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Lisa Unleashed: Hack — A ‘New’ Old Word that Comes from Horses

Published: June 4, 2017

Lisa Peterson

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately about new ways to hack into your biology or your sleep patterns to improve your health. The authors had used the words like “biohack” or “lifehack” as an allegory to hacking into your body as if it was a computer network. You see the term all over the internet, “10 parenting hacks to get your children to like you” or “New 5-minute hacks for smoother skin.” The word hack can be a noun or a verb or even an adjective. It has been used in journalism, computer science, and the medical professions. But no matter its current or obsolete meanings, its origins all point back to the noble horse in transportation in one way or another.

The Hackney Coach

The word “hack” is actually a shortened version of the word hackney. This English word hackney is thought to come from the French word haquenee or “horse for hire” to describe a new type of transportation in London around 1625. These four-wheeled carriages for six passengers pulled by two horses were called hackney coaches. By 1690, the term hackney coach was recorded in public usage in the English language.

These coaches were not those owned by wealthy families, but rather their used coaches that were worn-out and sold to hackney operators. These dirty horse-drawn vehicles were used only for hire by the public. Charles Dickens even wrote about their dinginess and tired horses in his early sketch publishings. Primarily, they took passengers from inn to inn around London.

Eventually, the hackney coaches made their way to the United States, specifically New York City. And as the mode of transportation went from horses for hire to taxicabs for hire at the turn of the 20th Century, the term hack was transferred from coach drivers to taxi drivers. Hacks got their hack license and stood at hack stands all around the city, first by horse, then by taxi. This term “hack” used to describe someone for hire for a service, also migrated to the journalism profession when mediocre writers with little or no talent would churn out bad copy for money. And then there is the political hack, who surrenders all integrity, in exchange for money, to perform a task. The word hack can also be a bad cough or a way to chop down trees. I can’t say I see the relation to horses here, but either definition represents a lowering of health or nature, which could be seen as a similar experience of the hackney coach horse.

The Hackney Breed

By the late 19th Century, travel around England by road was exclusively done by horseback and horse-drawn carriages. Earlier, most people used large draft horses for transportation, but when the Thoroughbred breed was imported into Great Britain in the late 1700s, they were bred to native breeds to create swifter, finer-boned horses that ruled the road. Most notably, Norfolk Trotters were bred to grandsons of the original Thoroughbred sires to produce a new breed of horse called the Hackney.

There is some debate about whether the breed was named after a section of London called Hackney or as a nod to the horses that pulled the original hackney coaches. Regardless, this lovely horse became the preeminent carriage horse in England. He stands between 15 to 16 hands tall, of black, brown, bay, or sometimes chestnut color with the most economical gait with long reaching strides and fluid shoulder action to trot effortlessly for miles. In fact, one Hackney famously trotted 17 miles in less than an hour.
During the “Golden Age of Driving” in the 1880s, roads were better maintained and the new Hackney breed became the horse of choice. The English Stud Book was founded in 1883. The first Hackney was exported to the United States in 1878 and the American Hackney Horse Society was founded in 1891. During this time, it’s reported that “boatloads upon boatloads” of these horses dubbed the “Rolls Royce of carriage driving” were imported to America. Their popularity exploded. And then the automobile was invented.

As the Hackney’s driving role decreased, it became more of a pleasure and show horse. Today, his high-stepping action is the hallmark of the breed. His front-end prowess with a powerful hindquarters pull roadsters in competition, jumps in the hunter/jumper divisions, and excels at dressage and eventing. Unfortunately, they are listed as a “critical” breed by The Livestock Conservancy among heritage breeds at risk of extinction. There are only 3,000 worldwide and less than 200 in North America.

I also practice a derivative of the word hack. The fifth definition from Merriam-Webster defines hack as: to ride or drive at an ordinary pace versus racing or hunting. All horse people know the term, “I’m just going to hack my horse today,” meaning no jumping or extended fast work. Or if you just want to go out on the trails, you could rent a hack, meaning, “to ride an ordinary horse.” In daily life with frightening computer hacks, failed life hacks, and stress where you just can’t hack it anymore, I highly recommend finding a hack to go spend some time with. Bring a carrot or two, his cost for hire.

Lisa Peterson writes about horses, hounds and history at; contact her at

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