It’s not exactly clear when the first horse officially called a Narragansett Pacer appeared in Rhode Island, though it was likely in the late 1600s. Its emergence marked the first true American breed of horse.
In 1672, John Hull – the Massachusetts mintmaster who had properties in Narragansett and Cape Cod – wrote his partners with a proposal. If they fenced in part of their land and imported some particularly fine horses from Europe they might well produce a horse bred specifically for New England.
The region had few streets and riders needed horses different than English horses.
The most prized English horses were bred for speed in flat racing. And work horses had lanes in which to work. Neither breed could master New England’s wilderness.
Within a couple of decades, Hull’s vision would become reality.
From the earliest days of New England’s settlement, colonists prized their horses. They came from Europe on the first ships from Britain, Spain and the Netherlands.
Over time, however, breeders in Rhode Island took a more active role in promoting the horse perfect for the new colonies: The Narragansett Pacer. Unlike a racehorse bred to produce quick, bursting speed over a flat course, it was a relatively small horse, but bred and trained to move swiftly over rough terrain with tremendous endurance. As a pacer, it had a somewhat awkward high step, but it did not sway from side to side and could carry a man 50 miles or more in a day.
The British politician Edmund Burke wrote an Account of the European Settlement in America in 1857. In it, he noted the emerging breeds of horses in New England:
They have, besides, a breed of small horses which are extremely hardy. They pace naturally, though in no very graceful or easy manner; but with such swiftness, and for so long a continuance, as must appear almost incredible to those who have not experienced it.
As a member of Parliament, Burke tried to convince his colleagues to avoid war with America. Instead, he wanted to grant the colonies the right to establish their own parliament and courts, while remaining under the umbrella of the British Empire. His efforts in this regard failed, but the word of the Narragansett Pacer spread.
By the early 1770s, horses ranked among the top 10 colonial exports. Shipments of horses regularly left New England for the southern colonies and the Caribbean.
The Narragansett Pacer soon became the gold standard of horses in the colonies. George Washington owned a pair, which he highly valued. Paul Revere was said to have ridden a Narragansett Pacer on his famous midnight ride, though proof is scant.
It is known that Narragansett Pacers, ‘of extraordinary fleetness, and astonishing endurance’ were ridden by governmental post riders during the American Revolution. Riders hitched them outside the house and War Office of Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull in Lebanon, Conn. The horses were ‘ready, on any emergency of danger, to fly with advices, in any desired direction, on the wings of the wind.’
Rhode Islanders raced the pacers on the beaches of Narragansett. While Puritan Massachusetts frowned on sporting events such as racing, the more liberal Rhode Island allowed it. The horses also raced in Virginia.
Though highly popular for more than 200 years, the Narragansett Pacer doesn’t exist today. Historians of horses do not really know why. They may have simply dwindled away due to changing times.
As American roads improved in quality and travelers used coaches more widely, the pacer’s gait and size made it less desirable. Meanwhile, the horse would only get more attractive in the Caribbean for work on plantations and on the rough island roads. That led some to suspect the breeders simply shipped away the last of the Narragansett Pacer over time.
Hat tip to: Historic Rhode Island Farms by Robert A. Geake. This story was updated in 2023.