Work Horses: The Hard Workers of the Regency Era

Horses were an important part of earning a living during the Regency Era. One way horses helped out was by being work horses. They hauled loads in and around cities and were also a vital necessity on farms because agriculture was still one of the main ways Regency people earned livings. Moreover, Regency people used different work horses depending on the type of job they needed to accomplish: Some horses thrived in cold climates, others were better at hauling, and still others were better at plowing in hilly locations. Among some of the more common work horses used in the Regency Era were the Shire horse, the Suffolk Punch, Cleveland Bays, Clydesdales, and Garrons.

The Shire horse, (sometimes referred to as the English Black Horse or the Old English Black Horse) was mainly found in the midland counties of England but was also diffused throughout England. These horses were ponderous, docile animals, frequently 17 hands high. They had short steps and a sluggish gait, which made them extremely slow. They also consumed large amounts of food and were often considered too heavy to be of much use on an ordinary farm. Although Shire horses were less profitable and undesirable to certain farmers, they were ideal for pulling heavy loads, such as coal, timber, or merchandise. For this reason, Shires were often used in London to travel to and from the wharves with heavy loads, such as when Jumbo the elephant was sold and transported to the wharf to be shipped to America.

London brewers also liked these work horses because of their majestic bearing, their steady gait, and their striking glossy coats, which attracted great attention. In fact, brewers liked them so much they often purchased gently used 4-year-old Shires from farmers for exceedingly high prices. Yet, despite their ability to haul loads, Shires had one main problem: They were too large and too heavy, which meant they tended to go lame easily or destroy themselves under their own weight. That resulted in one of their main health issues, diseases of the foot or pastern (the part of the leg of between the fetlock and the top of the hoof).

work horses - Shire Horse

Shire horse, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another type of work horse that was a puller or draught horse popular in England during the Regency Era was the Suffolk Punch, also called a Suffolk Sorrel. This horse took its name from the county of Suffolk and first appeared on the scene in the 1500s. They were bred for farming, extolled for their excellent pulling ability, lived long, possessed docile dispositions, and required less food than similar type horses. Thus, these horses were economical to keep. One physical description of this horses comes from the Cyclopedia of American Agriculture:

“The head is clean-cut, with small ear, full forehead, and a more or less Roman nose. The neck is full, with a very strong crest, as a rule, in stallions. … The should shows good length and is of true draft forms, not being too oblique. The chest is deep, wide and moulded with muscle. The body or barrel, one of the leading points of merit in the Suffolk, is deep, round-ribbed, and specially well let down on the hind flank. … The legs, devoid of long hair, are clean-cut, cordy land well muscled at the arms and thighs. The degree to which the Suffolk is muscled in the hind-quarters, and especially in the lower thighs, is one of the special features of the breed. … The seeming lightness of limb, compared with the depth and weight of body, and fullness of neck, has in many cases, given the Suffolk an appearance of being greatly lacking in the proper proportion of such parts.”[1]

Appearance wise these work horses were more massively built than other draught breeds, such as the Clydesdale or the Shire. They were also “low-set, short-legged, deep-bodied, [and] muscular … with clean bone and durable feet.”[2] Suffolk horses were the lightest of the draught horses and tended to be about 16-1/2 hands high and weigh about 2,000 pounds. These horses were also uniform in color and primarily sorrel, bay, or chestnut. In comparison to the Shire horses, the Suffolk Punch was considered a better farm horse for the average English farmer. They were also said to be peculiarly adapted for farm work, express wagon work, or drayage purposes. Moreover, it was claimed these horses “were well adapted for long-continued exertion [and would pull until they dropped].”[3]

work horses - 7-year-old Suffolk Punch in mid 1800s

7-year-old Suffolk Punch in mid 1800s. Author’s collection.

Cleveland Bays got their name from their coloring and because of the Cleveland district of Yorkshire. They were considered well-rounded and a good work horse for all general farming activities. For instance, they were often used as carriage horses to pull the family’s carriage to church on Sunday but were also desirable horses for tilling a farmer’s field. Because of this, Cleveland Bays were extremely popular in the north-eastern counties of England. An old saying about the Cleveland Bay was that it was “too stiff for a hunter, and too light for a coacher.”[4] This was because Cleveland Bays at one time were heavy and more draft-like than the breed of today.

Besides being work horses, Cleveland Bays also became highly desirable carriage horses. In fact, numerous prints showed matched teams pulling fashionable ladies and gentlemen around in their carriages. That was because the bad roads of the seventeenth century began to improve in the eighteen century. In addition, near the end of the eighteenth century Thoroughbred and Arabian blood was added to the line and the result was a flashy coach horse that sported a lighter frame, powerful shoulders, and a well-arched neck in addition to uniformity.

Matched carriage teams in Hyde Park. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Clydesdale Horses were derived from farm horses of Clydesdale, Scotland, from which they took their name. They were considered an excellent horse for “general usefulness.” Although the first recorded use of the name “Clydesdale” in reference to the breed did not happened until 1826, these horses were used for a variety of tasks during the Regency Era that included plowing on hilly locations, hauling coal in Lanarkshire, and pulling heavy loads in Glasgow.  Moreover, many small farmers earned a living raising and selling Clydesdale colts. These work horses averaged about 16 hands high and were generally brown or bay in color.  They were hardy in spirit and become distinguished for their free step when pulling a cart or plow. Because of their good looks, at the end of Prohibition in the United States, these horses were bought by the Budweiser Brewery who developed them into an international symbol that has become popular for both the breed and the brand.

work horses - Clydesdale

Clydesdale. Public domain.

In the Highlands of Scotland, a “mongrel” horse that consisted of a Highland cross of a Clydesdale horse with some heavy, undersized pony found in Orkney was usually referred to as a Garron. These type of horses were usually 14 to 15 hands high and because they were known as a hardy and serviceable breed they were “never housed, feed themselves in the mountains summer and harvest, and pastured near the houses in winter and spring.”[5] Garrons were used for land tillage when Clydesdales were considered uneconomical. These horses were also fast rather than powerful and were generally valued for their abilities to work on slopes or unsteady surfaces. One description of the Garrons stated:

“[T]his breed, the garrons … from being ill kept and too early and severely worked, in some parts [of Scotland] have a coarse, feeble, and deformed appearance, and stand badly on their legs; but when decently used, they look well, are steady on bad roads, whether rocky or miry; and though under-sized for a two-horse plough, are stout active animals.”[6]

Garrons, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Garrons. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] Bailey, L.H., Cyclopedia of American Agriculture, 1908, p. 494-495.
  • [2] Ibid, p. 495.
  • [3] Horne, Thomas Hartwell, The Complete Grazier, 1808, p. 472.
  • [4] Wilson, John, British Farming, 1862, p. 408.
  • [5] Jamieson, John, An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, Vol. 1, 1808.
  • [6] Jamieson, John, Scottish Dictionary and Supplement, Vol. 3, 1841, p. 465.

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