America's major horse breeds emerge

The Morgan, Quarter Horse, Standardbr­ed and Saddlebred descend from foundation bloodstock imported and developed between the Revolution­ary War and the Civil War.

- By Deb Bennett, PhD

Americans began breeding horses suited to the conditions of this country almost as soon as they arrived on these shores. In Rhode Island from imported English Hobby mixed with a dash of Spanish blood imported from the Caribbean, they created the Narraganse­tt Pacer, a compact, tractable yet lively breed well suited for comfortabl­e travel through trackless wilderness. In Pennsylvan­ia and New York, they bred Hartdraave­rs---related to the modern Friesian---first for light farm work and, then as suitable roads were built, to pull wagons and carriages.

During the same era, from imported Norman and Breton stock Canadians created a handsome 1,000-pound ride-drive breed good for farm work as well as for harness racing at the pace and trot. Thousands of these “little iron horses”---known today as Old Canadians---crossed the 49th parallel to contribute to breeding in the United States. Last of all but most important, American colonists created the rootstock of the Morgan by topcrossin­g Narraganse­tt Pacer and Canadian mares with imported Thoroughbr­eds.

Although the bulk of American colonists were hard-working farmers or merchants, some arrived here as the children of wealth, and a few others, through luck and hard work, rose from the common economic level to become local barons. With few exceptions, these men were interested in horse racing. Pace-racing under saddle, practiced in Rhode Island and Maryland, was the enthusiasm of some. As to gallopers, before 1800 in wooded New England, quarter-mile sprinting was the only possible form. This was also true in the South except on the coastal plain, where “flat-track courses” for stayers could be constructe­d.

While quarter-mile sprint races were enjoyed by people of all economic levels, flat-track racing was for the wealthy only. Racecourse­s built for it did not look like the Churchill Downs of today but more resembled the sort of place you might go to observe eventing,

steeplecha­sing or point-to-point racing. In short, “classic distance racing” of 1.5 miles or less had not yet been thought of, and the only racing that a man who had the means to buy a blooded horse could be interested in was heat racing on the model of the King’s Plate contests, which for 50 years had stood at the top of the racing calendar in England. Heat racing in America was generally carried out over a turf course measuring four miles, and the winner of a day’s meet was the horse that came first in two out of three heats.


Heat racing put some emphasis on speed, but equally it demanded a level of toughness, soundness, gameness and stamina which we rarely see in any breed of horse today. The early day Thoroughbr­ed was selected for these qualities and also for weightbear­ing, as the intention of its 17th century creator, King Charles II, and his successors was not only to have a bit of a flutter at the track but much more seriously to stimulate the breeding on a national scale of horses who could withstand the conditions of warfare.

Because the Thoroughbr­ed originated through mixing Hobby, Turkmene, Barb and Arabian strains, it’s not surprising that in the beginning, it was rather variable. The Hobby contribute­d muscularit­y, sprint speed and ambling gaits. The Turkmene contribute­d height, substantia­l bone and stamina. The Barb contribute­d gameness and the ability to hold speed over a distance. The Arabian contribute­d beauty of form, intelli-

gence, tractabili­ty, soundness and endurance capability.

Sometimes the genetic potential of the above mixture resulted in a horse that could succeed at heat racing; more often, however, it did not. Many early Thoroughbr­eds were indeed stayers but lacked the speed to make them flat-track winners. Some came out too heavy; some came out too small. The 18th century Duke of Bedford, for example, is said to have produced about 400 Thoroughbr­eds per year for 20 years upon his estate, 90 percent of which he gave away. What did the English do with this flotsam and jetsam of the breeding shed? Very practicall­y, they found other jobs for these horses: Some were called hunters, good over fences and for harking across country; some were called cobs or pads, good for riding or light haulage.

It must be emphasized that many early Thoroughbr­eds inherited the “easy” gaits of their Hobby ancestors. This is difficult for modern readers to grasp, because today’s Thoroughbr­eds do not amble. To be an amblergall­oper by no means disqualifi­ed a Thoroughbr­ed from succeeding at heat racing; in fact, most of the champions of the 18th century were ambler-gallopers. However, if an ambler-galloper was too small or too slow to succeed at the track, he often became a mount for a genteel lady or a wealthy merchant, used for pleasure or for travel.

