The Hackney is an elegant breed of light horses developed in Great Britain for carriage driving. These equines are known for their high-stepping trots, which help them stand out in harness show arenas.

Hackneys come in two different height ranges. Hackney ponies are shorter than Hackney horses but share similar characteristics, packing expressive personality and movement into a smaller size. These ponies are more prevalent in North America than their larger cousins.

While most Hackney owners use their horses for driving disciplines, Hackney bloodlines have significantly influenced the development of several popular riding horse breeds. Unfortunately, full-size purebred Hackeys are at risk of going extinct.

This article will review the origin, history, breed characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of Hackney horses and ponies. Keep reading to learn more about caring for and feeding Hackneys.

Hackney Horse & Pony History

The Hackney breed developed alongside the increased use of carriages for transportation in Europe. Eventually, they became prized by equine enthusiasts and aristocrats on both sides of the Atlantic for their elegant looks and animated movement.

Origin

Hackney horses can trace their ancestry to the Norfolk Trotters of Norfolk, England. Nobility kept trotters for transportation as early as the 14th century, but the breed didn’t gain significant popularity until the 1700s.

During this century, breeders crossed Thoroughbred descendants of the Darley Arabian with native Norfolk Trotters to create refined, spirited carriage horses.

Foaled in 1760, Shale’s Horse is recognized as the first Hackney horse to resemble the breed standard we know today.

These horses began crossing the Atlantic by the late 1800s, around the same time breeding shifted to achieve a pony type. These ponies originated from crossing Hackney horses with small Welsh Ponies.

Sir George, foaled in 1866, is considered the first Hackney Pony. Today, 95% of all Hackneys registered in North America are ponies.

The Hackney name originates from the term used to distinguish light-riding horses from heavier war horses in Medieval Europe. By the time the Hackney Stud Book Society formalized the breeding of Hackneys in 1883, the breed was rarely used as a riding horse. [1]

Historic Use

Road improvements in the late 18th century encouraged the development of faster horses to pull carriages. Until then, humans primarily rode horses for transportation and relied on heavier breeds with the power to haul loads over rough terrain for driving. [2]

The lighter, faster carriage horses became a status symbol for wealthy citizens, and breeding programs began focusing on producing horses with more extravagant trotting movements. Many Hackneys also descended from trotting horses renowned for their speed and stamina.

Hackneys rapidly gained popularity in North America in the late 1800s during the golden age of driving. In the United States, breeders emphasized producing smaller Hackney Ponies more than breeders in England. [3]

Demand for Hackney horses declined significantly after the introduction of the automobile. Eventually, these horses found a new calling in the show arena, where most Hackney owners enjoy their horses today.

Breed Registry

The American Hackney Horse Society (AHHS) is the official breed registry for Hackney horses and ponies in North America. The organization was incorporated in 1891, just nine years after the formalization of the first Hackney Stud Book in England.

In addition to maintaining a registry of Hackneys, the AHHS also promotes the breeding, exhibition, and ownership of Hackney horses and Hackney ponies.

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Breed Characteristics

Hackney horses and Hackney ponies share similar breed characteristics despite their different heights. All Hackneys have conformations, movements, and temperaments that allow them to excel as driving horses. But these traits may not suit all other disciplines.

Conformation

Hackney horses are 14.2 to 16 hands tall, while Hackney ponies stand between 12.2 and 14.2 hands. All Hackneys have refined appearances, but horses have slightly heavier proportions.

The ideal Hackney has a delicate, well-shaped head with small, alert ears and expressive eyes. These horses have upright arched necks, broad chests, and long, sloping shoulders. Compact bodies with muscular backs,  level croups, and powerful hindquarters add to their movement.

Hackneys also have a naturally high tail carriage, long forearms and gaskins, strong hocks, broad knees, and fairly upright hooves. Increased joint flexion produces the exaggerated knee and hock action that characterizes the breed. [4]

Colours

Registered Hackneys can be any solid colour. Standard coat colours include bay, brown, black, and chestnut. White leg and face markings are permitted and frequently seen.

Temperament

Hackneys have spirited temperaments that allow them to shine in the show arena. These horses are generally high energy and benefit from regular exercise and proper handling to reduce behavioural problems.

Their sensitivity and intelligence make them quick learners, but these horses may not be suitable for complete beginners without guidance. However, experienced Hackney owners often find these horses playful and affectionate equine partners.

Disciplines

Hackney horses are the ultimate harness show horse. Their big trots with exaggerated knee and hock action are ideal for pulling carriages with style, and many owners enjoy driving their Hackneys in breed shows.

Hackney ponies compete in Hackney Pony, Harness Pony, Roadster Pony, and Pleasure Pony divisions while pulling carriages at these shows. Hackneys can also participate in other driving disciplines, such as combined driving, and may be shown single, pair, and four in hand.

While Hackneys were developed primarily for driving, these horses can also succeed as riding horses. Hackneys and crosses often compete in jumping, dressage, English pleasure, and competitive trail classes.

Hackney Horse Health

Unlike some horse breeds, Hackney horses don’t have a high incidence of genetic disease. However, many of these horses are susceptible to health problems that commonly affect performance horses with busy competition and training schedules.

Health Risks of Showing

Hackney horses with active show schedules have an increased risk of health problems associated with high stress levels.

Research demonstrates that transportation, stall confinement, and changes in routine associated with showing can increase stress levels for horses.

One study found that participating in a single competition can significantly increase cortisol levels in horses, producing a physiological stress response. [5]

Elevated cortisol levels are associated with a higher incidence of gastric ulcers. In another study of non-racing performance horses, post-competition gastroscopy diagnosed gastric ulceration in 56.5% of horses after one competitive event, compared to 17.4% before. [6]

Hackneys with gastric ulcers may show signs of increased reactivity. [7] Owners should consult their veterinarian to determine if behavioural challenges in Hackney ponies are due to an underlying problem, such as ulcers.

Common Health Problems

Besides the increased risk of health problems in showing Hackneys, these horses have a reputation as a relatively healthy breed.

However, their high-stepping gaits can strain their musculoskeletal structures and predispose them to lameness problems when overtrained. Driving Hackneys perform the same gait for extended periods, which can cause repetitive stress injuries. [8]

Increased joint flexion puts more strain on ligaments and tendons. Without adequate recovery time, these horses can develop soft tissue injuries. Overuse of the joints can also lead to degenerative joint conditions such as osteoart