american saddlebred

American Saddlebred: The Historic & Nationally Iconic Breed

Dubbed “The Horse America Made,” the American Saddlebred Horse is one of the most iconic breeds to come out of the United States. Early American Saddlebred horses were used in the American Revolution and the Civil War. In fact, they were so popular that a US diplomat in France requested a Saddlebred (then referred to as the “The American Horse”) from the Continental Congress as a gift for Marie Antoinette!


To say the least, this breed has stood the test of time – its speed, stamina, endurance, and good looks, means it’s suitable for a wide variety of disciplines. Nowadays, American Saddlebreds are primarily used in the show ring. They are most commonly seen in the five-gaited, three-gaited, fine harness, park, and pleasure divisions. Let’s meet the American Saddlebred!



American Saddlebred Characteristics

The American Saddlebred Horse is a dignified-looking horse that has a narrow head, a level back, large eyes, a long neck, and an athletic build. This Kentucky horse is a gaited breed. This means it has been trained for generations to perform certain “ambling gaits,” which are specific patterns of walking.


Horses can be proficient in several gaits, and Saddlebreds are typically three-gaited or five-gaited. This means they are naturally skillful at either three or five particular ambling gaits.


Three-gaited horses perform the walk, trot, and canter. Five-gaited horses are talented at the previous three walks, plus two others: the slow gait and the rack.


Whether a Saddlebred is three or five-gaited, these walks display power, elegance, and control. This breed’s proficiency for such beautiful high-stepping action is a big reason that contributes to their showmanship.


American Saddlebred Horse Size

American Saddlebreds are 15 to 16 hands (60-64 inches) tall from hooves to withers. The withers are the ridge located in the center of the horse’s shoulder blades.


Saddlebreds weigh between 1,000 and 1,2000 pounds, though stallions are typically larger. Being a light breed, its small size makes this Kentucky horse ideal for riding and driving.



American Saddlebred Horse Personality

The American Saddlebred is a horse breed that is eager to learn, gentle, and intelligent. They have a curious, people-loving personality that makes them a delight to train.


Their alertness and athletic energy can cause them to get a bit overexcited and wild at times. Although, this is befitting of an American breed with such a patriotic history!



two saddlebreds pulling carriage



American Saddlebred Horse History

Saddlebred Horses have not had as long a history as the Icelandic or Arabian breeds, but these American equines have achieved plenty in only 300 years.


In the 1700s, the Narragansett Pacer (native to the United States) was bred with Thoroughbreds, who were newly introduced to America. This “American Horse” birthed what would later become the American Saddlebred. Further, in its lineage, the Canadian Pacer and Morgan Horse also influenced the American Horse breed.


The saddle horse (today, “light horse” is a more common classification than “saddle horse”) was already a popular class of equine in the 1700s. Breeds such as the American Saddlebred and Kentucky Saddler were popular in the United States for their smooth, high-stepping gaits and impressive stamina.


The combination of explosive energy and a height of only 15 to 16 hands made the American Horses ideal for battle. During the Civil War, a Union Army general named William Sherman rode an early American Saddlebred-Throughoubred mix into battle. The horse, named Lexington, was the fastest four-mile horse in the country. By 1900, the American Saddlebred Horse Association had been established to preserve and promote the breed.


During the first World War, demand for a light saddle horse such as the American Saddlebred and Morgan grew larger. After the war, the Saddlebred was exported to South Africa. Today, the Saddlebred is the most popular (non-racehorse) breed in all of South Africa.


There was a time in the 1940s when demand for this breed diminished. However, Americans were ready for horse shows once again after World War II, and the Saddlebred saw a huge comeback. Throughout its history, the American Saddlebred has proven to be a useful and accomplished companion.



How to Care for an American Saddlebred Horse

You don’t need to own a show horse to groom them like a beauty queen. Plus, your saddle horse doesn’t need to be a championship-winner to eat like a champion! It is true that the Saddlebred’s “high-stepping action” makes them well-suited to certain walks, such as the slow gait and rack. Though, you can still exercise your horse without planning to enter it into any events.


If your Saddlebred will only ride the trails, it is important to adjust their dietary needs based on their activity level. To make sure you get the proper hay and grain concentrate (if needed) for your Saddlebred, contact an equine veterinarian.


Provide the vet with as much information about the horse’s daily routine as you can. This will ensure that your particular Saddlebred is energized for the tasks ahead of it each day.


