The Cleveland Bay originated in North Yorkshire sometime during the 1600’s – although it’s not known accurately how old the breed really is since records weren’t kept until 1884. The horse is named after the Cleveland district, and because of its normally bay colouring.
The Cleveland Bay is incredibly versatile. The first ancestors of the breed were developed as far back as the Middle Ages for use as pack-horses. These horses, known as ‘Chapman’ horses – Chapman being the name given to travelling salesmen – were then crossed with Andalusians and Barbs, giving the breed its distinctive shorter leg, depth of bone and strength, which made it a great workhorse. Later Chapmans were crossed with Arabians and Thoroughbreds, to create the finer riding and carriage horse – the breed we know today as the Cleveland Bay.
Horse drawn coaches were not common in England until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the Cleveland Bay with its natural strength, activity and endurance was well suited to pull the first of these heavy vehicles. By the mid 1500’s the people of Yorkshire were already using the Cleveland Bay to plough the land, pull light spring carts, take them hunting and of course take them to Sunday church. ‘Carriage Horse’ was added it its growing list of roles, and as roads improved and people demanded faster travelling times, in the 1700’s several thoroughbred stallions were taken to Yorkshire to cover the Cleveland Bay mares, in order to create a faster, leaner horse.
The Cleveland Bay was so well liked and admired for its numerous attributes that it was used often to improve other breeds, most notably the Warmblood, and specifically the Oldenburg, which used Cleveland Bay stallions extensively in the 1860’s to add good bone and athleticism to the breed.
Technology versus the horse – The Cleveland Bay continued to develop as a strong but fast-paced coach horse but as the railways developed and the popularity of horses generally came under threat, the popularity of the Cleveland suffered equally.
By the 1880’s the breed was in severe trouble and on the verge of extinction. In 1884 a few enthusiasts of the breed formed the Cleveland Bay Horse Society (CBHS) in England to preserve and promote the horse, and that role is still carried out by the CBHS today.
During the 1880’s horses started making their way across various parts of the globe. The Cleveland Bay made it to the shores of America where it gained popularity with its easy-going nature and strong work ethic. Even though technology was on the rise people still kept their Cleveland Bay horses for their buggies, or to saddle up for a relaxing ride.
By the early 1900’s the breed was in serious decline, which was made worse by World War I where many Cleveland Bays were lost on the battlefields of France. They had adapted well to the role of artillery horses but unfortunately their very ability to adapt was sealing their own fate.
Royalty saves the day – The breed was almost extinct after both world wars ended. By the early 1960’s there were only a handful of mature stallions in England and not many more mares with which to rebuild the breed.
Fortunately, Queen Elizabeth II gave the breed a great boost. Her Majesty’s Grandfather had been a breeder of Cleveland Bays in the 1920’s and in true family tradition, the Queen stepped in to save the breed. She purchased a pure Cleveland Bay colt named Mulgrave Supreme who was born in 1961 and had been earmarked for export.
Her Majesty made the colt available at public stud and the breed suddenly found a new popularity with the English public that saw stallion numbers rise dramatically over the next ten years. Mulgrave Supreme became a household name in the horse world with many successful offspring competing in all disciplines.
Since then Cleveland Bays have proven themselves to be extremely reliable horses in both hunting and show jumping. Despite their versatility, kind temperament and fan-base, it is not a common breed – in 2006 only 550 horses existed worldwide.
In fact there are still so few of these wonderful horses worldwide that the Cleveland Bay is considered a rare breed, and both the United Kingdom-based Rare Breeds Survival Trust and the United States-based Livestock Conservancy consider the population to be at critical limits for extinction.
Breed standards – Height: Usually the horse is to stand between 16 – 16.2 hands high. Height should not be used to disqualify a fine example of the breed.
Colour: Cleveland Bays must be bay with black points – i.e. black legs, black mane and black tail. Grey hairs in mane and tail do not disqualify as these have been long recognised as a feature in certain strains of pure Cleveland Bay blood. White, beyond a very small star is not permitted. Legs that are bay or red below the knees and hocks do not disqualify but are considered faulty.
Body: The body should be wide and deep. The back should not be too long and should be strong with muscular loins. The shoulders should be sloping, deep and muscular. The quarters should be level, powerful, long and oval and the tail springing well from the quarters.
Head: The head characteristic of the breed should be bold and not too small. It should be well carried on a long lean neck.
Feet: This is one of the most important features of the breed; the feet must be of the best quality and dark blue in colour. Feet that are shallow or narrow are undesirable.
Movement: The horse’s movement must be true, straight and free. High action is not characteristic of the breed. The Cleveland Bay must move well and forward. The horse should be full of courage move freely from the shoulder, as well as flexing his knees and hocks sufficiently.
Further information: The Cleveland Bay is a notable horse with a huge history. Find out more by visiting the Cleveland Bay Horse Society’s website.