Last week, I discussed the main criteria which were used during the Regency to match a pair of carriage or coach horses. But as with coat color being only the first consideration in matching a team, knowing the criteria which a pair of horses should meet was only the beginning in the effort to put a well-matched pair in harness. And once that team was selected, their care and handling would make a significant difference in their performance, not to mention their health and well-being.
How and by whom a team might be matched, and some secrets of how to best handle a team …
Curiously, teams of horses were very seldom for sale at Tattersall’s, the premier horse dealer in Regency London. They typically only sold on teams when they were the auctioneers managing dispersal or bankruptcy sales of prominent stables. In most cases, when a wealthy Regency gentleman wanted a matched team, he would apply to Richard Tattersall, who would assign one of his knowledgeable and experienced staff to the task. This man would then scour the country for the number of horses needed to make up a matched team of the count wanted by the gentleman. Richard Tattersall and his senior staff were well-acquainted with the majority of the top horse breeders across the country and were able to take advantage of these contacts to acquire prime matched horses. Though this was one of the more expedient means by which to acquire a matched team, it was also the most expensive. While a horse dealer might pay a breeder anywhere from £50 to £100 per horse, after training, a well-matched pair could easily be sold in London for £1,000 to £1,500. Each additional pair needed for a team would raise the price significantly. Thus, a prime team of four would sell for £4,000 or more. Closely matched teams of six prime horses would command prices in excess of £10,000.
Beyond Tattersall’s, in London and across England, there were a number of horse dealers who specialized in the matching and selling of teams of horses. If they were good at it, it could be very profitable indeed. But their ongoing success required a native ability to recognize horses which would match well and the skill to train them to work together as a team. Most of these dealers had developed relationships with a number of horse breeders or with farmers who raised coach and carriage horses on the side. They would tour the stables of their contacts each year, purchasing promising young horses which they could match and train to work as a team. Some dealers seem to have assembled teams only upon a request from a prospective buyer, while others put together teams on speculation, hoping the quality and appearance of the matched team would make the sale. Such horse dealers needed a significant amount of capital, as it usually took about three years to train a pair of horses to work well together as a team.
The larger breeders often paired their own young horses and began training them as a team, in order to sell them for higher prices. A pair already matched, and even in the first year of training, could double or triple the price which could be gained by selling each horse on its own with no training. Most horses destined to become part of a team were allowed to run free for their first couple of years. Their training usually began at age three, when they would be introduced to the bit and headstall, followed by the harness. Once they had become comfortable with that and had learned some basic commands, they would be paired with another young horse who matched them in all the necessary criteria and the two would begin to train together as a team. Over the next three years, they would work in harness together almost daily, going through constant drilling. They would learn to move in concert, matching their strides to that of their team mate, they learned to change gaits in unison, and were taught to hold their heads and necks proudly as they moved along. Over the course of the next three years, this pair would live and work together until they almost thought alike. When they reached the age of five, this pair would be considered nearly ready to go to work.
Whether a horse dealer or a breeder had trained a pair of horses to work as a team, the majority of this schooling took place in the country. But there was one more step in their training. To be considered ready for sale, they had to go to finishing school. The country was a calm, quiet, familiar place, where there was very little to frighten the team or distract their attention from their work as they drilled. But most teams would be driven in the city for at least some part of their lives and they had to become accustomed to all the many new and unfamiliar sights and sounds which they would encounter in an urban area. The reputable dealers would have experienced men working for them who would harness up these country teams and drive them through the city, exposing them to anything which might frighten a country-bred horse. This was typically done for several days over the course of three to four weeks. In most cases, that was enough to condition an intelligent new team to city driving. More skittish teams might take a week or two more to become accustomed to their urban surroundings. The less scrupulous dealers often skipped this final training, usually to save money. However, this could be very dangerous, if any of these teams should then be sold to an inexperienced driver who encountered something which terrified a country-bred team. An inexperienced driver would not know how to manage and calm a frightened team and might even add to their agitation. If they were severely frightened, the team might very well bolt and some kind of accident would be nearly inevitable. Therefore, though it might cost more, it was always advisable to buy a team from a reputable dealer.
