Many people think of the Hackney Horse as the English carriage horse but these well bred equines also make very suitable riding horses and they are known for having excellent endurance and good tempers. They also have a distinctive high-stepping gait which makes them popular in the show ring, but it is true that most of the horses are trained for driving.
The Hackney Horse has its roots in the 1300's when a desire for a sturdy riding horse emerged in England in the 14th century and various horses with incredible stamina and smooth gaits started to be bred. But the modern Hackney Horse roots can be found in the 1700's in Norfolk, England, where the horses called Norfolk Trotters had been selectively bred for elegant style and speed. When people crossed the famous Norfolk Trotter mares with the grandsons of the foundation sires of the newly emerging Thoroughbred, the result was the Hackney Horse, which blended desirable traits from both breeds. The first Hackney is said to be The Shale's Horse who was foaled in 1760. During the next 50 years, the Hackney was developed as a special breed.
In the early 1880’s the name Hackney was chosen for the breed because it was non-geographical and was also the name of one of the carriages that it was often seen driving. The British Hackney Horse Society (BHHS) was formed in 1883 to provide a registry and to formalize the breeding of the horse.
The first Hackney Pony was imported to America in 1878 and in 1891 the American Hackney Horse Society (AHHS) was founded and affiliated with the English Hackney Society (CEHS) and maintains the registry of the Hackney Horse and Hackney Pony. From 1890 until the Depression, wealthy Americans and Canadians imported boatloads of horses and ponies of the most noted strains to be used as fancy carriage horses. When trotting races began to lose their popularity in the second half of the 19th century, the breed was gradually transformed into the show horse that we see today.
Up to that point, there were 2 types of Hackney Horse - the heavier coach type and the light horse similar to today’s horse. Along with the Hackney Horse, there are four types of Hackney ponies. The Hackney Pony is smaller with distinct pony traits and evolved in the span of a few years in the 1870’s in England. It was developed by Christopher Wilson who crossed Hackney Horses with Fell Ponies and Welsh Ponies, which are extremely hardy British ponies well known for their sassy attitude and surefootedness. The pony has all the speed, action and courage of the horse but is a true pony with pony character. Hackney ponies have a reputation for being tenacious yet every bit as strong as their horse relatives. The differences are in their sizes, show ring performance and the appearance of their mane and tail. The pony was actively imported by United States as the horse was.
The Hackney Pony is also known as the Cob Tail and is a dynamic high-stepper that stands 14.2 hands and under. These ponies are shown with a shortened tail and with a braided mane. They are hitched to a four-wheel vehicle called a viceroy and are shown in pairs.
The Hackney Harness Pony is also called the Long Tail and this dynamic high-stepper stands 12.2 hands and under. It is shown with a long mane and an undocked tail. They are hitched to a four-wheel vehicle called a viceroy and are also shown in pairs.
The Hackney Roadster Pony, or Road Pony, is popular and speedy and measures below 13 hands. It has 3 separate trotting speeds: jog, road gait and at speed. It is shown hitched to a two-wheeled road bike with the drivers wear racing silks. They are also shown under saddle by Junior Exhibitors wearing racing silks. In a new division, the Road Pony is raced hitched to a miniature doctor's buggy.
The Hackney Pleasure Pony is the newest variety and stands 14.2 hands or under. These may be shown either as Long Tail or Cob Tail but with unbraided manes and tails and hitched to an appropriate pleasure vehicle. They can be shown only by Amateurs or Junior Exhibitors in any of the following gaits: pleasure trot, road trot, and flat walk. They must be able to stand quietly in the line-up and back up when asked. It is well mannered, quiet, and a pleasure to drive.
In contrast, the Hackney Horse must stand over 14.2 hands to approximately 16.2 hands and is shown in a variety of ways, such as the many different driving and carriage events, as singles, pairs, tandems, four in hand, and obstacle with some also being shown under saddle as dressage, eventing and trail riding. Some people also rely on the Hackney's sound feet and intelligence to help them through challenging courses of competitive jumping.
The Hackney has a small, refined head like its Thoroughbred ancestors, along with a muscular, compact body and long neck. There should be a general impression of alertness. The Hackney can have either a long or a docked tail that is carried high. They have a bright spirit, and gentleness, along with intelligence and responsiveness when well trained.
Both the Hackney Horse and the Hackney Pony, have a good reputation for soundness. In order to be accepted into the Hackney studbook, the modern Hackney must be black, brown, bay or chestnut with some small white markings permitted.
But the most identifiable trait of a Hackney Horse is their incredibly flexible knees that give these horses a high stepping, showy gait, especially in the trot. This action of Hackney is the hallmark of the breed and often amazes the first time Hackney viewer. According to the AHHS, the gait is described thusly: "Shoulder action is fluid and free with a very high, ground covering knee action. Action of the hind legs is similar but to a lesser degree. The hocks should be brought under the body and raised high. All joints should exhibit extreme flexion. The action must be straight and true. The whole effect must be arresting and startling, showing extreme brilliance."