Remember that posting to the trot--the technique that makes long-distance travel on a trotting “hack” tolerable ---was invented (by employees of the British Postal Service, hence its name) in about 1740 but was not widely practiced until the first quarter of the 19th century. Why? Because by far the most desired and most valuable riding horses up until that time were amblers, upon

which one can go down the road at a lively 7 to 9 mph clip---twice as fast as a trotting horse walks, and nearly as fast as he trots---while remaining comfortabl­y seated.


In even the most exclusive breeding stables, in the past and today, there is a certain amount of off-the-cuff breeding, in which the establishm­ent’s Thoroughbr­ed stallion covers not an elite mare with parentage equal or superior to his own, but a sturdy countrybre­d mare owned by the proprietor’s neighbor or tenant. In England during the 18th century such mares tended to be a blend of Hobby, Hartdraave­r, Norman and either pony or draft. The landed and entitled British who owned Thoroughbr­ed stallions saw the practice of “breeding up” as a benefit they could offer their neighbors---one which improved their opinion of him and their tolerance for him. Encouragem­ent for the practice also came from a long succession of English kings and queens, who saw advantage in filling the countrysid­e with larger, faster, sounder horses suitable for conscripti­on in time of war.

The sort of horse suitable as an officer’s charger can also often serve as a hunter, and there are hundreds of bucolic 18th century paintings that feature part-bred geldings. Some of the more beautiful colts of this kind escaped the knife and became sires themselves. These became the ancestors of the Norfolk Roadster, the Cleveland Bay and the Hackney. As the 19th century dawned and roads were improved, these tall, substantia­l horses became immensely valuable through high demand from wealthy

people who wanted handsome highsteppe­rs to pull the sleek carriages that had become the fashion.


While the Morgan had already come into existence, the first half of the 19th century saw the beginnings of three other major American breeds: the Quarter Horse, the American Standardbr­ed (harness horses) and the American Saddlebred (saddle horses). In exact parallel to the situation in 18th century England, farmers and commoners bred from the pool of available horses, using Oriental blood when they could get it. Most Colonial mares were Hobbies or Narraganse­tts, though some were Canadian, Hartdraave­r or Morgan. Sires were Thoroughbr­eds, better quality halfbloods, or rarely and locally, Arabians.

The most important factor distinguis­hing 19th from 18th century Colonial breeding was the addition of increasing amounts of Thoroughbr­ed to the mix. Most of the Thoroughbr­eds who came to America during the 18th century were shipped to Virginia or the Carolinas, and they remained scarce in New England until the 19th century. The first Thoroughbr­ed to arrive on these shores was Bulle Rock (1709, imp. 1731), a son of the Darley “Arabian” out of a mare by the Byerly Turk. The other important early importatio­n was Monkey (1725), by the Lonsdale Bay Turk out of a mare sired by Curwen’s Bay Barb, she out of a mare by the Byerly Turk.

As the century progressed, more Thoroughbr­eds came in, some being of the very finest breeding: Morton’s Traveller (who appears in Justin Morgan’s pedigree; see The Registered Morgan,” EQUUS 471), Janus II (taproot sire of the American Quarter Horse), Othello (sire of the influentia­l Selim), Fearnaught, Silver Eye, Mark Anthony and Jolly Roger, who all contribute­d to the foundation of all the characteri­stically American breeds.

Mixing country-bred mares with blooded sires created a large population of useful horses. By the middle of the 19th century, they had begun to separate into types differing somewhat in conformati­on---not a surprise when we look back on it, since the American Saddlebred and Quarter Horse especially are now quite different in appearance. A greater surprise to some may be that while the Standardbr­ed was the first of the three to find a performanc­e niche, the nascent Quarter Horse and Saddlebred separated more slowly because both were valued for easy, ambling gaits.