For those who wanted a well-matched team for a special event or the entire London Season, but did not care to own, and therefore bear the full cost of caring for such horses, the solution was a London horse job-master. These horse jobbers typically bought their own young horses, either from farmers and breeders they knew or at horse fairs around the country. They then matched and trained these teams at their own stables which were typically located on the outskirts of London. Their matched and trained teams were made available for hire in London, for just about any purpose. The "black job-masters" supplied only teams of Belgian blacks, in all-black harness, along with black coaches and/or hearses for funerals. But the regular horse jobbers supplied teams of two, four, or six, in any color wanted, as needed, and could also supply both a coach and a coachman, if required. The cost of well-matched pair for the four months of the London Season, April, May, June and July, could run between fifteen to twenty guineas, per month. The cost during the off-season was between ten to fifteen guineas per month. If the team was stabled, fed and shod at the expense of the job-master, there would be an additional charge of six to eight guineas per month. That charge could be avoided if the customer hiring the team stabled, fed and shod the team at their own expense, or was able to stable and care for the team in their own mews. Costs for renting coaches and carriages varied with the type of vehicle, and there were additional charges if the rig was to be used beyond the environs of London. Customers would be liable for any damage to the vehicle or the harness which might occur while it was on loan to them. The cost of hiring the coachman was paid to the job-master, who then paid the coachman, usually taking a percentage for himself first. However, the hirer was expected to pay the coachman’s vails directly to the coachman. Rental of a coach and team, with coachman, for a single event, could run between five to ten guineas, depending upon the choice of team, coach and coachman and the duration of the rental.
Some London horse jobbers also had rent-to-own programs, by which someone could rent a team and/or coach or carriage for a set period, usually several months to a year. The payments would generally be much higher than those for a regular rental, but if the customer made all the payments on time, they would own the team and/or the rig at the end of the rental period. Some job-masters also offered another option, by which an interested buyer could rent a team for a couple of weeks to a month at the usual rates, in order to try them out. At the end of this extended "test-drive" period, the customer could return the team with no further charges, or, if he chose to buy them, he would be expected to pay the full purchase price at that time. There do appear to have been some horse job-masters who had teams available in other large English cities during the Regency, but there is very little information available as to their offerings, rates and general practices.
Many sporting gentlemen, even those with deep pockets, enjoyed the challenge of matching their own teams. Typically, their stable manager, their tiger, their head coachmen, or any combination of the three, would be their partners in such an effort, since it usually required a great deal of time and effort. Some gentlemen went directly to the horse breeding districts in the country, usually taking along at least one of their stable staff. There, they would visit the breeders and large farmers who had young horses for sale. However, a wise gentleman would not advertise his presence in these neighborhoods, as prices were likely to rise if it became known that a man of means was on the lookout for prime horseflesh. There were a few very large horse dealers dotted around the country to whom a gentleman might go in order to see more horses on offer at one time. However, this was no guarantee that he would find horses which met his needs. Unless they were in a particular hurry, most gentlemen seemed to have preferred buying their horses from breeders, rather than dealers. A gentleman seeking a team of four might find it convenient to acquire two young pairs in training, if they were well matched, and finish their training himself. Such a team might be ready to put into the traces within a couple of years. Or, the gentleman might prefer to buy four very young horses and train them up from scratch. But he could expect to invest three to four years of time and effort before he would be able to hitch that team to his favorite vehicle. Many such gentlemen had two or three pairs, in various stages of training, so there was always at least one team fully trained and one or two more which would mature and complete their training at about the same time he expected to retire the team he was currently driving.
Those with wealth, but little interest in horseflesh beyond transportation were likely to leave the acquisition of their teams to their stable manager and/or their head coachmen. If they employed knowledgeable and experienced horsemen in these positions, they could be sure they would have teams of the number and quality appropriate to their social position for all their vehicles. As with sporting gentlemen, some coachmen and stable managers preferred to assemble and train their own teams, while others might rely on horse dealers to provide the teams they needed to horse their employers’ vehicles. However, horse dealing could be a rather shady business, especially if one were not dealing with reputable dealers. There were almost certainly some stable managers and coachmen who were able to substantially pad their own income while filling their employers’ stables. An inattentive employer could be easily fleeced in such situations, quite unaware of what might be going on under their noses.
In order to understand the finer points of matching a team of horses, it will be useful to know something about the different configurations in which teams might be hitched during the Regency. A pair, with two horses harnessed side by side, was the most common, especially for driving in town. Some preferred a pair in a tandem hitch, that is one horse harnessed in front of another, but they took up a longer distance than a side-by-side pair and could be much more difficult to maneuver. The unicorn hitch was comprised of a pair of horses harnessed side by side, with a single horse harnessed in front of them. Handling such a team required great skill on the part of the driver. The pickaxe hitch, with three horses harnessed in front of a pair, was considered to be the most difficult team to manage and doing so well was a true test of a driver’s skill. However, the majority of team configurations consisted of multiple pairs harnessed one in front of the other. A single pair was the usual team for drawing most vehicles in urban areas, though sporting gentlemen typically preferred to drive four-in-hand, that is with two pairs of horses hitched one in front of the other. Most private travelling coaches and stage coaches were usually drawn by two pairs of horses, which provided more horse-power and thus more speed than a single pair. Some Royal Mail coaches and the private travelling coaches of the very wealthy were sometimes drawn by six horses, which typically ensured the greatest power and speed, though at the greater cost of maintaining more animals.
