Historically referred to as the “Horse America Made,” the American Saddlebred has a long and proud history that 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. Discover the history of this breed.
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.
During the Civil War, their service earned them acclaim as a breed, and many of the Generals, including Robert E. Lee rode them into battle. As the war ended, horse owners began to enter their saddle horses into the show ring where they became stars because of their beauty, style and utility which was attained from the continual crossing with thoroughbreds and other breeds including Arabian and Morgan.
Today, the American Saddlebred is still the ultimate show horse. With its neck arched and ears forward, the Saddlebred continues to dominate the saddle seat disciplines with its elegant and powerful high-stepping action and is not only a spectacle of beauty and grace, but also an intense athletic competitor. In the show ring, American Saddlebreds compete in five primary divisions: Five-Gaited, Three-Gaited, Fine Harness, Park and Pleasure. Each division has its own "look" and desired traits; however, all strive to meet the model of an ideal American Saddlebred. They are judged on performance, manners, presence, quality and conformation. Discover the American Saddlebred disciplines and uses.
In addition to the animated style and brilliance in the show ring, the Saddlebred’s willing attitude has made it a versatile breed allowing it to excel in other disciplines including dressage, combined driving and jumping.
1700s: The American Horse
Thoroughbreds were imported to the Colonies in 1706 and crossed with the native Narragansett Pacer and by the American Revolution, an all-purpose riding horse called the “American Horse” was recognized. They retained the easy gaits and stamina of the Narragansett’s but added the Thoroughbred’s size and quality. The American Horse was so successful, an American diplomat in France wanted one as a gift for Marie Antoinette.
1800s: Saddle Horses
American Horses went west with the pioneers and in Kentucky, horsemen continued to add Thoroughbred blood to their easy-gaited horses, developing a larger, prettier, all-purpose animal known as Kentucky Saddlers.
During the Civil War, Kentucky Saddlers proved their superiority on the battlefield. Most high ranking officials on both sides rode Saddlers: Lee had his Traveller, Grant was on Cincinnati, Sherman rode Lexington and Stonewall Jackson was on Little Sorrell. Generals John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest rode Kentucky Saddlers exclusively. In peacetime, the great demand for Saddle Horses enabled the industry to recover quickly.
The first exhibition was recorded near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1816. The sport continued to grow and the first national horse show occurred in 1856. The Saddlers dominated the competition and rivalry at horse shows between breeders and the state pride, especially between Kentucky and Missouri, was intense. This allowed for gifted horsemen to make a living at training show horses.
In 1891 the American Saddlebred Horse Association, originally known as the National Saddle Horse Breeders Association, was founded in Louisville, Kentucky and was the first organization for an American breed of Horse.
20th Century: The American Saddlebred
In 1917 the Kentucky State Fair offered the first $10,000 five-gaited stake and claimed to be the World’s Championship. The American Horse Shows Association was founded the same year and 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 caught the public's imagination.
Excitement for horse shows was revived after World War II with stars such as CH Oak Hill Chief and six-time World's Grand Champion CH Wing Commander. Hundreds of horse trainers practiced their trade, particularly in rural areas.
In the 1950s new stars emerged on the scene, including the fine harness star CH The Lemon Drop Kid who was the only Saddlebred to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The American Saddlebred Pleasure Horse Association was formed in 1957, giving stature to the English Pleasure classes which had already been a mainstay on the show circuit. Today, the pleasure divisions rival all others in numbers.
The Saddlebred world flourished in the 1970s and 1980s and 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.
In the 1990s, focus shifted to riding programs in order to lay the groundwork for new generations of Saddlebred enthusiast. Youth has since become a large part of the Saddlebred world, with increases in Academy, ASHA Youth Clubs and new innovations such as the World Cup and ASHA Youth Driving Challenge.
Today, the American Saddlebred is a versatile horse that has found success in three day eventing, hunt seat, combined driving and in the show ring.
Discipline and Uses
The American Saddlebred is an incredibly versatile breed. Their mental acuteness and willingness to learn is key to the success of the breed in three day eventing, hunter on the flat, combined driving, and of course saddle seat. As of late, the saddlebred is becoming very popular in three day eventing where horse and rider compete in show jumping, cross country, and dressage. The three day eventing horse needs to be athletic and intelligent. The hunter horses tend to carry their heads lower and have a flatter, more relaxed movement in comparison to the saddle seat show horses. Combined driving is also a discipline where the American Saddlebred excels. Teams of horses are driven through obstacle courses from beginner levels to advanced by a single driver. Driving horses have to be fearless and powerful, the epitome of a great athlete. Every horse is an individual with talents of their own, which makes the American Saddlebred a perfect fit in many disciplines.
Perhaps the most popular and well known discipline for these horses is called saddle seat. The horses that are to become show horses in this discipline are perfect examples of the classic American Saddlebred. They are high headed, high stepping, animated animals that are incredibly exciting to watch. There are several divisions in the saddle seat discipline which allow each horse’s talent to shine through.
The pleasure division requires the horse to be mannerly and the rider to be in control at all times. Pleasure horses are required to perform three gaits in the show ring: flat walk, trot, and canter. The judge will also ask the horses to back in the line-up, which demonstrates their pleasurable mentality. Horses in this division are shown with full manes and long tails.
Three gaited horses have a distinct look brought on by their roached (shaved) manes to highlight the long and elegant neck trademarked by the American Saddlebred. These horses are highly animated and incredibly elegant in their movements. During a show the horse and rider are required to trot, canter, and come down to an animated walk. Although they do not have a mane, the tail of the horse should be full and flowing. Three gaited horses are highly judged on confirmation as well.
Five gaited horses are perhaps the most exciting to watch. Along with the three natural gaits of the horse, five gaited horses also slow gait and rack. Both of these man made gaits are a four beat gait and incredibly smooth for the rider. Horses that show in this division are energetic, powerful and elegant at the same time. They are shown with a full mane and long tail.
Fine harness horses are shown in a four-wheeled cart with a driver in control. These horses are perhaps the most animated of the show ring, and they only perform a trot and animated walk. Harness horses are especially elegant and almost float through the air. Drivers are able to wear long dress and suits, different from the tradition saddle seat habit. These horses are shown with a full mane and lush tail.