~ 18th Century Horse Breeds ~

The following series of correspondence came about when I posted a query on the Brigade (of the American Revolution) liste concerning what kind of horse breeds would have been commonly found in the colonies during the revolution. I received a number of responses, and in the interest of those (like myself) who desire to replicate as close as possible the horse breeds found here in the 18th century, I've posted these responses below. I think any equestrian student/living historian will find the information of use and interest.

Viele Dank to those who are posted below for sharing your research & knowledge.

Subject: Horse Breeds

(These are all breeds from the British Isles or Europe - Germany, France, Spain. I have left out breeds from other parts of the world as they would most likely not have been as common.)

Common horse breeds in our time on our shores would have been: Riding breeds; Arabian, Barb or Spanish Barb, Andalusian (or might have been known as the Spanish Horse), Thoroughbred, Quarter Horses (they were bred in Virginia in the early seventeenth century. Incidently, this is the only breed that was founded on "our Shores." It was used for racing in quarter-mile stretches, hence their name.)

For Draft or working horses you would have had; Haflinger, Percheron, Shire (was called the Great Horse in our time), Punch (or Suffolk Punch).

For smaller horses or ponies: Exmoor Pony, Shetland pony, Irish Hobby (now called the Connemara Pony), New Forest Pony.

Arabians, Barbs, Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses were used to make many of the breeds we have today. So anything that is crossed with any of those breeds or looks like them is a good bet if your really want a horse of "our time."

Now there could have been some Lipizzaner, Friesian, Trakehner (a Warm Blood), Cob (Norman & Welsh type), Hanoverian (a Warm Blood), Oldenburg (a Warm Blood), and Ariegeois. Drafts could have been; Jutland, Boulonnais, and Brabant (also known as the Belgian Draft Horse). These were all breeds in our time, but whether they made it to our shores I can not tell you.

Breeds that were NOT in our time are; Morgan (was not a breed in our time period, the founding stud Figure was born around 1790), Clydesdale (most likely not. It was said to have been founded 150 years ago.), Saddlebred, and Standardbred (although close to our time.)

I know we had a discussion on the Rev War List years ago about horse colors. From what I found out solid colors; bay, brown, black, white, gray, chestnut, sorrel, were the most common. There could have been the odd dun/buckskin or paint, but not likely any spotted. Although there were spotted Spanish horses at that time, they were not popular here.

Well, I think I have done my damage. I am very interested if anyone comes up with others I have left out.

See you on the Race Track at Wethersfield, when I can get my fuzzy Quarter Horse/Morgan mare to stand for gun fire and tents.

Debra Najecki

Subject: More On Horse Breeds

Dear Debra & List:

Depends where your from. For example, here in the Hudson Valley, the first horses were described by Adrian van der Donck's "A Description of New Netherlands" printed in 1665 as being brought from Utrecht, Holland (or Netherlands), and were supplemented by English breeds which he noted were not as good for agricultural work being lighter built. Some Arabians were imported from the Dutch West Indies, but did not do so well with the colder climate. Alexander Coventry noted in his journal (July 1783-Aug. 1789) had this observation,

"The horses are of middling size; not so round as those in Scotland; more sharpt boned, thin shouldered, and sharp rumped; long tailed and most of them brown in color."

Most horses were used only as draft animals, to pull wagons or farm equipment. While in Bergen County, NJ, William Strickland wrote in his "Journal of a Tour in the United States of America "(1794-95)

"No man is seen here on horse back, all people travelling in waggons drawn by two horses abreast, and as they generally go a sharp trot, they kick up a surprising dust . . . A Dutchman never walks or rides; if he has but to go a mile or visit his neighbor, he puts his hors to waggon to convey him there. The people sit on benches going across the waggon, which has in general no awning or covering. A fat Dutchman and his wife, and two or three clumsy sons and daughters may frequently be seen thus driving and jolting by not less fat negroe slave."

On the Van Bergen Overmantle, (a painting going across the whole mantle) from Leeds, NY painted around 1732, there are 8 horses looking like quite a mixed bunch, some white, some brown & black with speckled markings. I can not tell any distinguishing line as to any given or known breed, though some have the distinct Arabian noses. Interesting to note is that two are being ridden, and two are pulling a typical Dutch wagon.

Ben Carlos
1st Ulster County Militia, NY State -1776

Subject: Conestoga & Ame. Cream Breeds

Dear List

A draft breed that is usually left out because it has completely disappeared is the Conestoga horse. It was bred as a wagon horse and according to descriptions was huge for the time period (around 16 to 16.2 hands), lacked feathers (the hair around the fetlocks) and usually was bay or black although other colors were certainly known. The Conestoga probably looked a lot like a modern Irish field hunter or draft/ thoroughbred cross. The time period for the Conestoga's ranges from the 1760s to the 1870s.
Also, don't forget the American Cream which was supposed to be around during the 18th century - very old style Belgian looking but cream colored. With the advent of the tractor and modern farming some of these breeds were almost lost (the Conestoga was)- literally sold for dog food.

