HARNESS HORSES IN AMERICA
The last quarter of the 18th century marked a period of transition in which the gene complex that confers ambling gait was gradually bred out of the Thoroughbred. The influx of the “new” type of Thoroughbred—which trotted and galloped and neither possessed nor sired easy gaits—alarmed Southern plantation owners such as General John Hartwell Cocke of Virginia, who found it increasingly difficult to find good blooded saddlers. By the first quarter of the 19th century, ambling Thoroughbreds were considered “old-fashioned.”
The continuing desire of plantation barons like Cocke for easy-gaited horses of quality and refinement is a reflection of the differences in climate, terrain, lifestyle and means of livelihood which distinguished North and South. While the South presented wooded Appalachian hills or extensive plantations, by 1800 the North could already brag of an extensive network of smooth macadam roads. Merchants and people of means in the North began to prefer to drive rather than ride, and one’s choice of vehicle became as much a status statement as it was a matter of practicality. The demand in the North called for two types of harness horse: stout yet elegant carriage horses, and a lighter, fleeter type to pull buggies and the lightweight single-axle, high-wheeled carts that were then coming into fashion. Harness racing events developed from the 19th century equivalent of drag racing engaged upon by men who could not bear to be “overtaken” and who could not resist having a sporting go against a rival along an empty stretch of public road.
Messenger (1780) by Mambrino (1768), both pictured here, are the sireline ancestors of all living American Standardbred trotters and pacers. Although of wholly Thoroughbred breeding, it is obvious from the George Stubbs portrait of Mambrino that he was of exceptionally stout make. The portrait of his son, Messenger, depicts him as a more elegant horse but still possessed of quite substantial bone.
Contemporary reporters noticed Mambrino’s large head but at the same time praised it for dryness and quality. Messenger was imported to the U.S. in 1788.
The similarity in conformation between
Mambrino and Young Roebuck, also pictured here, is striking. Both are sturdy horses, short in the back, broad across the coupling, with big rounded haunches, prominent breastbone, shoulder well “laid back,” and great length of rein (distance between the point of breast to the base of the withers). But where horses are of high quality, it is not possible to predict from appearances alone whether they will amble or trot. Young Roebuck was bred by General Cocke specifically to continue a line of quality easy-gaited “saddlers.” His sire was Old Roebuck by Powell’s Selim by imported Selim out of a so-called “country bred” mare, in other words a good quartermiler with lots of Hobby in her background. Young Roebuck was out of a half-bred mare by imported Druid; in other words, both these fine horses were more than 50 percent Hobby, and as a result, they ambled and sired ambler-gallopers. Breed historian Mackay-Smith cites these horses as important ancestors of the modern American Quarter Horse, and their names appear as well in the pedigrees of Morgans, Saddlebreds and Standardbreds.
Enlarged miniature of Young Roebuck (1810), by Old Roebuck with pedigree as discussed above. We will hear more about General Cocke’s Roebucks in a future installment detailing the origin and history of the American Quarter Horse. (courtesy, Mackay-Smith family collection)