It is well established, but oft overlooked, fact that almost all thoroughbred horses on the British Islands trace their ancestry to a single stallion, called Darley Arabian, brought to Britain by one Thomas Darley in 1704. We know that there was one famous horse prior to that date, Byerley Turk, brought to Britain in 1686 (his influence on the modern horses is much more modest, but at least we know he existed).

The descendants of those horses are very well accounted for in breed books; even more so, best horses, including the aforementioned breed progenitors, were painted on canvas, so we know exactly what they looked like. This is not at all surprising, considering how popular horse racing was and still is.

It is also highly unlikely that people were not at all interested in breeding fast horses prior to 1686/1704 - after all, back then the stakes on "bet to win" could literally be one's life in battle.

So, the question is, what do we know about the thoroughbred development history prior to 1686 (in Britain or elsewhere; Britain just happens to be the best in keeping its history in orderly fashion)?

Further clarifications

It is, of course, trivial fact that the term "thoroughbred" was only invented in the beginning of 18th century. My question begs to establish how the horse breeding was organized prior to the beginning of "thoroughbred" era (the term may be British, but the concept is definitely not).

  1. People who started the "thoroughbred" lineages definitely knew the value of good racing horse. They went through great expenses to bring those horses from the Middle East, breed them as extensively as they could and even bothered to commission portraits of those horses (so it was not an idle fancy by any measure).

  2. We know, that prior to invention of the term "thoroughbred", racing horses went by the name "palfrey". Good palfreys were as valuable as any later day thoroughbred and were used for the same exact purpose (horse back riding).

So, does anybody has any leads on studbooks or individual portraits of horses from the pre-thoroughbred time. I, personally, can not imagine that nobody bothered to keep a lineage or portrait of one of those super-expensive palfreys or destriers (such lineage would be handy for marketing purposes back then, if nothing else; a price of a single "noble" horse, as far as we know, was comparable to a price of a village, with land, peasants and all).

1 Answer 1


I think you're putting the cart before the horse! grin According to Wikipedia,

All modern Thoroughbreds trace back to three stallions imported into England from the Middle East in the late 17th and early 18th centuries: the Byerley Turk (1680s), the Darley Arabian (1704), and the Godolphin Arabian (1729).[17][18] Other stallions of oriental breeding were less influential, but still made noteworthy contributions to the breed. These included the Alcock's Arabian,[19] D'Arcy's White Turk, Leedes Arabian, and Curwen's Bay Barb.[20][21][notes 1] Another was the Brownlow Turk, who, among other attributes, is thought to be largely responsible for the gray coat color in Thoroughbreds.[19] In all, about 160 stallions of Oriental breeding have been traced in the historical record as contributing to the creation of the Thoroughbred. The addition of horses of Eastern bloodlines, whether Arabian, Barb, or Turk, to the native English mares[22] ultimately led to the creation of the General Stud Book (GSB) in 1791 and the practice of official registration of horses.[12]

So, before these, there was no such thing as a "thoroughbred" as we use the term today - at least, not in the UK. Can't speak for other countries, but think the English thoroughbred was the "gold standard" for others.


  • This is not an answer.
    – oakad
    Feb 20, 2015 at 15:43
  • @oakad well you seemed to be asking about "thoroughbred" horse breeding before the idea was invented/conceived.
    – TheHonRose
    Feb 20, 2015 at 19:45
  • 1
    "Thoroughbred" is merely the label. The idea was conceived well before - on the continent the stud books go back to 1640's, but nothing prior to that.
    – oakad
    Feb 24, 2015 at 9:57

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