The most expensive, but also the most powerful, team was an eight-horse hitch, with four pairs of horses harnessed one in front of the other. During the Regency, typically only the royal family traveled in coaches drawn by a team of eight horses, and usually only on ceremonial occasions. There is no suggestion that the use of such a large team was prohibited by law, but rather, such use was limited by the sheer cost of maintaining so many horses to draw a single vehicle. Which is one of the main reasons that royals studs were maintained at both Hampton Court and Windsor Castle, where royal coach horses were bred and trained on an ongoing basis. The British Gold State Coach, for example, weighs four tons empty, and needed then, as it still does today, the full power of eight horses in order to move it. In addition, the harness alone for the Gold State Coach weighs nearly one hundred and twenty pounds and is less burdensome when spread out over eight horses. Regardless of the size of a team of horses, each pair in a hitch was known by a specific name. In an eight-horse hitch, the first pair in the team were known as the leaders or the lead team, the next pair were known as the swing team, the third pair were known as the body team, and the final pair, those harnessed nearest to the vehicle, were known as the wheelers or the wheel team. A six-horse hitch was comprised of leaders, swing team and wheelers, while a four-horse hitch was made up of leaders and wheelers.
Size mattered in the matching of horses, in more ways than one. A pair of horses which would be harnessed side by side should be matched as closely as possible in size. However, it was also important to match the size of the team to the vehicle to which they would be hitched. A team of smallish horses would look quite silly harnessed to a high-perch phaeton, while a low-slung barouche might be overpowered by a very large, tall team. For example, a team of Cleveland Bays, which typically stood about 15 hands were considered the perfect height for an enclosed coach, such as a Berlin, while Yorkshire Coach Horses, which stood about 16 hands, were popular for horsing high-perch phaetons and racing curricles. Clevelands also had heavier, sturdier legs and bodies than did Yorkshires, so they were considered appropriate in proportion for lower-slung and enclosed vehicles, while the tall, lean, athletic Yorkshires were ideal to horse light, open vehicles built for speed.
Size was also an issue within a team which consisted of more than one pair. During the Regency, quite a few people preferred that all the horses in a team of four or six be all the same height. It is suggested that such teams were often easier to assemble. There were others who preferred that the wheelers be taller than the pair(s) in front of them, so that in a six-horse hitch, the swing team would be an inch or two shorter than the wheelers and the leaders would be an inch or two shorter than the swing team. Thus, the height of each pair would rise as it came closer to the vehicle. However, this does appear to have been a preference of the minority and it is likely there were only a few teams of such size ratios to be seen on Regency roads. It seems that the more knowledgeable horsemen preferred the opposite size ratios in their teams.
Most experienced coachmen, in particular, wanted shorter, compact wheelers, with very sturdy legs. There was a very practical reason for this choice. During the Regency, vehicles had no brakes, which meant the only way to stop the vehicle was to stop the team. It was for this reason that the wheelers’ harness included what was known as breeching. Breeching was a system of harness straps which went round the wheelers’s hindquarters and gave them some control over the vehicle to which they were harnessed on the downhill or when stopping quickly, thus preventing the vehicle from riding up their back legs. Breeching also helped spread the weight of the vehicle across the wheelers’ hindquarters as it came to a stop. Wheelers with compact, powerful bodies and short but sturdy legs were much better able to take the weight of the vehicle on the breeching during a downhill run or during an abrupt stop, when a lighter horse might crumple under the additional pressure. Many sporting gentlemen who drove four-in-hand also preferred their wheelers be slightly shorter than their leaders, not only so the wheelers could better take the pressure on the breeching, but also because from the box, they liked the look of taller leaders harnessed in front of their wheel team. There were many who also found the appearance of such a team and carriage in profile especially smart.
