Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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The famous British Thoroughbred racehorse Eclipse as painted by George Stubbs.

The Quarter Horse Here in our Area.

The relationship between man and his noble steed is almost as old as civilization itself. Man has depended on the horse since the dawn of civilization. Every kingdom and King had his horses. And when you see the Trooping of the Colors, in London, England, the Kings Birthday, you can understand why. They are beautiful, magnificent creatures trotting down the road.

As a small child, I remembered going to Greenbrier Farms with my cousins to ride. They had such beautiful horses. I remembered Goldie, a blondish horse that was so gentle. I vaguely remember the stables, but Greenbrier was the place to go horseback riding. As I got older, I would visit friends down in Hertford County, North Carolina, and watched their quarter horses run all around their farm. They were beautiful horses and if I had had the money and a stable, I would have purchased a nice horse. It’s a beautiful breed. To hear their hoofs on a paved road is music to the ears.

When Cef and I got married in 1978 we went Horseback riding at Triple R Ranch at Bunch Walnut Road in Chesapeake, VA. She had never been on a horse and they had a gray horse just for me for me. It was an unforgettable day for her. She is not a horse person!

When I was in my 20s, I was on trip with a friend, Ken Wilson, who was from Cumberland, Maryland. We lived next door in an apartment building at the Meadow Brook Apartments off of E. Little Creek Road, here in Norfolk, Virginia. I wanted to see some old Covered Bridges, so we took off to his home in Cumberland, Maryland. The next day we went over to Bedford County, Pennsylvania, exploring those old relicts of the past. And we came across a beautiful old Covered Bridge. There in front of me was a beautiful, rustic, wooden covered bridge, and, while taking photographs, I met a young woman on horseback. She was my age and she loved my accent. In fact, she kept asking me to talk and pronounce certain words. Later she would take us home to meet mama, and mama was so thrilled to have a Southern boy in her kitchen. She had a beautiful black, slender horse named Buster and she let me ride Buster all around their farm. But the best part of the day was riding Buster through the old Covered Bridge that I had just seen. Buster was a quarter-horse and his hoofs on those old wooden planks was music to my ears. To ride a horse through an old Covered Bridge was thrilling and was the highlight of my trip.

But how many Americans know how the horse got to Virginia? In the 1750s an astonishing era occurred in horse breeding. A horse arrived in Virginia from England in 1752. His name was Janus. He was a small, quick sorrel (chestnut brown) and was blessed with big bones and powerful hindquarters. He was the grandson of Godolphin Arabian, the horse that thoroughbreds come from. Janus was a race horse and had raced successfully in England and Virginia. He excelled at quarter mile races, which was often held on main roads in small towns. His offspring were unmatched in speed too. These quarter horses excelled not only racing, but in pulling wagons and carts. They were quick, tough and a very hardy animals. They were simply durable in Colonial Virginia.

Between the years 1758-1783, wealthy Virginians became fascinated with horse racing. Janus sired at least top 10 winners along with other top stallions marking a new and quite astonishing era in horse breeding in Virginia. And we cannot forget the Anthony Walke family of Princess Anne County, now Virginia Beach, for their extravagance in horse racing and fox hunting was well known. For more information on horses of Virginia, one needs to read historian Fairfax Harrison's 1928 book, The Equine F.F.V’s which details how horses were imported from England to Virginia before the Revolutionary War. Big bucks were spent on a good thoroughbred horse. These fine horses would later evolved into the American quarter horse we know today.

When the war clouds descended upon Virginia during the American Revolutionary War, the legacy of Janus was cut short. Many of the descendants were deliberately drowned by the British soldiers. By drowning these fine creatures, one would cripple the average farmer during the war. Horse breeding in Virginia came to an end. As Fairfax Harrison once said, “The heroic age of the horse breeding in Virginia ended.”

However, in the 1800s, William Anson, a British polo player turned Texas rancher, was first to research the colonial origins of the quarter horse. The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) notes, “While it cannot be said that Janus founded the breed, it can be argued convincingly that he shaped and formed it significantly.  

But, before I end this article, one has to remember the 18th century undefeated thoroughbred race horse in England, called, Eclipse (1764-1789). Eclipse is called the progenitor of all thoroughbreds. In fact, his blood found its way to Virginia through Saltram, one of his best sons. 

Looking back to the past, I have always loved the history of the horse and I have always enjoyed a nice leisurely ride. But the best part in riding is when that horse knows you, and starts nuzzling up to you wanting that special treat, like an apple of a cube of sugar. It’s simply priceless! I loved my chestnut, brown, quarter horse. They are truly a beautiful, magnificent, breed.

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com