American Saddlebred Horse Training

Each horse breed requires training that is appropriate for their particular strengths. Though they are frequently used for pleasure or combined driving, American Saddlebreds are typically show horses. This is why breeders selectively choose gaited horses to further the line. Additionally, many equestrians practice and highly recommend gait training for this breed.


You will often see a Saddlebred featured in fine harness events at a competition or show. They are usually ridden saddle seat to show off the precise walks for which they are known.


These horses are most commonly successful in saddle seat classes. Saddlebreds can also excel in hunt seat classes if you prefer to train your horse in a more forward riding style.


Four-Beat Ambling Gaits

Being a gaited horse means that Saddlebreds shine when it comes to four-beat ambling gaits. The most common being the walk, trot, and canter. “Four-beat” may be an unfamiliar term if you’re not an equestrian, but the idea is simple.


Imagine a horse is walking at a slow pace, and each hoofbeat makes the sound of a drumbeat as it hits the ground. With each step it takes (and providing it’s got all four limbs), there would be four drumbeats in total, one for each hoof.


Three-Beat Gaits

Three-beat gaits are walks in which the horse gallops or trots in such a way that only three distinct hoofbeats can be heard. These are concepts that are much easier to see and hear than they are to picture. Check out some videos if you want to see the four-beat and three-beat (the “lope” is a three-beat canter) walks in action.


The five primary ambling gaits that the American Saddlebred tends to handle well are the walk, trot, canter, slow gait, and rack. These terms can be confusing for newcomers, so let’s break each one down:


  • Walk: A standard walk, judged in shows on precision and looks. Each foot hits the ground independently in this four-beat gait.
  • Trot: This is a two-beat gait that has the horse mirror the movements of two of their legs that are diagonal from each other. For example, the horse’s front right and rear left legs would move identically to one another. Meanwhile, the front left and rear right legs would in turn match each other.
  • Canter: The canter is a three-beat gait similar to the trot. The left or right pair of hooves strike the ground simultaneously, with the opposite pair of hooves hitting the ground independently of each other. Here is one example of a cantering horse’s footfall pattern: left rear, followed by the right rear and left front hooves hitting the ground simultaneously, and finally the right front foot.
  • Slow gait: The slow gait describes an exaggerated walk that is faster than a running walk, but slower than the rack.
  • Rack: A four-beat gait, the rack is even more exaggerated than the slow gait, and is usually strenuous for a horse to perform. Each hoof must hit the ground independently of the horse’s other hooves. It results in an up-and-down motion that is comfortable to ride.



Some of the best driving and show horses in the world have been American Saddlebreds, and they didn’t get there without a fair amount of training. Regardless of whether your Saddlebred is show-worthy or not, plan to give them two hours of exercise every day.


For more information on your particular horse’s needs, it is always a good idea to first consult your veterinarian. To refine your Saddlebred’s gaits, try this routine next time you’re riding your horse.


  • Mount your horse and have them walk as quickly as possible without moving to a faster gait.
  • Maintain this pace, pulling the reins when necessary. Try to predict the equine’s movement so that it can more quickly understand the pace you’d like it to go.
  • Teach your horse the limits of this pace. Bring it up to a speed that is just below a gallop, and keep them as close to the edge as possible. This will improve the animal’s form and control.
  • If the horse does break into a gallop, halt them and ask for a few backward steps before moving forward. These backward steps will help train the Saddlebred to keep their weight rearward. A horse that’s heavy on the forehand won’t be able to have a very good gait while riding.
  • Once your Saddlebred is riding well, try using a half-halt. Pull back slightly on the reins, but just before the horse comes to a stop, prompt it to continue moving forward. This will require focus and speed from the horse, and it will do wonders for their sense of control.


Nutrition and Feeding for American Saddlebred Horse

Each horse has its own food necessities and nutrition requirements. But, the average Saddlebred will require about 13 pounds of hay every day, or roughly 16,7000 calories. These numbers are based on the typical activity level and weight of an American Saddlebred. If you’re concerned about age, Purina has a useful resource for determining the right amount of pasture for horses in various stages of their life.


What do you feed a horse, anyway? Saddlebred horses do well on a diet of grass, hay, and feed concentrate, though, not all horses need feed concentrate. High-performance breeds like the Saddlebred often benefit from high levels of fiber and fat.


Horses that compete in shows may need a high level of grain (such as fiber-rich oats). However, it is best to not introduce new foods to your horse until you are sure it won’t interfere with their digestion or nutrition.


