Horses in Williamsburg


Horses lend their speed and strength to the American colonies. Head coachman Joyce Henry shares the horse’s role in early Virginia.

Learn more: Historic Area horses


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. My guest today is Joyce Henry, who is head coachman and interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. Joyce, thanks for being with us today.

Joyce Henry: Thank you for having me.

Harmony: I started noticing some of the horses in the Historic Area, and thinking that horses in the 18th century are almost like cars are for us today. They’re status symbols, we use them to get jobs done, we use them for basic transportation.

Joyce: Yes, absolutely. The horse in the 18th century – and the ox, of course – were the sole means of transportation other than someone’s own two feet. Horses in the 18th century, there were no native horses here when the settlers first started arriving in Jamestown in 1607, so they did import seven horses in 1610.

Unfortunately, those first few horses had been eaten by the colonists during the Starving Time. By 1611, there had been more horses brought, and it had basically been made a crime to eat them if you got hungry. So, the numbers of horses multiplied. By the time we get to the 18th century, there’s plenty of horses, and Virginians are quite noted for their love of horses, both for just daily riding, and for racing, which was the single most popular sport in the 18th century.

Harmony: So you must have had different types of horses for different types of jobs.

Joyce: Absolutely. And these early importation horses, we believe were of native Irish and English stock. We believe that they were good horses because it’s expensive to ship a horse from England to the colony. It’s going to be about £15 a horse. This shipping is going to be quite hard on the horses, as well. Water was allocated for not just the passengers on the ship, but for the horses.

There’s not a special ship just for shipping horses, it’s just room that’s made, and stalls put in. We’ve got reports of many horses not making the voyages because of starving and running short on water, and water and supplies being given to the humans on board, rather than the horses.

Harmony: You talked about the expense – how can we explain what a horse would have cost, relative to other things?

Joyce: You’re asking how much a horse would have cost in the mid-18th century. Again, horses are plentiful. The average middling planter, you know, could probably purchase a horse for £3 to £5, all the way up, perhaps, to £500. If you are a gentleman planter and you are buying a racehorse or importing a stallion from England to breed on your native mares, you are going to pay a lot of money for that horse.

So certainly your status in society is going to depend on how much you’re paying for a horse. If it’s just a riding horse and you’re a lower or middling sort, it will be a less expensive animal. If you are a gentleman and you wish to engage in racing – which almost all gentlemen planters are – you’re going to be spending a lot of money, because you want to win.

Harmony: How can we compare that to, say, somebody’s annual income?

Joyce: Again, in the 18th century, the average person, who is a farmer, they’re engaged in agriculture, they are making anywhere between £10 and £30 sterling a year. There’s a few other trades that are earning as much as £60. So that gives you an idea. A gentleman planter, who’s paying up to £500 sterling for a racehorse, we’re talking about a huge expenditure. It would be not even like a limousine, it would be almost like a private jet.

Harmony: What about your everyday sorts of horses?

Joyce: The everyday sort of horse is going to be again, a cross-bred. There really isn’t, outside of the quarter horse and the thoroughbred, which are starting to morph into the same breed, a real breed of horse that the colonists are using. They can be used for drawing carts, they can be used for plowing, for light agriculture. They’re going to be used for drawing chairs in the Historic Area.

You’re going to see, besides being ridden, probably the most common form of transportation for the middling sort and some of the gentry as well would have been the riding chair, which is a single-horse drawn vehicle with two wheels that a lady or a gentleman can certainly negotiate themselves about in. Much easier than hooking up a coach, which again, only the gentry owned. Owning a carriage in the 18th century, a four-wheeled vehicle is certainly a mark of the upper class. They are a status symbol, whereas a chair is economical transportation.

However, we also know that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington did use chairs extensively when coming here, coming to Williamsburg. So you could put your little trunk on the back and have your belongings and your tack, and you could have your horse here when you got here, if you needed to ride you could put your saddle on and you could ride the same horse about. So horses are also multi-purpose. But as far as breeds, there are no outstanding breeds for the average person at this time in history.

