Hunter. Carriage horse. Race horse. Town hack. Horses were more than just a part of everyday life in Regency England. They were fashion statements and sporting trends. By the start of the 1800's one of the biggest innovations in horse fashion had arrived--the Thoroughbred. Three founding stallions--the Darley Arabian "Manak," the Godolphin Barb, and the Byerley Turk--had been brought to England in the early 1700's. When these light, fast Arabians were bred with the larger, cold-blooded English mares, the cross produced a horse with size, speed and stamina.
With the Thoroughbred established as a breed, horse racing also became a more popular, and a better regulated, sport. In 1711, Queen Anne had established regular race meetings at her park at Ascot. Gentlemen also organized races for themselves, often "matching" particular horses against each other, and by 1727 a Racing Almanac began to be printed. Around 1750, the gentlemen who regularly met at the Red Lion Inn at Newmarket started the Jockey Club. By 1791, the Jockey Club had issued the "General Stud Book", and by the early 1800's Jockey Club stewards attended every racing meet and race, including the Derby, first held in May of 1779, the first Derby was held. Racing now became a fashionable and expensive sports.
Assize-week was the time for races, for that was when the gentry came into the chief town of the shire for trials and selling harvest. Meets sprang up, and still run, at Newmarket in April and October, York in May, Epsom, Ascot in June, Goodwood, Doncaster, Warick, Manchester, Liverpool, Chester, Cheltenham, Bath, Worcester, and Newcastle.
Flat and jumping races were also held for women only. Mrs. Bateman wrote in 1723, "Last week, Mrs. Aslibie arranged a flat race for women, and nine of that sex, mounted astride and dressed in short pants, jackets and jockey caps participated. They were striking to see, and there was a great crowd to watch them. The race was a very lively one; but I hold it indecent entertainment." Some women--such as the infamous Letty Lade, who reportedly swore like a coachman--rode and drove to please themselves, and made their own fashion statement by bucking the trends for demure ladies.
The less wealthy, however, could still enjoy equine sport through presence fox hunting. For while expensive Thoroughbreds hunters might also be seen in the hunt field, farmers also rode their heavier draft horses, such as the Suffolk Punch, and children might well be mounted upon handy Welsh Cobs or Welsh Ponies. Irish hunters--often a Thoroughbred crossed with a sturdy Irish draft horse--were much prized in the hunt field for the solid bone and endurance. In the hunt field, jumping ability and stamina mattered more than speed.
November to March was, and remains, fox hunting season, starting after the fall of the leaf, when the fields lie fallow, and ending after the last frost, just before the first planting. The golden age for hunting in Leichesterchire is considered to be 1810 to 1830. During this time, there were as many as 300 hunters stabled in Melton Mowbray--with some gentlemen keeping up to 12 hunters. A gentleman could hunt six days a week with the Quorn, the Cottesmore, the Belvoir, and the Pytchley, and to do so would need at least two mounts every day to keep pace with the master and the pack of hounds.
Between late 1700's to about mid 1800's, when the jumping pommel was invented for the side saddle, ladies were more likely to be advised to "ride to the meet and home again to work up an appetite."
Specific breeds of horses were also developed and used in harness, for the ideal carriage horse had a showy, high-stepping action--not a very comfortable ride. Fashionable carriage breeds included the Yorkshire Trotter, the Norfolk Trotter, the Hackney Horse, the Hackney Pony, and the Cleveland Bay, which is still one of the most desired of harness horses. Ponies were often used for smaller vehicles, and prints of the era show ladies driving matched teams of cream ponies.
According to Captain Gronow in his Reminisces, Lord Barrymore drove, "…four splendid greys, unmatched in symmetry, action and power." While Lord Petersham's carriages, "…were entirely brown, with brown horses and harness." Gronow accredits Petersham's affectation as being due to his love for a widow named Mrs. Brown. Regardless, the color soon became his trademark signature.
Well past the Regency, the horse remained a symbol of style and a means of fashionable sport. The horse provided those with ability to show off their skills, and thereby improve their place in society. They also provided a means by which the rich could display their wealth, in terms of being able to afford the finest horses that could be bred.