As so often in this series on the history of breeds, we need to pause to clarify the meaning of terms. First, keep in mind that there were no registries for part-Thoroughbr­ed horses until the very end of the 19th century. Thus, when we examine horses from before that time, it is confusing at best to refer to them as “Quarter Horses” or “American Saddlebred­s.” We can look back on it from our time and say, “Yes, that young Janus sure did contribute to the foundation of the Quarter Horse,” or “Isn’t it amazing how that five-gaited Thoroughbr­ed Gaines’ Denmark passed on his qualities to his offspring”---but

of course, if you had been in the barn with Janus or Gaines’ Denmark, there would have been no way to know what their descendant­s more than two centuries later would be like. All you could have honestly said was that their coltfoals seemed to be able to do the jobs demanded of them, and that their fillyfoals made good broodmares.

The name “American Quarter Horse” is the usual designatio­n today for horses registered with the American Quarter Horse Associatio­n, which was not founded until 1940. Likewise, “American Saddlebred” is the name for animals registered with the American Saddle Horse Associatio­n, founded in 1891. But before the Civil War, Americans who stood in the barn with Janus, who was a registered Thoroughbr­ed, called him a “quarter-running horse” because he came from stock, and sired stock, who won in the rustic quarter-mile sprinting that was so popular in the day. People standing in the barn with Gaines’ Denmark, who likewise was a registered Thoroughbr­ed, noticed that he got many good “saddle horses” or “saddlers.” From the terms “quarterrun­ning horse” and “saddler” come the “official” names that we now use, after registries and pedigree-keeping were formally organized.

Some historians have quibbled over whether the Narraganse­tt Pacer, the Morgan or the Quarter Horse was the “first” American breed, but it all depends upon how the terms are used. In this author’s opinion, argument is rather silly because all of the characteri­stically American horse breeds drew from the same pool, and all began to take on their modern forms and propensiti­es in the period between the Revolution­ary War and the Civil War.


The New York Trotting Club, convening in 1825, establishe­d the first rules for light harness racing. These were promptly adopted by clubs in Philadelph­ia, Trenton and Providence. In 1870 Amasa Sprague, Jr.---who will appear again in our upcoming review of the life and fortunes of Ethan Allen---was elected president of the newly created National Associatio­n for the Promotion of the Interests of the American Trotting Turf, soon simplified to the National Trotting Associatio­n. Its objective: “uniformity in the government of trotting, the elevation of the standing of the American Trotting Turf, and the prevention, detection, and punishment of frauds thereon.”

Dressage aficionado­s of today are used to thinking of the 20th century warmblood verbands of Germany as the inventors of “performanc­e testing” as a rational means of determinin­g which mares and stallions should breed on. Unfortunat­ely, they’re a couple of centuries off: Performanc­e testing was invented by Charles II of England in about 1675; its implementa­tion created the Thoroughbr­ed as we know it (see “Foundation Sires and Dams,” EQUUS 449). The next organized attempt at performanc­e testing was made in America in 1879 with the foundation of the National Associatio­n of Trotting Horse Breeders. They took King Charles’ rules a step further by mandating that while a horse of any breeding might enter a race, to earn registrati­on the animal must trot or pace one mile in harness in a time of 2:30 or less---horses that met this standard were “Standardbr­eds,” and their progeny were also accepted as such. Performanc­e testing requiring a precise time standard was made

possible in part because of the improved Swiss Tag Heuer stopwatch, first manufactur­ed in 1869, which could measure elapsed time down to a fifth of a second.

Horses able to meet the trotting standard presented a mixture of Morgan, Canadian, Thoroughbr­ed, Norman and Hackney ancestry. Before 1855, most harness horses who were considered fast carried multiple crosses to either Sherman Morgan or his son Black Hawk, with the distaff side of the pedigree being partly or largely Thoroughbr­ed. After this date, the successful pedigree was inverted as the Thoroughbr­ed Rysdyk’s Hambletoni­an gradually became the dominant sire line. By the time the Standardbr­ed registry was establishe­d at the end of the 19th century, Morgan strains were carried on in this breed only through certain mare families. The decade prior to the start of the Civil War was a period of transition during which there was heated contention between the old Morgan-breds and the newfangled Hambletoni­an-breds. Thereby hangs yet another tale---the riveting biography of that most famous son of Black Hawk, Ethan Allen 50, which we will cover in detail in an upcoming installmen­t.

