Breed History 1800's

1800s Saddle Horses

As the nation developed, the American Horse went west with the pioneers. In Kentucky, horsemen continued to add Thoroughbred blood to their easy-gaited horses, developing a larger, prettier, all-purpose animal and setting fast the American Saddlebred as a breed. The state's commercial breeders sold horses, known then as Kentucky Saddlers, throughout the fledgling nation.


Influential sire Gaines' Denmark.

In 1839, a Thoroughbred son of imported Hedgeford named Denmark was foaled in Kentucky. Bred to a natural-gaited mare, he sired Gaines' Denmark and established the Denmark family of American Saddlebreds. More than 60 percent of the horses in the first three registry volumes of the American Saddlebred Horse Association trace to Gaines' Denmark.

In 1991, the year of the ASHA Centennial, Harrison Chief was designated a foundation sire, along with Denmark. The Chief family has a similar background, with a dominance of blood coming from the Thoroughbred Messenger, who was imported in 1788 and is considered one of the foundation sires of the Standardbred breed. Crosses of Morgan, Standardbred and Hackney also contributed to the American Saddlebred.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Civil War demonstrated the superiority of Kentucky Saddlers on the march and on the battlefield. Most high-ranking officers in both armies rode Saddler types: Lee had his Traveller, Grant was on Cincinnati, Sherman rode Lexington and Stonewall Jackson was on Little Sorrell. The first three were Saddler type with close Thoroughbred crosses; the latter was from pacing stock. Generals John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest rode exclusively Kentucky Saddlers. So important were the horses that after the surrender, General Grant allowed Confederate veterans to keep the mounts they owned. In peacetime, the great demand for Saddle Horses enabled the industry to recover quickly.


General Robert E. Lee, on Kentucky Saddler
type Traveller. Sculpture by Frederick Volck.

An effective marketing tool of the post-war era was the increased popularity of horse shows as public entertainment. The first exhibition was recorded near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1816, but the sport had grown over the years, with the first national horse show occurring at the St. Louis Fair in 1856. The gifted Saddlers dominated competition. In 1888, the rules for showing Saddlers were amended to require that horses show at the trot in addition to the "saddle gaits," (the rack, running walk, fox trot and/or slow pace). The term "pace" in the context of a saddle gait does not refer to the speedy, flat pace of today's Standardbred race horses, but to a lateral movement such as an amble or singlefoot. Gait was the overriding criteria for development of the breed, and horses could be registered based on their ability to perform the saddle gaits.
In 1891, the American Saddlebred Horse Association was founded in Louisville, Kentucky, the first such organization for an American breed of horse. Originally known as the National Saddle Horse Breeders Association, which making the official name of the breed the Saddle Horse, its name was changed to American Saddle Horse Breeders Association in 1899 and to the American Saddlebred Horse Association in 1980, in order to describe better the horse and the all-encompassing mission of the Association. Despite the fact that during the late nineteenth century the American Saddle Horse was still very much a using animal, the rivalry at horse shows between breeders and especially state pride between Kentucky and Missouri was intense. Gifted horsemen began making a living at training show horses.

Rex McDonald, with Ben Middleton up.

Rex McDonald by George Ford Morris.
A coal black stallion who was to make a great contribution in giving even greater status to shows and to the breed burst on to the show scene at St. Louis in 1893. In an illustrious career, the charismatic Rex McDonald was beaten only three times. He was idolized by the public and visited by presidents of the United States.

Photo credits for this page (top to bottom): Gaines' Denmark from George Ford Morris charcoal drawing; Robert E. Lee and Traveller (sculpture) by Marque Blubaugh, Rex McDonald (both) by George Ford Morris.


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