During the Middle Ages, transportation in the British Isles was an arduous task. Roads were negotiated by sturdy little horses with a lateral gait that offered a modicum of comfort. In Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, they were called, generically, "palfreys," but in fact they were named after the location of their supposed source. Most notable were the Hobbies from Ireland and the Scottish Galloways. The Vikings, who often sailed from the northwestern coasts of England and Ireland, transported them to Iceland from 874 to 930 A.D., and they remain today as the Icelandic horse, a breed noted for a very fast and pure rack (in Iceland called the "tolt").
The foundation for the American Saddlebred was laid when Galloway and Hobbie horses were brought to North America by British colonists. Through selective breeding and improved nutrition, superior animals were developed by breeders in Rhode Island and Virginia. Called Narragansett Pacers after Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay, they became the most popular mounts in the Colonies (it is thought that Paul Revere rode a Narragansett Pacer on his famous ride). A major commercial product, thousands were sold to Canada and the West Indies.
In England, roads began to improve, reducing the need for riding horses. Horse racing became a passion with British royalty, who imported Arab, Barb and Turkish stallions to cross on the native Hobby and Galloway mares, founding the Thoroughbred breed. The Byerley Turk, earliest of the Thoroughbred's three foundation sires, was imported in 1685.
The first Thoroughbreds were imported to the Colonies in 1706 and crossed with the native, mostly Narragansett Pacer, stock. The prolific use of Narragansetts with Thoroughbreds, combined with the heavy import of the breed by Spanish colonists in the Caribbean islands, led to the disappearance of pure Narragansett Pacers. Canadian Pacers began to be introduced so the bloodlines would not be lost.
By the time of the American Revolution, an all-purpose riding horse commonly called the "American Horse" was recognized as a definite type. These animals retained the easy gaits and stamina of the Narragansetts, but added the Thoroughbred's size and quality.
The American Horse was first documented in a 1776 letter to the Continental Congress from an American diplomat in France who wanted one as a gift for Marie Antoinette. The Saddlebred type had been established.