The American Saddlebred
The American Saddlebred horse can trace its roots to the natural-gaited Galloway and Hobbie horses which came to North America from the British Isles. These hardy little horses thrived and grew in the new environment, and through selective breeding the Narragansett Pacer was developed along the eastern seaboard. The Narragansetts were crossed with Thoroughbreds imported to America in the early 1700s, and by the time of the Revolutionary War, a horse called simply "the American horse" was a recognized type.
These horses had the size and beauty of the Thoroughbred, but retained the ability to learn the easy-riding gaits. These animals were used for riding, to pull carriages and for other work. They were prized for a pleasant temperament, eagerness, strength and stamina.
There was continual crossing with Thoroughbreds, along with other breeds including Arabian and Morgan. Thus, when the first horse shows were held in Kentucky and Virginia in the early 1800s, American Saddlebreds, generally referred to as Kentucky Saddlers at that time, were frequently judged the winners because of their beauty, style and utility.
Today, the American Saddlebred is best known for being the ultimate show horse, high stepping and elegant, as he performs his five gaits – the walk, trot, canter, slow gait and rack. The slow gait and rack were developed from the easy-riding gait traits the Saddlebred had inherited. The footfalls of the slow gait and rack begin with the lateral front and hind feet starting almost together, but the hind foot contacts the ground slightly before its lateral forefoot. The slow gait is a highly-collected gait with each of the four feet striking the ground separately. It is executed slowly but with distinct precision, full of style and brilliant restraint. In the rack, each foot meets the ground at equal, separate intervals. It gives a smooth ride while the horse performs in a slightly uninhibited manner, with great animation, speed, and correct form.
1800s Saddle Horses
As the nation developed, the American Horse went west with the pioneers. In Kentucky, horsemen continued to add Thoroughbred blood to their easy-gaited horses, developing a larger, prettier, all-purpose animal and setting fast the American Saddlebred as a breed. The state's commercial breeders sold horses, known then as Kentucky Saddlers, throughout the fledgling nation.
Influential sire Gaines' Denmark. In 1839, a Thoroughbred son of imported Hedgeford named Denmark was foaled in Kentucky. Bred to a natural-gaited mare, he sired Gaines' Denmark and established the Denmark family of American Saddlebreds. More than 60 percent of the horses in the first three registry volumes of the American Saddlebred Horse Association trace to Gaines' Denmark.
In 1991, the year of the ASHA Centennial, Harrison Chief was designated a foundation sire, along with Denmark. The Chief family has a similar background, with a dominance of blood coming from the Thoroughbred Messenger, who was imported in 1788 and is considered one of the foundation sires of the Standardbred breed. Crosses of Morgan, Standardbred and Hackney also contributed to the American Saddlebred.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the Civil War demonstrated the superiority of Kentucky Saddlers on the march and on the battlefiel
d. Most high-ranking officers in both armies rode Saddler types: Lee had his Traveller, Grant was on Cincinnati, Sherman rode Lexington and Stonewall Jackson was on Little Sorrell. The first three were Saddler type with close Thoroughbred crosses; the latter was from pacing stock. Generals John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest rode exclusively Kentucky Saddlers. So important were the horses that after the surrender, General Grant allowed Confederate veterans to keep mounts they owned. In peacetime, the great demand for Saddle Horses enabled the industry to recover quickly.
An effective marketing tool of the post-war era was the increased popularity of horse shows as public entertainment. The first exhibition was recorded near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1816, but the sport had grown over the years, with the first national horse show occurring at the St. Louis Fair in 1856. The gifted Saddlers dominated competition. In 1888, the rules for showing Saddlers were amended to require that horses show at the trot in addition to the "saddle gaits," (the rack, running walk, fox trot and/or slow pace). The term "pace" in the context of a saddle gait does not refer to the speedy, flat pace of today's Standardbred race horses, but to a lateral movement such as an amble or singlefoot. Gait was the overriding criteria for development of the breed, and horses could be registered based on their ability to perform the saddle gaits.
In 1891, the American Saddlebred Horse Association was founded in Louisville, Kentucky, the first such organization for an American breed of horse. Originally known as the National Saddle Horse Breeders Association, which making the official name of the breed the Saddle Horse, its name was changed to American Saddle Horse Breeders Association in 1899 and to the American Saddlebred Horse Association in 1980, in order to describe better the horse and the all-encompassing mission of the Association. Despite the fact that during the late nineteenth century the American Saddle Horse was still very much a using animal, the rivalry at horse shows between breeders and especially state pride between Kentucky and Missouri was intense. Gifted horsemen began making a living at training show horses.
A coal black stallion who was to make a great contribution in giving even greater status to shows and to the breed burst on to the show scene at St. Lois in 1893. In an illustrious career, the charismatic Rex McDonald was beaten only three times. He was idolized by the public and visited by presidents of the United States.
Photo credits for this page (top to bottom): Gaines' Denmark from George Ford Morris charcoal drawing; Robert E. Lee and Traveller (sculpture) by Marque Blubaugh, Rex McDonald (both) by George Ford Morris.
