The Morgan is an American horse breed, developed in the northeastern United States in the early 1800’s from the offspring of a legendary foundation sire, Figure (1798-1821), also known as Justin Morgan’s horse.
In 1909, the Morgan Horse Club, which later became the American Morgan Horse Association (AMHA), was founded. Throughout the 19th century, Morgans were used as stock horses and for general riding, as well as light driving work. Miners in the California Gold Rush (1848–1855) used Morgans, as did the Union Army in the American Civil War (1861-1865). The breed was selected as both cavalry and harness horses. Today, Morgans are used extensively for harness racing, as well as for pulling coaches, due to the breed’s grace and reliability in harness. They’re sturdy, powerful horses well-known for being easy keepers.
Morgans have contributed to several other horse breeds. In the early 1860s, a trotting stallion belonging to Shepherd F. Knapp was exported to England where he influenced the breeding of Hackney horses. Morgans influenced American horse breeding, too. During the Civil War period, numerous Morgan mares were brought west and integrated into Texan horse herds, which influenced the development of the American Quarter Horse breed. The Morgan horse ranks prominently in the pedigree of the Missouri Fox Trotter and the Standardbred racehorse. By the 1870s, however, longer-legged horses became more fashionable and Morgans were crossed with other breeds for height. This diminished the fledgling breed type and resulted in the near disappearance of the original Morgans, although a few remained in isolated areas to build the bloodlines up again.
Justin Morgan’s Horse Was Called Figure (1789 – 1821)
Figure, the founding stallion of the Morgan breed, was owned by Vermont school teacher Justin Morgan (1747-1798) in the early 1790s. Nobody knows for certain what Figure’s exact pedigree was, but it’s generally believed he was the offspring of Arabian, thoroughbred, and Welsh cob or Friesian horses. Other historians believe Figure was sired by the British Thoroughbred True Briton, although some DNA evidence suggests that Figure’s sire or dam were Canadian Horses from Quebec. Regardless of the combination, the result was a great success and the colt impressed his owners right away.
Figure was born in 1789, which is one of the only essentially indisputable facts pertaining to his early life. The rest is myth made popular by Marguerite Henry’s 1945 novel, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, which was illustrated by Wesley Dennis and published by Wilcox & Follett of Chicago. It was huge hit. Her rags-to-riches fiction story, and the Walt Disney movie that followed, has the Vermont schoolteacher betting everything on the virtue of one remarkable little colt.
Thirty years later, the horse’s good gait, strength and endurance see it become the foundation of the Morgan horse breed, and in that sense Figure will live forever. The myth differs from reality, however, as today it’s generally believed that Figure was not in Justin Morgan’s possession until he was two or three years old.
Experts suspect he was a mature horse before he came into Justin’s possession because of a 1791 advertisement of his stud service. This would predate his transfer to Justin as payment for a debt. Mr. Morgan owned Figure from 1792-1795, advertising him for stud in Lebanon, New Hampshire and Randolph, Vermont (1793), Randolph and Royalton, Vermont (1794), and Williston and Hinesburg, VT (1795). After that, Figure was lent out to Robert Evans in the fall of 1795 to clear land for a Mr. Fisk at a rate of $15.00 a year.
Figure lived for 32 years. He spent only four of those years as Justin Morgan’s horse. Morgan sold Figure in 1795 or ’96 to Samuel Allen of Williston, Vermont.
Why did Justin Morgan sell his horse?
Historians speculate that Justin Morgan felt his health deteriorating and wanted to secure a better inheritance for his children. He apparently traded Figure for one hundred acres of fertile land in Moretown, Vermont, which was newly cleared and would leave his offspring with better chances at prosperity. He must have thought this to be a safer investment than his current holdings in Randolph, VT. He knew Figure was a great horse, but he was still mortal and subject to illness, accidents and other tragedies common to horses of the period.
Justin Morgan’s own health continued to decline and he died a poor man in 1798. Figure had several owners after Morgan; he belonged to Allen for less than a year before being sold to Johnathan Shepard from Montpelier.
Figure’s legacy was assured in the 1840s when breeders in Vermont and western New Hampshire tracked down the second, third and fourth-generation descendants of the remarkable stallion and bred them to secure the future of the breed.
Figure’s Life Story Has a Dozen Chapters
Right after he left the service of Justin Morgan, in 1796, Figure raced in a Sweepstakes in Brookfield, VT, beating New York horses to win $50! That year, he was advertised at stud by Johnathan Shepard of Montpelier, Vermont, who also raced him in several match races in which he ran well. That’s when Figure became known as the “Justin Morgan horse” to help distinguish him from other ‘Figure’ horses.