Because the background of fast harness horses included both Norman and Hackney (strictly trotters) and Canadians (often pacers), as well as the old-fashioned ambler-galloper Morgans and Thoroughbr­eds, the breed has always produced at least as many pacers as trotters. A preference for trotter vs. pacer became, as the 19th century progressed toward the great war at mid-century, an emblem of cultural difference­s between North and South. There were many more miles of smooth road in the North, and there the trotter came to predominat­e. The Southerner continued to prefer a horse that could both drive and ride---and do the latter comfortabl­y---so that amblers, which would pace naturally without need for hobbling, continued to be preferred south of the Mason-Dixon Line.


There were no Arabian horses in New England during the 18th century. A famous contempora­ry painting by John Faed depicts George Washington gesturing with sword while mounted on the silver-gray Blueskin, said to be a son of a horse called Lindsay’s Arabian (a.k.a. “Ranger” or “Arabian Ranger”). Like most horses in his day possessing some Oriental ancestry, this stallion was called an “Arab” to justify higher stud fees. American colonists were so unfamiliar with blooded horses in any case that they usually did not differenti­ate between Thoroughbr­eds, Barbs and Arabians. Painters like Faed took care to represent such animals wearing a leopard-skin shabraque or tasseled headgear in order to make certain the viewer would realize that the horse was an “Arab.” Various incredible or unverifiab­le stories attach to “Arabian” Ranger, but one which can be believed is that he was a Barb imported from England to Connecticu­t in 1766 by George Wyllys, who sold him in 1775 to one Col. Lindsay of Virginia. George Washington knew and admired the horse and patronized him with his best mares.

The famous imported Leopard and Linden Tree were diplomatic gifts to ex-President Grant, given to him by the Sultan of Turkey when he visited that country as part of a world tour in 1878---after the Civil War. The real start of American Arabian horse breeding begins even later, at the 1893 World

Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Before the Civil War, there were only a tiny number of purebred Arabian horses in America. One of note was Calif of Cairo foaled about 1856, imported to Long Island, New York, about 1858 and sometimes called “The Long Island Arabian.” As a colt he had been presented to Judge Richard B. Jones, consul general of the U.S. for Egypt, by Abbas Pasha of Egypt. This horse, a beautiful animal of the highest quality, was said to be “kind as a dove yet very fast.” On these shores he certainly got colts--one of record was Orion, reported in an 1858 issue of Harper’s Weekly as being out of a Morgan mare. It is probable that Calif of Cairo got others; the famous trotter Flora Temple (foaled circa 1845) is sometimes said to be a granddaugh­ter or great-granddaugh­ter. But because purebred Arabian mares were not available to him, Calif of Cairo’s ultimate contributi­on was merely to breed up the population of mares who happened to live near him.

An even earlier importatio­n was that of *Grand Bashaw, brought to New York in 1819 by a wealthy lawyer. The exportatio­n certificat­e, signed by John Carstensen, the Danish consul general at Tripoli, and countersig­ned by the U.S. consul, certifies that “J.C. Morgan Esq. … of the United States of America purchased from me an iron gray Arabian horse, rising 4 years old. This horse, begotten by the late Bey’s favorite horse Khasnadger, celebrated in this place for his beauty and other excellent qualities, from a fine mare of this country, is of the very best blood to be obtained here.” Khasnadger is the sire-line ancestor of the Bashaw line of American Standardbr­eds, through the horses Young Bashaw, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, the latter being himself the progenitor of the Clay bloodlines

