American Saddlebred Today

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History of the American Saddlebred Horse

Harpers Magazine CoverRex McDonaldHarpers Magazine Cover


The foundations for the American Saddlebred were laid when Galloway and Hobby Horses were brought to North America by British Colonists.  The Galloways and Hobbies were natural pacers; small, hardy, and very comfortable to ride over tough terrain.  Through selective breeding, the Narraganset Pacer was developed in Rhode Island of early America, and many of the best and fastest found their way to Virginia and the rest of the colonies.

As the colonies became more settled, the need for the tough Narraganset Pacer was diminished. The development of roads and the need for carriage horses, not pacers was in favor.  The infusion of Thoroughbred blood was about to change the nature of the saddle horse. 


The first Thoroughbreds were imported in 1706.  They had been developed in England by crossing the Galloway and Hobby mares with stallions from the Middle East.  By 1776 an all-purpose riding horse, commonly called the American Horse, was recognized as a definite type. These animals retained the easy gaits and stamina of the Narraganset Pacer with the addition of Thoroughbred size and quality.

One Thoroughbred, Messenger, made a particular impact on the American Horse.  A gray standing at fifteen hands three inches, he passed on trotting qualities to the American Horse, and is considered to be the foundation sire of the Standardbred.

During the Revolutionary War, American cavalry decisively defeated British regulars at King's Mountain, South Carolina.  These farmers and frontiersmen were mounted on American Horses.


American Horses accompanied pioneers west into Kentucky.  These animals became seed stock, making Kentucky a major horse producing state.

In the War of 1812, Kentuckians mounted on American Horses and others from Michigan to Illinois joined the fight against the British and their Indian allies.

After the War of 1812, the production of good Saddle Horses became a priority in Kentucky.  These animals played a major role in the settlement of the upper Ohio Valley.  They went south into Tennessee and beyond, and across the Mississippi into Missouri.  Missouri rivaled Kentucky for the best Saddle Horses and Missourians say, "If Kentucky made the Saddle Horse, then Missouri made him better."

The first recorded horse show was at Lexington, Kentucky, in 1817, but such competitions undoubtedly took place years before.

Gaines' Denmark, sired by Denmark and whose dam was a natural gaited mare, established the Denmark Family of American Saddlebreds. Over 60% of the horses in the first three registry volumes of the American Saddlebred Horse Association trace to Gaines' Denmark.
Gaines' Denmark
In 1991, Harrison Chief was designated as a foundation sire, along with Denmark. The Chief family has a similar background, with a dominance of blood coming from the Thoroughbred Messenger, and his son, Mambrino Chief.

Harrison Chief
Harrison Chief

The Denmarks and Chiefs both go back exactly eight generations to the ancient Thoroughbred, Blaze. One theory holds that when these families were crossed back beginning in the late 1800's, the American Saddlebred was permanently fixed as a dominant breed.

By the time of the Mexican War in 1846, the American Saddlebred was a well established breed. Entire companies of American volunteers from Kentucky and Missouri, mounted on these horses, fought in Mexico.

In 1856, St. Louis, the largest city west of the Mississippi, held its first great fair which featured the nation's first major horse show.

Lee on Traveller
Lee on Traveller
The American Saddle Horse gained fame as a breed during the Civil War, 1861-1865. Saddlebreds served as mounts of many famous generals; Lee on Traveller, Grant on Cincinnati, Sherman rode Lexington, and Stonewall Jackson's mount was Little Sorrell. The three aforementioned horses were American type with close Thoroughbred crosses, and the latter was of pacing stock.

The Confederate commands of Generals John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest were mounted almost exclusively on American Saddlebreds, and these horses performed legendary feats of endurance during the war.

Because most Confederate horses were privately owned, General Grant's order at Lee's surrender which allowed the men to keep their horses perhaps saved the breed.

After the war, the St. Louis Fair was revived. All breeds had their day in competition at St. Louis, but in the 1870's the Denmarks became dominant.

