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The Coach Horse:

(a short history)

Article by L Raff

Q: What made the Coaching horse? 


A: The road! 

The story of the world's coaching breeds is truly a form-follows-function tale; but as with everything else horse-related, the story might not lead where you think it would...


We take them for granted today, but good roads are a fairly recent luxury. 


For much of the modern era, "roads" as such were terrible, and travel, therefore, was usually done on foot, horseback, or via boats.  Goods were transported by river or overland on pack animals, which traveled in long, slow lines along well-used paths and trails.  Ancient civilizations such as the Romans, the Persians, and the Minoans were renowned for being the first to really build them, but much of Europe's Roman roads were lost due to lack of maintenance when the Romans withdrew in the 5th century AD. Ancient trade routes continued to be used, but they were little more than trails with improvements in various spots like swamps or bridges. 


It wasn't until the 11th century that real, large-scale road systems were put in place in Europe.  Four centuries later, in the 15th century, cities started collecting tolls to provide for actual road upkeep.  After that point, wheeled vehicles began to be used more and more often for long distance travel.  But travel was still a difficult undertaking; people routinely sent servants ahead to look for the best ("safest") routes before long trips were engaged.  It was a committment to decide to travel long-distance.


In the middle ages, if the wealthy did not ride, they used a wheel-less 'box' type of coach, which was suspended on poles carried by two horses that were led by a groom.  Coaches, as we would think of them, probably came to be in around the second half of the 1500s, and they were strong but very crude, and built heavy-duty to withstand the punishment of all those bumps.

It took a lot of strength to pull a heavy coach over bad roads, so the horses had to be big, and most travel was done at a walk.  Carriages were commonly for hire in large cities by about 1605, and by 1650 London sadly became aware of the concept of traffic jams.  Coaching service--or in other words, scheduled, consistent travel over long distances between large cities--came into being around the end of the 1660s (notably the London-Liverpool route). These were known as 'stage' coaches, because the journey was completed in stages of 10-15 miles per day.  By 1698, 'stage coaches' carrying both passengers and mail were in place on three main roads in Britain.  But these ran only in the summer, and roads, even at their best, were unpredictable.  Accidents were very common.

Even seventy years later, roads had improved a bit through maintenance projects, but a long coach trip such as this was still a 'terrible ordeal', especially during winter.  A quote from author Arthur Young, from his book A Six Months Tour in the North of England (1771), paints a sobering picture:

"...let me most seriously caution all travellers (sic) who may accidentally purpose to travel this terrible country, to avoid it as they would the devil...(they might) break their necks or their limbs by overthrows or breakings down...ruts, which I actually measured, four feet deep, and floating with mud...I actually passed three carts broken down in these eighteen miles..."


A trip from London to Oxford (about 60 miles), took a solid (and probably gruelling) two days.   An itinerary for a coach trip such as this would begin at 7am in London, stop briefly in Uxbridge at noon, and High Wycombe by 5pm, a total distance of about 27 miles.  Travelers would stay all night at an inn in Wycombe before departing again the next morning at 7, to arrive in Oxford by 5, a total of twenty hours of actual travel.  Everything was, for the most part, at the speed of the walk--or slower, for if the road was too bad, an assistant driver had to climb down and walk on the ground alongside the horses, leading them through the worst parts.  Once roads began to be standardized, about 75 years later, this travel time was cut to less than 7 hours (Richardson, 1904).  A few decades after that, London to Stamford (about 90 miles) could be covered in about 9 hours (ibid).  Once the speed was able to be increased, the ten to twelve mile per hour trot became the norm, with teams being changed out each stage, and fast-moving travel coach was finally born.

