Civil War: The Horse Industry

Apr 26, 2011

Kentucky began before the civil war to establish its reputation as a horse breeding state. Woodburn farm in Woodford county was known then as a premiere breeding operation. The story is detailed by Maryjean Wall, a turf writer for more than three decades at the Lexington Herald newspaper. She's also the author of a book detailing the civil war's impact on the horse industry. Wall says the 1860's signified a break in the action and recovery took some time.

"So what is the connection to today. Started our reputation but nearly lost but did not grow the way we could have after the civil war but because of circumstances it resituated here early in the 20th century and began to grow after that into a major industry," said Wall.

Back in the 1860's, breeding which ties directly to racing was already occurring in Kentucky. But, a number of horses were on the move during the conflict. They were in hot demand during the war for transportation of Union and Confederate troops. Farms were raided. Horses were taken to carry on war duties. David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, says some horse were moved west into Kentucky. Then following the war the owners came to Kentucky to retrieve their horses.

"They found that they seemed to have flourished a little bit. They were better boned. They were a better flesh. And they attributed that to the nutrients that the horses were receiving by eating the grasses the lagoons here in Kentucky which are very high in calcium, phosphorus and magnesium," explained Switzer.

But despite the flourishing horses, much of the breeding and racing focus had shifted north to states like New York and New Jersey. The battle, so to speak, wasn't over. Maryjean Wall says the entire state of Kentucky was plagued by post war violence and it kept breeders away.

Still, slowly but surely the breeding and racing business gained traction in the bluegrass state David Switzer says it's rolling landscape was beneficial. He says 1960's trainer Harvey Vaneer had his own strategy.

"He would put the water at the top of the hill and the food at the bottom of the hill and turn those babies out and that's how he helped develop them and he's a horse trainer so that they would develop good strong muscle. He thought that would be a way to do it," added Switzer.

Riders and horses were out in large numbers recently at Lexington's historic Keeneland track. They were there in preparation for the spring meet.

The horse itself has undergone a transformation of sorts since the civil war. Jesse Gonzales, a native of Mexico, has been grooming horses in America since the 1960's.

"The horse. I would say, years ago there were better horses than there is right now. Solid horses. They don't last as long as they used to be," said Gonzales.