Many centuries have passed since horses began to be used as a necessary means for man to build and sustain their society. Barely a century has gone by since the importance of the horse has dwindled with the adoption of automobiles and heavy equipment. Some horse breeds have remained popular and withstood the threat of extinction. Some have remained in stronger numbers than others through popularity of common traits while others have unfairly been ignored for reasons unknown. The Cleveland Bay is England’s oldest horse breed, their history beginning there at a time before records were kept.
Cleveland Bays started out as a dual purpose breed, so well admired that they were used in developing other horse breeds such as the Vladimir Heavy Draft, the Boerperd, and the Wurttemberger. As far back as the middle ages the well tempered Cleveland Bay was used as a war and pack horse, supposedly first bred in the monasteries of northern England. Their well known traits include being amicable, docile, not skittish, gentle, smart and level headed. In old England, the Cleveland Bay, then called the Chapman horse due to their service to chapmen (traveling salesmen) was known as a peasant horse. The name Cleveland Bay came later. They were commonly used as a family’s only horse that did everything from pull a plow or a carriage to carry a saddle. Farmers came to like this breed for their great hooves with a strong, thick hoof wall and their willingness to work hard all day with good temperament. The versatile use of this breed, along with their admirable qualities, made them much desired for everyone from farmers to soldiers.
To be a true Cleveland Bay the horse must be any shade of bay — blood and dark bay being common — with black points and legs. A white star on the forehead is permissible, but white or gray anywhere else including the hocks or legs is not a true Cleveland Bay. The typical Cleveland stands 16 to 16.3 hands tall at the withers. They are considered a light horse, but are about 425 pounds heavier than the average light horse breed. An average Cleveland Bay will weigh 1,200 to 1,500 pounds.
As roads improved throughout England in the early 1700’s, demand for even faster horses rose. With this, Cleveland Bay mares were crossed with Darley Arab and Godolphin Barb stallions. These breeds were the eastern imports that founded the Thoroughbred breed brought to Yorkshire. This helped the Cleveland Bay genetics improve further. By the time of the railroad all horse breeds were threatened by the more modern technology. For reasons seemingly unclear, the demand for Cleveland Bay’s in particular especially declined so much that by the 1880’s they were on the verge of extinction. A safety net soon came for them in the form of the popularity of coaching for tradition rather than for necessity. The breed flourished, but this coaching era didn’t last long. However, a large number of Cleveland Bay’s were imported to America around this time as their traits and qualities gained popularity worldwide, mostly sought after for their dual purpose characteristic.
The Cleveland Bay Horse Society (CBHS) was founded in 1884. According to their records, by 1907 there were 2,000 registered stallions and mares. However, following the First World War, the Cleveland Bay was endangered again. Many Cleveland’s serving as artillery horses lost their lives on the battlefields in France. By 1945 their numbers were alarmingly depleted. By the 1960’s there were only a small number of stallions and mares left of this breed in England.
Queen Elizabeth II, whose grandfather was a breeder of Cleveland Bays, developed an interest in restoring the breed in the early 1960’s. She bought a Cleveland Bay colt, Mulgrave Supreme, who was born in 1961 and had been marked for import to the United States. The queen stepped in and purchased him, determined to grow the Cleveland breed. Mulgrave Supreme was studded out and the number of Cleveland Bays once again began to rise. Over the next 10 years, Mulgrave Supreme became a popular name worldwide with horse enthusiasts as he had successful offspring competing in all disciplines. Over the next decade or so, many mares were bred to Cleveland Bay stallions. Top quality horses came about in Driving, Dressage and Show Jumping, some to Olympic standards.
In the 1980’s the agricultural economy in the United Kingdom suffered, which stopped some farmers from raising and producing this powerful breed. By 2000, demand in North America rose again, almost above what breeders were able to supply. However, there is still a lot of work to be done as the breed’s survival is still critical. There are less than 250 breeding mares throughout the world.Even though North America and Britain have the most Cleveland Bays, currently only 192 purebreds remain in the United States and Canada. According to Cleveland Bay Horse Society of North America (CBHSNA) President Anna Cohen, “Besides North America and Britain there are some Cleveland Bays in Australia and a handful in Japan.” Cohen said that in the last decade, worldwide living Cleveland Bay numbers have alarmingly been down.
Despite these disappointing facts, with a strong United Kingdom Society associated with U.S. and Australian Societies and a growing worldwide recognition of the Cleveland Bay’s versatile nature, there is a new glimpse of hope. Cohen stated that there has been interest expressed from several Amish communities, especially in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. She said they are interested in adopting Cleveland Bay’s for their versatility. They can run a plow when need be and they have the speed and strength to pull buggies.
When Anna Cohen told me this, it reminded me of having spoken with members of a small Amish community that has recently moved to a neighboring town where I live in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. When they moved to this landscape of hilly and curvy roads from the flatter and straighter roads of northwestern Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio, they brought along their Standardbreds they used there. After the first winter they found that “their horses were having a hard time making the hills with a buggy” as one of the men told me. “We need to find something that has the speed and the power to take the roads around here,” he said. As soon as he said that I had an idea. I called around to older Vermonter’s I knew who would remember what their families used for every day traveling. The general consensus I gathered from all of them was the Quarter Horse and the Morgan. I happened to know an elderly man who was trying to sell his horse. I called him and asked what mix of breeds she was. He answered that she was part Morgan, Quarter Horse and Palomino. I drove the Amish couple to that small farm to see the horse and they ended up buying her. Since then they have told me she has been a good horse.
A few months later I saw Old Dominion Artorious, bred by Bay Haven Farm and owned by Lynn Knight. He was a large, sturdy stallion standing calm and gentle, and as well-muscled as an ox. All of those traits together caught my eye. At first I thought he was a large Morgan. He was the first Cleveland Bay horse I had ever seen.
Without a doubt, the Cleveland Bay horse is well worth its keep as much as any.
Currently, in the New England Region, Vermont seems to have the most involvement with this breed. There are four members to CBHSNA here and 25 registered Cleveland Bay horses. New Hampshire is a close second with three members and 21 registered horses.
To learn more about CBHSNA visit www.clevelandbay.org.