Harmony: Talk to me about the approach to training in the 18th century.

Joyce: That’s a really good question. Some of the methods we would consider today, or we do consider today rather brutal. Because force is what they felt was the way to train an animal to be, to train them to your subjection, to do what you wished.

As far back as ancient times, there was a cavalry officer named Xenophon who was Greek who wrote a very interesting work on the training and gentling of horses, advocating a much gentler kinder way of training horses. But this wasn’t practiced widely, because it’s easier to just manhandle a horse and force him to do what you want. This tradition, to a degree, exists today.

But even by the 18th century in England, there was a gentleman called the Earl of Pembroke, who wrote a book on the training of horses and cavalry. He wrote a military manual. This manual is earthshaking in terms of, he is using for the first time, what we talk of today as natural horsemanship. That’s kind of a coined term, but it basically, the concept is training a horse by thinking like a horse, not like a human.

So the Earl of Pembroke published his book in 1770, and in it he’s advocating for instance, some things that are done for practical reasons, but also fashionable reasons in the 18th century, to cavalry, carriage, and racehorses are the docking of tails, much like we do to a Doberman today. This removes from the horse his defense against flies.

The Earl of Pembroke wrote of cavalry horses being tied on the picket line, those with the docked tails were basically thrifty, not doing well, because they were fretting and stamping at the flies they couldn’t brush off their bodies, whereas the horses who had undocked tails were able to keep the flies off. They were eating, they were relaxed, and certainly did a lot better. He’s calling these practices cruel. He’s talking about he almost takes words from Xenophon, saying, “To train the horse kindly and patiently. Let him understand what you wish him to do, and not to force him into subjugation," because that would only have fear.

Harmony: What are some examples of how training a horse would look before the Earl of Pembroke and Xenophon – before natural horsemanship is accepted – how did it look before that, and then how did it look after that?

Joyce: Let’s say you took a horse in the 18th century, and you brought him in and you just slapped a saddle on. You’re going to have much likely see is the horse going to become used to it and go, “Oh, that didn’t hurt me.” No, he’s going to stay scared. It’s going to take a while. You’re going to always have this mistrust that when the human walks up and puts the saddle on, you know, and then climbs on, everything in his psyche, his instinct is saying “I’m in danger.”

Which is why in training today in a natural horsemanship, it actually goes well before. We would never take a horse that was not quiet and start introducing him to something like that right away. We start with more subtle things first.

Harmony: Shifting gears a little bit, what type of horses do we keep at Colonial Williamsburg today?

Joyce: We use lots of crossbreds. We call them warmbloods. They are quarter horse crosses, some have some Percheron, some have some Clydesdale, some have some hackney, standard-bred, some are purebred standard-breds. We use these crossbreds, because they are calmer in demeanor. Remembering that carriages are status symbols, you wanted the fanciest, flashiest, most elegant horses to draw your carriages, gentry.

So what we do is we cross, we buy horses that are crossed on warm-blooded breeds, or hot-blooded breeds, such as the standard-bred and the quarter horse. And you get what we call a warm-blood. They’re slightly heavier built, than a lot of saddlehorses, however, some are not. We get the demeanor and yet we get the confirmation that we want, for them to be elegant, presentable horses in the Historic Area.

We are putting more horses in the street as often as we can. We have chairs out, ladies and gentlemen driving the riding chairs about and certainly we try to have as many character actors mounted as possible, so people get more of the feel of how important the horse’s role was here in Williamsburg in the 18th century.

Harmony: Thanks so much for being with us today.

Joyce: My pleasure.


  1. Joyce:

    I just read a great article about you in the Civil War Courier and I am glad you are keeping a great impression going. I know you love it a Williamsburg and hope to get to see you next time I go up that way. I don’t think I have seen you since 135th Manassas and you were on my staff.

    Take care,


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