One thing I've found while researching horses during our period is the amazing number of references to pacing horses, at least in the southern colonies (PA and south). Also most horses of the period were extremely small by modern standards - standing at 14.1 to 15.0 hands tops.
We've had great success with thoroughbreds in the 17LD - the majority of our dragoon horses are retired polo ponies. Those nags will put up with just about anything and have the correct 18th century look.

Ridgely Davis, 17LD

Subject: A Horse is NOT a Horse

Dear List,

I found this letter written by Gen. Washington to Benjamin Talladge quite interesting.


Mike Cecere VA & PA Continental

Head Quarters, Morris Town, March 1, 1777


.....I must inform you, that the Order respecting the Colour of Horses, particularly excepted to Whites or those near White, as being too conspicuous for the purpose of reconnoitering, for which the Light Horse will be much used. I would not wish to have even dark Greys, if other equally good could be got; but if they cannot, you may purchase them, and when they change Colour by Age, we must put them to other Uses in the Army.

Subject: Horse Breeds In Virginia (Part 1)

Colonial Virginians prized horses bred for "beauty strength and spi't," and raced them in


by Harold B. Gill, Jr.

(Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Autumn 1997)

"A race is a Virginian's pleasure,
For which they always can find leisure:
For that, they leave their farm and home,
From ev'ry quarter they can come:
With gentle, simple, rich and poor,
The race-ground soon is cover'd o'ver;
Negroes the gaming spirit take,
And be and wager ev'ry stake;
Males, females, all, both black and white
Together at this sport unit.
-- Anne Riston, 1809

VIRGINIANS of all ranks and denominations were, as one writer put it, "excessively fond of horses." He might have added they were also excessively fond of racing their horses. In 1724 Hugh Jones observed that Virginians "are such lovers of Riding, that almost every ordinary Person keeps a horse; and I have known some spend the Morning ranging several Miles in the Woods to find and catch their Horses only to ride two or three miles to Church, to the Court-House, or to a Horse-Race."

Proud owners boasted of their horse's speed and endurance, only to be challenged by another braggart. From such informal challenges, organized racing soon followed. These were often held at courthouses, churches or taverns, and they attracted large gatherings of people of all sorts. But only gentlemen could enter in races. For instance, in York County in 1674, a tailor wagered 2,000 pounds of tobacco that his mare could beat his neighbor's horse. The county court fined him 100 pounds of tobacco, declaring that "it being contrary to Law for a Labourer to make a race being a Sport only for Gentlemen."

By the middle of the 17th century, races were usually held on Saturday afternoons. The races were run on a straight course marked at the end by upright stakes, where the judges stood. Short sprints -- about a quarter of a mile -- were the most common distances for races in the 17th century, and this remained so in the back country in the next century. The form was carried westward and still survives in the Southwest, where quarter horses are still bred for racing. John Hervey, in his "Racing in America", described the quarter-mile contest as "one of the most picturesque and vivid aspects of turf sport ever seen in this or any country." It was a rough-and-tumble affair with jockeys trying to foul their opponents and unseat their rivals.

Horses suitable for quarter-racing were of a "peculiar breed," with powerful hind legs giving them remarkable speed for short distances. Fairfax Harrison, who made a study of Virginia racing and was the author of "The Equine F.. F. Vs.", believed the quarter horse was bred from imported English horses with "an infusion of Andalusuian blood, derived from the southern Indians, following Edward Bland's Occaneechi exploration of 1651." He thought this cross-breeding explained the "combination of spirit and small size" of the quarter horse. Many English visitors noted the small size of Virginia horses.

Arabian blood was introduced into Virginia racing in 1732, when Bulle Rock was imported by Samuel Gist of Hanover County. Harrison claimed that Bulle Rock was the first Arabian horse in the English-American colonies. His introduction to the colony was the beginning of a rapid increase in the quality of the racing stock of the colonies.

From Harrison's research we know the names and pedigrees of 50 English stallions and 30 mares imported into Virginia by 1774. All of them were descended from three Arabians imported into England about the beginning of the 18th century. The Arabians were the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian. Gist's Bully Rock, bred with many Virginia mares, was descended from Darley Arabian. The aristocracy began to take even greater interest in thoroughbred racing, and many of the gentry imported the best blooded horses they could get. By the 1750s, a number of them were in Virginia. These included Jolly Roger, probably imported by John Tayloe of Richmond County but owned by Ralph Wormeley of Rosegill in Middlesex County. Jolly Roger, said to be the first horse to give real distinction to Virginia's racing stock, was descended from the famous horse Partner, supposedly the best racer and stallion of his time. Later owned by James Balfour of Brunswick County, Jolly Roger died in 1772 at the age of 31, leaving a large progeny.
(Todd Post)

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