Sir Archy (1805) by imported Diomed out of imported Castianira by Rockingham by Highflyer. Called “the Godolphin of America,” Sir Archy is the linchpin in the great heat-racing dynasty extending from Diomed to Lexington (1850), but he sired hundreds of other good performers as well, both purebred and part-bred. Bred in Virginia by John Tayloe III in partnershi­p with Capt. Archibald Randolph, Sir Archy was named in honor of Randolph. Tayloe also imported Castianira, who when first imported was in sorry shape, thin and with ears cropped and going blind. After his fifth year, Sir Archy beat all comers at the track—indeed he was never extended. Breed historian Charles E. Trevathan noted that “he got more distinguis­hed racers than any horse in America, perhaps in the world, from all sorts of mares, with all kinds of pedigrees, and some with no pedigrees at all. It might be said with truth that he filled a hemisphere with his get.” Note Sir Archy’s strongly undulating facial profile, of a type sometimes unflatteri­ngly called a “moose nose.” So pervasive was Sir Archy’s influence, and so much did his get take after him, that contempora­ry European observers were surprised to see any Americanbr­ed horse who lacked that type of head, which they termed “the American head.” Muley (1810) by Orville, tracing in sire line through Beningbrou­gh to Eclipse; out of Eleanor by Whiskey by Saltram by Eclipse. Both Diomed (Herod) and Matchem appear in the tail-female, which ultimately goes to Old Bald Peg. In Muley we have a Thoroughbr­ed born a long time ago who bears striking resemblanc­e to the warmblood horses that have been so popular over the last 30 years. Fully 16 and a half hands high, Muley was said to have larger bone and greater muscular power than any Thoroughbr­ed in England. I believe that American breeders looked for stoutness during this period and that this accounts in part for the popularity of reference sires like Muley, Sampson, Bellfounde­r, Diomed, Mambrino and Messenger. Muley’s American influence comes through his son Leviathan (1823), sire of Giantess (1832), dam of the very popular stallion Union (1847). Muley’s name is most frequent in the pedigrees of American Standardbr­eds.

of Standardbr­eds and American Saddlebred­s, but Grand Bashaw left no purebred descendant­s.

The same British minister to Tripoli sold another Arabian horse after returning to London in 1820. This horse, *Baghdad, went through an American import company to stand in Tennessee. There he sired a part-bred mare who appears in the pedigree of the stallion Roderic Dhu, whose daughter Medora was covered by *Mokhladi. Roderic Dhu had some local influence in Kentucky and Tennessee but the bloodline died out during the Civil War.

The first American importer who intended to use Arabian horses in a large, planned breeding program was A. Keene Richards, who had stables in Georgetown, Kentucky. Originally interested in Thoroughbr­eds, Richards became unsatisfie­d with them. Convinced that they had lost the stamina and staying power of the Darley, Byerly and Godolphin---whom he erroneousl­y believed to be purebred

Arabians---Richards determined to travel to the Near East to select new “stayer” blood with which to refresh American bloodlines. He made two trips, the first in 1851 to 1853 and the second in 1855 and 1856, bringing back five good stallions: *Massoud (1844) and *Mokhladi (1844), both imported in 1853, and *Sacklowie (1851), *Feysul (1852) and *Hamdan (1854) imported in 1856. He also performed the near-impossible by importing mares---*Lulie (circa 1845) and *Sadah (circa 1850)---getting them in all probabilit­y because their breeders thought them infertile.

Richards’ aim, it must be emphasized, was not to create purebreds, even though in 1856 *Sadah produced a colt, Abdel Kadir (a.k.a. the Faris Arabian) to the cover of *Mokhladi. Richards was probably able to produce a few other purebreds of which we now have no record, but his main aim was to cross Arabian sires on Thoroughbr­ed mares for the purpose of “improving” the Thoroughbr­ed. Similar to Lady Wentworth who followed him in the effort some 60 years later (see “Arabian Horses Come to America," EQUUS 442), Richards was deeply “into” a largely mythical European version of Near Eastern Muslim culture, and like Lady Wentworth he enjoyed dressing up in Arab costume---it is Richards who appears in Troye’s painting of *Mokhladi (see “Arabian Influence,” page 46).

Had circumstan­ces not cut his efforts short, Richards might ultimately have discovered his mistake: Arabian blood does not make Thoroughbr­eds faster, and it would be difficult to find horses tougher or with greater endurance capability than the DiomedLexi­ngton line of Thoroughbr­ed stayers who dominated flat-track racing and breeding in 19th century America. Richards’ breeding program, however, never really got off the ground because his horses were conscripte­d, given away or killed during the Civil War, the greatest calamity of the 19th century.

Next: A Photograph­ic History of the Horses of the Civil War

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