When a gentleman was driving a pair, if there were any problem on the road, or he simply wished to step away from his vehicle, his tiger or groom would go to his horses’ heads. However, if a knowledgeable and experienced horseman was driving four-in-hand, and had only his tiger or a single groom with him, he would send them to the wheelers’ heads, not to the leaders’ heads. There was a very good reason for this. If the leaders should take fright, they could easily rear or otherwise knock down the man at their heads and the team would be away. But if the wheelers were standing fast, calmed by the man at their heads, and with no place to go with the leaders in front of them, there was little the leaders could do to leave that spot, rear or shy as they might. It was also for this reason that many gentlemen who drove four-in-hand would choose a wheel team with a slightly less excitable temperament. Not lethargic or indifferent, for they certainly wanted their wheelers to match their leaders for speed when on a run. But when it came to general handling of team of four, fidgety leaders were less of a problem if the wheelers were calm and steady.
A team of horses should never be left standing alone. No matter how reliable the horses might be considered, they are living, breathing creatures and there is always the chance that something untoward could happen which would frighten them. If there was no one with them to calm and reassure them, once one started to run, the others would inevitably go along. It must also be kept in mind that horses are very much creatures of habit, and if they get used to doing a certain thing, in a certain way, at a certain time, they will just keep doing it. Regency author, Allison Lane, teaches courses on Regency travel and has done considerable research on the subject. Last year, she shared with me a wonderful, true story about a team of mail coach horses which took place in 1826. It seems this particular team had been on the same stage of the run for several years and knew the route, but more importantly, the schedule, by heart. One day, the coachman and guard dawdled too long in the taproom. The mail coach horses, harnessed to the coach and ready, but unattended, left the inn yard at the appointed departure time, and did the full run to the next stop, arriving exactly on time. It was only then that the passengers inside the coach discovered that they had traveled that seven-mile stage with no coachman at the reins.
Once a team was matched and in service, there were certain other handling techniques which were employed to keep them on their mettle, so that they did not get bored. It would also help to prevent a fault which horsemen called a "one-sided mouth." This was the result of a horse always being driven in the same position in a team. There would always be more pressure from the bit on one side of his mouth than the other. Over time, this constant pressure could dull the sensation in the bar of the horse’s lower jaw where the bit rested. Once that happened, the horse would be much less responsive to the commands which he received through the reins on that side of his mouth. To prevent their horses from getting one-sided mouths, many drivers and coachmen would shift where each horse was harnessed. For those who had multiple horse teams in which all the horses were the same size, they might circulate each horse through each side of each pair in the team. For those who had leaders and wheelers, and even swing teams of different sizes, they would switch on which side each horse was harnessed at each outing. Another technique to prevent one-sided mouth was to periodically change out the bits on the harness headstalls. Typically, there would be two, or sometimes, three sets of bits for a team. Each set of bits would have a slightly different shape and the periodic changes would give the horses a slightly different sensation in their mouths, preventing the same constant pressure on the bars of their jaws. Most conscientious horsemen took all these steps in order to prevent any of their horses from developing one-sided mouths and to help keep their outings interesting for them.
The thickness of the straps and thus, the weight of the harness was also an important consideration for each team. The Royal Gold State Coach harness, which was comprised of thick, sturdy straps and many decorative metal bosses and other ornamentation, was perfectly appropriate for use on an eight-horse team, where its nearly one hundred and twenty pound weight would be spread out over the eight horses and its strong and sturdy straps were needed to pull the weight of a four-ton vehicle. In all cases, the harness should be appropriate to the weight of the vehicle and the team which drew it. Therefore, a travelling coach, pulled by a team of sturdy Cleveland Bays might have fairly thick and sturdy straps, since there would be times when that coach would be quite heavy when fully loaded and a strong harness would be necessary. On the other hand, the harness for a team of lean, elegant and athletic Yorkshire Coach Horses, hitched to a racing curricle, would have no need to be so sturdy and thick. Such a vehicle was unlikely to carry more weight than its driver and perhaps a passenger, so a lighter harness was much more appropriate. Not to mention that the lighter weight harness could be crucial to winning a race. Besides the practical advantages of a lighter harness for sporting vehicles, many gentlemen took great pride in their teams and saw no reason to cover them with unnecessarily thick or heavy harness. They much preferred that their superior horseflesh be easily seen and admired by any onlookers.
