Thursday, October 16, 2014

Those Forgotten Racing Mares

by Sue Millard

Equine Mixed Marriages

The Darley Arabian

Three stallions, the Darley Arabian, Byerley Turk and Godolphin Arabian, are well known as the foundation sires of the racing Thoroughbred. It is sometimes forgotten, though, that these famous Oriental stallions could not reproduce by themselves!

In fact, 47 out of 74 foundation racehorse stock are listed on as “dam unknown”. 70 have either “unknown dam” or both sire and dam “unknown”. That doesn’t prove the “unknowns” were British, of course, because they could equally be lost records of Orientals, but it does open the door to a historic tradition that is often overlooked: that some of the best British racehorses were descended purely from mares long-native to Britain, and not any imported from “the Orient.” 

The “royal mares” of King Charles II were indeed imported “Orientals” (actual country of origin seems to have been less important than the Oriental label), but the “Galloways” in the modern Thoroughbred’s pedigree surely came originally from the same source as our present native pony breeds. British mares, and very clearly mares from the North, were the mothers of modern racehorses.

The Epsom Derby, 1836, by James Pollard (1792 - 1867) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gervase Markham wrote in “Cavalerice” (1607): “...when the best Barbaries that ever were in my remembrance were in their prime, I saw them overrunne by a black hobbie at Salesburie of Maister Carlton's and yet that hobbie was more overrunne by a horse of Maister Blackstone's called Valentine, which neither in hunting nor running was ever equalled, yet was a plaine-bred English horse by both syre and dam.” 

The Earl of Rutland’s family had been breeding “running horses” since the early 15th century. “The Rutlands were prolific breeders of ‘hobby’ horses; the origins of this breed are obscure but probably had ancestors in the Irish Hobby with Barb influences. There is an early reference to Rutland ‘hobbies’ in 1596 recording his Lordship’s racing victory in the Forest of Galtres (just north of York). Mackay-Smith differentiates between ‘hobby horses’ at Helmsley and ‘running horses’ at Sedbury.”

In the early years of the 18th century, the Earl of Rutland owned a mare known as “The Massey Mare”. “Most historians consider the Massey Mare descended from the Belvoir horses, long established in England, and not descended from any ‘royal’ mare belonging to any of the Stuart kings.”  A modern equine mtDNA study has matched her genetic heritage in the female line with that of a Celtic-type pony,  a horse population derived from Northern Europe and Britain. [i]  

Molly Long Legs with her Jockey, by George Stubbs (1761-62) (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; via Wikimedia Commons)

“The cosmopolitan maternal heritage of the Thoroughbred racehorse breed shows a significant contribution from British and Irish native mares.[ii]  … Our data demonstrate that Thoroughbred foundation mares were of cosmopolitan European heritage, with contributions from British and Irish Native and Oriental horses. The contribution from British and Irish Native horses is close to twice that of Oriental horses. … By contrast, Oriental mares made a limited contribution to Thoroughbred maternal lineages with a minimal contribution from Arabs.”

Modern Thoroughbred horses that are best suited to sprint racing carry the “C-variant” in their genetic makeup[iii]. It was rare in the infancy of the Thoroughbred, which in the 17th and 18th centuries was bred for stamina – horses capable of running up to 4 miles in their races, several times in a day. However, this gene has become widespread in modern racehorses due to selective breeding for “sprinting speed” as opposed to “stayers”.

There was a single introduction of it into the Thoroughbred: from one British-native mare. We can’t pin down which of our modern breeds deserves the honour of being its contributor, since the concept of a breed with a pedigree had only just caught on in aristocratic circles and it had certainly not reached as far down as commoners’ horses and ponies; but I’d like to think she was a Galloway mare. 

[i] E.W. Hill,, "History and Integrity of Thoroughbred Dam Lines Revealed in Equine mtDNA Variation," Animal Genetics 33, 187-294. London: Blackwell Publishing.


Sue Millard maintains the Fell Pony Museum, and writes books about history and horses. Find her at Jackdaw E Books.

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