American Sport Horse History

Above is Diana, an American sport horse born in 1907, a half-TB, she can stand as an example of the enduring American tradition of breeding the finest overall sport horses in the world since our colonial days. This lovely mare was a champion field hunter and a winner in steeplechase. Seen here with her owner Mr. Stevenson, the Master of the Hounds on Long Island, NY. At the time of this photo the American Thoroughbred, Standardbred and Hunter Horse had been competing and winning internationally in England, Ireland and France in all manner of horse sport for fifty years. Photo from Thoroughbred Types 1926.

Is there such a thing as a historical American Sport Horse? If you listen or read the industry wisdom of our day then the answer is NO! Instead you are repeatedly told that America is new to sport horse breeding. Trade rags publish that America rarely breed sport horses, one even saying that we can't really breed sport horses because we are 'uncultured' and then enlarged on that theme saying Americans are a materialistic people, and that we simply buy what we want from the countries that do actually have centuries of sport horse breeding behind them--meaning in this case the European continent ( "Breeding News for Sport Horses" 4/2003).

This type thinking has never gone away and recently I ran into a version of the same narrative, this time proclaiming that Europe invented the sport horse, so I guess the deep confusion about the origins of sport remains in some minds. 

Unfortunately, the revised history of sport horse production has become the accepted narrative in a large segment of our industry. These beliefs are proclaimed continuously and are believed not only by their originators but now by our own equestrians. The truth however is so contrary to this published dogma it is astounding that it grew feet here in the States. 

Let me put some FACTS out there for my American readers:

1. America has ALWAYS bred sport horses (documented from 1624)

2. In the 1600s America already had perfected a multi-talented and potent sport horse breed that excelled at racing, hunting and saddle

3. Our original sport horse breed still existed into the early 20th century--so it existed for 300 years, and all those years were before the Europeans ever got around to breeding their own (see American Running Horse)

4. America's original sport horse breed is the genetic base of our THREE racehorse breeds of Quarter Horse, Standardbred and American Thoroughbred (genetically different from every other TB population), plus the Morgan Horse, the Saddlebred, the Tennessee Walker, the Missouri Fox Trotter and our own Hunter Horse---the same breed we use today for Olympic style sport, in field hunting and hunter-jumper disciplines and dressage.

5. America has competed INTERNATIONALLY on our American Hunters (sport horses) and won since the mid-1800s (see Legacy of Lexington and Standardbred Sport Horses for the story of the international contests)

6. America has the highest rated racehorse breeds and the greatest distance racing genes in the world (see real stayers)

I must be kidding, right? No, I am not--the above list are all historical facts, and the shame is that you and I didn't know and celebrate our history, our superior sport horse or even recognize our true position in international sport. Because of the pervasive ignorance of the industry regarding the true history of American sport horses, I researched and compiled a book documenting the American sport history from 1609 to the present in the book American Running Horse.

For an example of how far we have traveled down the wrong road in this and how much we need to do a 'reset' on our own history and the quality of sport genetics found in our breeds, let me tell you of a communication I had with an American industry spokesperson. This woman is highly intelligent and thoughtful, and she publishes a respected warmblood trade journal. But as well informed as she is, she confidently told me that show jumping only came about in the 20th century, from its military roots, and was only converted then to sport. She believes this so strongly that she said anyone who says differently is 'inaccurate'. Obviously, she is unaware of the long-standing jump disciplines of Ireland.

Yet, my own research has discovered, that even here in this new country we regularly held jumping contests in our Hunt Clubs which stretched across our country beginning in the late 1700s (Gloucester Foxhunting Club in Philadelphia est. 1766), whose grounds had jumping rings and provided riding rings, racetracks and cross-country courses, all to test and compete our very popular Hunter Horses and keep them fit for the hunt season. Hunting on horseback and horse racing were American passions that began in the 1600s (first image of a horse in the colonies was an engraving of a rider hunting deer on horseback that appeared in Historica Americae 1634-DeBry), and the horses bred for those sports were the pride of the populace. Further, by the late 1800s, we regularly had Hunter Horses competing in England, France and Ireland in jumping contests. Why don't we know this? And why don't we celebrate our heritage?

