American Saddlebred

American Saddlebred

HEIGHT: 15–17 hands

PLACE OF ORIGIN: Eastern United States, especially Kentucky

SPECIAL QUALITIES: Elegance and beauty; can have three or five gaits

BEST SUITED FOR: Showing (riding and driving); trail and pleasure riding

The roots of this truly American breed go back to the founding of the United States. The American Saddlebred was developed using as initial stock almost every light breed of quality being ridden or driven at the time. Refinements and improvements continued, mostly in Kentucky, where the breed became known first as the Kentucky Saddler, then as the American Saddler, and finally as the American Saddlebred.

According to the American Saddlebred Horse Association, an all-purpose riding horse, commonly called the American Horse, was recognized by the time of the American Revolution as a definite type known for its stamina, good looks, and easy gaits. In 1776, an American diplomat in France wrote to the Continental Congress requesting that one be sent as a gift to Marie Antoinette.

The famed Narragansett Pacer was certainly important in the Saddlebred’s development and may have been the central root from which the breed’s easy gaits arose. Narragansett Pacers may not always have been true pacers but rather amblers, a gait just out of the true pace. The pace is a gait in which both legs on the same side move in unison, while the amble is almost but not quite a true pace. Although the pace isn’t comfortable to ride, the amble is, and Narragansett Pacers were famous as both riding and driving horses. Narragansetts were little and tough, but they weren’t very flashy.


At horse shows today, the slow gait is a slow, balanced gait during which the horse’s weight is suspended on one foot. It is comparatively difficult for the horse to perform, but when well done is spectacular to watch. The rack is a much faster version of the same gait. The rack is an extremely smooth gait to ride, and good Saddlebreds seem to fly over the ground.

Other breeds added other qualities. Early Morgans probably improved the Kentucky Saddlers by contributing substance, short backs, compact bodies, and stamina. Canadian Pacers, a type that originally arose in Canada from pacing horses imported from France, are a documented branch of the ancestry. The most famous of these was a blue roan stallion named Tom Hal, who was exported from Canada first to Philadelphia then to Kentucky. This horse also was strongly influential in the establishment of the Tennessee Walker and the Standardbred. Somewhere along the way, the blood of good trotters was blended in, bringing gameness and a good driving gait to the breed.

Breeders eventually introduced Thoroughbred genes, which added elegance, speed, and refinement. The great Thoroughbred Denmark, a Kentucky-born son of the imported Hedgeford, was bred to a naturally gaited mare, producing the horse Gaine’s Denmark. This horse’s name appeared in so many early pedigrees that he was long designated the single foundation sire of the breed. Several other stallions were influential as well, however, and in 1991, Harrison Chief was added as a second foundation sire; the Thoroughbred blood in this great horse came from Messenger, who was imported from England in 1788 and is also one of the foundation sires of the Standardbred.

The Saddlebred has a finely chiseled head with large eyes.

Saddlebreds carry themselves elegantly and are a pleasure to ride and to watch at all times.

Military Mounts

Kentucky Saddlers had a long and illustrious career in the Civil War, usually as officer’s mounts, where they were sometimes selected for their looks and noble bearing but proved themselves, on both sides of the conflict, as horses of incredible endurance and bravery. General Lee’s Traveler was a Saddlebred type, as were Grant’s Cincinnati, Sherman’s Lexington, and Stonewall Jackson’s Little Sorrell.

Breed Characteristics

Saddlebreds are beautiful horses with graceful, elegant bearing. They should be spirited at work, yet easily trainable and gentle. Although used for many activities, Saddlebreds are probably best known as show horses in both riding and driving divisions. When ridden, the horses may be shown either as three-gaited horses, at the walk, trot, and canter, or as five-gaited horses, at the walk, trot, canter, slow gait (also sometimes called the stepping pace), and rack. Outside of the show ring, when shod differently, Saddlebreds make wonderful trail and pleasure riding horses and are used successfully somewhere for almost everything light horses do, including ranch work, dressage, and jumping.


According to the American Saddlebred Horse Association (founded in 1891):

• There are 247,000 registered American Saddlebreds.

• Each year, 2,800–3,000 foals are registered.

• The American Saddlebred Horse Association was the first horse breed association established in this country and is the oldest association still in existence in the United States.

• The breed is most common in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia, but there are registered Saddlebreds in Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Europe.


Saddlebreds usually range in size from about 15 to 17 hands and typically weigh 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. They have a finely chiseled heads with small, alert ears and large eyes. The neck is long, nicely arched, and attached to the head with a fine throatlatch. They are fairly wide-chested and have a short strong back and powerful hindquarters, with a high flat croup and long, flowing tail. They are structurally sound horses with very good joints and naturally well-formed feet.


Saddlebreds come in almost all colors, including pintos and palominos. The breed registry does not have color restrictions.

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