Coaches themselves also became more comfortable.  Suspensions were invented (Germany) that made control easier for the drivers, and glass in the windows kept rain and dust off of passengers, replacing the previously used canvas flap.  But it was still an ungainly (and often overcrowded) vehicle, with the largest carrying eight passengers inside for first class, four outside in a rear basket, and several more clinging to the roof with the luggage.  Overturns were all too common.
Throughout Europe during this period, a constant state of war meant that armies were always building and maintaining roads.  This made the need for swift and strong carriage type horses an imperative, not only for military use, but for transportation.  Major breeding areas such as Germany and France produced the best of the best, and set the standard for the more modern (lighter) carriage horse.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the railroad was on the rise.  But it nearly meant the end of carriage horse breeding, for both people and goods soon went by rail.  Coaches almost disappeared for a short time, except for those that went where railway lines hadn't yet been built.  But, according to authors of the day, it was the upswing in general standard of living, spawned by these same new railways only a few years later, that sparked the desire of townspeople all over the country to want to buy their own "town carriages"--fancy ones, please, like they had in France.  And all these new carriages were going to need horses to pull them.

The Horses: Types, Size and Weight

Coaching horses were classified by type/size, and at about 1600lbs were lighter than 'draft' horses (i.e. 2000lb+ working Clydesdales and Percherons), but were--and still are--much heavier than riding horses.  A more accurate descriptive term would be to characterize them as 'heavy warmbloods', for they were very large yet quite refined animals. Traditional 'old style' coaching breeds, meaning the heavier and more ancient type (around  1400-1700lbs) , are illustrated today by modern versions of the Cleveland Bay (Britain), the Kladruber (Czech/central Europe), the heavier strains of Nonius (Hungary/eastern Europe) and to some extent the lighter bloodlines of Noriker (central Europe).
The 19th century saw derivations of coaching horses, and these were identified and known by types-- mainly the Yorkshire Coacher (British type), the German Coacher (including 19th c versions of the Oldenburg, the Holsteiner, the East Friesland, and provincially bred German Warmbloods as well as the Dutch Gelderlander), and the French Coacher (including Norman Cob types and demi-sang half-draft crosses).  Weight of this group ranged around 1300-1600lbs.  They are discussed individually below.
The smallest and lightest harness horse types, represented by 19th century breeds such as the Hackney, the Norfolk Trotter (short-legged cobby types derived from bloodlines of Suffolk Punch and including lighter TB-influenced racer-type horses known as Roadsters), and Dutch Harness Horses, were used to 'lighten' the influence of heavy drafts.  Even so, these 'light' carriage horses were still heavier-bodied than modern versions of these same horses we know today.  They weighed around 1100-1400lbs.


The Yorkshire Coacher (Britain)


Breaston Prince, Yorkshire Coach horse, 1907. He was a five times champion stallion of the Great Yorkshire Show 1907-1911. The influences of both Hackney and Cleveland Bay are very evident. (data via and British Breeds of Livestock, 1913)

The Yorkshire Coacher was Britain's 'modern' carriage horse. 


By the first quarter of the 1800s, it became fashionable to own stylish, high-stepping horses to pull fancy private broghams and carriages around large cities, and the 'old style' coaching breeds like the Cleveland Bay fell out of favor, giving way to the trend of flashy, elegant and quick carriage horses.
British horsemen wrote a lot about breeding horses for carriages.  At the time, as far as light breeds were concerned, the Thoroughbred (then called a 'Blood Horse', of large percentage of Arabian blood) was considered by Englishmen to be the pinnacle of the British light breeds (and of horses in general).  

In their desire for a flashier carriage horse, English Thoroughbreds were first crossed using the time-tested template for obtaining a heavy hunter:  TB stallions were bred to regionally found draught-types (including Shires, Clydesdales, and good local dray animals).  But this method, though good for getting a beefier riding horse, did not produce a high-class fancy carriage horse, as Sir Walter Gilbey wrote: "This haphazard likely to produce horses fit for use in any sphere but in harness." (Gilbey, 1905, p. 15)  This was frustrating to British gentlemen.  It seemed that breeding a Thoroughbred to a heavy horse only got you a heavy hunter, and breeding a TB to a dray horse only got you a cob--neither of which were the smart, high trotting carriage-puller everyone was looking for. 


 Left: The Yorkshire Coacher (ca 1890), Center: a late 1800's Hackney champion stallion. Right: the 16'2hh Cleveland Bay stallion Sultan, painted by Samuel John Carter in 1890.

