The Hackney horse is the most prominent of the five breeds of heavy harness or carriage horses. In fact, except for the Hackney, the other breeds of this type are now practically extinct in the United States and are of historic interest primarily.
Origin and Native Home
The very name Hackney, and its abbreviated derivative “Hack,” is suggestive of the type and adaptation of this breed, denoting both a general purpose horse and the vehicle which it draws. The breed originated in Norfolk and adjoining counties on the eastern coast of England. Here, in the first half of the eighteenth century, was developed a trotting type of horse that was fast and that would go a distance, known as the Norfolk Trotter.
It was this native stock with Thoroughbred infusion from which the Hackney was later derived. In this period, roads and vehicles were few and primitive, so that these Norfolk Trotters were used chiefly under saddle. Well authenticated records exist of travel at the rate of 17 miles per hour over ordinary roads.
The real beginning of the Hackney breed is traced to a stallion known as Blaze, a thoroughbred foaled in 1733 and a grandson of the immortal Darley Arabian, the latter being the most noted of the foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breed. Blaze and his noted son, Old Shales (foaled in 1755), produced a remarkably valuable riding and driving horse when crossed on the native stock of Norfolk.
The early formative period of the Hackney horse was before the advent of either the carriage or the railroad. Thus, these sturdy foundation animals were first used under saddle and were even employed for some light agricultural purposes. It was not uncommon in that era to see a farmer riding to market with his spouse behind him on a billion. Such use called for attractive animals with adequate size and substance and the ability to trot long distances at a fair speed.
With the development and use of the British hackney coaches of the eighteenth century, the Hackney became specialized for driving purposes. It soon became the leading heavy harness horse of the world, which position it still retains. With this specialized use and its increased popularity with the aristocracy of England, the Hackney’s naturally high, trappy action was cultivated.
As many of the vehicles were heavy, animals with size and a robust conformation were demanded. With it all, graceful, curved form, beauty, and style were emphasized. In brief, the quality and performance of the heavy harness horse became an indication of social prestige.
Hackney Horse Characteristics
Chestnut, bay, and brown are the most common colors found in the Hackney breed, although roans and blacks are seen. Regular white marks are rather common and are even desired for purposes of accentuating high action. In the show-ring, custom decrees that heavy harness horses and ponies be docked and have their manes pulled.
In size, the Hackney varies more than any other breed, ranging from 12 to 16 hands. The small Hackney pony, under 14-2 hands in height, and the larger animals are registered in the same stud book. When used in a pair for a lady’s phaeton, smaller animals are preferred. Because of the weight of the vehicle, however, a larger animal is necessary when driven single.
As would be expected with the wide range in height of the breed. Hackneys vary considerably in weight, from 800 to 1,200 pounds. Typical Hackneys are relatively short-legged horses, rather robust in conformation; heavy in proportion to their height; smooth and gracefully curved in form, with symmetry and balance; and up-headed, clean-cut, alert, and stylish to a high degree.
High natural action—which is accentuated by skilled training, bitting and shoeing— is perhaps their most distinguishing feature. Animals of piebald or skewbald color arc not eligible for registry.
Adaptation and Use
The Hackney horse is the heavy harness horse par excellence for both the show-ring and park driving. Many hunters and jumpers are half-bred Hackneys, and they get their desired size from this breed. Today, the Hackney is essentially a show animal, noted for superb quality, beautiful condition, and spirited high action. When drawing a proper vehicle devoid of shiny parts (which serve to blind the spectators), the well-trained Hackney is a wonderful spectacle to behold.