This complete lack of knowledge of our own sport history is tragic. After decades of study and running down records and archives, I have now done my best to provide you with our glorious North American sport horse account; so that you too can stand proud that you are part of tradition that started at the dawn of our nation. Americans have always bred sport horses, some of the greatest the world has ever seen.

But that is only part of the issue, for in addition, in the last 30 years American equestrians have been inundated with continual propaganda and false 'history' from our European neighbors to weaken our attachment to our native sport breeds and built faith in the European breeds only. And it is very persuasive, because even their own people believe the new mythology. 

For example, in 10/2018 I had a conversation with a European warmblood enthusiast who was reacting strongly to one of my articles, and he confidently told me that no sport other than racing was performed anywhere in the 1800s. That is when it finally dawned on me that these people who say these things are not lying intentionally so much as that they believe what they are saying is true. Interacting with this astonishing historical ignorance I realized there had to be a total vacuum in their knowledge and understanding of the Hunter culture that existed since at least 1500 in the British Isles. 

While Europe was breeding their native heavy draft breeds (Schwere Warmblud, Black Marsh Horse, Holland Black, Norman Draft), England, Ireland and the colonies (America etc.), were immersed in their hunter culture based on their native light horse breeds where they carefully bred up horses not just for racing but for the national passion of hunting. The key to understanding the dramatic differences in horse production is to take note that the base stock of each area is different and resulted in different uses: British Isles and colonies= light horses; Continental Europe= heavy draft. My correspondents seem to think because their ancestors sometimes rode their plow horses and when necessary, rode them to battle, that it made those heavy horses 'sport' horses. They just don't understand, maybe because they have no cultural memory of light horse culture?

Back in 'uncultured' America, hunting was not just a way to eradicate vermin that were decimating livestock, but since the early 1600s, it was a joyous sport, just as it was in the mother country for centuries more. Indeed, our first President took his enjoyment in the hunt and was a noted breeder of Hunter Horses. In contrast on the continent what they bred for centuries was a DRAFT HORSE, a plow horse--not a sport horse. The draft horse is the performance opposite of the sport horse. It was only in the mid-1800s that they began adjusting their breeding goals--by government direction, first by importing the fabulous coach horse, hunters and Thoroughbreds of the British Isles to lighten up and refine their heavy draft horses for coach and carriage work, and to make their cavalry horse (East Prussian) more like an English Thoroughbred (Trakhner Horses Then and Now, Schilke)

In the course of my pedigree and historical research over the decades I never came across evidence of their inspection system in their modern breeds ancestry. Instead, I found that when their sport star pedigrees are extended, the European developed lines vanish, and the recorded background lines are all Anglo sport horse-based breeds (see European horses in Horse Index for examples of pedigree extensions). It has become clear that the European base of the modern warmbloods did not have their ancestry recorded at all until the importation and crossbreeding with the Anglo breeds.

Later on, while researching a book, I revisited a 1990s industry tome, that was written for the British and American market: The International Warmblood Horse, Clarke and Wallen, 1991, to see what was being presented to the Americans back then. There I discovered an introduction by Dr. Hanfried Haring (head of the German Warmblood breeding and marketing), where he was proudly proclaiming (falsely) that the Germans dominated all Olympic venues in the 1980s. I knew this was not right, and so researched the actual medal counts and discovered this was, as I thought, a whopper of a tale. (Germany only dominated dressage in the 1980s.) So, I researched Dr. Haring and discovered he was the leader of the warmblood invasion into America (and elsewhere), it was he that got the trade category of horses changed to agriculture to avoid tariffs, it was he who directed the breeding program and its trajectory. In this search I came across an article by him that outlined the whole program, and it was in that article that I discovered that the modern warmblood (aka German Riding Horse) was only begun to be bred in 1975, and more enlightening was his statement that their inspection system for this new and special breed was established in 1991 (see, Lohmann Information, "The changing role of horses in our society" by Dr. Hanfried Haring.

What this means is that you (American sport horse breeder) have been the victim of a continual propaganda campaign, which sole intent was to gain control of the entire international sport horse industry.