Hackney Horse

  • HEIGHT: 14.2–16 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: England
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Driving horses of substance, soundness, and endurance famous for their spectacularly high ground-covering motion
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Driving, jumping, and improvement of other breeds

The word hackney derives from haquenée in French, a language commonly spoken in England in medieval times. The term originally described a horse with a very comfortable trot or amble. Over the years it came to mean a general-purpose riding and driving horse of great soundness and stamina, but the horses were always best known for the trot. Hackney is also the name of a town in England.

As far back as the Middle Ages, English horse breeders produced trotting horses. The best ones, which came from Norfolk, brought very high prices. Another excellent type from a different region came to be known as Yorkshires, Yorkshire Trotters, or Yorkshire Roadsters, which were very similar to, or identical with, Cleveland Bays. Although both were outstanding trotters with great endurance, the Norfolk type was sturdy and coblike, while the Yorkshire showed more quality and refinement.

The early Hackneys were multipurpose animals, used for hunting and farmwork as well as for traveling over the poor-quality, muddy, rutted tracks that served as roads. Hackneys were also used as light cavalry horses in many wars and skirmishes during this era.

In the early 1700s, Hackney breeders crossed in some Arab stallions to add refinement. Later, when road quality improved, faster coaching horses were suddenly in much demand. At this time, people valued Hackneys for their great stamina and road-covering trot; there was no emphasis on high knee action. Hackneys were frequently used in road races under saddle. Sometimes the wagers on the outcome were astonishingly high.

FIT FOR A KING

Hackneys were highly regarded, even by monarchs. Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I all passed acts concerning horse breeding and the value of the Hackney. Henry VIII even penalized anyone who exported one without authority.

The Modern Hackney

One of the most influential sires in the history of the breed was a grandson of the Darley Arabian named Shales, sometimes referred to as Original Shales, foaled in about 1755. His sire was a Thoroughbred named Blaze, and his dam is listed as a “Hackney mare.” Two horse breeders, a father and son, Robert and Philip Ramsdale, were instrumental in the development of the modern Hackney. They took the best Norfolk stallions, containing the blood of the Original Shales, and crossed it on high-quality Yorkshire mares. When the sturdy Norfolk Trotter and the Yorkshire Coach Horse, which was three-quarters Cleveland Bay and one-quarter Thoroughbred, were blended through Shales lines, the resulting crosses founded the modern Hackney breed.

As horse-drawn vehicles became more sophisticated and elaborate in the Regency period (1811–1820), fashion dictated flashy, high-headed horses with lofty knee action. Horses were terribly expensive to keep, particularly in cities, because of the scarcity of stabling space and the difficulty in acquiring and storing hay. Even wealthy families rarely owned horses, choosing instead to rent them from huge horse liveries. The fanciest carriages and teams commanded top prices, and elegant Hackneys were very popular.

Now mainly seen in shows, Hackneys were originally bred as coach horses and could cover great distances.

Though best known for their action in harness, Hackneys also make fine riding horses and are excellent jumpers.

Unfortunately, no horse could sustain the high action and extreme head position demanded by fashion for long. As hard-used horses began to look less flashy and animated in harness, they were moved down the ranks of the liveries to lower-quality drivers, longer hours, and shoddier care. Sad old horses were so commonplace on the streets of London that the word hackney came to mean overworked or overused.

At the same time, however, the Hackney was playing an important role in the development of other breeds in Europe and North America. They added elegance, refinement, and lively gaits to Holsteiners, Gelderlanders, American Saddlebreds, and Morgans, among others. The first Hackney exported to America was Jary’s Bellfounder, foaled in 1816. One of his daughters, known as the Charles Kent mare, was the dam of the great trotter Rysdick’s Hambletonian, a foundation sire of the Standardbred breed.

Hackneys were exported all over the world and featured at shows in England and abroad. The 1916 London Hackney Show had 626 entries. The breed thrived until railways made coach horses and roadsters obsolete. The darkest time in the breed’s history was between 1939 and 1945. Because of World War II and the war effort, there were no large shows, exports were at a standstill, and commercial trade in England was extremely limited. Yet the breed continued to be a horse of choice for the very wealthy. By the end of the war, prices were reaching record highs. The National Hackney Show resumed in 1946.

Today, this long-proven breed is under-represented in many locations including the United States. The breed is somewhat better known in Canada, but still rare. Enthusiasts hope the Hackney will be rediscovered as interest in pleasure and combined driving increases. In addition to their famed talents as driving horses, Hackneys are excellent movers and make fine saddle horses. They have also long been known to have considerable ability over fences. A Hackney named Confidence jumped 7 feet 2 inches at the 1910 National Horse Show and later cleared 8 feet 1½ inches at Syracuse. Sir Ashton, later named Greatheart, jumped 8 feet 2 inches in Chicago and then won the national high jump in 1915. The Hackney Tosca was the gold medal winner in show jumping for the Germans at the 1936 Olympics. However, after World War II, emphasis within the breed was on driving. Hackney stallions are still crossed on other breeds to improve substance, motion, and endurance. Crosses with Hackneys also produce excellent sport horses and show jumpers.

Breed Characteristics

The breed is best known for its spectacular action. The shoulder action is very fluid and free, with high, ground-covering motion. The motion of the hind legs is similar but not quite as extreme. All joints should show extreme flexion including the hocks, which should be brought well under the body and lifted high. The action is straight and true; it should be arresting and show great brilliance.

Conformation

The Hackney Horse must stand over 14.2 hands, and weighs an average of 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. The Hackney has a small head, muzzle, and ears. The body is compact; the neck is long and blends smoothly into a broad chest with well-rounded ribs. The shoulders are powerful and sloping and the back is level. The loin is short, the thighs and quarters well muscled, and the croup level, with a high tail set.

The legs are of medium length with large, strong joints. The pasterns are of good length and slope. The Hackney has excellent feet and a reputation for soundness.

Color

The modern Hackney Horse is black, brown, bay, or chestnut, with or without white markings on the face and lower legs.

Hackney Horses are solidly built with sloping shoulders and strong legs. They have good gaits but were born to trot.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

The registry database does not include an actual count of all animals registered, nor does it separate Hackney Horses from Hackney Ponies.

  • About 400–500 new animals are registered each year, of which 90 percent or so are Hackney Ponies. • Hackney Ponies are most popular in the Midwest, especially in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois.