Hackney Horse Origin and Characteristics

One word comes to mind when seeing a Hackney horse for the first time: magnificent. This breed offers a crisp trot, with knees raised high during each step, creating a unique look that captivates the first-time viewer. It is this action which has brought this breed to such fame. The action of a Hackney is highly unique to the equine world and is achieved naturally without any controversial techniques, such as soring.

Hackneys made a name for themselves because of their ability to function in the world of transportation, first as a riding horse and then as a carriage horse, but as the world mechanized and faster modes of transportation developed, they fell out of favor. Like most breeds, the mid-20th century saw a severe drop-off in population numbers for Hackney horses and ponies.

Because of the glamour they provide and their fun-loving personalities, the Hackney is rising back to prominence because they are easy keepers. They stay sound, even when approaching old age, and have an even personality that makes them a joy to be around. Hackneys can be trained to drive or ride, but they love social attention from humans.

If you’re looking for a best friend and don’t mind it being a horse, then a Hackney is one of the best options you could choose – no matter what your age might be. 

The Origin of the Hackney Horse

The story of the Hackney Horse begins in the 14th century. The King of England wanted an attractive horse, but one that was also powerful, for his general riding needs. Because roads were primitive at best during that era in England, the Hackney was developed to be the primary mode of transportation throughout the region.

As the trotting ability of this breed developed, Hackneys began to be craved as war horses as well. By the 16th century, King Henry VIII began requiring his subjects with wealth to maintain a specific minimum number of trotting horses so they could be used for breeding.

It wouldn’t be until 1729 when the Hackney would officially become a breed. An Arabian and a Norfolk Trotter were brought together to create the “Norfolk Roadster,” which was a heavy work horse that was fast and worked well for transportation. With a foundation firmly established, the Hackney began to take off in popularity because of its size, speed, and stamina.

It was particularly attractive to have a horse with good speed and stamina in the wilds of North America during the era of US expansion westward. With some individuals could up to trot 17 miles in less than an hour in the wild, homesteaders found that this horse was an excellent and steady worker. Roads began to improve and Hackneys were discovered to work well in the harness as well.

By 1883, the Hackney Horse Society formed in Norwich and still maintains a stud book record that dates to 1755. In the US, the American Hackney Horse Society was formed in 1891 on the foundation of work by Alexander Cassatt.

Cassatt was the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1899-1906 and his sister was the famed painter Mary Cassatt. Although railroads would eventually displace Hackneys as the preferred mode of transportation, Alexander Cassatt realized that the Hackney had an excellent potential as a racehorse. He founded Kelso Stable and raced under a pseudonym for many years. His contribution to horse racing includes breeding the winner of four Preakness Stakes winners, a Belmont winner, and owning two additional Belmont winners

To this day, the American Hackney Horse Society is based in Lexington, KY and continues the work that he started. 

Hackney ponies were developed by Christopher Wilson, matching a Hackney stallion with Fell Pony mares, then interbreeding the offspring to create a fixed-type pony. Wilson’s goal was to avoid having a miniature horse, wanting a pony with traditional characteristics instead. Welsh Pony bloodlines are believed to be in the Hackney Pony line as well.

Hackney ponies were originally called Wilson Ponies and were kept outdoors all year on their home fells. This helped to establish an added level of endurance to the breed and it was officially established by the 1880s. It does not keep its own stud book, but is part of the Hackney society. 

Expected Characteristics of the Hackney Horse

The Hackney is one of the few breeds that can be both a horse or a pony and be officially recognized as such. Hackneys can be as tall as 16.2 hands high, while the pony variety typically stands between 12-14 hands high.

A Hackney can be of any solid coat color. Many have white markings because of the influence of sabiano genetics, though excessive marking is discouraged. They are typically black, brown, chestnut, or bay. The Hackney Pony tends to be bay or black more often than any other coat color. Chestnut ponies are extremely rare.

There are a few spotted Hackneys that are purebred as well, though they are even rarer than the chestnut ponies.

Hackneys, both the horse and the pony, should have a head that is well-shaped and a nose that has a slight convex to it. They are very expressive as a breed and should show a consistent alertness in their eyes. The neck is muscular, crested, and supports a jawline that is clean-cut.

Hackneys have powerful shoulders that gently slope, leading to an average body build throughout the rest of the horse. It has a tail that is set higher than other breeds and the horse should carry it naturally. It should have legs that are broad, strong, with long gaskins and forearms.

This combination makes the Hackney capable of trotting up to 60 miles in a single day without difficulty. 

There is a certain exaggerated high knee movement and hock action when being shown thanks to the flexion in their joints. This action should be true, straight, and offer viewers a specific moment of suspension in the movement. Their natural walk should have some spring to the movement, while their canter should be brisk and rhythmic. 

Hackneys have also returned to jumping divisions throughout the world. They have an incredible drive and power to their movement and the scope of their intelligence makes them easy to train I virtually any discipline. They can even be shown in singles and pairs competitions.

The Hackney horse and its pony counterpart are versatile performers that love some attention and are incredibly loyal. Whether you’ve owned several horses over the years or you’re looking to own one for the first time, a Hackney is one of the best breeds you could choose.