Saving The Hackney Horse ~ One High Step At A Time
The high-stepping, lightweight Hackney horse is trotting fast into extinction. Listed by The Equine Survival Trust on their 2020 Equine Conservation List as nearly extinct, their estimate categorizes this historic breed as having less than 100 breeding mares and less than 75 foals on the floor, worldwide.
The Hackney horse has been popular for centuries in Britain and is recorded as early as the 1700’s. Prized for its beauty and elegant appearance, this highly trainable breed was later crossbred Fell, Welsh and other native breeds of ponies to create the compact Hackney Pony. The pony is not in danger of extinction, and it remains extremely popular today. The original Hackney Horse however, is not so widely cherished.
In the 1800’s following its importation into the U.S.A., the Hackney horse was also purposed mainly for driving. It’s floating, athletic and fast trot is a spectacle to behold and it is no wonder that the breed were popular among the elite of the day. By nature this breed is sensitive but very trainable, and offers much as a riding horse as well as a driving horse.
Today it is estimated that less than 200 Hackney horses remain in the U.S.A. Efforts to salvage the breed include the recently formed, Preservation of the Hackney Horse 501(c)3. This organization is working with the Livestock Breed Conservancy, formerly the American Livestock Breed Conservancy to develop opportunities for breeders to both donate and receive Hackney horse frozen semen and embryos for their programs. The Livestock Breed Conservancy provides free storage for the semen and embryos, a valuable help for the small horse breeder. The new preservation is working on a list of breeders and stallion owners, to provide a resource to help bring like-minded lovers of the Hackney breed together to nurture the breed before it is too late.
Efforts to conserve the aristocratic Hackney horse stretch far and wide across the North American continent. Karen Nowak, lifetime horsewoman an owner of Pond Ridge Farm Hackney Horses, located at Brookfield, New York, is one of the folks that are trying to help sustain the breed.
Nowak explains the three main goals of her breeding program:
• to preserve as many of the foundation genes as possible;
• maintain the traditional conformation of the Hackney horse, which lends itself to natural high stepping ability;
• ensure workable/trainable temperaments and athletic ability by performance testing of all of our breeding stock.
Nowak explains the reasons she believes the Hackney horse numbers are in decline:
“Younger equestrians are simply not showing up to participate in the showing of the Hackney. It’s not much better in the U.K. than it is here according to what I hear from Barbara Stockton, who is the President of the U.K. Hackney Society. Showing is so expensive, but kids don’t grow up knowing much about how showing horses in hand works. Hackney horses are valuable not just for their own beauty and use in carriage driving, but also make a wonderful breed to cross with sporthorse breeds for both riding and driving disciplines. Jennifer Sealy, who lives in Oklahoma, is one of the founders of our preservation organization. She has a nice purebred stallion and produces ¾ Hackneys with ¼ Clydesdale blood. She also has 3 purebred hackney mares with foals on the ground. Personally, I’d love to breed a Hackney to a Lipizzan through my Hackney horse Shady Maple Northerly Diplomat (Merlin), who is currently in dressage training at Waltzing Horse Farm with Sarah Casey.”
Nowak has rescued 4 Hackney horses to date, and brings them to a soft landing at her farm. Her years of experience as a qualified nurse came in handy in that endeavor, when one of horse came in with undiagnosed Strangles.
“My experience as a nurse that has worked through epidemics like SARS, MERS and Swine Flu has taught me the importance of quarantine and how to handle contagious disease. I’ve dealt with everything from Strangles to a myriad of other diseases like Anaplasmosis, Insulin Resistance and Lyme Disease and laminitis, the latter that resulted from medication with Doxycycline for the remedy of the above tick borne diseases,” explained Nowak.
The four horses in Nowak’s care can consider themselves very lucky to have landed in her expert hands.
“One of my rescues is worth her weight in gold and has made up to a great kids pony that was used in 4H last year.
I have another one, older, that is a hot potato and is a bit of a rogue, though he has calmed down since he’s been with me. He’s very smart and he has a big trot so shows well in hand, but he can get hysterical. The kids can show him in hand though and he is doing a good job teaching them how much he can show off his gaits.
The 3rd one came to me in heartbreaking condition. He had a fractured jaw, an eye injury, was beaten up with his teeth knocked out. I am very bonded with this horse but due to his history and lack of trust with others I would never adopt him out. He has been winning in hand classes and has come so far from where he began. He is such a beautiful mover I plan to get a harness on him and have begun ground driving.
The 4th one is a mare, Angel, who has suffered with tick borne disease issues and foundered too. She was so bad at one point she just couldn’t get up. She suffered bedsores as a result. But with lots of TLC she has come around. I am so proud of her. Nursing this horse has taught me a lot and we have been through so much together,” said Nowak.
Nowak is no stranger to pain and dealing with disease and injuries herself. Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, Nowak struggles everyday to both afford her own medical care and to get up and around and care for her horses. Impressively she also runs a successful hay business on her farm. She offers inspiration to all of us on just what one person can endure and overcome, and how positive they can continue to move through life and make a difference.
“Sadly though I have been a lifelong horsewoman I can no longer ride. My MS converted to a progressive stage and the medication to help slow it down was to cost me $7000/month. Thankfully I managed to get some samples for free through grants from the drug manufacturer, that covered me for 2 months and then the VA picked up the medicine on their formula list so I had a co-pay I could manage. It has succeeded in halting the progression of the disease so far. However, I had to give up riding my horse Merlin, as my balance was so bad. I could do a half-pass and should-in at the walk, but could no longer sit the trot. I tried and tried and on all 3 occasions Merlin saved me by just stopping so I didn’t fall off when I lost my balance.
Merlin is not the first horse to have stepped in to help Nowak when her health failed her.
“I got into Hackneys in 1988, when I was recovering from MS and was told I could not ride again. Although I have! I figured if I couldn’t ride I would drive. Horses are such a huge passion for me. I have come off errant horses and suffered injuries and used therapeutic riding to help me recover. Therapeutic riding is something I’m going to try again now. Once things get back to normal after this pandemic.”
As if running a successful hay business, taking dressage and training horses to carriage drive and battling the incredible pain and rollercoaster of MS isn’t enough, Nowak is also extremely active in the Brookfield Trail System and Events Program. that is run by the Department of Environmental Conservation. Unfortunately the use of the 131 miles of groomed trails and show season plans have been negatively affected by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
“For the shows insurance costs have been an issue. To police and finance the required handwashing, sanitizing, social distancing and mask wearing etc., is a logistical nightmare for our organization. While we have managed to open up the campgrounds with social distancing so folks can still use the trail system, we opted to cancel the show events for now,” Nowak stated.
Nowak is the perfect example of a great human being. Giving back and helping others out when she can, stepping in to help protect and serve those in need as both a nursing professional and horse woman, and consistently building a kind and caring community spirit.