Cleveland Bay Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Cleveland Bay horse is thought to be one of the oldest breeds of its type. Developed in the same region as the Thoroughbred, it is a horse that was built for speed and strength. It can handle the harsh climates of the UK, work hard in the agricultural sector, or thrive in a life where it serves as a hunt horse, pack horse, or in a recreational capacity.

It is also a breed that was very nearly extinct. After the mechanization emphasis that occurred after World War II, only a handful of purebred mature stallions within the breed were known. Because the danger of extinction was recognized and acted upon immediately, the Cleveland Bay horse has done more than survive. It has begun to thrive.

The Queen of England has been part of those survival efforts. This breed continues to serve in royal ceremonial duties and some have begun to enter competitive arenas. By no means is the breed out of danger as its global population is estimated to be under 500 horses, but with programs from Japan to New Zealand to the United States all working together to conserve the Cleveland Bay horse, it has a bright future on the horizon.

What Is the Origin of the Cleveland Bay Horse?

Although the Cleveland Bay horse is sometimes associated with the State of Ohio in the US, it has a strong English heritage. The breed originated in the Cleveland area of North Yorkshire. This breed wouldn’t make it to US shores until the early 19th century. 

The strength and versatility of this breed made it a popular horse, which early entrepreneurs capitalized upon. Many of the early US Wild West shows were built around the characteristics of the Cleveland Bay Horse. Even Buffalo Bill was known for riding a Cleveland Bay horse in his world-famous shows.

It is that versatility that would come to undermine the breed, especially outside the UK. In North Yorkshire, Cleveland Bay horses were crossed with Thoroughbreds to create a new breed – the Yorkshire Coach Horse. These crossbred horses had speed, style, and power.

In the US, Cleveland Bay horses were bred indiscriminately with stock horses so that homesteaders could improve their personal herds. As the populations pushed west in North America, settlers needed strong horses to work the ground. They needed carriage horses to fetch supplies. Some even needed a calm horse to fight off attacks. Because the Cleveland Bay horse had all these characteristics, these horses would be bred with others to pass those traits along without any thought to lineage.

Even by the time the threat to the breed in the US was recognized, population numbers of purebred Cleveland Bay horses were dwindling. The Cleveland Bay Horse Society of North America was founded in 1885 with 2,000 stallions and mares, just a year after a stud book was formalized in the UK.

Since then, the numbers of North American Cleveland Bay horses have continued to dwindle. Just 50 horses are currently part of the association today.

What Are the Characteristics of the Cleveland Bay Horse?

Cleveland Bay horses have a specific color profile which must be med. They should be bay, but have black points. Some may have gray hair in their tail or mane, but this will not disqualify the horse from being registered. A small white star on the forehead is permissible, but no other white markings are allowed.

Some Cleveland Bays may have red or bay coloring below their hocks or needs and this is treated as a fault, but not a disqualification.

This breed has a body that is both deep and wide. The back is average in length, but supported by visibly muscular loins. The shoulders slope and are equally muscular. This creates a visible appearance for the breed that it is strong and energetic, but with a temperament which is typically kind and docile.

Most horses in this breed stand about 16 hands high, though height on its own is not a disqualification. Horses that are smaller or taller, but meet the other conformation standards, will be considered for inclusion. This includes having feet that are blue in color and an action that is free, straight, and true.

The movement of a Cleveland Bay horse should be one that appears effortless. Hooves that are narrow or shallow restrict this type of movement, so it is thought to be undesirable, even if the horse is determined to be a purebred. 

The eyes are large and set well on a head that is bold, but a little smaller than other breeds. The neck is strong and lean, creating an elegant look with the larger ears. There is little feathering on the legs, though it may be present on some horses.

Movement has become another factor in breed conformation over the last generation. Since the early 20th century, show judging for movement has led to a new section that inspects the trot and movement of each horse. Horses that do not meet the desired action may not be disqualified if they meet other conformation qualifications, but it could be considered a fault. 

Cleveland Bays are horses that are strong and hardy, with many tending to live long and healthy lives. It is not uncommon for this breed to live beyond 30 years when living in optimal conditions. 

What Is a Cleveland Bay Sporthorse?

A Cleveland Bay Sporthorse is a part-bred horse that has Cleveland Bay parentage. The definition of a sporthorse depends on the registry that is accepting the part-bred. In the United States and the UK, the term “sporthorse” is not used at all. These part-breds are eligible for registry if they have not been registered anywhere else and have at least one grandparent that has been registered in the primary stud book for the breed.

For the Australasian registry for Cleveland Bay horses, the term “sporthorse” is used for a part-bred, but the requirement for having 25% bloodlines that are registered in the main stud book are still in place.

For the modern Cleveland Bay horse, there are purebred and part-bred registries that are currently maintained. All breeding programs are supervised by the Great Britain society for this breed, including those which may be part of a similar association in another part of the world. An inspection and approval of every stallion and mare that has been registered occurs once every three years or as warranted or requested.

This has led to demanding breed standards for the Cleveland Bay, but will also help to preserve the breed. Population numbers may be limited today, but with these structures in place, there will be nothing to hold back this breed of horse ever again.