What Makes a Morgan Horse So Special?

The Morgan horse has been known as the first family of American horses. The early development of the breed took place in the New England states, thus giving the eastern section of the country primary credit for founding three light-horse breeds. Origin and Native Home The origin of the Morgan breed was a mere happenstance, and not the result of planned effort on the part of breeders to produce a particular breed of horse which would be adapted to local conditions.

Whatever may be said of the greatness of Justin Morgan, he was the result of a chance mating—one of nature’s secrets for which there is no breeding formula. In fact, it may be said that had a British general downed his liquor in his own parlor and had a Springfield, Massachusetts, farmer been able to pay his debts, the first family of American horses might never have existed.

Legend has it that, one evening during the Revolutionary War, Colonel De Lancey, commander of a Tory mounted regiment, rode up to an inn at King’s Bridge and after hitching his famous stallion, True Briton, to the rail, went into the inn for some liquid refreshments, as was his custom. While the Colonel was celebrating with liquor and song, the Yankees stole his horse, later selling the animal to a farmer near Hartford, Connecticut. The whimsical story goes on to say that True Briton later sired the fuzzy-haired colt that was to be christened after his second owner, Justin Morgan.

According to the best authorities, Mr. Morgan, who first lived for many years near Springfield, Massachusetts, moved his family to Randolph, Vermont, in 1788. A few years later, he returned to Springfield to collect a debt. But instead of getting the money, he bartered for a three-year-old gelding and a two-year-old colt of Thoroughbred and Arabian extraction.

The stud colt, later named after the new owner as was often the custom of the day, became the noted horse, Justin Morgan, the progenitor of the first famous breed of horses developed in America.

Justin Morgan was a dark bay with black legs, mane, and tail His high head was shapely; his dark eyes prominent, lively and pleasant; his wide-set cars were small, pointed, and erect; his round body was short-backed, close-ribbed, and deep; his thin legs were set wide and straight, and the pasterns and shoulders were sloping; his action was straight, bold, and vigorous; and his style was proud, nervous, and imposing.

Justin Morgan was a beautifully symmetrical, stylish, vibrant animal—renowned for looks, manners, and substance. It was claimed of him that he could outrun for short distances any horse against which he was matched. He was a fast trotter, a great horse on parade under saddle, and he could outpull most horses weighing several hundred pounds more.

Justin Morgan lived his 32 years (1789-1821) in an era of horses rather than in an era of power machinery. The westward expansion had been limited; roads and trails were in the raw, as nature had left them, and were often impassible even with a horse and buggy. Virgin forest had to be cleared, and the tough sod of the prairie had to be broken.

These conditions called for an extremely versatile type of horse—one that could pull a good load on the farm, could be driven as a roadster, could be raced under saddle, and could be ridden in a parade. Justin Morgan and his progeny filled this utility need in a most remarkable manner. In due time, in 1893 to be exact, many years following the death of the foundation sire and after a decade of exhaustive research, Colonel Joseph Battell published Volume I of the American Morgan Horse Register.

Such was the beginning of preservation of the lineage of the breed— a registry assignment now handled under the same name by the Morgan Horse Club.

Morgan Characteristics

With shifts in use, it is but natural to find considerable variation in the size of present-day Morgans. Yet throughout the vicissitudes of time and shifts in emphasis that have occurred during the past hundred years, Morgan horses to an amazing degree have continued to have certain unique characteristics which distinguish them as a breed.

The height of representative animals ranges from 14-2 to 16 hands, with the larger animals now given preference by most horsemen. The average Morgan weighs from 800 to 1,200 pounds. Standard colors are bay, brown, black, and chestnut; and white markings are not uncommon. In conformation, the breed has retained most of the characteristics attributed to the foundation sire.

With greater emphasis on use under saddle, however, modern Morgans are inclined to be more upstanding, to have longer necks, and to possess more slope to their shoulders and pasterns. Regardless of type changes, the breed continues to be noted for stamina, docility, beauty, courage, and longevity. The presence of only five lumbar vertebrae in many Morgans is attributed to the use of Arabian breeding.

Animals with wall-eye (lack of pigmentation of the iris), or with natural white markings above the knee or hock except on the face, are disqualified for registry.

Adaptation and Use

In the early formative period of the breed, the Morgan was thought of as a general purpose type of animal—for use in harness racing, as roadsters, on the farm, on the avenue, in the park, on the range, and on the trail.

With the development of mechanization, many of these needs passed into oblivion. The more progressive breeders, fully cognizant of the change in needs, took stock of the breed’s inherent possibilities and shifted their efforts in breeding and selection to the production of a superior riding horse.

At the present time, therefore, it is not surprising to find that there is considerable variation in emphasis in different sections of the United States. In the West, the Morgan is primarily a stock horse; in the central states, it is still a general purpose breed; whereas in the East, the emphasis is upon the Morgan as a saddle horse, particularly for general country use and for recreational purposes over the hundreds of miles of trails.

The comparatively small number of purebred Morgans today is no criterion of the true importance of the breed. Their influence has literally extended to the entire horse population of the continent. Morgan blood was used in laying the foundation for many breeds.

The leading Standardbred families of today are a fusion of Hambletonian lines with the Morgan—Axworthy, Mako, and Peter the Great all carried Morgan blood in their veins. Likewise, the American Saddle Horse is indebted to the Morgan, for the Peavine and Chief families both contained Morgan ancestry. Allen, the foundation sire of the Tennessee Walking Horse, was a great-grandson of a Morgan, Vermont Black Hawk.


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