65 – Britain’s Oldest and Rarest Breed – The Cleveland Bay Horse
The Cleveland Bay Horse is Britain’s oldest breed of horse and the rarest horse in the United Kingdom. It has been rated “Critical” on the Rare Breeds Survival list. The Cleveland Bay Horse Society (CBHS) was formed in 1884 to help preserve the breed, but by the early 1970’s the stallion population had been reduced to an all time low because of too much cross-breeding. Today, just over 550 pure bred Cleveland Bays exist worldwide with less than 200 in North America.
The names Chapman Horse, Packhorse, Coach Horse, New Cleveland Bay, Cleveland Bay Sporthorse, and Yorkshire Coach Horse have all been used over the past 300 years to describe the currently known Cleveland Bay and are part of a complex history lacking in tangible records regarding the breed. Because people did not keep records in the past, there are only theories about the origin of the Cleveland Bay Horse. These range from crossing carting mares with Thoroughbreds to the mating of Andalusian stallions imported into Whitby in the Middle Ages with the native mares of the region, whatever they were. The only thing that is known is that there have been horses in the UK since prehistoric times; with some breeds no longer existing and others that are a mixture of earlier known breeds. But where these breeds originated or how they developed or which other breeds may have influenced the evolution is speculation at best.
It is also known that Boedecia, a queen of the Iceni tribe of what is now known as East Anglia, used horses to pull her chariots during the Roman invasion in 61 A.D. and the invaders were admirers of those horses, whatever they were. And the Crispinian Roman legion based at Doncaster had Barb stallion mounts that could have been bred to the local mares, whatever they were. The now extinct Devonshire Pack Horse and the Cleveland Bay Horse shared similarities except that the Devonshire had white legs. It is possible that both were derived from a Barb cross due to the importation of stallions into Devon and Cornwall back during the beginnings of the tin trade with whatever the mares of the area were. The breed had to have come from somewhere and the foundation of the Cleveland Bay must be from a breed that was indigenous to the area once known as Cleveland in Northeastern England near what is now North Yorkshire and Durham.
This region was recognized for centuries as having the leading edge in horse breeding. During the Middle Ages the monasteries of Northeastern England were the main breeders since pack horses were needed for the trading of goods between the various abbeys and monasteries. Collected memories from people in the area seem to suggest that an indigenous horse existed that was bay (reddish) in color, with black legs, black mane and black tail that many people claimed was kept pure, but no one knows just what it was that was being kept pure, or for how long it had been kept pure. Was it a special cross that was being kept pure, or simply breeding nothing else into an indigenous bay-colored breed?
It is only from the 17th Century that it is possible to follow modern Cleveland Bay breeding. The 17th Century ancestors were pack horse mares bred in the Yorkshire Dales that were locally known as Chapman horses — so named after the packmen and itinerant peddlers that were referred to as Chapmen. They were used extensively as pack and agricultural horses. With an influx of Barb horses into the Whitby port during that time, those refined stallions were bred to the Chapman mares. By the end of the 17th Century, the Chapman and the Barb had formed a powerful horse whose popularity as a pack and harness horse was beginning to spread out beyond Cleveland area.
Back in the mid 18th century, it became apparent that if a Cleveland Bay was crossed with a Thoroughbred mare, it produced an elegant carriage horse that was sought after by the aristocracy. This particular cross became known as the Yorkshire Coach Horse and was exported all over the world to provide matched pairs and teams for carriages. Hundreds of paired Yorkshire Coach Horses could be seen in Hyde Park every afternoon.
But the coming of the automobile, tractor and other mechanization put an end to the need for Cleveland Bays. Breeding went into decline, many were sold abroad, but a few dedicated breeders in the northeast of England kept the breed alive. In addition, members of the Cleveland Bay Horse Society of North America (CBHSNA) are trying to increase the population by promoting the breed in many disciplines. Even with such small numbers, the Cleveland Bay Horse is making a name for itself in the eventing world, in dressage and as hunters and this speaks well of a breed that was near extinction in the 1960’s.
Today both types of Cleveland Bay can still be seen; the smaller one resembling the Chapman and the taller one resembling the Yorkshire Coach Horses. The Cleveland Bay Horse stands between 15.3 and 17.0 hands with 16.0 to 16.2 being average for the breed. The breed’s physical type has been fixed much longer than the official UK’s breed registry foundation date suggests and it breeds with a pre-potency that passes on their qualities to their offspring regardless of the breed of the mare. The head is bold and not too small and is well carried on a long lean neck. The eyes are large, well set and kindly in expression and the ears tend to be large and fine. The body is wide and deep and the back is not too long. The legs should be clear of superfluous hair and as clean and hard as possible. One of the most important features is that the feet must be blue in color. High action is not characteristic of the breed but it should be true, straight and free. The Cleveland Bay moves freely from the shoulder and will flex his knees and hocks sufficiently.
The only coat color of the Cleveland Bay horse is the traditional bay with black points, i.e., black legs to just above the knee, black mane and black tail. Any white markings beyond a very small star are frowned upon and must be noted in the stud book. However, some features have all but disappeared over the centuries, such as a black dorsal stripe, black body spots and black zebra-like stripes on the legs. At one time these were trademarks of the Cleveland Bay Horse, but now they appear only rarely as a reminder of its mysterious history.
The Cleveland Bay matures later than most breeds at around 6 years of age but they are renowned for longevity with 25 years being not uncommon. Recently a stallion was retired from stud duties at age 29 and he is still very sprightly. The Guinness Book of Records shows the oldest recorded horse was a Cleveland Bay crossbred that lived to 62 years old.
The Cleveland Bay breed is a genuinely honest horse whose temperament can be trusted. It is loyal to its owners and is very intelligent with a sensible temperament and a strong character which, if mishandled, can be ruined.
Queen Elizabeth II initiated a program to restore the Cleveland Bay when it almost disappeared after World War II (1939-1945). Her Majesty the Queen has kept a good number of Cleveland Bays at the Royal Mews since King George V introduced them, and the Hampton Court Stud, still actively breeds Cleveland Bay Horses for state and ceremonial duties. The Royal Cleveland Bay Horses can be seen drawing the state coaches, while Her Majesty’s coach is always drawn by Windsor Grays. Other members of the Royal Family and guests are also drawn by the Cleveland Bay Horses and many of London’s police horses have Cleveland Bay heritage.
Whatever happens in the future of the breed, the Cleveland Bay Horse will remain deeply embedded in British equine history.