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An Irish Clergyman Praises American Horses

One of the best spokesmen for the quality of horses bred in Rhode Island was James MacSparren, an Irish clergyman sent to America to assume the pulpit of a church in that state. He described Rhode Island’s horses as “remarkable for their fleetness and swift pacing; and I have seen some of them pace a mile in a little more than two minutes, and a good deal less than three.” MacSparren also noted that in addition to having speed, the American horses were also very hardy: “…’tis no extraordinary journey to ride from sixty to seventy miles or more in a day.” This was no small feat considering that colonial roads were often no more than paths through the forest.

The Narragansett Pacer – the First Truly American Breed of Horse

The Narragansett Pacer Began America’s Fame as a Horse-Breeding Country

The name of the Narragansett Pacer comes from the area in which they were bred: the Narragansett Bay area of Rhode Island. George Washington owned a Narragansett pacer which he raced in 1768. In 1772, Edmund Burke, the famous English political philosopher, begged an American friend to send him a pair of these horses. A Narragansett Pacer is reputed to have served as Paul Revere’s mount on his famous ride.

The origin of the Narragansett Pacer has been argued for centuries. Its ancestors were probably among the English and Dutch horses which arrived in Massachusetts between 1629 and 1635. They were famous saddle horses providing a comfortable gait, and were sure-footed, and long on endurance. The Narragansett Pacers carried people and goods through rutted and muddy paths. These horses were the only means to get to market or to the neighbor or to the doctor on most days of the year.

They were bred in great numbers in the seventeen hundreds. As colonial roads were improved, folks drove more and rode less. Then the pacing fashion, and eventually the Narragansett Pacer, became extinct.

“I saw the last of the Narragansett Pacers. She died about 20 years ago (1880); of an ugly sorrel color, with broad back and short legs and a curious rocking pace, she seemed almost a caricature of a horse, but was, nevertheless, a source of inordinate pride to their owner.” -Alice Morse Earle, Stagecoach and Tavern Days.

Rhode Island – America’s First Horse Center

The pre-eminence of Kentucky as a horse-breeding region has been an established fact for some time. But back when Kentucky was only a remote and unknown woodland, the chief horse breeding region of America was Rhode Island. Rhode Island’s horse industry got its beginning when John Hull, Treasurer of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, purchased land on the west side of Narragansett Bay from the local Indians. This area was fenced off and set up for horse breeding. At one time Rhode Island had farms with as many as 1,000 horses, predominantly Narragansett Pacers. From these Rhode Island farms, horses were shipped to all of the sea-coast colonies, as well as to the islands of the Caribbean, for use on the plantations. Rhode Island was the only New England colony which allowed horse racing, and a one-mile track was maintained at Sandy Neck Beach, South Kingston. As always, competition was the keystone to improved breeding and Rhode Island gathered the best stock from neighboring areas to upgrade its horses. Before roads connected the towns of colonial America, the saddle horse was the principal means of transportation, and Rhode Island served as the main source for excellent horses.

January 22, 1673 – The First Post Rider in America

When the colonies in the Northeast were first settled in the early 1600s, the communities lying between Boston and New York were virtually isolated from one another. On January 22, 1673, Governor Francis Lovelace of New York dispatched the first post rider to effectively connect New York and Boston, and provide mail service for the settlements which lay on the way. The route taken by this first post rider carried him to New Haven, Hartford, and then Springfield, Massachusetts. The route then followed the “Bay Path,” a former Indian trail, on to Boston. This route was known as the Upper Boston Post Road, and the total journey from New York to Boston was some 250 miles. The post rider remained the principle means of communication in colonial America, and his services were not replaced until improved roads permitted stagecoach travel in the late 1700’s.

1674 – Plymouth Law Prohibits Running Horses in the Streets

Many towns and cities in America have streets called “Race Street”. Such streets gained their names from the habit of running horse races on them. In 1674, the citizens of Plymouth, Massachusetts evidently grew tired or frightened of the races in their villages, and created an ordinance forbidding racing. However, the sting of the fine or the humiliation of the stocks did not seem to discourage the colonial racing enthusiasts. About a century later, Connecticut enacted a law which demanded the forfeit of a man’s horse, in addition to a fine of forty shillings, if he was caught racing in the streets.

Colonists Demand Horses of More Quality

To foster quality in American horses, as early as 1668 the court of Massachusetts decreed that only horses “of comely proportions and 14 hands in stature” could graze on town commons. A law was enacted by William Penn in Pennsylvania in 1687 which set a minimum height of 13 hands for free ranging horses. Any horse more than 18 months old and less than 13 hands had to be gelded. An individual had to brand his horses with his mark, and he could only graze on common land twice as many horses as he had in daily use. In 1715, Maryland enacted a law that any old stray horses could be shot on sight. In the later 1700s, there were more than a sufficient number of horses and, in fact, the colonies were being overrun by strays which were not in regular use.

