The Cleveland Bay is the oldest of all the indigenous British horse breeds. Clevelands are large, powerful, and elegant, and they are always bay in color. Though they were considered to be the very best coach horses during the Regency, this magnificent breed came to the very brink of extinction in the 1960s. They were saved, almost single-handedly, by HM Queen Elizabeth II.
A canter through the chronicles of the Cleveland Bay …
The roots of the family tree of the Cleveland Bay are lost in the swirling mists of ancient Britain. Many hippologists, those who study horses, believe that the ancestors of this breed were crosses between the native, indigenous horses of the British Isles and the horses the Romans brought with them to pull their chariots when they invaded. By the Middle Ages, a strong, sturdy horse was being bred from the horses descended from those ancient British/Roman crosses in the monasteries of the Wapentake of Langbaurgh. A wapentake was the term used in the northern counties for what was known as a hundred in the rest of England. This one encompassed the Vale of Cleveland and Whitby Strand, which became the core of the region where these medieval horses were bred. With the Dissolution in 1539, the breeding stock held by the monasteries in this area came into the possession of those upon whom Henry VIII conferred the erstwhile monastery lands. Many of the new landowners continued breeding the line of horses which the monasteries had established.
Initially, these horses were put to agricultural use, mostly clearing fields and plowing. However, in rough, mountainous terrain, carts and wagons were nearly useless, and sound, sturdy pack horses were a necessity. The horses bred at the monasteries and later by private breeders, had the strength and stamina to carry heavy loads over long distances, and were sure-footed enough to successfully negotiate even narrow tracks though the steep hills. It was not long before peddlers and other itinerant salesmen were eagerly seeking out these pack horses to carry their wares throughout the region. These travelling salesmen were known as chapmen, and it was not long before they lent their name to this breed of horse. Thus was named the Chapman Horse, which would become the cold-blood side of the warm-blooded Cleveland Bay breed.
From the time of Queen Elizabeth I, wealthy young noblemen traveled in Europe on the Grand Tour when they left university. Many of these young men purchased an expensive status symbol, a Barbary stallion, during their travels. Most of these North African horses were acquired in some Mediterranean port, having been shipped across the sea by Moorish traders. Mares were considered much too valuable by the Moors, so only stallions were ever on offer. Which suited these young men, as they felt that stallions conferred much greater status than would have a mare. And most of these affluent young aristocrats brought their Barb stallions home with them. A number of them found their way to the Vale of Cleveland and were bred with Chapman mares. Thus arrived the first wave of the hot-blood component of the Cleveland Bay.
The second wave of hot-blood came to the Vale of Cleveland in the aftermath of the English Civil War. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, no European monarch with any self-respect would have had his equestrian portrait painted mounted on any horse but an Andalusian. The same held true for high-ranking military officers. According to one Cleveland Bay hippologist, "In the Civil Wars of the 1640s Generals and Colonels sprang up like mushrooms in the English countryside … and the first thing they did was to equip themselves with an Andalusian charger." And like the young aristocrats in the previous century who had purchased Barbs on the Grand Tour, only intact stallions would do for these officers. Once King Charles I had been executed and Oliver Cromwell was in control of England, about half of these officers, those who had been on his side, were given posts as military governors and civil administrators in the provinces. They took their Andalusian stallions with them. Of the other half of the officers, those who had been against Cromwell, many went into exile, but nearly as many returned to their country estates to live quietly, out of sight and, hopefully, out of mind of Cromwell. They also took their Andalusian chargers with them.
A goodly number of these Andalusian-owning officers, whether for or against Cromwell, were located in the general vicinity of the Vale of Cleveland and the North Riding of Yorkshire. The decade of Cromwell’s Protectorate was dull and dreary. Even worse, especially in the countryside, the ecomony was rather depressed. But the need for horses continued, and to supplement their incomes, many of these Andalusian stallions were put to stud by their owners. And many of them covered Chapman/Barb cross mares. It was during this time that the bay color was fixed in the horses bred in this region. Andalusians came in many colors, from palomino to chestnut to black. But bay was the most frequent color seen and the most esteemed in England.
The third and final wave of hot-blood came to the Vale of Cleveland and the Whitby Strand quite literally over the waves. When Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, her father, the King of Portugal, included in her dowry the port of Tangier on the Barbary coast. The English were ecstatic at the idea of a deep-water port on the Mediterranean, but to accomplish that end, the port of Tangier would have to be dredged and a sturdy stone pier would have to be built. The only people in England capable of doing this work were the marine engineers and masons who had recently completed the deep-water harbor-works at the port of Whitby. Men and materiel were transported via ships out of the port of Whitby to Tangier. Initially, these ships returned to England carrying only ballast, as there was no commercial trade at the Moorish port. It did not take long for the Yorkshire horse breeders to realize this could be an opportunity to buy Barbary horses directly from the Moors in North Africa, with ample transport to England available at very reasonable rates. And so, ships sailed out of Whitby loaded with supplies for the harbor-works in Tangier and returned carrying Barbary horses, both stallions and mares, bound for the horse breeders of Yorkshire.
