“This beautiful animal, which, so far as I can ascertain, has now entirely ceased to exist, and concerning which the strangest legends and traditions are afloat, was, I think it may be positively asserted, of Andalusian blood.”
Henry William Herbert (1807-1858) chronicled the state of all American things equine in his massive two-volume work, Frank Forester’s Horse and Horsemanship of the United States and British provinces of North America (1857). The subject in this chapter was the mysterious Narragansett Pacer, the first truly American breed of horse. Like many inventions in the colonial world, the breed was devised through necessity in environmental conditions that were unknown in Europe.
Without a system of refined, easy roadways in America, colonial settlers were obliged to ride on horseback instead of using carriages. Riding horseback long distances could be brutally jarring, and it wasn’t long before colonists began looking for a horse with a smoother, more comfortable gait. The result was the Narragansett Pacer, named for the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. The breed emerged in mystery, including several wild legends detailed by Herbert:
“The legends, to which I allude, tell in two wise; or rather, I should say, there are only two versions of the same legend. One saying that the original stallion, whence came the breed, was picked up at sea, swimming for his life, no one knew whence or whither; and was so carried in by his salvors to the Providence Plantations; the other, evidently another form of the same story, stating that the same original progenitor was discovered running wild in the woods of Rhode Island.” Frank Forester’s Horse and Horsemanship of the United States and British provinces of North America (1857), volume II, page 67.
Fanciful legends aside, it’s most likely that the Pacer was the product of import of Spanish, Irish, and British stock throughout the 17th Century and into the early 18th Century. Like several older European and Asian breeds, the Pacer’s feet of one side moved one after the other. This proved to be far more comfortable than a pounding four-time walk for riders spending hours in the saddle.
In the 1700s, the Pacer became the most popular breed in the American colonies and the fledgling United States. Good Pacers were sought for riding and racing alike, and George Washington owned several. According to legend, when Paul Revere embarked on his famous midnight ride, it was aboard a Narragansett Pacer.
Unfortunately, by the 1880s (and likely long before then) the Narragansett Pacer had gone extinct as a breed. In many ways, the breed was a victim of its own success. Pacers were heavily exported to the Caribbean in the 19th Century. The Pacer was also aggressively cross-bred with other breeds, leading to the demise of the original breed, but also making Pacers a major contributor to a new breed, the American Saddlebred. Although the Narragansett Pacer has been gone for over 140 years, its influence lives on in the many American breeds derived from it.
John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail