ONE OF THE LOST BREEDS, THE NARRAGANSETT PACER
By Janice M. Ladendorf
In early colonial times, most travel was by sea or river. What few roads existed were no more than rough trails. By the late 17th century, the English colonists in Rhode Island had created a new breed of saddle horse, the Narragansett Pacer. These wonderful horses had a special smooth gait that did not jar their riders. Ladies especially appreciated their gaits. They possessed great endurance and could easily travel up to 60 miles in one day. The smooth gaited Narragansetts had to be surefooted so they could travel easily, safely, and swiftly over the roughest ground. They were small horses whose predominate color was bright sorrel often with white markings.
Despite being gaited, some Narragansetts were also fast and were raced in both Rhode Island or Virginia. The best ones could cover a mile in two minutes and a few seconds. Their fame quickly spread throughout the American colonies and the West Indies. Jockey ships took hundreds of Narragansetts south to be sold on the sugar islands in the Caribbean. Sadly, by 1800, only one stallion remained as the last representative of this remarkable breed.1
Multiple mysteries and controversy shroud the rest of their history. If we could part the mists of time, we might see a lady riding a small, sorrel horse along a narrow trail through the forest. If we could study her horse’s movements with modern equipment, we could discover if he paced in a two-beat gait or ambled in a four-beat gait. If we could talk to her, she might be able to give us some real information about her horses ancestors and Narragansett bloodlines. Unfortunately, time travel isn’t possible and the information we have today on this breed is incomplete and often contradictory.
MYSTERY ONE – GAIT
Until the development of modern photography, horsemen could feel and hear gaits, but the human eye could not accurately identify each phase in the gait of a rapidly moving horse. For example, the precise definition of the gait phases in a three-beat canter is a relatively modern discovery. All sources agree the special gait of the Narragansetts maximized rider comfort. Ambling horses with four-beat gaits had existed for centuries, but precise definitions of the various gaits used by amblers did not yet exist in colonial times.
Like the trot, a true pace is a two-beat gait, but the horse utilizes lateral, rather than diagonal pairs of legs. As a true pacer rapidly shifts between his right and left legs, his body normally swings back and forth with each step. This is not a comfortable gait of a rider and explains why modern Standardbred pacers are not raced under stable. Colonial horsemen did attempt to force non-Narragansetts to pace in a two-beat gait, but the horses never produced anything like the smooth riding gait of the Narragansetts.
Modern easy gated horses all use some variance of a four-beat gait. If the Narragansetts could indeed move in a two-beat gait without jarring their riders, modern horsemen cannot explain this gait and it remains a mystery. What colonial horsemen saw and described as a pace may well have been a gait with four even gaits. Such a gait is extremely smooth. It is what modern Paso Finos use when they move in their Quarto, Largo, and Fino gaits.2 This breed and the Narragansett may have inherited this same gait from their common ancestors.
MYSTERY TWO – ORIGIN
The next mystery involves the origin of the Narragansett horses. The controversies revolve around four main issues. Did wild horses survive anywhere in North America after the ending of the last ice age? Did the ancestors of the Narragansetts come here with the Spanish Conquistadores? Did they come to New England with the English settlers? Is there a direct link between them and the Paso Fino of Puerto Rico? So far no definitive answer has been found to any of these questions.
Early History of the Horse in North America
Horses evolved on the plains of North America and migrated to Asia over the Bering land bridge. Somewhere between eleven and thirteen thousand years ago, scientists believe the equine species disappeared from this continent, but they cannot explain why this happened. Some believe horses had been hunted to extinction or attacked by a disease specific to their species. These theories do not explain why so many other species also disappeared at the same time from both America and northern Asia. The most probable explanation is a major change in the climate. In recent years, new scientific discoveries suggest horses may have survived here and in Canada for longer than scientists had originally believed.
After the Last Ice Age
When the Spanish discovered the New World, at first they did think horses existed here before their arrival. Some of the plains tribes also have legends suggesting they had horses before the Spanish arrived in the New World. Some people have always believed a few remnants of the original wild horses had survived in isolated locations in the west and interbred with the ones brought here by the Spanish. We now know such pockets of horses survived in similar places on the Eurasian steps, but we have no way to know if any of these horses were gaited.
Others people believe the Norse may have left a few of their gaited ponies behind in Canada when they abandoned their Greenland colony. They did bring some cattle to the mainland, but there is no evidence they brought any horses. Given the severity of Canadian winters and the nature of their northern terrain, it is unlikely any horses could have survived either in Greenland or on the Canadian mainland.
The author of the controversial book, “1421,” argues the Chinese did leave some of their cavalry mounts behind on their early explorations.3 They did in New Zealand and may have also have done so in California. Some people have suggested the California Indian tribes may have some Chinese blood. Even if horses had been left in California, they may not have been gaited.
These three theories are attractive ones, but they are not supported by enough solid evidence to be convincing. As far as we know now, there were no horses in New England before the arrival of the English settlers.
Spanish Horses Come to the New World
On his second voyage in 1493, Columbus brought horses with him and other shipments soon followed. The cargo records usually listed the number and sex of the horses, but said little about their type or quality.5 At that time, breed registries did not yet exist. Horses in Spain were often known by the name of place where they had been bred. Experts still disagree about what breeds or types of horses then inhabited the Spanish peninsula. They also disagree on their origin.4 Judging by their modern descendants, all of the Spanish horses shipped to the Caribbean probably belonged to one of the three types described below.
1) For many centuries, the Spanish aristocracy had bred horses for war, for hunting, and for rejoneo (fighting bulls on horseback). After they had driven the Moors out of Spain, these brave, hardy, handy war horses became the ancestors of today’s Andalusians and Lusitanos.
2) Some experts believe the Sorraias are one of the six original breeds of wild horses. They resemble the Tarpan and often share their dun or grulla coloring. Today the Sorraias are almost extinct; but in the fifteenth century, working cowboys and common people rode them and they probably outnumbered the horses used by aristocracies. These tough little horses were the ones most likely to survive the long ocean voyage to the New World.4
3) In classical times, the Romans greatly valued the easy gaited Asturcones they found in northwestern Spain. When these horses were exported from Spain, they became know as haubrinis in France, palfreys in England, and hobbies in Ireland. They were often described as pacers, but the smoothness of their special gait suggests what they used was a pure four-beat gait.5 The term, Spanish jennet, has been used to describe these gaited horses, but it has also been used to describe the Spanish war horse.
The Spanish first settled on the Caribbean islands where they used their warhorses, Sorraias, and amblers to breed special strains of horses for war, racing, parades, games, cattle work, and traveling. The ones with a four-beat gait were ideal mounts for long journeys.5
From the islands, they settled the mainland in two waves. After the conquest of Mexico, they moved north to what is now Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. The other wave began in Florida and spread both west along the Gulf of Mexico and north along the Atlantic coast. By 1565, the Spanish had a permanent settlement in Florida, well before any of their settlers had reached what became our southwestern states. From Florida and Georgia, they had reached the Carolinas by 1650. They even had one small mission as far north as Virginia.
Wherever the Spanish soldiers and settlers went they always took horses with them. They also created missions where the Friars taught the natives how to cultivate Spanish plants and animals. Some of their horses always managed to escape and survive in the wild. As soon as the Indians learned to ride, they began stealing horses. Although the southern climate and terrain may not have been as ideal as the western plains, wild and tame horses both thrived there. The wild herds continued to grow as more horses escaped from the Spanish settlers and the newly formed Indian herds. Eventually some of the Tribes, such as the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Cherokee, became notable horseman and breeders.6
Although the Spanish herds probably included many gaited horses, there is no evidence that any of these horses reached New England. The English settlers in the south did trade with both the Spanish and Indian tribes for horses, but they did not record any effort to create gaited breeds. By 1670, farmers in the southern colonies had started complaining about problems with the wild herds. These herds ranged through Virginia, Maryland, and into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania and New York. There are no records of any wild horses who got farther north into New England.7
European Horses in New England
By the beginning of the 17th century, Spanish war houses and amblers had been imported into Great Britain for many years. Many of the best horses in England come from these bloodlines. At that time, the Arab horse had not yet reached England and the Thoroughbred did not yet exist.
By 1620, shipments from England to Virginia began. In 1629, the first English horses arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Shipments to New England may well have included English palfreys or Irish Hobbes who ambled. If this did happen, they well may have been the foundation stock for the Narragansett breed. France, Holland, and Sweden also sent horses to their colonies in the New World.
Who were the foundation sires of the Narragansett breed? Only one name has come down to us. It was Old Snipe. Colonialists often described a good Narragansett as a Snipe. Four different stories are told about his origin.
1) He was a wild horse running free on land near Point Judith. If this one is true, then his ancestors may have come from the Spanish colonies in Georgia or Florida.
2) He was not a wild horse, but swam ashore from a ship. If this is true, then he may have been an English palfrey, a Irish Hobbes, a Spanish Asturian, or an ambling horse from the West Indies.
3) A sloop from Narragansett picked him up out of the water off the northwestern coast of Spain. If this one is true, he probably was a pure Asturian.
4) He was imported from Spain by Governor William Robinson and probably was a pure Asturian.1
Regardless of which story is true, they all suggest Old Snipe was either a pure Spanish Asturian or came from their bloodlines.
Between 1640 and 1660, many horses were shipped from Ireland to New England. These Hobbes may well have been the foundation stock of the Narragansett.8 This new breed was well established by 1711. In that year, Rip Van Dam from New York purchased a Narragansett and described him in a letter as feisty, playful, no beauty except for his legs, and fond of drinking wine, beer, or cyder.1 Governor Robinson supposedly imported his stallion in 1735. If this date is correct, he could not have been a foundation sire, but he certainly could have been used to improve the breed. He may also have imported other Asturians at that time or later.
Descriptions of the Narragansett vary considerably. Some say they are low headed, docile, and unattractive. Others say they are refined, high headed, and spirited. There could be various reasons for why these descriptions are so different. One is breeder preferences for showing horses versus hardy ones who could consistently go sixty miles a day and stay sound. Another is they are comparing the original Narragansetts to the ones who had been interbred with Asturians stallions from Spain.
Were Narragansetts linked with Paso Finos?
If the Asturians, the Narragansetts, and the modern Paso Fino all use a four-beat gait, then all three breeds are probably related. Most experts believe they all are descended from the Asturcónes so admired by the Romans.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, hundreds of horses were shipped to the West Indies, but this trade was with the sugar islands ruled by England and France. Most of them provided power inside the sugar mills and did not live long. The more fortunate ones hauled cane to the mills. As easy gated riding horses, the Narragansetts were used by the plantation owners and their families. By 1649, attempts to limit sales of Narragansetts to geldings had already begun.8
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Spain still ruled the islands associated with the modern Paso Fino and they raised cattle. Some Narragansetts did get shipped to Cuba, but sugar did not begin to boom there until after the Revolutionary War. By that time, horses were no longer needed to power the mills. In Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, sugar cultivation did not begin until much later.
The Narragansetts and the Paso Finos probably are related, but through their remote ancestors. A few may have reached Puerto Rico from New England, but given the enmity between England and Spain, it is unlikely.
Mystery Three – Why did the Narragansetts Disappear?
The early colonies clung to the eastern coasts and generally used ships to transport freight and passengers. These ships used the rivers or followed the coast. To travel cross-country, the colonists needed a horse exactly like the Narragansett.
When and why did the market for easy riding horses disappear? The English created the Thoroughbred early in the eighteen century. Before the American Revolution, they shipped blood horses to the colonies. As flat racing became increasingly popular in the southern colonies, interest in racing Narragansetts declined. After the Revolution, the market for driving horses exploded for several reasons. Americans had begun to move west away from the coasts. Roads had been greatly improved. Iron plows had been invented and they could be pulled by horses, instead of oxen.
By 1800, only one full-blooded Narragansett still existed. He was a bright bay stallion with black points named King Philip. By 1812, an English buyer could find no true Narragansetts in New England.1 A more versatile horse like Figure, the foundation sire of the Morgan breed, is now what most New Englanders wanted to own.
Why American breeders failed to preserve this unique breed is a puzzle, but they also failed to save the Chickasaw sprinters and the Conestoga harness horses. One reason might be only potential racers had enough value to justify the cost of maintaining detailed records of their bloodlines.
Narragansetts from New England may well have been used to create later breeds of gaited horses in the United States and Canada, but any evidence of such links seems to be sadly lacking. Some people believe the Narragansetts went west to Kentucky and Tennessee. If this did happen, it could explain why the breed died out so rapidly in New England. Other people think the Narragansetts may have gone north to Canada and then returned to New England to help found the Morgan breed.8 If this did happen, it could explain why some Morgans are gaited.
When the Narragansett breed died out, their name did not disappear. For many years, it was used to describe any gaited horse, but few of these horses showed any of the special characteristics of the true Narragansett. This forgotten breed combined exceptionally smooth gaits with endurance, surefootedness, and sometimes great speed. They were also small horses and predominantly sorrel.
They were created in Rhode Island, but soon spread throughout New England and as far south as Virginia. They were popular as easy gaited saddle horses and the fastest ones were raced on the beaches in Rhode Island and Virginia. They were well established as a breed by 1711. Hundreds were exported to the sugar islands in the West Indies. By 1812, the market had changed and they could no longer be found in New England.
Spanish Asturians probably were their ancestors, either directly or through their descendants in Great Britain and the West Indies. The foundation stock could well have been Hobbes from Ireland. Old Snipe was well know to be one of their great sires, but he may or may not have been one of their foundation sires. Multiple stories exist about how and when he reached Rhode Island.
Author’s Note: This article was first published in “The Gaited Horse” in the Winter of 2005 under the title of the, “Mysteries of the Narragansett Pacer.” This version has been revised, updated, and expanded.
When no contemporary pictures of this breed could be found, the magazine editor, Rhonda Hart, had a painting especially done for my article by Elizabeth Kopplow. She has kindly given me permission to use it. The magazine is now defunct.
1Earle, Alice Morse, “Narragansett Pacers”, New England Magazine, March 1890, pp. 39-42.
2Hendricks, Bonnie. International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds. University of Oklahoma, 1995.
3Menzies, Gavin. 1421: The Year China Discovered America. William Morrow, 2008.
4Loch, Sylvia. The Royal Horse of Europe. London, J. A. Allen, 1996.
5Denhardt, Robert. The Horse of Americas. University of Oklahoma, 1947.
6Ladendorf, Janice, “A Lost Breed: The Chickasaw Horse”, Valley Equestrian News, July 2014, pp. 8-9.
7Ladendorf, Janice, “A Lost Breed: The Conestoga”, Valley Equestrian News, June, 2014,
8Howard, R.W., “The Puritan Cowboys”, The Horse in America, 1965, pp. 31-43.
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. NY, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1928. (The two heroines ride Narragansetts. Explanatory note on breed, pp. 26-26.)
Downey, Fairfax. Free and Easy: The Story of a Narragansett Pacer. NY, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951. (A delightful children story.)