All of us who read Regency novels have encountered the phrase "blood horse" now and again. But, what, precisely, does that phrase mean, and when and how did it enter the English lexicon? More importantly for our purposes, was it actually in use during the Regency and did it mean the same thing then that it does now?
How the blood horse galloped into the English Stud Book …
The phrase "blood horse" conjures the image of a superior, highly-bred horse, as well it should. For centuries, horsemen and horse-breeders have divided horse breeds into three major classifications, cold-bloods, warm-bloods and hot-bloods. Cold-bloods are horses indigenous to the cooler region of northern Europe, with thick skins and thick coats. Many have long hairs, known as "feathers," around their hooves. Cold-bloods are big, strong, sturdy horses, and they tend to be of a calm and quiet disposition. Hot-bloods are horses indigenous to the warmer regions of the Asian steppes and the Middle East, with thin skins and sleek coats. They are smaller, more delicate and refined in build and they tend to be very spirited and bold in temperament. They are also extremely intelligent. Warm-bloods are horses which are crosses between cold- and hot-blood breeds. They are typically lighter in build than cold-bloods, with a livelier temperament, but they usually retain the strength and stamina of the cold-bloods.
The Eastern hot-blood breeds included Arabians, Barbs and Turks. A few of these horses were imported into England in the sixteenth century, but many more were imported beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, with the number of imported horses increasing for close to a century. These Eastern horses were bred with English horses, resulting in the creation of the English Thoroughbred breed. Importation of the hot-bloods into England began to taper off by the middle of the eighteenth century, when trade with the Levant diminished and trade with India increased. Also, by that time, there was a large stock of Thoroughbreds in England, making further Eastern imports unnecessary.
Eastern horses were considered quite exotic when they were first imported into England. Many horseman were fascinated by their unique characteristics. Arabians, in particular, have large nostrils and a large wind-pipe, therefore, they can take in much more oxygen, allowing them to run faster, for longer periods. That may also be the reason that it is said the Bedouin called the first Arabian horse "Drinker of the Wind." All of the hot-blood horses had thin skins and after a long run or other heavy exercise, their veins could be seen to swell beneath their skin. Horsemen believed this swelling of the veins was very attractive and that it provided the horse’s heart and lungs with more immediate relief after their strenuous exertion. Thus it was that the hot-blood horses became known simply as "blood" horses. In time, the blood horse also became an alternative term by which to designate an English Thoroughbred horse, typically a horse bred for racing.
These Eastern blood horses brought other customs with them from the Levant. Prior to the importation of Eastern horses, very few horses in England were given names. Most were simply designated by their owner’s name and their breed or color, such as Grosvenor’s Arabian, Tregonwell’s Natural Barb, Place’s White Turk and Lord Harley’s Dun. Nor were the pedigrees of English horses recorded. But Eastern breeder’s treated their horses very much like family. All were given unique names, and those names were carefully recorded in stud books which documented a horse’s pedigree back for several generations. Those intrepid Englishmen who went to the Levant in search of blood stock to bring back to England also brought back these Eastern practices with their horses. Every English Thoroughbred breeder gave each new foal a name and kept pedigree records of all the horses born at their stud. In 1791, James Weatherby, who had been the Secretary of the Jockey Club since 1770, and his nephew, began to collect all the pedigrees from the Thoroughbred studs across England. In 1793, the first volume of the General Stud Book was published, and it remains the record of all English Thoroughbred breeding to this day.
In England, the terms "blood" or "blood horse" were used to designate only purebred Eastern hot-blood horses until the last decade of the eighteenth century. Though the word "thoroughbred" was in use in England from the beginning of the eighteenth century, until the 1790s it was only used in reference to humans, meaning a person who was very accomplished and well-educated. By the mid-1790s, the word "Thoroughbred" was used to designate horses which had been bred in England from a blend of Eastern and English stock. These Thoroughbreds were primarily bred for racing, though some, which were not successful on the racecourse, were used for other purposes, such as riding and hunting. To be a Thoroughbred, a horse must have its name and pedigree recorded in the General Stud Book. It was at about this same time that the meaning of the terms "blood" or "blood horse" shifted slightly. These terms could still be used to refer to a purebred Arabian, or other Eastern horse, as there were still breeders who were breeding such horses, even though new stock was no longer imported. But more commonly, these terms were used in reference to horses that carried some Eastern blood but were not necessarily Thoroughbreds. One of the primary characteristics of Eastern horses was their boldness and spirit, so often a horse which exhibited such characteristics was assumed to carry Eastern blood. A "bit o’ blood" was not a synonym for just any horse, to those who lived during the last decade of the eighteenth century and right though the years of the Regency, a "bit o’ blood" meant a horse who was lively and eager, regardless of his bloodline or lack thereof.
By the Regency, "Thoroughbred" was used only to refer to a horse which had its pedigree recorded in the General Stud Book kept by the Weatherby family for the Jockey Club. The horse remained a Thoroughbred regardless of whether or not it was successful on the racecourse. There were Thoroughbreds who were used for riding, some of the larger horses were used for hunting, or even hitched in teams to racing curricles or high-perch phaetons. Even though they were true Thoroughbreds, they might also be referred to as "bloods" or "blood horses" by the gentlemen who rode, drove, or traded in them. There were horse breeders who bred with Arabian and other Eastern stock, but did not intend their horses for racing, so they did not bother to record the pedigrees of their horses. These horses were therefore not Thoroughbreds, though they might share the same bloodlines as their more exalted brethren. The phrase "a prime bit o’ blood" was used in reference to such horses, who were lively, eager, and more importantly, ready to run, though they did not have their pedigree recorded in any stud book.
The next time a "blood horse" figures in a Regency novel you are reading, you will know what that term meant to those who actually lived during that time. Such horses would be spirited, intelligent and bold. They may or may not be Thoroughbreds, but it is likely they would have both speed and endurance. Any sporting gentleman worth his salt would appreciate their many fine qualities and would see they were always treated well while in his care.
For more about the history of the horse:
Alexander, David, The History and Romance of the Horse. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1963.
Chamberlin, J. Edward, Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations. Mamaroneck: BlueBridge, 2008.
Edwards, Elwyn Hartley, The New Encyclopedia of the Horse. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 2001.
Froissard, Jean (ed.), The Horseman’s International Book of Reference. London: Stanley Paul, 1980.
Hausman, Gerald, Mythology of Horses: Horse Legend and Lore Throughout the Ages. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2003.
James, Jeremy, Byerley Turk: The Incredible Story of the World’s First Thoroughbred. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2005.
Landry, Donna,Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Longrigg, Roger, The History of Horse Racing. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.
Morland, Thomas Hornby, The Genealogy of the English Race Horse: with the Natural History of his Progenitors. London: J. Barfield, 1810.
Richardson, Charles, The English Turf: A Record of Horses and Courses. New York: Methuen and Company, 1901.
Vesey-Fitzgerald, Brian, The Book of the Horse. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1947.
Wentworth, Lady (Judith Anne Dorothea Blunt-Lytton), Horses of Britain. London: Collins, 1946.
Whitaker, Julie, with Ian Whitelaw, The Horse: A Miscellany of Equine Knowledge. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2007.