Horses’ Birthday

Horses’ Birthday

1 August is the official birthday of all thoroughbred horses across the Southern Hemisphere. Thoroughbreds in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate their birthdays on 1 January. The tradition of standard birthdates for racehorses began in early nineteenth century England. Modern horse racing was founded at Cantley Common in Doncaster on 24 September 1776 by Major-General Anthony St Leger (1731/32 – 19 April 1786), who was a successful soldier and a Member of Parliament for Grimsby. Originally titled, ‘A Sweepstake of 25 Guineas’, the race became known as the St Leger Stakes.

Initially, a standard birthdate of 1 May was introduced for racehorses in England. The intention was to enable easier regulation of races and horses ages, to link with horses’ breeding cycles, and to trace bloodlines simply. On this last point, it can be said the process helped owners and breeders to keep track of their horses’ pedigrees —or family trees.

British nobility horse racing at Apsley House, London c. 1850s by Frances Elizabeth Wynne (National Library of Wales)

British nobility horse racing at Apsley House, London c. 1850s by Frances Elizabeth Wynne (National Library of Wales)

As the number of races for younger horses increased, by 1834 the Jockey Club at Newmarket, Suffolk declared the racehorses’ birthday to be 1 January. Consensus on this date was only reached by all English racing associations in 1858.

The date of 1 January was chosen as it was based on the mare breeding cycle. Typically, mares come into heat just after new year. As they tend to be pregnant for eleven months to a year, most foals in Britain are born in the spring. This was seen to fit well with a birthday of 1 January. However, in the Southern Hemisphere, the weather warms up from September and this is when mares come into heat. Thus, 1 August is regarded as a more appropriate choice of birthday.

Horses in general were of huge importance to our ancestors. Before the introduction of the passenger trains in the early nineteenth century, our forebears relied on horses and horse-drawn vehicles for transportation. Horses also transported goods, ploughed fields, and were essential on battlefields. Blacksmiths were a common site across the UK until the decline of the village blacksmith in the mid-1940s. 

During the First World War, horses were used in a variety of roles, depending on their type. By 1917, the Army employed over 368,000 horses on the Western Front. Most were draught horses, pulling heavy vehicles or artillery guns, or pack horses carrying ammunition. A smaller number of horses were ridden by the cavalry and some officers.

Horse Hospital Website Image

From the Horse Hospital website

Signs of the equine world with which our ancestors would have been familiar still dot our urban streets. In London’s Bloomsbury district lies a former horse hospital. Built as a stable on the corner of Colonnade Mews and Herbrand Street by James Burton in 1797, this two-storey building now functions as an arts venue. Although much of the original building survives, it is believed to have been redeveloped sometime after 1860.

Further north, is the legendary Camden Market, part of which is known as The Stables. In 1937 the London & Birmingham Railway was opened, followed by the Camden Goods Station in 1939. Horses were used for pulling trains, or parts of trains from the main railway line to the canal, as well as for transporting goods and passenger luggage. Shire horses, or Clydesdales were used for heavy work. What is now Stables Market then included Tack rooms, saddler’s workshops and a horse hospital. Below the depot a network of horse tunnels was built, connecting the railway to the canal. At its peak the network was used by over 500 horses. As technology developed, there was less need for working horses: the last shunting horse was withdrawn from duty in 1967 and in 1980 the depot closed forever.

Do you have any stories of horses in your ancestors' lives? Or perhaps your ancestor was a blacksmith or served with horses in war? Do let us know via email or on our Facebook and Twitter pages.


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