Author: Crystal A. Eikanger
Known as the “Peacock of the Show Ring”, the American Saddlebred is a uniquely American breed that is famous for its showy gaits. They are elegant, stylish, and famously vain, loving the attention they attract when in the ring. Known variously over time as the American Horse, the Kentucky Saddler, and the American Saddle Horse, the American Saddlebred began with the Galloway and Hobbie horses brought to North America by British colonists in the 1600’s. Through selective breeding, superior horses were developed in Rhode Island and Virginia and used throughout the colonies. Called Narragansett Pacers after Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, it is thought that Paul Revere rode one on his famous ride.
The first Thoroughbreds were imported in 1706 and crossed with Narragansett Pacer stock, but the prolific crossbreeding of Narragansetts with Thoroughbreds, combined heavy exports to 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 called the “American Horse” was recognized. 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 horses retained the gaits and stamina of the Narragansetts, but added the Thoroughbred’s size and quality and the Saddlebred type had been established.
The American Horse was further developed in Kentucky in the 19th Century by plantation owners who wanted a good looking horse that was also comfortable to ride. Originally, these horses were known as Kentucky Saddlers. Later, they were known as American Saddle Horses, and eventually the name American Saddlebred was adopted.
While these horses were originally bred for pleasure riding and farm inspections, today, they have been successful in nearly all equine disciplines under both English and Western tack. From cow horses to jumpers; from dressage to carriage horses and saddle seat competitions, they can also be seen as parade mounts, where their graceful gaits are especially well-suited.
Saddlebreds are large equines, standing 15.0 to 16.2 hands high. They come in brown, chestnut, bay, gray or black, although chestnut predominates. Other colors are acceptable, and some have been especially bred for the palomino and pinto colors.
They have a narrow refined head with large honest eyes, long upright neck, deeply sloping athletic shoulders, good deep barrel, and strong muscular hindquarters with a level croup. The tail and the neck are carried high with good natural poll flexion, although some people have the neck surgically “set” for high carriage.
They are also famous for having long, flowing tails, which are often kept tied up in the stable so they can grow to incredible lengths without snagging by being dragged on the ground. Saddlebreds are usually left unbraided for competition to show off their streaming manes and tails. However, the breed is often ridden with their tails “set” with a special piece of harness that supports the tail, rather than allowing it to flow straight down naturally. Some people find the look of a set tail aesthetically pleasing, and some horses are “nicked” with a surgical procedure which allows them to carry their tails even higher.
Saddlebreds are either 3-gaited or 5-gaited horses. This means that in addition to the familiar gaits of walk, trot, and canter, they are also naturally capable of exhibiting other gaits. One is a four-beat slow gait which is like an ambling walk and the other is the “rack”, a fast-paced, high-stepping motion off powerful springy hocks which is often on display in Saddle Seat competitions. In addition to being flashy, these gaits are also comfortable to sit, because of the flowing motion of the horse’s body. As in the Tennessee Walking Horse, foot “soring” (causing pain) to give a more active foot action is sometimes done to the Saddlebred.
They excel at what ever they are trained for. If conditioned and trained properly, with kindness and empathy, they are capable of almost any task they are asked to perform and a Saddlebred will do his best to do what is asked of him and will do it with style. They are alert, aware, intelligent, eager, gentle friendly, good-natured, and very adaptable with a people-pleasing attitude and a love of human contact. They are prized for a pleasant temperament, eagerness, strength and stamina.
Because of the increased popularity of the Saddlebred, breeders began to ask for the formation of a breed registry in the 1880’s. Charles F. Mills of Springfield, Illinois, began compiling pedigrees and formulating rules for a registry. A blurb in a Louisville, Kentucky newspaper called for a meeting on April 7, 1891 to organize the association and the American Saddle-Horse Breeders’ Association (ASHBA) was established that same day. It was the first horse breed association and registry in the United States for an American breed of horse.
In 1908, after years of discussion, the ASHBA formally acknowledged Denmark F.S. as the sole Foundation Sire of the American Saddle Horse. However, after careful review of bloodlines in 1991, Harrison Chief 1606 was also named a Foundation Sire for his contribution to the formation of the breed.
As the registry grew, the name no longer reflected the expanding functions of the Association, so on April 22, 1980, the name was changed to American Saddlebred Horse Association (ASHA). In 1985, when ASHA moved its headquarters, it became the first breed registry to call the Kentucky Horse Park home.
In 2005, by means of an internal corporate reorganization of the functions of the registry and a companion organization previously named the American Saddlebred Horse Association Foundation, the American Saddlebred Horse Association became the membership organization, with all functions of the registry in the American Saddlebred Registry which is a separate corporation.
The American Saddlebred Registry registers approximately 3,000 horses a year and their microfilm archives hold over 80 years of Saddlebred history and records. And there are now so many Saddlebred farms in Shelby County, Kentucky that they lay claim to being the “Saddle Horse Capital of the World.”
As for genetic anomalies, veterinarians do not yet know if Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Desmitis (DSLD) has its roots in genetics, overuse of affected limbs, hormone fluctuations (previously-sound broodmares may develop symptoms of DSLD around foaling time), or if it is some combination of these factors. Although the condition is probably best known in gaited breeds (American Saddlebreds, Peruvian Pasos, Peruvian crosses, Standardbreds, and National Show Horses), it has also been diagnosed in Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and Andalusians. DSLD is a progressive and rare condition and horses that develop it show increasing lameness, usually accompanied by physical changes in their pasterns as their suspensory ligaments lose their elasticity. Veterinarians caution that symptoms differ greatly per horse, but early signs might include stiffness in gait, change in attitude, and a reluctance to work.
The American Saddlebred may not be the largest breed in terms of numbers but it has often been referred to as “a jewel of a breed”. And from the battlefield at Gettysburg to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, the American Saddlebred Horse is truly “The Horse that America Made.”
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