They eventually tried breeding Thoroughbreds to Cleveland Bays, which were already in use pulling heavy coaches for stage and mail.  The thinking was that the Thoroughbred would refine the fairly heavy but regal-looking Clevelands--but it didn't work.  Though the result was a handsome animal, it wasn't 'flashy'.  It also wasn't really mentally suited to pull anything, nor did it trot well (meaning fashionably).  Thoroughbreds, as Gilbey noted, were bred to gallop, not trot.  But the Thoroughbred was part of the British 'National Identity', and Englishmen were very attached to the idea that the Thoroughbred was the best there was--so much so that when using them could not produce a good carriage horse, they lost interest in the project rather than seek non-TB breeding stock.  

Worse still, most were loathe to import carriage horses from outside Britain (though they did later buy Hackneys from the US so long as they were descended from originally English stock, or descended from Messenger the famed racing trotter--more on that later).  This mindset created a circle of a problem with no solution.  They even had a national meeting on the matter in 1873 (the Lords' Horse Breeding Commission), where they debated the problem, and noted horse experts finally convinced them that the Thoroughbred, master of the racetrack though he may be, would never produce a showy carriage horse (and one that had sale-ability) without breeding it to something besides heavy horses.


The answer was to include Hackney stock in the existing mix.  Since the Hackney breed descends from the Darley Arabian (a founding sire of the Thoroughbred), and the Norfolk Trotter, this was an option that Englishmen were able to accept.  The resulting animals were 16-17hh and were everything that was needed--upright, energetic, strong, intelligent, and of sufficient bone.  They were also magnificent.


As far as the official stud book went, lingering opinions and loyalties caused much trouble in the mix.  Though the Yorkshire Coach horses themselves were heartily embraced by the horse-buying public, the Cleveland Bay Society rejected them.  So the Yorkshire Coach breeders formed their own stud book in 1886. The relationship between the two groups remained unsteady for decades (Richardson, p. 290), and strong opinions on the matter remained and were being publicly voiced even as late as 1922. (Bailey, p. 453)


It was a lengthy recipe to breed a Yorkshire.  The right 'look' was essential, and to get it the best cross was considered to be a 3/4 Cleveland mare put to a stallion of  Hackney + Cleveland + TB mix.  A simple cross of TBxCB mare to TBxCB stallion, or of TBxDrafts, or any combination without a high percentage of Hackney, did not produce good action or consistency for type.  The Cleveland was needed for mass, but the Hackney blood was essential to maintain the flashy trot and upright build, important factors in getting the right 'look' for a horse considered to be 'the' ultimate household status symbol in 19th century England.


Sadly, this is a breed that declined into non-existence very quickly after the turn of the century, as motorized vehicles replaced family carriages as status symbols.  Although the Cleveland Bay still exists today in limited numbers, the Yorkshire Coacher as a specific type is gone entirely.

The French Coacher (France)


The unbelievably beautiful Paladin 1968, French Coach Horse stallion, ca. 1900.  He was American-bred in Illinois, and won supreme champion over all breeds in the late 1890s-early 1900s.

French Coachers were often considered the most elegant of the three major coaching types of the 19th century.  The French Coach as a type started in about 1775, as a horse bred to fill the need for lighter military draft horses that had more speed than the local (but excellent) French heavy horses.  Using local Percheron and Boulonnais stallions, they bred to Thoroughbred mares (of French and English import, both of which had a much higher percentage of Arab blood at the time than is seen today) to get a solid foundation animal, generally known as Demi-Sang (meaning "half blood", similar to the modern Norman Cob).  Both the Percheron and the Boulonnais as a starting point are heavily inclusive of Spanish blood, which of course already have beautiful shoulder and animated trot action in such demand (in contrast with the English breeding program needing Hackneys to bring that aspect into the mix). By the 1860s, when the buying public began asking for smaller, flashier carriage pullers, these same half-drafts were crossed with English trotters such as Hackneys (themselves derived from the Darley Arabian) and Norfolks.


