by Rebecca Cassells

The Cleveland Bay as a breed has a long and incredible history, but with so few remaining in the world today, their future is less certain.

Most commonly associated with the British Royal family, the Cleveland Bay is a versatile breed highly revered around the globe for centuries. Today the breed swings between ‘critically endangered’ and ‘technically extinct’. Using selective breeding programs poses as many challenges as it does instil hope for the longevity of the breed.

The UK Rare Breeds Trust and Racing Levy Board pay breeders in the UK a premium for breeding purebreds each year, however, this incentive alone is not the answer to the breed’s plight. In 2013 less than 30 purebred horses were registered worldwide and only one of which was in Australia.

Originating in the 17th century, the Cleveland Bay is England’s oldest breed. The ancestors of the Cleveland Bay, known as the ‘Chapman Horses’, were bred by northeast English churches to carry trade goods between abbeys and monasteries.

These packhorses were crossed with the Andalusian and Barb and by selective breeding, the ‘agricultural type’ Cleveland Bay was born, heavier and more draft-like than the breed of today. As roads improved and speed became more important in the late 18th century, Thoroughbred and Arabian lines were introduced. The resulting type was lighter in frame and made a flashy coach horse.

By the 19th century Cleveland Bays had been exported around the globe to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, India, Russia and the European continent.

The Coaching era was short-lived and interest in the Cleveland Bay waned due to increased mechanisation. By the early 1900s the breed was in decline, worsened by the First World War. Many Cleveland Bays were lost on the battlefields, having adapted well to the militant role of artillery horses in the British Army.

The Great Depression of the early 1930s reduced exports by almost a third. The decline continued, accelerating after the Second World War. By 1962 only four purebred stallions were present in the United Kingdom and not many more mares with which to rebuild the breed.

With royal intervention from Queen Elizabeth II, breeding did continue and in the late 1960s and 1970s, interest in the breed increased again. Part-bred Cleveland Bays were in demand for use as riding horses, especially as hunters and jumpers, across all riding levels up to Olympic.

More recently however, the global financial crisis affected the UK significantly and being the ‘motherland’ of the Cleveland Bay, breeding around the world has again been impacted.

Today, the Cleveland Bay is rarer than the Giant Panda. Both the United Kingdom-based Rare Breeds Survival Trust and the United States-based American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, consider the population to be at critical limits for extinction. In 2012, the breed declined to less than 400 horses. At present, there are only around 450 mares in the world and of these, numerous are past a breeding age.

The development of computer software programs, such as Single Population Analysis and Records Keeping System (SPARKS) developed for the conservation of zoo animals, has enabled detailed analysis to help effectively manage the population and avoid inbreeding.

The software calculates ‘Mean Kinships’ for every known purebred Cleveland Bay in the world population. This is a measure of how closely related an individual is to every other living Cleveland Bay. An individual SPARKS analysis ‘information sheet’ is produced for every mare annually, listing prospective sires in order of suitability. In Australia, there are very few breeding options and there is a high reliance on importing semen from overseas for artificial insemination.

Each datasheet also assigns the mare to a ‘Mean Kinship Band’. Mare owners are encouraged to use a stallion from either the same or an adjacent Kinship Band, ideally producing progeny of Kinship Coefficient lower than the average for the whole population at present. For example, a band F mare would be best put to a stallion from bands E to G. Of the remaining ‘bands’ only three are generally considered viable. The program has evidently been successful given that over the period of the scheme, Mean Inbreeding has been reduced, as has the maximum level of inbreeding in any one animal.


In 1997 a new Grading Register system was introduced for mares whose pedigrees did not carry enough Cleveland crosses for the Stud Book but who could contribute to a natural progression by the process of ‘grading up’. Quality ‘foundation’ mares, part- bred Cleveland Bays (ideally bay in colour to avoid throwback later), are bred with purebred sires, as is their female progeny and so forth. Finally, the result should be an 87.5% mare, mated to a purebred stallion to produce a horse that is at least 97% Cleveland Bay, and is recognised as a purebred.

An average horse generation is eight years and the grading-up breeding program takes four generations or upwards of 25 years, before it is of benefit to the breed.
Each cross, in order to move to the next stage and be included in the registry, must be inspected at three years old. If not considered of good enough quality, a horse can be refused registration. This can occur at any stage of the grading-up process.

For many who support the Grading Register introduction, the emphasis is on careful selection of non-Cleveland Bays, to introduce good qualities that enhance the desirable traits of the Cleveland Bay, as well as increase the population in the long term. A second viewpoint is that any progeny should be allowed to ‘grade-up’ and be accepted into the studbook according to the percentage of its breed.

Some breeders don’t agree with the Grading Register at all and would prefer to focus on maintaining the purity of the breed. Genes are diluted or lost in the normal process of breeding and in rare breeds with small populations, this is particularly so and the genetic base of the breed becomes smaller.

There is hope for the Cleveland Bay with numerous other species having come back from far smaller populations. Certainly the breed has survived population fluctuations for more than a century. Anecdotally, demand for the breed has been slowly increasing again around the world with increased awareness and publicity. Part-bred Cleveland Bay ‘sport horses’ are currently demonstrating the ability of the breed in high-level competition, particularly in dressage and show jumping.

Members of the British Royal family have been patrons of Cleveland Bays throughout their history. King George V bred them in the 1920s and when numbers reached an all time low following the two world wars, his granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II stepped in at the breed’s darkest hour to help replenish the breed population. Her Majesty purchased a pure Cleveland Bay colt named Mulgrave Supreme who was to be exported in 1961 and stood the horse at public stud for pure and part breed mares. The breed suddenly found a new popularity with the English public that saw stallion numbers rise over the following 15 years to 36 purebred stallions in the UK.
Today, the Queen Remains the patron of the breed and Cleveland Bays are still used to pull carriages in royal processions today, most recently, Prince William and Kate’s wedding.

Cleveland Bays are so named due to their consistent colour and early beginnings in Cleveland, Yorkshire, England. All registered animals must be bay with black points and no white markings other than a small star. Roaning in the coat can occur, but is not acceptable for studbook registration.

to the Cleveland Bay Horse Society of Australasia and Ferndale Springs Cleveland Bay Stud for their assistance in compiling this article.
For more information about Cleveland Bays visit
WA Horse Council


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