The Trotter

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At a flying clip the trotting horse moved effortlessly through the nineteenth century, easily distancing all competitors as the country’s most widely acclaimed hero of sport. In lesser circumstances he pulled a sleigh, a road wagon, or a plow. He was a dashing symbol for a nation that liked its pleasures to have a practical aura. The trotter was a favorite of the printmakers, and their portraits of him on the track, on the road, in the solitary splendor of his stall, or in a quiet pasture brightened walls of homes, hotels, offices, and livery stables.

He had been a long time reaching the perfection he attained in the nineteenth century. The ancients, both Greeks and Romans, undoubtedly trained some horses to trot consistently—that is, to move a foreleg on one side and a hind leg on the other at the same time. This gait greatly increased the smoothness and endurance with which a horse could pull a chariot or wagon. Trotting matches were popular in many parts of the Old World, and the term “trotters,” derived from a French word meaning “to tread,” was in use in the sixteenth century.

Trotters came to Virginia and New England almost with the first Englishmen, though the Puritan ministers of the north frowned upon all horse racing. But in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the advantages of a good trotter under saddle or pulling a buggy dawned on the circuit-riding parsons, their opposition rapidly declined. As a result ministerial tirades were seldom hurled against the harness races at the state and county fairs that were so much a part of the nineteenth-century American scene. The unutilitarian flat racers never got any such seal of approval.

Early in the 1850’s, a writer surveyed the country’s equestrian scene and observed that the breeding, training, and racing of trotting horses was “the people’s sport, the people’s pastime and, consequently, is, and will be supported by the people.” Currier and Ives, best-known of the nineteenth-century lithographers, at an early date billed themselves as publishers of “Colored Engravings for the People,” a sobriquet applicable to most American printmakers. It is little wonder that the lithograph—already the medium of popular art—reflected the nation’s favorite sporting pursuit. Only town views outnumbered horse portraits, track scenes, and views of trotters on the road among subjects in the commercial lithographer’s repertory.

Everyone—tradesman, artisan, businessman, farmer, clergyman, doctor, mechanic—whose affairs required the services of a horse kept “a fast and hardy trotter.” By the iSgo’s, north and east of the Mason-Dixon Line, it was not, according to the writer Frank Forester, unusual in a day’s time in any rural district to see “a hundred persons travelling in light wagons, sulkies, or chaises, for five—I hardly think I should err, if I were to say for one—on horseback.”

In the selection of a roadster, as the fast trotters were called, even the most style-conscious buyer had a wide latitude. Some owners liked a horse that was round and smooth, with soft hair, fine coloring, and a proud, showy style—one not too fast or endowed with any great endurance, but an animal that might attract the admiration of their neighbors. Color was a serious criterion to many horse owners. White, light sorrel, cream-colored, and spotted horses were objectionable; bays, chestnuts, blacks, and dark browns were the rage.

Men of means such as William H. Vanderbilt adopted the trotter and made his perfection an avocation. Robert Bonner, owner of the New York Ledger , and proprietor of a marvelous stud farm and stables at Tarrytown, at one time or another owned most of the champion trotters of the last half of the nineteenth century, among them Dexter, Rarus, Lady Palmer, and Fiatbush Maid. Boston’s Brighton Road, where the boys were “wont to exercise their fast nags,” and New York’s Harlem Lane, which enjoyed “a wide reputation with the lovers of the turf,” were most frequently pictured and perhaps best known. Then there was Philadelphia’s Rope Ferry Road, the popular thoroughfare to Point Breeze Park and the races. These scenes in the big cities were simply projections on a larger scale of the stylish prancing visible in towns and hamlets throughout the country.

The road offered special pleasures in winter. Hiram Woodruff wrote nostalgically of the 1840’s and of “sleigh-riding, when the air is keen and frosty, the sky clear, the snow deep and crisp.” But by 1868 in New York City the sound of sleigh bells and the crunch of snow under a trotter’s hoofs had largely disappeared. “The street railroads,” wrote Woodruff, speaking of the horsecars, “have done lor all that.” In country towns and villages, however, the road in winter remained the delight so often seen in lithographic views. The Boston winter scenes by Haskell & Alien of the Fearnaught Stallions and of the mélange of sleighs leaving Brighton for the Mill-Dam prove to any eye that trotters, toddies, and Albany cutters were an exhilarating combination.