Saddlebred Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Saddlebred is often called the horse that “American made.” It was developed to be a war mount in the US Civil War, but its ancestry dates to the time when America was working to achieve independence from Britain. It is a riding-type horse, sometimes called a Kentucky Saddler because of where the modern-type Saddlebred was developed, and has one of the oldest breed registries still operating in the US.

The 20th century saw the popularity of the Saddlebred begin to grow internationally. Nearly 250,000 Saddlebreds have been registered and can be found in most countries around the world. Australia, Great Britain, Europe, and Africa all have their own registries for Saddlebreds.

The Saddlebred has also played a large role in the formation of horse shows in the United States. This breed loves some attention and it makes them strut in a way that is reminiscent of a peacock. Because of that distinctive style, Saddlebreds are also lovingly called the “peacocks of the equine world” by those who work with the breed or attend shows.

Their love for attention has made the Saddlebred a popular horse for television and movies. They compete well in combined driving and English riding. Park, Pleasure, Harness, and gaited competitions see Saddlebreds competing on a regular basis as well. 

What Is the History of the Saddlebred Horse?

Saddlebreds have their ancestry rooted in the palfreys of the British Isles. The Hobby and Galloway horses in the region, which had ambling gaits, were one of the first horses brought to the American colonies by settlers. Once in the US, these horses were refined with the Narragansett Pacer, which added some driving characteristics to the breed while helping it to refine the gait.

Colonists would then begin to import Thoroughbreds beginning in 1706. The Thoroughbreds were crossed with the Narragansett Pacer, and then the Pacers were continued to be crossed with the offspring from the palfreys. These actions would eventually lead to the extinction of the Narragansett as an independent breed.

To preserve the gains being seen in the offspring of their palfreys, the colonists began to incorporate Canadian Pacer bloodlines into their horses. By the time 1776 came around and the Revolution was taking place, a distinctive riding horse had been created. It had the quality and size of a Thoroughbred, but the gait and stamina of a Pacer.

This breed was initially called the “American.” The first documented instance of this breed can be found in a document that was sent to the Continental Congress. A diplomat wanted one of the American horses to be sent to Marie Antoinette as a gift.

Throughout the 1800s, the newly minted American horse was continually refined with additional bloodlines. Morgans, Standardbreds, and Hackneys were added, enhancing the benefits that were being provided by the Canadian Pacer. One Pacer in particular, named Tom Hall, was registered as one of the first Saddlebreds and became a foundation stallion for several lines.

Breeding efforts would eventually shift to Kentucky around the turn of the 20th century. More Thoroughbred bloodlines were added to the American to give the horses some added height. The taller horses were first treated as a separate breed, called the Kentucky Saddler. It wouldn’t be until 1980 that the two names would be combined to create the American Saddlebred.

During the US Civil War, Saddlebreds were very popular. They were brave, had excellent endurance, and could find a way to get out of a conflict if necessary. These traits made the horse highly desired by officers.

Stud books had been privately produced for the American and the Kentucky Saddler from the 1850s, but in 1891, those books were formalized into an official breed registry. Founded as the National Saddle Horse Breeders’ Association, in 1899 the name was changed to the American Saddle Horse Breeders’ Association. In 1980, it would become the American Saddlebred Horse Association.

Show History of the American Saddlebred

Saddlebreds were shown in the US as early as 1816. They made an impact on the international stage in 1856 during the St. Louis Fair. By 1917, when state fairs began holding events, the Kentucky State Fair deemed their competition to be a World Championship show. To attract global participation, a prize of $10,000 was offered.

Using a standard inflation calculator, the value of that prize would be about $210,000 in 2017 dollars.

The American Horse Shows Association also formed in 1917, which would eventually become the United States Equestrian Federation (USSF). This standardized rules and show formats. The Saddlebred would come to dominate these shows, leading to breed-specific shows being offered for them.

As in US horse racing, there is a triple crown available for Saddlebreds. The World Championship Horse Show, still held at the Kentucky State Fair, the American Royal Horse show, and the 5-gated championships at the Lexington Junior League Horse show are treated as the three primary competitions on the calendar every year. Only 6 horses in the history of the Saddlebred Triple Crown have earned that honor.

Saddlebreds have been a quiet part of the equal rights movement in the US as well. When the Civil Rights Movement was thriving in the 1960s, African-American owners and handlers began showing their horses. Women began showing Saddlebreds with regularity as the suffrage movement increased. 

Characteristics Found in the Saddlebred Horse

The Saddlebred averages a height of about 16 hands. Some stallions may be 17+ hands high, while some mares may be around 15 hands. The average Saddlebred will weigh about 1,200 pounds, but some mares may weigh less than 1,000 pounds.

Saddlebred should have a head that is shaped “well,” with a profile that is straight. The neck should be slim, arched, and with above average length. The shoulders should slope, the withers must be well-defined, and the back must be strong and level. The croup should be level, without any sloping, and the tail should be carried high.

Most Saddlebreds will have a measure of spirit to them, but their energy can usually be self-maintained. Many are gentle and social animals, especially when working with humans.

Any coat color is acceptable as a Saddlebred. Black, brown, chestnut, and bay are the most common coat colors that are seen within this breed. Roan, gray, and palomino coats are uncommon, but seen with regularity. Since 1882, pinto patterning has been accepted in the Saddlebred breed as well. Older Saddlebreds that were spotted were only listed as their base coat color, so the extensiveness of pinto patterning is not really known.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that spotted, patterned horses were noted separately from the base coat color.

There is also the gait of the horse to consider when looking at a Saddlebred. They have the canter, trot, and walk like many other horses, but their canter has some variations. Two four-beat ambling gaits, referred to as the “slow gait” and the “rack” are also possible. In shows, Saddlebreds compete in three-gait and 5-gait classes based on how they are able to perform.

Health Issues with the Saddlebred Horse

Saddlebreds have an unusually high risk of suffering from lordosis, which is usually called “swayback.” It comes from a recessive mode of inheritance, but how it forms is not yet known. Swayback is considered a conformation fault and is penalized if the horse is shown. 

Because of the positioning that is required of a Saddlebred during show presentations, some horses can develop upper respiratory impairments. Leg and hoof injuries are relatively common with the movement required of the horse and the shoeing that helps to achieve results. This can result in ongoing lameness. 

What Is the Future of the Saddlebred?

Saddlebreds are exhibited in multiple divisions today, from pleasure classes to driving classes and everything in-between. Different competitions may require different looks for the horse, with specific rules in place for conduct and appearance, but it doesn’t matter to the horse. Saddlebreds look to dominate in everything they do.

Outside of the breed-specific shows, Saddlebreds still compete at the highest levels in endurance events, combined driving, show jumping, and dressage. They have been making an impact in competitive trail riding and perform consistently in eventing. Cutting and roping is a talent that some Saddlebreds have developed over the 20th century as well.

It is not unusual for a Saddlebred to be confused for a Thoroughbred because of their similarities. Unlike a Thoroughbred, however, the Saddlebred is an excellent family horse. Recreational riding and ranch work help to keep them active if they aren’t entered in competitive events.

Numerous celebrities have become involved with Saddlebreds as well, appearing in numerous films and television shows over the years. William Shatner is an avid Saddlebred breeder and he rode one of his own horses, named Great Belles of Fire, in the movie Star Trek: Generations. Clark Gable, Joe Louis, and Will Rogers have been directly connected to this breed over the years as well.

The Saddlebred is a popular breed that will continued to thrive around the world. It may have a competitive spirit, but it also loves human companionship, and that makes it an excellent option for a first-time owner.