Tennessee Walking Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Tennessee Walking Horse is a true American success story. In 2000, this breed was named the official state horse in Tennessee. In Kentucky, it is the third most common breed that is found, coming in behind the Thoroughbred and the American Quarter Horse. The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ Association sees new annual registrations of up to 15,000 foals.

In total, more than 500,000 horses have been registered with the breeders’ association over its lifetime. This makes it one of the most populous horses in the United States. 

The Tennessee Walking Horse can be found throughout the United States and it has been exported to Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa as well. It is most commonly found in the states that helped to develop the breed, Tennessee and Kentucky, then any other place in the world today.

Betty Sain helped to grow global awareness of this breed thanks to her win at the World Grand Championship in 1966 showing Shaker’s Shocker. Sain would go on to export horses from Israel to Mexico. Sain was given numerous movie and book deals, but she preferred to raise goats and horses out of the spotlight instead.  

The Tennessee Walking Horse is a popular show horse, but what has really driven the popularity of the breed has been its presence in Hollywood. Several of the most famous horses that have come from TV and movies have been Tennessee Walking Horses. This includes Silver, who was the horse of the Lone Ranger; Trigger Junior, who worked with Roy Rogers; and Traveler, who is a mascot of the University of Southern California.

The US Department of Agriculture officially recognized the Tennessee Walking Horse as a breed in 1950.

History of the Tennessee Walking Horse

The Tennessee Walking Horse was originally bred in Kentucky around the year 1790. As homesteaders began to move westward as the United States established its independence, the settlers brought their pacing horses along with them. The Canadian Pacer and the Narragansett Pacer were quite popular along the Eastern Seaboard.

As these homesteaders got settled, they began to bring in Spanish Mustangs from Mexico and Texas to influence their herds. As the breeds would cross in semi-controlled conditions in Kentucky and Tennessee, there was a noticeable tendency for the foals to retain the pacing and gait characteristics of their parents. It wasn’t long before the offspring of the Pacers and the Mustangs began to be called a Tennessee Pacer.

The Tennessee Pacer was coveted as a strong, all-purpose horse. In the early 19th century, Kentucky and Tennessee saw strong population growth through the establishment of plantations and farms. Large limestone pastures encouraged herds to get out and roam. Many used them for riding and pulling equipment. Some were even well-suited to racing.

Throughout the 1800s, there was a concerted effort to continue improving the Tennessee Pacer. Thoroughbreds, Morgans, Standardbreds, and Saddlebreds bloodlines were all added to this local breed. In 1886, a foal named Black Allan was born. This stallion is now considered the foundation sire of the modern Tennessee Walking Horse and is often referred to as Allan F1 on lineage charts.

Black Allan was meant to be a trotting horse. He was foaled from a Morgan mare and a Standardbred Stallion, but he refused to trot. His insistence was to be a pacing horse. Because of this, he was funneled into a breeding program instead. One of his offspring, named Roan Allen, was born in 1904.

Roan Allen could perform numerous ambling gaits. He was placed into shows and became quite successful, helping to sire many of the establishment horses for the breed.

In 1935, the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ Association was formed and the stud book was closed by 1947. The first national convention for the breed was held in 1939.

Encouraging the flashy gait has been the emphasis of handlers with this breed, which led many Tennessee Walking Horses to be “sored.” Soring places a purposeful injury on the foot of the horse to encourage a higher step. The Horse Protection Act of 1970 restricting this practice, along with other abusive training methods that were used to create exaggerated movements.

More criminal charges for horse abuse and endangerment regarding illegal stacks, action devices, and prohibited training techniques have come from within the Tennessee Walking Horse breed than any other in the United States.

As a result of the 1970 legislation, there are two sub-types emerging within the Tennessee Walking Horse breed. They are called flat-shot and performance horses, with the description based on the leg action that the horse performs. Flat-shod Walkers wear regular horseshoes and perform movements with little exaggeration. Performance Walkers still train with legal stacks and other weighted action devices. 

In the 1900s, the Tennessee Walking Horse was also crossed with the Welsh Pony to create the American Walking Pony.

Characteristics of the Tennessee Walking Horse

The Tennessee Walking Horse should stand at least 14.3 hands high, with some stallions reaching or exceeding 17 hands. Most horses within this breed will weigh about 1,000 pounds. There should be long, sloping shoulders and hips, a strong coupling, and a back that is shorter than average. The hindquarters should be powerful and well-muscled.

It is permitted within this breed for the hind legs to be cow- or sickle-hocked. 

The most famous characteristic of the Tennessee Walking Horse is its unique gait. It has a 4-beat running walk that offers flashy movements at the feet. This results in a ride that is remarkably smooth in the saddle, making the horse a suitable recreational riding option for those who may struggle with the bounce and movement of the more traditional gaits.

Although the breed may have been developed for agricultural work, the unique gait has helped it to become one of the most popular trail-riding horses in the United States.

The actual gait is the same foot pattern that would be associated with a walking gait in other breeds, but it is much faster. The average Tennessee Walking Horse can achieve a speed of up to 20mph with their running walk. As part of the gait, many horses within this breed will also nod their head to the cadence of their rhythm, which seems to help them be able to maintain the gait.

Some Tennessee Walking Horses are able to perform other ambling gaits as well. This may include the foxtrot, the single-foot, the rack, and the stepping pace. A few individuals have been known to utilize all 5 of these gaits and still perform a traditional canter and gallop as well. For show purposes, however, any other gait beyond the running walk will create a penalty if displayed.

The Tennessee Walking Horse is found in all solid coat colors. Several pinto patterns can be seen throughout the breed as well. Black, chestnut, and bay tend to be three most common colors seen, but dilution genes are very prevalent. Silver dapple, champagne, cream, and dun genes are present in many bloodlines. Overo, tobiano, and sabino pinto patterns have been seen as well.

Future of the Tennessee Walking Horse

Since 1970, there have been several controversies that have involved the Tennessee Walking Horse, but over rules of how to handle and show the horses instead of handling population concerns. Shoeing rules, soring concerns, and complying with the Horse Protection Act have created a patchwork system of rules that are overseen by several governing organizations.

Even though the Tennessee Walking Horse is an officially recognized breed, the United States Equestrian Foundation does not sanction or recognize any shows for this breed. Since 2013, USEF rules have banned all stacks and action devices.

Flat-shod Tennessee Walking Horses have two organizations supporting the breed, including one that is the official USEF affiliate.

Action devices are also supported by the Walking Horse Owners’ Association and an organization called SHOW. SHOW is an acronym that stands for “Sound horses, Honest judging, Objective inspections, and Winning fairly.” SHOW manages the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, which has been held annually in Shelbyville, Tennessee, since 1939.

Both sides that support each sub-type feel that there could be potential violations by the other regarding their conduct with the horses. The Celebration has become a hotbed for confrontation regarding this separation of perspective, especially since Horse Protection Act violations have been noted by some observers in recent years.

The popularity of the Tennessee Walking Horse is without question. Shows are routinely held for western pleasure and English riding classes. Fine harness driving classes include this breed as well.

Many are even used for beginners and for therapeutic purposes because of their gentle, social nature. It is difficult to find a horse that is more willing to work or be more excited to see you. Whether you take a ride down a local trail or you work extensively together for the show ring, when you have a Tennessee Walking Horse by your side, you will have a friend for life.