One of the most dazzling horses in the world is the American Saddlebred. The iconic imagery of the American Saddlebred is its high head carriage, high knee action and high tail carriage followed by a flowing stream of hair. This horse is true product of the United States; it is the first breed established in that country. Members of this breed seem to have a proud personality, which is especially evident in the show ring. It is somewhat understandable because the American Saddlebred has excelled for the last two centuries.
The Saddlebred can trace its roots to the Galloway horse and the Hobby horses of Great Britain. Both of these breeds were gaited. Several years of cross-breeding led to a horse breed named the Narraganset Pacer.
Now extinct, in the 1700’s the Narragansett Pacer was crossed with Thoroughbreds to become the “American Horse”. This horse was extremely popular in the Colonies as a riding and driving horse. It was favored for its resilience and hardy character. It was of a larger size like the Thoroughbred yet it retained the “easy” riding gaits of the Narragansett horse.
As time went on, it became more common to cross the “American Horse” with Thoroughbred, Arabian and Morgan blood. This resulted in a breed called “Kentucky Saddler” which is now known as the American Saddlebred.
These horses were shown at many of the first horse shows in the early years of the United States which took place mostly in Kentucky and Virginia. These horses did extremely well and their popularity grew. During the Civil War, these horses were used by Calvary. The pride and joy of General Ulysses S. Grant (later President Grant) was his Saddlebred, “Cincinnati.”
Once the Civil War came to a close, breeders of the American Saddlebred decided to form an association. In 1891, the American Saddlebred Horse Association was formed in Louisville, Kentucky. Since then, the association has been actively involved in the promotion and preservation of breed standard and bloodlines as well as in promoting the showing and ownership of the breed.
The year 1991 marked the centennial year of the formation of the American Saddlebred Horse Association. It was at this time that a horse named Harrison Chief was designated a foundation sire. A horse named Denmark, whose bloodline was extremely popular, and found in many of the early pedigrees, was also identified as a foundation sire.
Many Saddlebred horses have enjoyed great fame throughout the years. One such horse was Rex McDonald, who stormed the show circuit in 1893. He was so well loved by the public that he even received presidential visits! Another very popular horse of the 1950’s was named Lemon Drop Kid. He was such an athlete and did so well in the show ring that he was the only
American Saddlebred horse to ever appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The American Saddlebred is a pleasure to watch. It has five gaits, all of which are performed with the utmost precision and athleticism. In addition to the standard walk, trot and canter, the breed has two additional gaits called the slow gait and the rack.
In the slow gait, the horse moves on the diagonal, with its opposing front and hind foot leaving the ground at the same time. It differs from the trot in that the hind foot hits the ground ahead of the front foot. This means that all four feet are hitting the ground individually. Extreme collection is required for this gait. A high knee action makes this gait crisp and clean. The rack is similar to the slow gait in that all four feet are hitting the ground separately, but there is much less collection involved and a greater amount of animation. It is a gait that exhibits a great amount of speed and covers more ground than the slow gait.
An American Saddlebred should present a beautiful over-all picture in body type and conformation. They should look alert, have a high head carriage that is well flexed at the poll, ear that are pricked forward and an attractively arched neck. Their head should be pretty with nice large eyes. Their withers should be well defined with sloping shoulders and a back that is level and strong. They should have straight legs with good bones and nicely angled pasterns. They should naturally carry themselves in a collected manner.
American Saddlebreds Today
The showing of Saddlebreds continues to be extremely popular. There are many high stakes events annually. There is also great attention paid to developing young riders so as to continue this breed’s show ring tradition.
Saddlebreds excel in the classes offered at these shows which include 5 gaited classes, 3 gaited classes, fine harness classes, park classes and pleasure classes (show and country). They are also finding a place in other disciplines such as dressage, reining, eventing, competitive trail riding, endurance and show jumping.
One difficulty the breed does encounter is the human opposition to certain training, shoeing and tail “fixing” methods which are used to enhance the horse’s overall picture in the show ring. Many avid Saddlebred lovers, as well as those who show them, defend these practices and take great care and caution to avoid harming the horse.