The 20th Century
In Kentucky, an unusual colt of predominantly trotting blood, with a dash of Denmark, was foaled in 1900. Bourbon King was sold as a weanling to Allie G. Jones and became a sensation as a five gaited show stallion,winning the grand championship at the old Louisville Horse Show as a three-year-old. Living to the age of 30, Bourbon King was the great progenitor of the Chief family.
In 1917, the Kentucky State Fair offered the first $10,000 five gaited stake and claimed to be the World's Championship. There had been no bona fide world's champion since the demise of the old St. Louis Fair around the turn of the century. The American Horse Shows Association was founded the same year, with a large number of Saddlebred people deeply involved. Through the 1920s, horse shows continued to evolve, with format and rules becoming more standardized.
Shows varied across the nation, from the high society affairs of New York and Los Angeles, to the great state fairs of the south and midwest, to the county fairs which were more athletic contests than society functions. Agriculture was still the mainstay of America, and most Americans understood and appreciated the athleticism and splendor of the animals. Individual stars such as CHChief Of Longview, CHSweetheart On Parade and CH Roxie Highland caught the
World War II put a damper on recreational activity, but in the second half of the 1940s, horse show excitement revived with such stars as CH Oak Hill Chief and six-time World's Grand Champion CHWing Commander. Hundreds of horse trainers plied their trade, particularly in rural areas. Mexico, Missouri, once home to the historic black horseman Tom Bass and now headquarters for trainers John Hook, Art Simmons, and a host of others, had a legitimate claim to the title "Saddle Horse Capital of the World."
Most horse shows featured all breeds, often beginning with a jumping class, then offering Hackneys, roadsters, and parade horses between the traditional Saddlebred competitions. Spurred by singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, parade classes were hugely popular and attracted many young men to horse shows.
The Great Five-Gaited World's Grand Championship of 1933: CH Belle Le Rose with Carl Pedigo won, CH Sweetheart On Parade with Lonnie Hayden was second and CH King's Genius with Chester Caldwell placed third.
In the 1950s, new stars emerged on the scene, led by the exciting five gaited mare CH Lady Carrigan and the flamboyant fine harness star CH The Lemon Drop Kid, the only Saddlebred ever to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.
An event of note occurred in 1957 when a group of Saddlebred enthusiasts met to form the American Saddlebred Pleasure Horse Association, giving stature to English pleasure classes, which had long been a mainstay of the show circuit. This had a tremendous impact on the Saddlebred world over the years, and today the pleasure divisions rival all others in numbers.
Then in 1959, Charles and Helen Crabtree opened their stable in Simpsonville, Kentucky. Success attracted success and there are now many Saddlebred operations in Shelby County, which lays claim to being the "Saddle Horse Capital of the World."
In the 1960s, Saddlebred enthusiasts mourned the loss of the spectacular five gaited contenders CH Denmark's Daydream and CH Broadlands Captain Denmark, but cheered when their rival CH My-My racked up six World's Grand Championships, equaling CH Wing Commander's Louisville record. CH Bellisima was the name to know in three-gaited, while the fine harness division was led by CH Colonel Boyle and CH Duke Of Daylight. At mid-decade, the Saddlebred community received a setback when the Kentucky State Fair moved from its customary September schedule to August. The change sparked conflict with other shows, which were hurt when exhibitors preferred to show for World's Championships. The introduction of the breed show (events limited to only one breed of horse) put further pressure on traditional horse shows.
Despite gasoline shortages and increased competition for the recreational dollar, the Saddlebred world flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. The World's Grand Champion mares CH Tashi Ling and CH La La Success set the standard in fine harness, while CH Finisterre's Gift Of Love amassed an enviable record in three-gaited competition, and Five- Gaited World's Grand Champion CH Will Shriver embarked on a history-making breeding career. The over-the-top 1980s saw the legendary rivalry of World's Grand Champions CH Sky Watch and CH Imperator in five gaited, and the five-year reign of CH Sultan's Starina in three-gaited.
The 1990s opened with Don Stafford and Carol Greenwell's proposal to the combined conventions of ASHA and UPHA in Nashville, Tennessee, that riding programs be emphasized and supported across the nation, laying the groundwork for new generations of Saddlebred enthusiasts. Youth has since become a big part of the Saddlebred world, with impressive increases in academy equitation, ASHA Youth Clubs and expanded junior exhibitor competition, along with innovations such as the World Cup and the ASHA Youth Driving Challenge.
Outside the traditional saddle seat show arena, American Saddlebreds have been successful in most equine disciplines, from cow horses to jumpers,
dressage to carriage horses. If conditioned and trained properly, they are capable of almost any task they are asked to perform, and they do it with style.
American Saddlebreds have a long and proud history, from the battlefield at Gettysburg to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and a tremendous legacy of service inbetween. The creation of man and nature in concert, the American Saddlebred is truly "The Horse America Made."
Photo credits for this page (top to bottom): CHWing Commander by John R. Horst, Roxie Highland from painting by George Ford Morris; Belle Beach by George Ford Morris; Five-Gaited World's Grand Championship by Louisville Courier Journal; CHThe Lemon Drop Kid by Sargent; CHDenmark's Daydream by Sargent; Society Rex by Rounds; CHSky Watch by Sari Levin; CHImperator by Sargent