Dubbed The Horse America Made, or ‘The Horse History Made’, the American Saddlebred evolved from Galloway and Hobbie horses imported from Britain during the early part of America’s story. The early colonists, especially those from Scotland and Ireland, brought Galloway horses which is now considered to be an extinct breed. The short stocky animal was well suited to the rough terrain and difficult life clearing land and plowing the first fields cut from old growth forests.
The Hobby, researchers have suggested, resulted from crossing eastern-Mediterranean-type horses on western European types, to select a better gaited animal for pleasure riding. These traits mixed well in the new world.
The Narragansett Pacer and the Story of America
In the 1700’s a selective breeding program centered in Rhode Island created the Narragansett Pacer which then had Thoroughbred blood. These horses were being bred for a smooth ride – a comfortable gait. In 1768, George Washington owned and raced a Narragansett Pacer, while in 1772, Edmund Burke asked an American friend for a pair. Paul Revere possibly rode a Pacer during his 1775 ride to warn the Americans of a British advance. The obsolesce was due mainly to the breed being sold in such large numbers to sugarcane planters in the West Indies that breeding stock was severely diminished in the United States. In the early 1770s, horses were among the top ten colonial exports. Shipments of horses regularly left New England for the southern colonies and the Caribbean, the economic engine of the Colonial Age.
Narragansetts had thick manes and proud heads, held high on long thin necks. Their lines were slim: their limbs delicate, thin, and tapered. All written descriptions of these horses seem to suggest a pretty, smallish but altogether marvelous horse that performed beautifully: an equine sports car bred for performance and appearance in the highest echelons of Colonial society.
By 1800, the most distinctive features of these horse were so common in American stables they ceased to be recognized. The result was an animal simply called the ‘American horse’ that was prized for its size, strength, and comfortable gaits. Sixty years later, American US Civil War generals, including Robert E. Lee the Confederate commander, chose these sturdy horses as their mounts.
The general’s most notable horse was Traveller (1857–1871), a stallion well chronicled in contemporary literature, and by Lee himself who described the horse as ‘a grey of 16 hands’. The horse was also well-respected by the general’s staff for its speed, strength and courage in combat. Originally named Greenbrier for its origins, the animal already had a good reputation before Lee acquired him in February 1862. Greenbrier, (Traveller) had won blue ribbons (top prize) at the Lewisburg, Virginia fairs in 1859 and 1860.
Traveller’s fame was recorded alongside the legacy of the Confederate general who rode him in many battles. Traveller outlived the general by only a few months. The horse had to be put down when he contracted tetanus.
Following the US Civil War, the addition of the Morgan horse and Arabian horse genes probably refined the look and style of what developed as the American Saddlebred breed type we know today.
American Saddlebreds can either be three-gaited (trot, canter, and animated walk) or five-gaited (same as three-gaited plus the four-beat slow gait and rack). They are high-headed, high-stepping, animated horses with vibrant facial features, and a long, arched neck, strong back and elevated tail. Common colours include chestnut, bay, brown and black, and less often gray, roan, palomino and pinto. They typically stand between 15-17 hands.
Saddlebreds are most well-known in saddle seat competition, and can be used for driving in fine harness classes. They compete in five primary divisions: Five-Gaited, Three-Gaited, Fine Harness, Park and Pleasure and are judged on performance, manners, presence, quality and conformation. It is becoming more common to see American Standardbreds taking part in English (hunter, dressage and eventing), combined driving and western classes as well.