Figure was traded again in 1797, along with a blacksmith shop, for a whole farm to James Hawkins. It’s not known what he did until 1801, when he was in the possession of Robert Evans of Randolph, Vermont. Evans owned Figure until 1804. He used the stallion for logging, racing, and breeding, until he fell into debt to Colonel John Goss. The army man collected the horse as part of the settlement and used the stately animal to review his troops. He also famously entered Figure in a pulling bee, which the little horse won. He later traded him for an attractive young mare that was owned by his brother, David Goss, in 1805.
David Goss owned Figure from 1805-1811, but didn’t particularly respect his abilities and didn’t race or compete with the horse. Figure worked on the Goss farm for ten months, and was used for breeding for two months. He was sold in 1811 to Philip Goss, another relative, for the next breeding season. Philip Goss then sold Figure to Jacob Sanderson, who sold him to Jacob Langmeade. Langmeade used the horse to haul freight, and it is thought he may have abused the aging stallion.
Langmeade sold Figure to Joel Goss and Joseph Rogers at the end of 1811. Figure stood at stud for several years after that, before he was sold to Samuel Stone in 1817. Stone exhibited the stallion in the Randolph fair. Figure was used as a parade mount by President James Monroe later that year!
In 1819, Figure was sold to his final owner, Levi Bean of Chelsea, Vermont. Toward the end of his life, Figure was put out to pasture with other horses and left to fend for himself. He died in 1821 from an injury to the flank, caused by a kick, at the age of 32. Figure is now buried in Tunbridge, Vermont.
What are the Characteristics of a Morgan Horse?
Regardless of the bloodlines of any individual horse, there is only one official breed standard to which Morgans must conform. The ‘type’ has strong legs, an expressive head with a straight or slightly convex profile and broad forehead. They have large, prominent eyes; well-defined withers, laid back shoulders, and an upright, well arched neck. The horse’s hindquarters are strongly muscled, with a long and well-muscled croup. The tail is attached high and carried gracefully and straight. Morgans appear as strong powerful horses. The breed standard for height ranges from 14.1 to 15.2 hands.
Morgans come in a variety of colours, although they are most commonly bay, black, brown, and chestnut. Gray, palomino, cremello, perlino, smoky cream, silver dapple, sabino, frame overo, dun, and buckskin are also seen.
Are Morgan Horses Good for Beginners?
Morgan horses are typically good-natured, hard-working and intelligent horses which makes them an excellent breed for beginners. Morgan horses are a great choice as a first horse for inexperienced riders, and as they’re not overly tall horses, smaller Morgans measuring under the breed size standard can be enjoyed by both children and adults in pony divisions.
What is the Morgan horse known for?
Morgan horses most commonly compete in harness competitions, and are also increasingly being used as dressage and show jumping horses. The Morgan breed is known for its versatility and is used for a number of English and Western events including Western pleasure, cutting and endurance riding. They are also used as stock horses and for pleasure riding and driving.
Morgans have spirited but manageable personalities. Their gaits are animated, elastic, square, collected, and balanced. Some Morgans are gaited and able to perform the rack, foxtrot, or pace.
How Long do Morgan Horses Live?
Figure lived 32 years despite having a difficult life! The average horse will live for about 25-30 years if properly fed and exercised. Morgans have a reputation for living longer than other horses and with a proper diet many of these horses will live over 30 years if they are well cared for and have loving owners.
Do Morgans Have Any Genetic Diseases?
Type 1 polysaccharide storage myopathy, an autosomal dominant muscle disease found mainly in stock horse and draft horse breeds caused by a gene mutation, is the one genetic disease that has been identified within the Morgan breed. But Morgans are just one of over a dozen breeds found to have the allele for the condition, and its prevalence in Morgans appears to be quite low compared to other stock and draft breeds. In one study, less than one percent of randomly tested Morgans carried the allele for this condition, one of the lowest percentages among breeds in that study.
Morgans have remarkably few medical conditions otherwise. There are some rare occurrences of equine conditions that are common to most or all other breeds of horses, such as Cushing’s disease, a hormonal abnormality commonly encountered in many breeds in advanced age. Fortunately, simple tests performed by a veterinarian service can diagnose this condition and the disorder can often be controlled with medication. Any conformational or health problems that can be passed on should be taken into consideration before choosing to breed the individual.