The 1700s…..”No One Walked Save a Vagabond or a Fool”

This remark by an observer of life in the 1700s succinctly describes a century which saw an explosive growth in both the quality and quantity of horses. Horses came into great demand both in the everyday and sporting world, and new breeds of horses were developed to answer the demand. The 1700’s saw the development of the Thoroughbred, first in England and later in America. This breed brought equine sports to previously unimaginable heights of speed and brilliance. The Thoroughbred, in turn, helped to found or improve other breeds of horses, such as the quarter horse and the Morgan. In terms of economic growth the horse provided the means to carry goods to market, to speed people from one city to another, and to carry settlers into the interior of America. Muddy paths gave way to a well-designed road system. The stagecoach afforded a means of mass transit whereby people could move about in relative safety and comfort. In all, the 1700s was an age of growth and movement largely due to the increased use of the horse.

Ride and Tie

Early American roads were merely Indian paths, only passable on foot or horseback. Horses were scarce in colonial America, so an ingenious system of sharing a horse was devised based on “ride and tie.” One man started out on the horse while the other began walking. After a set distance, the rider would dismount and tie the horse to a secure object. When the other man had walked to the tied horse he mounted and rode past the original rider to the next tying point. In this fashion, each man got to ride part way and the horse even got some rest!

Stirrup Stockings

Special measures were taken to arrive fresh after traveling along muddy colonial roads. Men wore loose thigh-high leggings called “spatterdashes.” Women looked quite unattractive as they rode astride with their skirts stuffed into ” stirrup stockings.” These were two yards wide at the top to accommodate big petticoats. Skirts wrinkled less when riding pillion. The woman rode with both legs on one side of the horse, and pulled an overskirt called a “safe-guard” over her clothes. Spatterdashes, stirrup stockings, or safe-guards were removed and tied to the saddle while the riders shopped or went to church.

The Quarter Horse

The Quarter Horse is one of the original American breeds of horses. The precise origins of the Quarter Horse have been argued incessantly and vigorously from its very beginning. The oldest ancestor of the Quarter Horse is the Hobby which was imported in numbers to the mid-south in the 1600s and 1700s. The most decisive influence on the Quarter Horse came from the Thoroughbred sire, Janus, imported as a 10-year-old to America in 1756. Janus stood at stud for 24 years, but the origin of the mares he was bred with is the subject of dispute. As quarter racing moved westward after the Revolution, Quarter Horses were crossed with Spanish horses and Chickasaw ponies. The individual sires which most greatly influenced this breed’s development were Cooper Bottom, a chestnut foaled in Pennsylvania in 1828, and brought to Texas in 1839 by General Sam Houston; Steel Dust, foaled in Kentucky about 1843 and sent to Texas in 1844; and Peter McCue, foaled in 1895, the son of the great Dan Tucker.

Janus, the Father of the Quarter Horse, 1756

In 1756, a Virginia planter named Mordecai Booth imported from England a 10-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred named Janus. Sired by Old Janus, he was a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian. Janus was a compact horse, standing slightly less than 14.1 hands. He was well-muscled, had one white hind foot, and a specked rump. He was noted for his especially powerful hindquarters. Janus had proven a successful four-mile race horse in England, but a leg injury retired him to stud. Brought to America, he distinguished himself again as a racehorse in the James River area of Virginia. After retiring from the track, he spent the remainder of his life at stud. Janus produced distinguished racing mares, but only when he was bred to quarter racing stock did his brilliance as a sire become evident. Since quarter racing was most popular in southern Virginia and North Carolina, Janus was brought to that area for breeding. There he sired numerous distinguished racers, such as Babram (1766) and Twigg (1778). In old age, Janus was purchased by Senator John Goode, who wished to bring the horse back to his Virginia home, and at age 34 Janus began the long walk to Virginia. He became ill on the road, however, and remained at Colonel Haynes’ plantation in Warren County, North Carolina, where he died in late 1780 or early 1781.

Early Quarter Horse Racing

While horse racing generally followed English rules in the northern American colonies, another form of racing began to flourish in the southern regions. Quarter Horse racing was a clear result of the geographical environment. The southeastern seaboard was mostly covered with dense forest. Immense effort was required to clear land and it was therefore extremely valuable for agriculture.

The racetracks in these wooded regions were sometimes little more than two parallel race paths, 1/4 mile in length, cut through the forest. There was little space at either the beginning or the end of the track. The horses would sometimes be separated by a fence or trees. The quarter-mile track, therefore, gave both the race and the horses their names.

Town Against Town, Horse Against Horse

Until the mid-19th century, horse racing was the principal form of organized sport in America. Modern towns have athletic rivalries on the football field. In colonial America, town rivalry was centered on horse racing. It was not unusual for the competitors and spectators to travel far to these early quarter-race tracks in the woods and to place considerable wagers on their town’s horse. Typical wagers included money, tobacco, slaves, and property. Tempers frequently ran high if a start was questioned or if one rider allegedly interfered with another. Thus, the official who started the race was selected as much for his brawn and his ability to defend himself as for his honesty. The race was generally started by firing a pistol, sounding a trumpet, or hitting a drum. Even after land became available for long circular tracks, the sport of quarter racing remained a popular American institution.