Two years ago I went to the National Sporting Library with a mission. I was looking for more information on the Hanoverian Creams and Whites; I was convinced that early modern breeders could meet their own production goals– which meant not indiscriminately crossing these two pale phenotypes. And more, I suspected they had a greater understanding of trait inheritance than we generally attribute to breeders before Darwin and Mendel. I did find suggestions of an understanding of multigenerational inheritance; usually in terms of an animal taking after its sire or grandsire, but also with occasional asides about individual animals being more or less likely to have offspring that resembled themselves. And I found dozens of tantalizing mentions of my unusual case studies, but not a huge amount of new information on the unusual Hanoverian horses. What I did find was not only an aversion to inbreeding (for more on trends in inbreeding, see Margaret Derry’s Bred for Perfection), but also an avoidance of breeding “like to like.” While this was about type, rather than color, it was still startling. These breeders, mostly late eighteenth and early nineteenth century English breeders of animals other than Thoroughbreds, employed a method of crossing that is still common in the production of warmbloods; indeed, their discussions of mare and stallion selection– the one heavy, the other light, unrelated for several generations, and preferences for certain production regions– was not unlike my own choices in Morgan breeding. The “golden cross” in Morgans has long been Government stallions with Lippitt mares. I also started formulating my definition for early modern usage of the word “breed” as one predicated on land, not blood. The word was used in the early eighteenth century primarily as a gerundive: “to have been bred, to have been produced by or at.”
At the Linda Hall Library this summer I once again had to reorder my thoughts on the history of breeding. I had been focusing pre-1866: before Darwin and Mendel. While I had evidence prior breeders had some understanding of inheritance, I still expected the development of evolutionary science and genetics to effect the choices breeders made. Instead, I found that Robert Bakewell– the sheep breeder who popularized inbreeding, as discussed by Derry– had a much greater effect. And, that breeders in the early twentieth (yes, 20th!) century still used the land-based conception of breed, even in the same treatises in which they discuss the new Mendelian model of inheritance.
Like fine wines and cheeses, the land lent unique “flavors” to the animals raised on it. This was a concept that pre-dated Darwin, and one that his studies could not challenge; rather, they reinforced the idea that the land itself selected certain strengths in animals, making the selection and arrangement of place as important to breeders as the selection of broodstock. Because the new science supported these views, they survived through the tumultuous rise of eugenics, with breeders of the mid 20th c. selecting desert landscapes on which to raise Arabians, and setting down on paper the breeds produced in each region, from the bluegrass to the Rockies. This reliance on terrain was not unscientific. Adequate fodder, suitable hoof wear, and space encouraging exercise in youngstock is as important to raising sound, healthy animals as genetics. Early modern breeders understood both were necessary for a program to produce consistent quality.
Today I start research at the National Museum of the Morgan Horse. Morgans developed a separate breed identity much earlier than other non-Thoroughbreds. And the early American “golden cross,” for trotters to saddlers to quarter mile horses, was “Kentucky” or Thoroughbred stallions and “Vermont” or Morgan mares. I love the breed, but I never expected them to be so central to my research!