A whip, used correctly, was another important tool which could be used in communicating commands to a team. No horseman worth his salt would ever use a whip on a horse other than to communicate. A whip was never to be used for punishment. Some drivers would use their whip to flick their leaders’s ears to give a command, or reinforce one given through the reins. Other drivers preferred to crack the whip near their leaders’ ears or over their heads, using the sound, rather than touch, to communicate their commands. However, teams would have to be trained to recognize whichever type of whip commands their driver would be using with them. It was also important that the whip thong be the correct length to match the team that was being driven. A whip thong for use with a single pair would typically be much shorter than the whip thong needed to reach the ears of the leaders in a four- or six-horse hitch. And the longer the whip thong, the greater the skill needed to wield it. However, a skillful and experienced whipster could usually transmit the required message to his team, regardless of the length of the thong on his whip. A whip could be a crucial tool in some driving situations. One horseman noted that, especially on a steep downhill roadway, very tired or jaded horses often had a tendency to lean, or "hang" to one side of the road or the other. He advised that a smart flick over the shoulder or the neck of a horse that was hanging over too far was the most efficient way to prevent running off the road and ending up in a ditch. However, any driver who chose to use a whip would also have to be able to manage his team with all the reins in one hand, since he would need the other hand to ply his whip. An inexperienced driver, also unskilled with a whip, but trying to show off his skill with both, could only have been a recipe for disaster.
The matching of a team, the matching of that team to a vehicle, as well as the correct handling of a team, all offer the potential for some interesting scenes in a Regency novel. Perhaps a driver has chosen to have tall, but thin, weak legged wheelers, and suddenly has to rein in his team abruptly. The light wheelers cannot take the pressure on the breeching and they go down. Or, perhaps some vain and foolish driver has had very thin harness made to show off the team which draws his high-perch phaeton. But despite warnings from his groom, his tiger, even his harness-maker, he has had it made too thin. When and where will it break, and what chaos will ensue? A lazy, inconsiderate driver may not bother to rotate his team and they all develop a one-sided mouth. In time, it will be nearly impossible for him to control his team, as they will be oblivious to any commands which he tries to give them through the reins and bits. One day, he will attempt to give a command which will be completely ignored. What then?
Ignorant and inexperienced drivers offer a whole set of their own possibilities. A young man, or young lady, has acquired a team from an irresponsible dealer who has not bothered to condition the team to life in the city. What might happen the first time this new driver is out in town and something happens which frightens the country-bred team with no city experience? Perhaps an inexperienced young man, driving four-in-hand, stops for some reason, and sends his tiger to the leaders’ heads. The tiger may very well know better and goes to the wheelers’ heads, only to be ordered to the leaders’ heads by his ignorant employer. Something frightens the leaders, they rear, knock the tiger down and the team is off in a flash, with no driver. Or, some young man, wishing to demonstrate his barely acquired skills, has the reins in one hand, the whip in the other, and not good with the whip, lashes one of his team, hurting and frightening them into a gallop. With all the reins in one hand, and perhaps not held properly, his team has become a runaway at the flick of his whip.
Allison Lane’s story about the mail coach horses has also suggested some interesting scenarios. Just imagine the possibilities with a team of mail coach horses who are running their stage of the route on their own, having left the coachman and the guard at the last stop. Perhaps a pair of not overly bright fellows thinks to rob the mail coach on that stage. Assuming their guns will be enough to stop the coach, these fellows do not bother to block the roadway, and are on foot, perhaps around a bend, so the coachman will not see them too soon. They hear the coach coming, step out and level their weapons, only to have the team, which knows nothing of guns, go barreling past them on their way to the next stop. Horses, one; humans, nothing!
The colors of a team might present some interesting story points. Maybe the villain has a team of four bright chestnuts, of which he is excessively proud. Such a team might very well be his undoing, since they would surely stand out, as chestnuts, especially bright chestnuts, were notoriously difficult to match. When a matched team of bright chestnuts is seen fleeing the scene of the crime, who else could the culprit be? Or does the hero have a matched pair of four bright chestnuts and the villain has scoured the country to create a similar team, in order to implicate the hero in a crime. Will it work, or will the villain be exposed in the end? Perhaps a young lady, a noted whip, wishes to make a splash in London. She chooses to drive a team in a unicorn hitch, but rather than having all three horses the same color, she has chosen a pair of all black wheelers and a pure white leader. Or, mayhap she wishes to be a bit more subtle, and has a dark grey wheel team with a pale grey lead horse. Will her rig catch the eye of the hero, or a scold from a guardian who thinks she is making a spectacle of herself?
Dear Regency Authors, I hope these two articles on the lore and secrets of the matching, acquisition and handling of fine teams of horses might help you to embellish your upcoming Regency stories which include matched teams with some real-life details from our favorite era. Certainly, your broader knowledge of the complex processes of matching, training, assembling and caring for a finely matched team of horses should enable you to ensure your characters handle their teams as accurately and as true to life as possible.