Although the Cleveland Bay horse originated in the late 1600s and developed into its present form in the 1700s, its roots go back to the Middle Ages. Traveling salesmen, called chapmen, used the breed’s forebears to carry their goods across the Cleveland area of northeast Yorkshire. These versatile pack horses also could double as farmhands, and spent many years working in this dual role.
The hard-working Chapman Pack Horses were transformed into a more stylish breed during the days of Oliver Cromwell. Before the English Civil War, young noblemen typically prided themselves on their exotic stallions, usually of Spanish or Moorish stock. When Cromwell came to power, many aristocratic horses were confiscated by the Roundheads and put to stud. Cavaliers who had managed to escape to the obscurity of quiet country estates also offered the services of their stallions for some much-needed income, and thus the blood of the Spanish Andalusian and the Moorish Barb breeds began to influence the local Chapman Pack Horse.
At first the new Cleveland Bay was mostly a bigger, stronger farm horse. As roads improved and faster travel became possible, however, it became the epitome of a good coach horse—surefooted, stylish, and uniform in color, make it easy to collect a matching team.
Unfortunately, the very conditions which led to the creation of the Cleveland Bay proved to be its undoing. Roads continued to improve and coaches continued to move faster. The Cleveland Bay was frequently crossed with the Thoroughbred to develop the lighter, swifter Yorkshire Coach Horse. Meanwhile, heavy draft horses had come to prominence as agriculture and mining began to rely on heavier and heavier machinery. The purebred Cleveland Bay was without a job.
The breed was rescued for the time being by American importers. Its usefulness for both farm work and general transportation made it a good choice in the fledgling United States. Throughout the early 1800s, the Cleveland Bay had a small but dedicated group of proponents in America. Its numbers increased as pioneers moved west and the demand for good horses to plow fields, pull stagecoaches, and tend cattle rose. Furthermore, it experienced a small boom during the late 1800s, when coaching became a popular pastime.
In most cases, the Cleveland Bay was used for crossbreeding, giving rise to horses adapted to specific uses and climates. Still, a small population of pure foundation stock was maintained until the 1900s, when horses were drafted into the service in World War I. The strength of the Cleveland Bay made it an excellent choice for hauling artillery; unfortunately, few survived the experience. The rise of equestrian sports after the war led to more crossbreeding, and the purebred Cleveland Bay teetered on the edge of extinction.
Royal patronage turned public attention back to the breed. In 1962, Queen Elizabeth II bought one of the last surviving stallions and started a stud. For publicity, the royal Cleveland Bays pulled carriages on state occasions and participated in driving competitions. The British quickly embraced their native breed once more, and Americans soon grew interested, as well. It was discovered that crossbred horses were not the only animals of Cleveland Bay descent that could excel in equestrian events—purebreds were highly competitive, too!
Today the Cleveland Bay is still at critical numbers, with fewer than 200 left in North America. However, new horses have been imported and the breed is earning favor among competitive equestrians across the country. Time will tell if the Cleveland Bay horse can be brought back from its precarious situation.
The Cleveland Bay is a harness horse first and foremost. It can be driven for pleasure or competition, but it can also thrive on moderate farm work.
This rare breed is versatile and enjoyable under saddle, although it is too big to make a good children’s horse. It excels at dressage, jumping, eventing, and hunting. It is not suited for some of the more advanced types of stock work, but it can readily herd cattle from place to place. The Cleveland Bay is also a favorite choice for police work.
Just like its ancestors, the Cleveland Bay can lend itself nicely to pack work.
Many Cleveland Bay horses today are still used for crossbreeding, typically to produce warmblood sport horses.
A mature Cleveland Bay is a friendly, docile horse, but it is also a thinker. Much of its behavior depends on its relationship with the rider. With a trusted rider, it is utterly dependable and very courageous, willing to tackle challenges with spirit. With a rider who is unclear, inconsistent, or untrustworthy, the Cleveland Bay will probably take the course of calm evasion.
Young Cleveland Bays are quite a handful, and they mature slowly. While always personable and good-natured, they have extremely short attention spans. Pressing their concentration too far too soon can teach them bad habits.
Cleveland Bays are generally hardy and sound. They also have clean legs without any feathering, which prevents some of the moisture-related diseases that affect workhorses with feathered legs.
- Adaptability to many climates.
- Suitability for heavy riders.
- Surprising agility.
- Excellent jumping ability.
- Uniformity (helpful for putting together matching teams).
- Strong ability to pass working traits on to crossbred offspring.
- Need for experienced training and handling.
- Slow maturity.
- Poor ability to pass soundness on to crossbred offspring.