American Saddlebred Horse Origin and Characteristics

Life in the early United States was difficult for many. Great distances needed to be traveled to reach towns. Farmers and plantation owners would find themselves in the saddle for hours every day. Conflicts were forming as the colonies rebelled against the idea of taxation without representation.

A good horse was needed. The horse would need to be strong and athletic. It would require a good stamina, but still be comfortable to ride. A mild temperament and an easy gait were highly desired. This led many breeders to work with crossing several different breeds to see what could happen.

This is how the American Saddlebred eventually came about. Through selective breeding programs, imported bloodlines, and an effort to refine specific characteristics that met the demands of the early colonies and the later states, one of the most popular horse breeds to ever come out of the Americas was formed. 

What Is the History of the American Saddlebred?

In the earliest days of US history, there were two breeds of horse that were commonly imported from Britain: Hobbies and Galloways. Once they arrived in the colonies, the two breeds were often cross-bred with each other. This produced the Narragansett Pacer. Thoroughbreds were then crossed with the Narragansett Pacer to produce the breed that would become known as the American Saddlebred.

After the breed was established, Arabians, Canadian pacers, and Morgans were added to the lineage of the American Saddlebred to stabilize the bloodlines and provide genetic variability.

The first documented instance of the existence of this breed occurs in 1776. An American diplomat requested that one of these horses be gifted to Marie Antoinette by the Continental Congress.

When the Revolutionary War came to its conclusion, the breeding programs for the American Saddlebred shifted west into Kentucky. At one point in its history, this breed was referred to as the Kentucky Saddler. Refinement continued to happen up until the US Civil War, where the breed was a popular choice for an officer’s mount.

After the Civil War, a breed registry was formed. Since 1891, the popularity of the American Saddlebred has led registrations to grow rapidly. More than 250,000 horses are registered around the world today, with horses of this breed on all six permanently settled continents.

The American Saddlebred featured prominently during World War I as well. It’s demeanor on battlefields made it a popular breed the world over, but particularly in South Africa. Today, the American Saddlebred is the most popular breed in the South Africa that is not used for racing purposes. 

In the US, as the world recovered from World War II, showing the American Saddlebred became part of the Civil Rights Movement. Joe Louis began horse shows that allowed minorities to exhibit horses when the more prominent shows were placing an emphasis on racial segregation. American Saddlebred shows also grew out of the recessions and shortages in the 1970s as breeders and participants looked for ways to save money. 

What Are the Characteristics of the American Saddlebred? 

The historical influences that helped to create the American Saddlebred have created a breed that has several unique characteristics. American Saddlebreds can either be 3-gaited or 5-gaited, with most horses featuring elegant movements that are highly animated. Their hooves tend to hit the ground individually, much like a walking horse breed, so their ride tends to produce less bounce than other similar breeds.

The historical influences on this breed have also made it possible for any coat color to be found. This includes Pinto-type patterning. For registration, the horse must have an elegant appearance, have a bright expression, intelligent eyes, and a long-arching neck. Most American Saddlebreds stand at least 15 hands high, with some stallions exceeding 17 hands.

Although American Saddlebreds are known for their stature and appearance, their temperament is also quite popular in the equine world. These animals are competitive and spirited, but their interactions with others tends to be gentle and calm. They perform well in dressage and show jumping, while more competitive horses can be used for competitive driving events.

The head of the American Saddlebred should be highly refined. The jaw line appears to be chiseled and smooth, while the eyes are set apart. The ears should be both dainty and sharp, while the back is strong, but short. The tail on this breed is set high, carried proudly, and compliments the movement of the horse.

It has straight legs, feet that are well-formed, and the neck should be slightly arched to promote a look that is visually clean.

American Saddlebreds are highly intelligent horses, but they can also be somewhat sensitive. They enjoy having social interactions within a herd and with people. They are gentle and friendly, but can become agitated with prolonged periods of isolation. With the right amount of attention, this breed has a nice and even temperament, is an easy keeper, and is willing to learn new skills on a regular basis.

Health Concerns with the American Saddlebred

The American Saddlebred is often referred to as the “peacock” of the equine world. Their proud and beautiful stature immediately draws a person’s attention. This stature is often based on the sturdiness of the back of the individual horse. Over time, this has led to a recessive hereditary condition to be found in this breed that is called “lordosis.”

Lordosis, which is usually referred to as “swayback,” creates a lower or softer back on the horse than normal. Although it is known to be a recessive condition, the exact mutation which causes it has not yet been found. The skeletal malformation can affect the movement of the horse and limit its ability to ride.

American Saddlebreds can also suffer from frequent upper respiratory conditions because of their head position when competing in frequent show events. Lameness can also occur, especially in horses that are suffering from a mild swayback condition.

Competition and the American Saddlebred

The first official national-level horse show held in the United States happened in 1856 during the St. Louis Fair. American Saddlebreds were exhibited in local shows for at least 40 years before this first national horse show. The popularity of this breed continued to grow after the Civil War to the extent that World Championship shows for the breed were held beginning in 1917. 

The Grand Prize for the first World Champion was $10,000. Using a standard inflation calculator, that would be the equivalent of offering a prize of over $200,000 today. 

Three primary events are held every year for the American Saddlebred: the Lexington Junior League Horse Show, the Kentucky State Fair World’s Championship, and the American Royal. This is often referred to as the “Triple Crown” for the breed. Only six horses have won all three shows.

The American Saddlebred is a competitive, even-tempered horse that is equally comfortable in a family setting, performing ranch work, or even working on TV. That is why it is one of the world’s most popular breeds today.