A pony for Christmas, 1891

Hoag card front

When I was a little girl, I wished for a pony every Christmas.  This wish  seems to have been shared by children in the late nineteenth century. Here I reproduce a trade card , circulated by J. Murray Hoag of Maquoketa, Jackson County, Iowa. Hoag was both a breeder and an importer of ponies from Europe.  The card shows lucky children riding and driving ponies.  Hoag used the same illustration in an advertisement in the December 1891 issue of the Century Illustrated Magazine, promising to ship Christmas ponies, their tack and “miniature vehicles” anywhere in the United States.  He called his farm the “Headquarters for Choice Ponies.”

Hoag card back

A very cursory search suggests that J. Murray Hoag (1843-1917) was an interesting character.  He had served in New York’s 9th Heavy Artillery  Regiment during the Civil War.  This regiment was assigned to defend Washington, D. C., and as the war progressed, most of its troops fought in Virginia, including the protracted siege at Petersburg.  Whether or not Hoag stayed in Washington for the duration of the war is unknown;  by 1867, he served in the Freedman’s Bureau as a “subassistant commissioner” in Savannah.

By 1880, however, the 37-year-old Hoag was married and residing in Maquoketa, Iowa, where he worked as an insurance agent.  During the 1880s, however, the Hoags somehow got involved with breeding Shetland ponies and bought a farm north of town, where they lived until the early 1910s.

I have not yet been able to figure out when Shetland ponies, or their Welsh and Icelandic cousins, first arrived in the United States.  Some progressive and well-to-do American farmers knew about them by 1840s, when articles about Shetlands appeared in farm journals. They didn’t seem to catch on, however, perhaps because American work requiring horses needed larger animals that could cover greater distances or haul larger loads.  Shetlands did not appear at the horse show at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in 1876, from what I know so far.  I am surprised by this. Imported European dogs were exhibited at the Centennial dog show, and this would have  been a good place to introduce a new breed of equine to hundreds of thousands of prosperous visitors.

By the 1880s, however, the Shetland pony had developed its own fancy.  The American Shetland Pony Club was founded in 1888; it published its first breed registry in 1892, at which time it had 94 members, including J. Murray Hoag.  That breed registry includes a lengthy account of a visit to the Shetland Islands by an American breeder who selected and imported stock to build his own herd.  He complained that American crossed other small horses with Shetlands indiscriminately;  this suggests that the ponies had already spread widely. (Because I know  someone will ask about this, small ponies were actually not used widely in American coal mines.)

The key to success for the Shetland pony in America lay in creating demand among the children of well-to-do families.  Remember that this is a time even before bicycles, which weren’t built for children’s use until after World War I.  Riding anywhere meant using animal power, and privileged children sometimes owned carts pulled by placid goats in harness. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s sons Tad and Willie had two goats that they drove around the grounds of the White House (and which apparently were allowed indoors).  Central Park even had goat carts that parents could rent for children’s use.While I like goats as much as the next, er, goat liker, I can imagine that the possibility of a real pony made a goat in harness pale in comparison.

In 1906, Sydney Barrington Elliott, M.D., self-published The Shetland Pony: His Breeding, Care and Training. He too was a pony enthusiast and breeder, selling full-grown, trained ponies for $150 and up out of his Belle Mead Farm in Chelsea, Massachusetts.  He promoted the Shetland pony as “a never-ceasing sources of pleasure and good health” to children:  “In riding and driving the pony the child acquires self-reliance and courage, quickness of individual action and a sense of judgment. To become a good horseman he must have commend of his own temper and acquire perfect self-control.”  I’ll second that last statement.  Despite all of Elliot’s protestations as to the gentle, kindly nature of ponies, the worst fall from a horse I had as a kid was being thrown into a live electric fence by a black-and-white Shetland hellion named, appropriately, Warlock.  And now I have frequent contact with another black-and-white stinker, Toppy, who lives at my boarding barn and would just as soon bite me as look at me.

But back to J. Murray Hoag, and the happy children on his business card.   J. Murray and Carrie Hoag never had children of their own; eventually they sold the pony farm and retired to California. I have no doubt, however, that Hoag ponies did indeed find happy homes with scores of American families, where they either conveyed their young owners with a suitable sense of equine decorum or terrorized them mercilessly, as Warlock once terrorized me.

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