In 2016, the first pair of Cleveland Bays – Isabella and Lancer – arrived, thanks in part to gifts from Cindy Kiser, and Claudette and Steve Tallon. Soon, a few more purebred Cleveland Bays took up residence at Coach and Livestock stables, including Willow, Clarence and Buckshot.
Caring for a small herd of critically endangered horses was merely a taste of the hard work that lay ahead, because Bennett knew that if Coach and Livestock was to build a breeding program, the fundamental element was, of course, reproduction. And that’s where husbandry would strain patience and test the limits of financial commitment.
Ensuring the pregnancy of a Cleveland Bay mare requires much more than giving horses the space they need to let their natural urges run their course. In years past, with more common breeds, it was much easier, according to Bennett.
But because Cleveland Bays have such a small gene pool, breeding requires ample deliberation and cross-checking to make sure that potential mates are genetically distant enough. This demands advanced technology and close veterinary intervention — importation of semen, for instance, and embryo transfer to surrogate mares.
The Cleveland Bay Horse Society in the United Kingdom has found success using a breeding scheme known as SPARKS, or Single Population Animal Records Keeping System, according to Andy Dell, who sits on the organization’s breed committee. This method employs a worldwide genetic database to find and connect the best matches and avoid pairings that are too closely related. Such a meticulous effort, said Dell, has already “aided breeders to make sensible and robust breeding choices to stem the loss of genetic diversity within the breed.”
Dell said that by moving forward so thoughtfully, Colonial Williamsburg can “become a role model for breeders in North America.”
Still, all the time and expertise in the world doesn’t guarantee successful outcomes. Throughout 2017, Coach and Livestock staff confirmed the early stages of pregnancy in Cleveland Bay mares several times, but the pregnancies could not be brought to term.
Bennett and his staff persisted, using techniques to aid the goal of birthing Cleveland Bay foals onsite, such as the use of artificial lighting to simulate the seasonal rhythms that bring mares into heat. In 2018, mares pregnant with purebred Cleveland Bay foals passed important benchmarks under close veterinary care. And in late spring of this year, the proverbial stork visited Colonial Williamsburg’s stables, marking the successful commencement of the Cleveland Bay breeding program.
Bennett’s vision will play out over a decades-long horizon, and it will require the same donor-supported commitment that already sustains Colonial Williamsburg’s Rare Breeds program.
In 20 years, Bennett imagines most, if not all, the horses at Colonial Williamsburg will be Cleveland Bays. That will be a triumph for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, for the endangered breed and for the living history that enlightens us in ways that words never can.
“You and I speak, dress and act differently than we did in colonial times,” Bennett said. “These horses have stayed the same. They are our cultural heritage, straight from the 18th century.”
Ben Swenson is a freelance writer living in Williamsburg, Virginia.