I've missed doing this column for a couple of weeks and am working to get myself back on track all weekend. Anyway, I'm resuming normal service with a look at a relatively tame breed for once. Or what I always thought was a tame breed - The Cleveland Bay. It's been only in the last few years that I discovered that this breed was listed as critically endangered. Who knew? At the barn that I hung out at as a kid, there was this sweet mare that a particularly snobby girl owned. The mare was a Cleveland Bay and, you know, where I grew up people weren't into particularly exotic breeds, so I never really thought much of it. I suppose that even then she was quite a rarish breed, but I never knew it. To me, she looked like a heavier-bodied thoroughbred, maybe an unrefined warmblood. And I always treated her as such - oh, just another one of those posh warmbloods that everyone was doing dressage with nowdays. Hell, I kind of feel bad now. She was actually a rare breed that should have been kind of cool: the pre-warmblood. So, now I know better and I am bringing you today's column in honor of that sweet, talented mare whom I treated so indifferently.
So, the Cleveland Bay is apparently the oldest indigenous English breed. Their origins can be traced all the way back to the middle ages in the Cleveland district of Yorkshire (hence the name). There were a herd of bay-colored (again, the name) horses living there at the time that were the general purpose horses of their time. They were expected to work in the fields all week, do pack-work, hunt in the fields and then be hitched up to the carriage for the Sunday church visit and not require any special care or treatment. That's a pretty steady, hardy horse right there. And I imagine, though it is unclear from any of the websites, that this was a heavier cold-blooded herd of horses. (When you see the Cleveland Bay, in person (as it were), you just get the sense that they definitely came from hardy draft stock.) In the 1700s, they were cross-bred with Oriental (i.e. Arabian, Barb) stock and Thoroughbreds, since the fashion was leaning towards lighter, faster coach horses. (But make no mistake: by the late 1800s, this breed was well-established as its own "pure" breed, genetically quite distant from the Thoroughbred.) But with the advent of the railroad, the coach horse started to quickly wear out its usefullness.
Interestingly, the United States was an unlikely hero to this breed. In the 1850s, a Cleveland Bay stallion named Scrivington was imported to a Virginia plantation, in the hopes of improving the quality of his horses (and thereby the horses around the region). As a sidenote, he and his fellow plantation owners created a venue to show off the offspring of their precious import, thereby creating the oldest (still-operating) horse show in America - the Upperville Horse Show. This sparked a boom in importing English horses to America, Thoroughbred and Cleveland Bay alike. The Cleveland Bay was the all-around horse - the beauty, the brains, the brawn.... The Thoroughbred, the speed horse. By 1907 2,000 Cleveland Bay horses were registered in the Cleveland Bay Society of America. Buffalo Bill even used a hitch of 4 Cleveland Bay stallions in his Wild West Show.
Known for its stength, quiet temperament, and excellent health, the Cleveland Bay was used in the early breeding of nearly all the 'American' breeds - the Morgan, Quarter Horse, Standardbred, etc...and was a huge part of the successes of the US cavalry breeding program. And in Europe it was used in the initial bloodlines of many of the Warmblood breeding programs, most notably the Oldenberg. It is the uber-warmblood, if you will. But, used extensively in Europe and America in both the World Wars, by the 1960s only 6 mature pure-bred stallions still existed. (There were only a handful more mares.) And frankly, we owe a lot to the British Royal Family in preserving the breed. In the 1920s, the Queen's grandfather had bred Cleveland Bays and she felt close to the breed. So, when one of the remaining stallions was earmarked for export to the US, Her Majesty stepped in and purchased him, and from him re-established the Cleveland Bay stud and breed. Today there are about 500-600 purebreds registered worldwide and probably about 50 or so of those registered in North America.
I want one. The horse is the original warmblood - the OG of the sporthorse world. Their conformation is beautiful, all thick bones and huge muscles, and their temperament cannot be beat. It sounds like the perfect sporthorse combination, strong enough and built well-enough to negotiate the demands of modern English competition, but also sensible enough to deal with the mental demands of our sport. This is a warmblood that is carries that draft strength, but with enough lightness that doesn't stem from the neurotic stupidity of a Thoroughbred or Arabian (and no, I'm not dissing those breeds). It just seems like it's high time to resuscitate this breed's popularity. Why recreate the wheel (i.e. the modern sporthorse), when the original has patiently staring you in the face for several centuries?