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Horses have deep history in Williamson County

Carole Robinson

Horses outnumbered people in Williamson County nearly 3 to 2 in 1860.

After the Revolutionary War, pioneers came to Tennessee on horseback and discovered a land of rich, fertile soil and mild climate ideal for raising crops and livestock. The horse quickly became an integral part of the state’s culture, society and economy. While its use in transportation and farming has gone by way of the machine, the equine still makes a sizable contribution to the culture and economy. According to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, in 1999 Tennessee’s horse population ranked third in the nation and the horse industry, which includes such sectors as feed, horse shoes, tack, clothes, medical services, construction – barns, fences, corrals – tractors, trailers, trucks and more had an estimated value of $515 million.

In 1860 the census reported 24,000 people living in Williamson County and 35,000 horses. Most of those horses were used in agriculture in the county’s pre-Civil War agrarian economy with more native bluegrass than Kentucky and a superb breeding ground for fi ne horses.

“God made the soil rich here – it will grow anything from crops to livestock,” said Dr. Monty McInturff, veterinarian and partner at Tennessee Equine Hospital. “After the Revolutionary War, people became wealthy off the land and had the money and time to invest in horses.”

From 1810 to 1860, horses owned and bred in Tennessee became renowned for their fi ne bloodlines and performance in thoroughbred and harness racing and steeplechase cementing a position of honor in horse history.

Since the early arrivals were primarily used for working the land and transportation, they were strong, courageous, full of stamina and were intelligent. Such qualities, “when directed by skill, out of which were able to fashion the grandest horses upon the continent,” said author J.B. Killebrew in his book “Resources of Tennessee.” “As evidence of this, Tennessee horses have been sought for by every state in the union.”

Williamson County was ranked among the counties responsible for developing those grand horses. Prior to the war, “There were more race winners from Tennessee than from Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland,” said McInturff.

Until the Civil War, because of the quality of bloodlines, Tennessee was the center of thoroughbred racing and Williamson County was the hub.

When President Andrew Jackson was a circuit court judge from 1802-1806, after hearing cases in the log cabin courthouse on the square in Franklin, he often match-raced horses down Main Street or atthe Bald Knob race track in Leiper’s Fork – one of three race tracks between Nashville and Columbia. Another track was located off Franklin Road on what is now Mack Hatcher and the new Battle Ground Academy.

One horse Jackson could never beat was Bonnie Scotland, a thoroughbred born and raised on West Harpeth Road.

Horses played a large role in the Civil War. It is estimated about 2 million horses died during the war – that’s three horses for every man killed.

Tennessee contributed most of the cavalry horses, which put a great drain on local stock, but after the war, the breeding knowledge remained strong, bloodlines pure and standards high, which, according to Killebrew, led to an improved horse.

“Because so many of the horses in Williamson County were sent to fi ght in the war, the horse population almost died out. It took almost 25 years for it to rebound,” said McInturff.

During that rebound period, the Tennessee legislature banned horse racing in 1868 and the rein of Tennessee as the capital of the horse racing world ended. When Churchill Downs opened in 1874, Kentucky took over, but the quality breeding stock for thoroughbreds and other breeds continued to be in Tennessee.

Today, high-quality blood lines in the thoroughbred, standardbred, American Saddler and, although not developed as a breed until 1935, the Tennessee Walking Horse, can trace their bloodlines back to Tennessee and specifi cally, the Middle Tennessee area.

Many of the entries in the Kentucky Derby May 4 will have Tennessee roots and numerous jumpers in next week’s Iroquois Steeplechase, will also sport deep Tennessee roots.

In 1941, Harlinsdale became the first Tennessee Walking Horse breeding farm and home to Midnight Sun, the first winner of the Celebration.

Other Williamson County equine and breeder fi rsts include Star Pointer, who in 1897 became the fi rst trotter to break two minutes. He was born in Thompson’s Station in 1890. A horse named Little Brown Jug, born in Spring Hill in the 1870s, was so impressive, a race for three-year old pacing standardbreds, which is part of the Triple Crown for pacers, was named for him.

When Williamson County resident Charles Dickens imported 200 Egyptian Arabian horses to his farm, it was the introduction of a whole new equine breed in the United States.

The equine industry in Williamson County, one of the most equine-populated counties in the state, adds in excess of $30 million to the local economy with an equine-based activity somewhere in the county at least 30 weekends a year.

From miniature horses like Bonnie and Bucky to the giant percherons, the horse is a great friend and a mighty performer.

“Horses are for pleasure; they’re to enjoy,” McInturff said. “Some people never get to own a boat. Some people never get to own a horse, but they always dream of it.”

Posted on: 5/2/2013


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