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The American Saddlebred - Peacock of the Show Ring

By Rhonda Hart Poe

Nowhere does the label "made in America" fit more perfectly. America's own breed exemplifies both her heritage and her indomitable Spirit.

The history of the American Saddlebred reads like that of its namesake nation. It was born on foreign soils, immigrated to these shores, melted into the culture, then spread across the colonies, through the Deep South and westward over seemingly endless mountains and valleys towards Manifest Destiny.

British colonists sailing to the New World brought select riding horses. Among these were Scottish Galloways, Irish Hobby horses and other naturally smooth-gaited horses - collectively referred to as "palfreys" - the preferred riding mounts there through the 17th century.

These hardy, little, easy-gaited imports formed the basis of the legendary Narraganset Pacer, named for the Narraganset Bay of Rhode Island, the aristocratic center of colonial horse breeding. Averaging only 14.1 hands, and not particularly handsome, the Narragansets were popular for their gaits, toughness, even temperaments and sure-footedness. They became the most sought after horses in the colonies, until good roads shifted demand to larger, swifter carriage horses. Exportation and outcrossing further contributed to their disappearance. Huge numbers were exported to the Caribbean and Canada. Beginning in 1706 English Thoroughbreds were imported to the colonies and the Narragansets were crossed to improve their size and quality.

The result was a new type of horse. Already established by the American Revolution this "American Horse" was good sized, well built and naturally gaited. In a letter to the Continental Congress in 1776, an American diplomat in France requested one as a gift for Marie Antoinette. American diplomat in France requested one as a gift for Marie Antoinette.

Cherished for their smooth gaits and endurance, American Horses were favored war mounts throughout the early struggles of the fledgling United States. In the Revolutionary War, settlers rode to illustrious victory over British troops at the battle of King's Mountain, South Carolina. In the War of 1812, Kentucky cavalry fought British and Indian forces from Michigan to Illinois. By the Mexican American War (1846) the horses that carried American volunteers from Kentucky and Missouri to war in Mexico were known as American Saddlebreds. And in the Civil War (1861-1865), countless cavalrymen, from North and South, rode into battle astride American Saddlers, including Generals Lee, Grant, Sherman and Jackson. Grant's surrender terms allowed the Confederates to keep their horses. Two weeks later, six white American Saddlers pulled President Lincoln's funeral carriage.

Kentucky and Missouri were hotbeds of serious breeding, competing to produce the best horses. Two families of horses, the Denmarks and the Chiefs, dominated the bloodlines. The Denmarks, trace to GAINES' DENMARK, by DENMARK - who, foaled in 1839, was destined to become the foundation sire of the breed. The Chiefs, through HARRISON CHIEF, go back to the Thoroughbred, MESSENGER, also the foundation sire of the Standardbred. Breeders formed the National Saddle Horse Breeders Association on April 7, 1891- the first horse breed association in the nation. (In 1899 the name was changed to the American Saddle-Horse Breeders Association and to the American Saddlebred Horse Association in 1980.)

As early as the 1810's horse shows drew terrific interest as public entertainment. The first major national show took place in 1856 in St. Louis, the largest city in the "west". Horses were first required to be shown at the trot - in addition to saddle gaits - in 1888. State rivalries between Missouri and Kentucky were intense, culminating in the late 1880's, between two mares, MISS REX of Missouri, and LOU CHIEF, of Kentucky. In 1893, the black stallion, REX MCDONALD, took the St. Louis show circuit by storm. He became a national hero and was bested in the ring only three times in his career, once by MISS REX.

Many stars of the show ring garnered public adoration. One bonafide phenomenon was the Five-Gaited Champ, BOURBON KING, foaled in 1900. He lived to the age of 30 and is still renowned as the preeminent sire of the Chief line. Another was trainer, Tom Bass, one of the most famous horsemen in U.S. history. Born a slave in Missouri, his talents dissolved racial barriers, winning him international acclaim and respect. He socialized with President Theodore Roosevelt, Will Rogers, P.T. Barnum and others of high society.

Five-Gaited competitions were exhilarating. CH BELLE LE ROSE, SWEETHEART ON PARADE, and CH KING'S GENIUS finished in that order in a famous Championship match at the Kentucky State Fair in 1933. In 1948, WING COMMANDER won his first Five-Gaited World Grand Championship, a title he defended for the five years. CH MY-MY held the title for six years, from 1963 through 1968. In the 1980's, CHIMPERATOR claimed the title four times as he battled CH SKYWATCH, winner of eleven different WGC titles, in perhaps the most famous rivalry in horse show history.

Other American Saddlebred celebrities include the flashy CH THE LEMON DROP KID who ruled Fine Harness ring throughout the 1950's, winning four World's Grand Champion titles in a row by 1959 and becoming the only horse to make the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. The 1990's saw a multitude of American Saddlebreds dominating a variety of events, from ARTISITIC REFLECTION'S win in advanced singles driving at the USET Festival of Champions to WING TEMPO'S unprecedented winning streak - and 20,000 miles - in NATRC competitive trail riding. American Saddlebreds have also found their way to the silver screen in 'Gone with the Wind', as John Wayne's trusty 'Beau' in 'True Grit', and with William Shatner's use of his own I PREFER MONTANA in a Star Trek movie, as well as as his Rose Parade Grand Marshall mount. But then, American Saddlebreds have long been parade favorites.

Today's American Saddlebred retains the classic good looks, substance, strength, versatility - and gait - that made his forebears the horse of a nation. He is elegant with upright carriage, a high-set, "swan" neck (accentuated by a long flowing mane on Five-Gaited horses), good bone, strong, clean legs set squarely beneath him, a deep, sloping shoulder, sturdy, fairly level back and croup crowned by a high-set, long flowing tail. In some, much of the whites of the eye, or sclera, shows, making them look wild-eyed. But what catches the observer's eye is his presence - what the old-timers called "dash".

...what catches the observer's eye is his presence - what the old-timers called "dash".

Chestnuts are common, but American Saddlebreds come in all colors and patterns, except Appaloosa. Palominos and pintos are popular. All are typically "thin skinned" with fine hair. Height averages from 15 to 16.2 hands, weight around 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. Smooth, four-beat saddle gaits were critical in the development of the breed and early horses had to gait for registration. There are now two saddle gaits, both of which are evenly timed, four-beat gaits. The slow gait, while intensely collected, can hit speeds of 16 m.p.h., and the rack, essentially the same gait, is a speed demon's dream, often topping 25 m.p.h. However, correct form and execution are not to be sacrificed for speed. High action in the knees and hocks is a signature of the American Saddlebred show horse.

There are several bloodlines which produce five gaited horses, i.e. ANACACHO SHAMROCK, ANACACHO DENMARK (both sons of Edna May's King) and STONEWALL KING, but the three gaited and fine harness horses (which don't rack) come primarily from "GENIUS BOURBON KING," cites breed historian and editor of the American Saddlebred magazine, Lynn Weatherman.

For more information contact the American Saddlebred Horse Association, 4093 Iron Works Parkway, Lexington, KY 40511. Phone (859) 259-2742 or visit these websites:,, or