The resulting horse was an exceptionally elegant one and had striking movement, was about 15.3-16.2hh weighing 1100-1300lbs, with long sloped shoulders, a deep body, and good bone.  Colors were bay, black, and some chestnut. They had high intelligence and great endurance--probably from their Arab blood (via the Hackney) as well as elegant form from the ancient Iberian influences of both the Boulonnais and Percheron.   Action was much showier than would be expected (probably due to Iberian + Hackney), and was the highest knee action of all the coacher types, making a very stylish and attractive carriage horse.


This was an expensive animal, and the beauty of the French Coach horse was legendary.   "A perfect type of the French coach horse when standing or in action is impossible to describe in words," the American scholar John R. McLaughlin wrote in 1912; "...words are inadequate to describe him, and the most perfect picture falls far short of the most perfect horse." (Mclaughlin, Beach et al, 1912)


Palladin, seen above, is one of the most famous French Coach horses.  Foaled in 1892, he was American bred in Illinois from directly imported stock, and was the grand champion of the 1897 Chicago Horse show, beating out the best from all other competing non-draft breeds (including Hackneys, German Coachers, all trotters, Thoroughbreds, and Cleveland Bays).  This nearly flawless stallion represents the pinnacle of what a French light coach/carriage type should be. His pedigree is here and it is interesting! (source: The Horse, Isaac P Roberts, 1906.)


In the first half of the 20th century, the French Coach continued to evolve and was bred to be lighter and smaller, to accommodate a growing demand for sport-horses for upper level riding and for the Cadre Noir.  They were essential to producing today's Selle Francais (French saddle horse).


Above: Three French Coach stallions Viseur, Fadiavolo, and Marin, ca 1900.

The German Coacher (Germany)


Hannibal, one of the best known German Coachers of the early 20th century.  (His hoof length, though it would not tolerated today, was likely used to create more desired knee action.)

The German Coacher was the heaviest of the three major 'Coacher' types, and was the most 'workmanlike' with more bone and power, but less showy knee action.

The term "German Coacher" is an American 19th century term referring to a type based on German regionally-bred horses. These horses, generally speaking, were developed from breeding heavy horses with lighter military riding horses and Iberian types throughout Germany's already famous horse breeding provinces such as Oldenburg and Ostfreisland (for the heavy Oldenburg and Karriosser type), Bavaria (the Rottaler, foundation for today's Bavarian Warmblood), and Hanover (the Hannovarian).  Very strictly supervised breeding programs kept the quality extremely high for more than three centuries. 

Breeding stock included the best horses that Europe, Great Britain, and the East had to offer, from countries like Arabia, Poland, Denmark, Turkey, Holland, and England.  Most of the 'native' bred German regional horses had a high percentage of Lipizzan and / or Spanish blood, and as a group they contain the lowest amount of Thoroughbred influence.


German Coach types were attractive, uphill horses, with robust, round physiques, short backs, archy necks, high-set withers, and elegant heads. Though they did not have the flashy action of other breeds, they moved with fluid grace even when pulling very heavy loads, which they could do with great speed. They arrived in the US and Great Britain in about 1890, and were collectively referred to as 'German Coacher' or simply 'German' horses.  Said to be very good tempered, docile, and not prone to spookiness, they made excellent carriage horses.  Substantial horses, the usual height was around 16.2 to 17.2hh, weight around 1400-1500lbs, with colors of bay, black, or brown, usually with dapples and often a characteristic 'mealy' muzzle. 

Today these horses have continued to be produced regionally in Germany, although their purpose has become saddle work instead of harness, with conformation changes accordingly.  They are now recognized as exceptional breeds of riding horses, who still maintain their large size but are more refined, bred for world- and Olympic-level dressage.


Above:  typical German Coach horse, c 1919. Center: The German coach horse "Nero", ca 1910. Far right: East Friesland type German mare, "Fope", about 1910.  Below: German Coacher of Oldenburg type, "Willem", ca. 1900. Center: the East Friesland type, 1898. Far right: the German Coacher, painted by Edward Herbert Miner.





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