The modern Hackney is a harness-horse with a characteristic high-stepping long, round striding trotting action, which is truly brilliant.
Its immediate ancestor is the Norfolk Trotter, which sprang from the blood of two horses, an Arab stallion and a Yorkshire stallion, in about 1729. The Norfolk Roadster, as it came to be known, was a powerful, heavily built animal bred for utility, used by farmers. It possessed speed and stamina and had to be up to weight, carrying not only the farmer to market but his wife as well, riding pillion behind him. The most famous of that breed was the ‘Norfolk Cob,’ bred from Burgess’s ‘Fireaway’ in the early 1820s. He is said to have trotted 24 miles in the hour and is definitely recorded as having done two miles in 5minutes 4 seconds. Another famous trotter ‘Nonpareil’ was driven 100miles in 9hours 56minutes 57seconds.
As is obvious from its description, the Hackney has Arab blood in its veins, and almost every Hackney sire can trace its descendant directly back to the Darley Arabian, through his son ‘Flying Childers’. Another famous sire was ‘Sampson’, whose grandson ‘Messenger’ was the foundation of the present American trotting horse. During the 19th century, with the advent of the railway, the Norfolk breed fell into disuse, to be revived again by the Hackney Horse Society in the animal that we know today.
The ultimate origins of the Hackney, however, go back far into English history, the trotting horse, as distinguished from the ambler and the galloper, being recognized in very early times, for it was definitely mentioned as such in 1303. There was also at one time a strong infusion of Spanish Andalusian blood. The name itself is derived from the Norman French haquenée.
Chief characteristics, in addition to brilliant and fiery paces, are small, convex head, small muzzle; large eyes and small ears; longish, thick-set neck; powerful shoulders and low withers; compact body without great depth of chest; tail set and carried high; short legs and strong hocks well let down; well-shaped feet; fine silky coat. Most usual colors, dark brown, black, bay, and chestnut. Height varies from 14.3 to 15.3 hands, sometimes reaching 16.2.
Both in motion and at rest it has highly distinctive and readily observable characteristics. Shoulder action is free, with a high, ground covering knee action, the foreleg being thrown well forward, not just up and down, with that slight pause of the foot at each stride which gives it its peculiar grace of movement, appearing to fly over the ground. The action of the hind legs is the same to a lesser degree. In a good Hackney, the action must be straight and true, with no dishing or throwing of the hoofs from side to side. At rest the Hackney stands firm and foursquare, forelegs straight, hind legs well back so that it covers the maximum ground; the head is held high, ears pricked, with a general impression of alertness and of being on springs.
In these days of mechanized transport, it would not be surprising if it had to be recorded that the Hackney Horse, which exists today purely as a pleasure horse, was declining to complete extinction at a rapid pace. Quite the reverse, however, can be recorded, the credit for which lies with the horse itself (and with the horse is included that Hackney Pony), with all its spectacular and dynamic action, and the large and increasing number of breeders and admirers of the Hackney. During the period between the wars, a steady improvement was noticed in the Hackney, and since the Second World War, this has become even more pronounced so that today it is no great exaggeration to say that the unbeatable, be it horse or pony, has become beatable.
This is a state of affairs which must give great satisfaction to all who follow the fortunes of the Hackney, which, by the way, is recognized as being, with the showjumper, the most popular entrant in the show ring, each in its own way providing a maximum of violent but controlled activity. It should be mentioned that this last general commentary upon this breed applies equally to the Hackney Pony, and although its evolution differs to some extent from that of the horse, it is a replica on a smaller scale.
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