representing their country. Ann McClure's Hackney horse gelding, Koopman's Lightning Rod, competed for the US in the 2019 World Singles Championships. We now have many working their way up the levels in Combined Driving in the USA and UK.
Many owners are once again competing in Carriage Driving and Coaching with their Hackney Horses and each of them is very successful. There is nothing more elegant than a Hackney Horse put to an antique carriage or coach! It is not an easy task to beat one in the new American Driving Society Park Division. Why drive another breed when you can have the Rolls Royce of carriage driving?!
More Hackneys are competing in Dressage! They are making their mark in both the USA and UK. As of 2004, the Hackney was added to the United States Dressage Federation annual All-Breeds Awards. Laura Miller won the first USDF All-Breeds Award with her Hackney Horse, Maple Hill's Simon (AKA Ravel), in 2004. Alice Simpson won the second USDF All-Breeds Award with her Hackney Horse, Hilltop Lucky Gillie in 2005. Thinford Flashman is competing very successfully at Prix St. Georges Level in the UK with his rider, Pippa Hahn, while Barishnikov wows the crowds in Wellington, Florida with his owner/rider, Kelly O'Shea-Duncan, competing and winning at Intermediare level. We now have many more working their way up the levels in ridden dressage.
Hackney Horses have again returned to the Jumping Division in both the USA and UK. Their incredible power and scope surprises those who have never seen this breed before. The Hackney horse mare, Redwing Richenda, competes successfully in Jumping, Hunter Trials, Ride amp; Drive, the more "traditional" Carriage Driving classes (known as Private Driving in the UK), and Junior Whip classes all within the same year for her owners/breeders, Mr amp; Mrs. C.R. Beale and their daughter Britt.
In 2003, The American Hackney Horse Society created the Open Competition Awards Program to acknowledge and recognize those Hackneys who were competing against other breeds.