The History of Hobbles and the Pacing Gait

Hobbles, wore by most of modern-day pacers, were first used in England over 300 years ago to gait saddle horses to the pace. When carriages appears under the late Tudors and early Stuart Kings, the pacing-rigged saddle horses disappeared.

In North America non-hobbled pacers were quite common prior to the American Revolution, and were so main stream amongst horsemen that in 1747 in Maryland those governments passed laws to prohibit pacing races. New Jersey followed suit in 1748 and Pennsylvania did the same in 1750.

In the newly formed states the Narragansett pacers of Rhode Island were considered an equine elite, and as a result they became an important trade item between the colonies on the Atlantic Coast. In fact, a number of them were shipped to Cuba, where the Spaniards landed, bringing some of the first horses to the New World. The American Pacer at this time then disappeared as soon as roads were opened and coaches quickly took the place of most saddle horses. Their popularity didn't return until 1818, when a horse named Boston Blue took a record of three minutes for a mile test.

William Edwards of Cleveland, Ohio was one of the first people in America to advocate pacing races, sans hobbles. He induced members of the Grand Circuit to have one pace at each of their meetings. After a few disastrous experiences, he notified the owners of pacers that if their horses didn't perform consistently that the style of racing would be cut out entirely.

During this time a rather famous white gelding named Argyle was known as the worst of the free-legged pacing offenders. He would win a heat, then win another, and when it looked as though he had the third heat won, he would make a standstill break and be distanced. At that time no one could tell if the horse or driver was at fault, however.

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In the 1880's a conductor on an Indiana railroad was training a pacer which a breaking problem. He decided to tie his horse's legs together to keep him gaited. This first "hobble" was rather crude, but it worked, and soon the craze swept like wildfire throughout harness racing venues. Later, a harness maker was consulted, and it was only a few weeks before hobbles as we know them today were hung on pacers as routine.

Coleridge and Ben D. were the first pair of fast horses that wore hobbles during a Grand Circuit event in 1895. Coleridge defeated Ben D. in a five-heat race in Detroit that year, and the success of this pair prompted skeptics to accept hobbles as a viable piece of equipment. One trainer at the time was quoted as saying that "hobbles make anybody a trainer, and they will result in many incompetent men being seen in the sulky."

This type of thinking led to many controversial conversations concerning hobbles in the late 1890's. By studying harness racing periodicals of that day one will find many features dedicated to hobbles, the pros and cons of using them, how they should be hung, and whether or not they give a horse an unfair advantage.

The controversy eventually led to a ban on hobbles beginning January 1, 1899. The rule was dropped in 1906, until it was disputed in 1910 by a William R. Allen, who, being opposed to pacers, especially hobbled ones, drafted a rule stating that: "no hobbles shall be used in races on 2-year-olds in 1910, on 3-year-olds and under in 1911, on 4-year-olds and under in 1912, on 5-year-olds and under in 1913 and on 6-year-olds and under in 1914, after which hobbles shall be barred forever."

This rule didn't affect too many people since few raced 2 or 3-year-olds. In 1912, 4-year-olds were to be cut out, but race managers pushed for a drive against the rule, and in 1914, the "hobble restriction" was finally abolished, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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