Sunday, November 23, 2014

Horses and History by Victoria Chatham

I admit it. I am mad about horses and have been since the age of five. I was lifted onto a hairy little beach pony and I just fell in love. In one way or another, horses have been part of my life ever since so it really is no surprise that they should find their way into my historical novels.

Prior to the advent of the automobile, the horse was the main form of transport. Then, as now, a horse was not a cheap item to buy so it was imperative that they are kept as well as possible and a good groom or coachman was a prized employee.

Many Regency romances have reference to ‘high steppers’ or ‘sweet goers’ and pairs or teams of four-in-hand are always ‘matched to a shade’. The horse that most fits this description is the Hackney horse, although the breeding of Hackneys in England wasn’t formalized until the founding of the Hackney Stud Book Society in 1883.

The name is derived from the French word ‘haquenee’ which describes a comfortable riding style of trot or amble. These types of riding horses were not suitable for warfare, however, and during his reign Henry VIII required that his wealthy subjects keep trotting stallions for breeding purposes.

Over the centuries the English counties of Norfolk and Yorkshire were well known for producing hardy, trotting horses well known for their speed. The infusion of Arabian and Thoroughbred blood added elegance and stamina and formed the foundation stock of the modern Hackney, a handsome, upstanding muscular horse with showy high, leg action. It can be any solid color, bay, black, brown or chestnut and frequently has white socks on its legs. Records show that a Hackney horse is capable of covering 20 miles in an hour or 50 miles in day. In the 1820’s the horse known as "Nonpareil," was driven 100 miles in 9 hours 56 minutes 57 seconds.

For a young, or not so young, Regency buck this would have been the Rolls Royce of his day. The young men of the era prided themselves on their riding and driving skills and knowledge of horseflesh and bets were often placed on how fast each could cover a particular route. It wasn’t difficult for me to incorporate many of these details into my novel, including having my heroine drive a four-in-hand. One reader doubted that a woman could do this, but I based my heroine’s skill on that of Mrs. Cynthia Haydon (1918-2012).

I had the privilege of seeing Mrs. Haydon drive a Hackney pony tandem, one being driven in front of the other rather than side-by-side as a pair, many years ago and very much admired her   expertise. Mr. Charles Leck and his wife Anne, of Independence, MN, knew her very well and he says of her, “Indeed, Cynthia was handling fours-in-hand at a very young age. Even as a girl, she was brutally strong. Yet, she was delicate on the mouths of these Hackneys and somehow in synch with their emotions and fears. Never have I known anyone who understands the Hackney Horse the way she did or communicate with them as she did”.

Having seen Hackney horses in action on many occasions I have been awed by their beauty. But, then I could say that about almost any horse I have ever met, from that first pony to the last trail horse I rode. Horses in and of themselves grace our lives in ways we do not always appreciate. Their gentleness belies their strength. Their understanding of us is often greater than ours is of them.

As long as there is a place for a horse in any of my novels, it will become as much a part of the fabric of that book as will the heroes and heroines.  

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