By the mid-1680s, the Cleveland Bay type was fairly well established. The characteristics of the breed included a remarkably uniform conformation and size, soundness, stamina and an even but courageous temperament. Cleveland Bays were large, powerful horses, their big, well-rounded bodies providing plenty of room for a large heart and lungs. They weighed between 1200 to 1500 pounds. Though their legs were rather short, they were of sturdy, heavy bone, and with their big bodies, Clevelands stood between 16 to 16.5 hands in height. The back was not long, shoulders were sloping, deep and muscular, with powerful hind-quarters. The neck was long and lean, the head was bold, with a slightly hawk-like profile, a gift from their Andalusian ancestors. Eyes were large, luminous and dark. Their expression was often described as "kind." The mane and tail were thick, long and flowing. Clevelands were always bay, with black points, that is, their mane and tail, and the lower half of their legs. The legs were clean, meaning they were free of the feathers which were to be seen on Clydesdales and Suffolk Punch horses. Clevelands had sound, broad feet, with hooves of such a deep black they appeared blue in color.
For the rest of the seventeenth century, Cleveland Bays were employed as both farm horses and pack horses. Their short backs and short, sturdy legs made them perfect for carrying bags of iron ore to the smelting facilities over rough ground. Their short backs made it easier for them to carry the very heavy bags of ore, the weight of which could have broken a horse with a longer back. Their short legs kept their center of gravity low, ensuring their sure-footedness on mountain trails. Just as important were their large feet and blue-black hooves. The lighter the color of a horse’s hooves, the softer they are. The deep black hooves of the Clevelands were extremely hard, thus enabling them to withstand the wear and tear of the rocky paths over which they traveled. Many farmers in the Yorkshire ridings plowed their fields with Clevelands, though in much of the rest of England at that time, oxen were used for plowing. The typical hitch for a team of Clevelands to a plow was the unicorn, with two wheelers harnessed behind a single leader. It was said that such a team could plow a field twice as fast as a double yoke of oxen, regardless of the heavy clay content of the soil in the region.
As the seventeenth century neared its end, more roads were being constructed across England, and many northern farmers began using their Clevelands to pull both their plows and their farm wagons. And many wealthy gentlemen, travelling those same roads, took note of the strong, handsome bay horses they saw pulling large loads over long distances at a brisk and steady clip. By the turn of the eighteenth century, as roads improved and more and more people could afford coaches, the demand for horses to pull those coaches steadily increased. Of course, most people preferred matched teams, and the prepotency of the Clevelands made them an obvious choice. The prepotency of the Cleveland Bays meant that when they were bred, they always reproduced themselves in type, temperament, soundness, stamina and performance. But most of all, in terms of color, they bred true every time. Cleveland Bays were always bay in color, thus making it fairly easy to assemble a well-matched team. There were some variations in the bay color, from a bright, slightly reddish bay to a darker, more muted bay. The bright bay was the most preferred color, but there were many horses foaled each year across the bay color range, so teams in the bay color variation of choice could be assembled without much effort.
By the reign of George II, Cleveland Bays were acknowledged across Europe as the very best coach horses. So much so that by mid-century, many Cleveland Bays, mostly stallions, were exported to a number of countries for use in improving their own coach horse breeds. George II himself sent a number of Clevelands to Hanover to be used in the breeding program at his royal stud there. In addition, he acquired many Clevelands to horse his royal coaches. The breeding of Cleveland Bays had also spread outside of the Vale of Cleveland and the Yorkshire ridings so that Clevelands were bred at studs across England. This heavy demand for Clevelands was a boon to the farmers of the region in which they had originally been bred. Many farmers bred their own Clevelands for an extra income, by selling the foals to horse traders seeking coach horses.
In the latter decades of the eighteenth century, many Cleveland Bay owners had begun to appreciate their abilities in the hunting field. It was not long before Cleveland Bays were used in the breeding of heavy hunters. With their great strength and stamina they could stay in the field for hours. Their strong, powerful legs made it possible for them to jump even high fences quite effortlessly, with little risk of injury. But perhaps what endeared them most to their riders was their dependable, friendly and calm demeanor, and their great intelligence. Many country gentlemen came to prefer full or part-bred Clevelands as the ideal saddle horse when riding out over their estates.
By the Regency, Cleveland Bays were the preferred coach horse across Britain. They were used for the Royal Mail coaches and for many of the stage-coaches which traveled the main routes between London and the provinces. But Clevelands were also in great demand to draw the private coaches of those who could afford them. A team of Clevelands was something of a status symbol, as had been the Barbary stallions which were their ancestors. But during the Regency, when roads were beginning to be macadamized and well-sprung, light-weight sporting vehicles were being developed, many gentlemen wanted a taller, lighter, faster horse. The ideal horse for such vehicles turned out to be an offshoot of the Cleveland Bay, the Yorkshire Coach horse.
Cleveland Bays continued in popularity as coach and farm horses until World War I. Many of them were drafted into service as war horses, yet despite their service, by the time the war came to an end, mechanization was rapidly eliminating the need for these powerful, all-purpose horses. Without the demand, many breeders stopped breeding Cleveland Bays, and by the 1960s, the breed was nearly extinct. In 1962, there were only four purebred Cleveland Bay stallions left in Britain, and one of the finest, Mulgrave Supreme, was about to be exported to the United States. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II purchased Mulgrave Supreme for the Royal Stables. Queen Elizabeth also initiated a breeding program with both purebred and part-bred mares which was so successful that within fifteen years there were thirty-six purebred Cleveland Bay stallions in the United Kingdom. HRH Prince Philip, who regularly competed in international driving competitions, usually drove a team of Cleveland Bays, which garnered much attention for the breed. However, the population of Cleveland Bays is still critical, as it is estimated there are only five to seven hundred registered Clevelands in the world. But many more people have come to appreciate their outstanding qualities and there is hope the breed will be preserved.
Next week, a history of that magnificent light carriage horse so beloved of sporting gentlemen, the Yorkshire Coach Horse.