Because of the increased popularity and commercial value of the Saddlebred, enlightened breeders began to call for the formation of a breed association and registry in the 1880's. Charles F. Mills of Springfield, Illinois, began compiling pedigrees and formulating rules for a registry. The Farmers Home Journal, a newspaper published in Louisville, Kentucky, called for a meeting April 7, 1891 to organize the association, and the registry was established that day...the first horse breed association in the US.

Despite the fact that during this period of time the American Saddle Horse was still very much a using animal, the rivalry between breeders at horse shows and especially state pride between Kentucky and Missouri, was intense. Gifted horsemen began making a living at training show horses.

A coal black stallion from Missouri, destined to make a great contribution in giving even greater status to shows and the breed, burst onto the show scene at St. Louis in 1893. Rex McDonald was undefeated on but three occasions, was idolized by the public, and visited by Presidents of the US.
Rex McDonald
Rex McDonald

One of the most famous Missouri - Kentucky rivalries occurred between Missouri's Miss Rex and Kentucky's Lou Chief, both mares. Miss Rex holds the distinction of being the only mare to have beaten Rex McDonald, handing him one of his three defeats. Miss Rex and Lou Chief had many battles in the show ring, until Lou Chief's new owner tried to dock her tail in 1890. The procedure ruined Lou Chief's appearance, and she was never shown again.

In Kentucky, a colt of predominantly trotting blood with a dash of Denmark was foaled in 1900. He was a sensation as a five-gaited show stallion, winning the grand championship at the Louisville Horse show as a three-year-old. Living to the age of 30, Bourbon King was the great progenitor of the Chief Family.

In 1903, the American Royal in Kansas City saw Saddlebreds in the show ring for the first time. The man primarily responsible for this event was Tom Bass. A native of Missouri and born into slavery, Tom Bass became one of the greatest horse trainers, and entertained visitors such as President Theodore Roosevelt, Will Rogers, P. T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill Cody, and many others.

The Kentucky State Fair hosted the World's Grand Championship for the first time in 1917. The winner's included Easter Cloud as the Five Gaited champion, Happy Sybil as the Three Gaited champion, and Lady Beautiful as the Fine Harness champion.

Perhaps the greatest Five Gaited Championship class of all time was held at the 1933 Kentucky State Fair. CH Belle Le Rose, Sweetheart on Parade, and CH King's Genius battled it out in the ring and finished in that order. CH Belle Le Rose successfully defended her title again in 1934.

Wing Commander
In 1948, Wing Commander began an unprecedented winning streak as Grand Champion Five-Gaited Stake horse for each consecutive year until 1953. The next year saw Lady Carrigan begin a similar streak from 1954 until 1958, with a loss of the title in 1956.

The late 1950's saw the dominance of CH The Lemon Drop Kid in the Fine Harness Division. He became a celebrity in his own right, and was undoubtedly the most popular horse in America at that time. By 1959, he had accumulated four consecutive Fine Harness World's Grand Champion titles.

CH My-My, six-time World's Grand Champion Five Gaited horse, won her final title in 1968. A sad note in Saddlebred history, CH My-My's owner watched the show from a hospital bed, dying of cancer, which eventually claimed her life. Ch My-My died of liver failure a few weeks after her final title.

CH Imperator started off the 1980's with a bang by claiming the first of four Five Gaited World's Championships. Retired to the Kentucky Horse Park, he died in 1997.

Country Classic was winner of the Challenge of the Breeds at the St. Louis National in 1984. This contest between selected representatives of the major breeds featured horses in various disciplines, which included jumping, barrel racing, driving, etc. The same year also saw the closing of the American Saddlebred Registry. Horses since then must be sired by a registered stallion and out of a registered mare.

To prove that American Saddlebreds are quite versatile, Artistic Reflection won the advanced singles in combined driving at the USET Festival of Champions in 1994.

The 1900's closed with CH A Sweet Treat winning the Three Gaited World's Grand Championship, CH Garland's Dream claiming the Five Gaited title, and CH Radiant Success taking the blue in Fine Harness.


Today finds the American Saddlebred competing in almost every equine activity: from dressage, show jumping, and cross country jumping, to driving, cutting and reining, and high schooling. The breed enjoys a proud history, from the Civil War battlefields to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. A willing and capable partner for all equestrians - The American Saddlebred.

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