The concept of international equestrian competition did not become a reality in the modern equine sport world until the turn of the last century, the 1900s. Most countries were breeding cavalry, coach, and sporting stock before this, but the international sport pursuits, those fashioned after hunter traditions, and the cavalry training for horse and rider became sport only at that time. Horses bred to compete in the new sport form were designed only then; for the countries wanting to participate in these sports and win, they needed to use their existing horse breeds and adjust their talents with selective breeding programs to meet the new sport demands.
I have been a student of sport horse breeding for many years here in the US. I have heard and read on several occasions that Europe has been selectively breeding “sport horses” for centuries, and that America is new to this activity. However widespread this assessment is and I have both heard and read this many times-, it still has no basis in historical fact. First, we need to be clear about sport: Is it the horses bred for participation in Olympic-style sports or those bred for the older contests of racing, jumping, hunting, and cross country? If we are talking about the Olympic-style sports, then our involvement began at the turn of the 20th century—as it did for every other participating country—therefore we are all on equal ground in Olympic discipline sport horse breeding.
It is important for us to realize that without knowledge we can easily accept misconceptions presented to us by others. Let me give you an example from my own warmblood breeding adventure of how we take on an understanding that isn’t quite accurate. I had a few fillies in a warmblood inspection in 1997, and the judge was an internationally respected warmblood expert from England, who was doing her best to judge correctly and instruct us at the same time. I had bred a nice Holstein-Thoroughbred cross filly who received high marks, and the judge was using her as an occasion to instruct the onlookers in what makes up a good sport horse. In doing so she said that a foal like this does not happen by accident but is the result of 200 years of selective breeding. The judge was talking about the Holstein portion of the genetics, not the Thoroughbred. Her implication then was that Holstein has been at this sport horse breeding business for 200 years. The judge did not mean to be inaccurate, but I came away with awe that the Holstein organization had been thoughtfully breeding this type of sport horse for centuries. Knowing what I do now, I can see this was an inaccurate statement. It would have been far more correct if she was talking about the Thoroughbred portion of the genetics—a breed that has always been a true sport horse—but she was not.
At that time I had no idea how long America had been breeding the Thoroughbred, and until quite recently I thought we didn’t even have a racehorse until the English Thoroughbred came to America. The truth is we not only created a wonderful racehorse breed in Colonial times, but we had already selectively bred the Hunter Horse (a horse breed that we still enjoy) which excels at cross-country and jumping, all long before the Thoroughbred came to America. The English Thoroughbred entered the American sport and racehorse gene pool around 1750.
The Holstein, a breed that I value highly, was not bred to be a sport horse at all until after the turn of the century (1900), and then it was still quite a few decades before the sport bloodlines were becoming evident (see Favorit article in Section III).
Generally, the Continental Warmblood breeds that we have represented in this country now—with the exception of the Trakehner which switched from strictly being a farm horse breed to also serve as a cavalry mount around 1787, and the French sport horse breeds of Selle Francais and Anglo-Arab that are based on racehorse breeds: French Trotter/TB—the rest of those popular sport breeds of today were farm breeds exclusively until the mid-1800s, when their breeding programs were then adjusted, not for sport use, but to provide a coach horse and a horse suited for cavalry use. The sport focus of Warmblood breeding came about well after the turn of the 20th century (von Stenglin).
Furthermore, in Continental Europe (with the exception of France, which was at the forefront of the development of international sport), the Olympic-style sport horse concept was not fully developed until after World War II, and truly, without the decency of the English, the Canadian, and the American occupying armies, who provided protection, provision, and restoration of the horse populations that they found (most of them starving), there would not be the Warmblood industry that we know today (see US Cavalry article in this section for more on this).
Worldwide, all countries were breeding riding and driving horses for centuries—it was a necessity—we were a horse society.
So then, what does sport horse breeding mean? A sport horse breed by definition must be a breed developed by selection of traits for performance in a particular sport. So it follows that sport horse breeding must then be the process of creating, sustaining, and improving a breed suited for a particular sport.
Surprising as it may be, history is quite clear—early Colonial America was not only breeding its utility horses, but was also creating a true sport horse breed. This Colonial breed is the genetic base of all our successful sport horses of today, 385 years later.
The Colonial Americans of the New England, New York, and Virginia/Maryland colonies were consumed with breeding racehorses almost immediately. In Colonial Jamestown Virginia by 1624 (Hervey) selective breeding for quarter racing was already in full swing. In Northern Virginia a racetrack was in place by 1677 for the longer races of one to four miles to test and prefect the long running strains of our racehorse breed. When the New York colony was taken from Dutch control in 1664 by England, the new governor (Nicolls) immediately established a two-mile course at Hempstead Plain on Long Island. The first race was held in 1665 and was continued annually with prizes awarded. In the mid-1600s at Kingston, Rhode Island, a one-mile track was built for the testing of their pacing racer, and the winners were awarded silver plates and tankards, and by 1690, race and saddle horses were the chief export of the Rhode Island plantations.
The Running Horse of these three hubs of sport breeding traveled regularly by ship to the other colonies to race at both the pace and the gallop. The racehorse breeders in these colonies then supplied the other developing colonies with racing stock, and by the mid-1700s Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Nova Scotia, and New Jersey colonies were also fully involved in racing horses and breeding them. It got so wild that many of the new Colonial governments, such as the one in Puritan Massachusetts, were passing laws to control or even ban racing as early as 1677.
Racing participation continued to grow, and along with it gambling, and all sorts of behavior that uspset order and the peace, and the government struggled to control and contain it. But racing passions continued to expand, and almost a hundred years later in the 1774 session of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, they legislated a cessation of racing in all the colonies from Nova Scotia (considered an American colony) south to Georgia. It is a huge understatement to say that America was a racing culture as it was the major pastime of all classes either as spectators and gamblers or as competitors and breeders.
In our modern era we think of horse breeds as those that have an established registry with breed standards clearly identified. However, registries for breeding stock are relatively recent developments, and in earlier times breeds were created by selection for particular traits without formalized registries.
Americans were fully involved in creating a riding-racehorse breed in the early 1600s: the American Running Horse. The organized breeding for sport characteristics began quickly, and then the breed standards became established. For instance, by 1624, Quarter racing and sprint racehorse breeding was already well established in Virginia. All the original members of the King’s Council (1624) were owners and/or breeders of racehorses (Hervey). And they employed testing on quarter mile tracks regularly, demonstrating that true sport horse breeding was in motion, complete with performance standards and testing. The organized breed testing efforts in Virginia and in Rhode Island began in the early and mid-1600s, the races and the horses that ran in them were immensely popular, and the industry thrived resulting in the sport of horse racing moving into all settled areas. Horse racing was the major recreation of the Colonial North Americans, and our modern sport horse breeds are directly descended from these racehorses.