It is advisable that you contact a veterinarian and provide them with information about your specific Saddlebred. This will allow you to select the best ingredients and diet for your horse.


Coat Color And Grooming

The American Saddlebred comes in a variety of colors, the most common being bay, black, chestnut, and grey. Grooming can be fun and rewarding for both owner and horse, so try to get in a steady routine with your equine.


Working or show ring horses should be groomed daily (before and after riding), while non-working horses can be groomed three times a week.


After riding or training, hose your Saddlebred down to minimize the number of attracted flies. Use a curry comb on the horse’s body, brushing in circular motions to eliminate dust, mud, and other debris. Next, run mane and tail combs through the horse’s hair, freeing any matted or dead hair.


A body brush will remove anything on the horse’s coat that the curry comb did not catch. A finishing brush will bring out even more shine. Use a dampened soft cloth or sponge to gently wipe the horse’s face. Be sure to pay extra attention to the muzzle and eyes! It is also always a good idea to check an American Saddlebred’s hooves for any rocks or dirt that need removal.


The mane and tail of a Saddlebred horse are typically long and flowing, so regular hair care is essential. Brush and condition the horse regularly to keep the tail knot-free and the mane free-flowing.


Many owners tend to braid their equine’s hair as it dries to keep it clean. It also helps to avoid any dragging of the tail. So long as you rinse and condition regularly, you’ll keep their hair looking fair and their coat shining for the next event!



two girls riding horses



American Saddlebred Horse Health Problems

The American Saddlebred is well-known for its long history of riding bravely into battle and dominating equestrian show rings. Still, no breed is without potential health concerns.


Stifle and Hock Lameness

Lameness in the stifle (a hinge joint in the upper hind limb) or the hock (the horse-equivalent of a human’s ankle) is a common health problem in gaited horses. This condition has several causes. If your Saddlebred begins to walk with a limp in one or multiple legs, you may need to contact a professional. Make sure you will be able to provide a veterinarian with relevant information. This includes your horse’s daily routine, diet, and what medications the animal is on, if any.


Ringbone and Sidebone

Repeated strain or trauma on a horse’s heel (such as in gaited breeds) may lead to chronic inflammation. The Saddlebred’s body can respond to this inflammation by calcification. Calcification is hardening due to calcium deposits. Ringbone is calcification of the collateral and suspensory ligaments on the front of the pastern. Sidebone refers to calcification of the lateral cartilage on the sides and corners of the equine’s heel.



Also known as swayback, this genetic health condition shows itself as a dip in the spine. Typically, treatment and prevention include carrot stretches (prompting your horse to stretch its neck by offering a carrot that is almost out of reach), pushing upward from underneath the abdomen to strengthen the animal’s back muscles, and riding.



How to Get an American Saddlebred Horse

Ready to shop? Great! If you’d like to become the proud new owner of an American Saddlebred, EquineNow has great resources for helping you find your new steed. You can filter your search by breed, watch videos of some horses, and read detailed information on each equine’s lineage and training.


Plan to spend between $1,000 and $3,000 for a Saddlebred, but keep in mind that discipline and lineage can impact prices, with options available from $400 all the way to $70,000!


Today, there are breed registries all over the world. The original registry, however, is the American Saddlebred Horse Association (ASHA), established in 1891.


Founded in Louisville, Kentucky, and originally called the National Saddle Horse Breeders Association, the ASHA was the first organization for an American horse breed. It is still the biggest authority on American Saddlebred rules, regulations, and events.


After you’ve given a Saddlebred its new home, it is advisable to register the horse with the ASHA. The United States Equestrian Foundation is another influential organization, but even their rule book requires that “All horses must be registered American Saddlebred Horses, and an owner must be a member of the American Saddlebred Horse Association” (GR1110). If you’d like to join USEF or simply learn more, click here to check out their rules, regulations, and membership benefits.


Equestrian magazines can also provide information and news on the American Saddlebred. Publications that focus either entirely or largely on the Saddlebred include Show Horse Magazine, The National Horseman, and Show Horse International.



More About This Horse Breed

The American Saddlebred breed is deeply rooted in American history. In its early days, the Saddlebred served its home country during wartime, and today it is among the top show ring horse breeds in the world. Whether they be a pleasure horse, show contestant, or assistant on the farm, these equines are sure to impress.


For additional information on this breed, visit your state’s Saddlebred association website. In 2016, the American Saddlebred Horse Association turned 125, so clearly, this breed isn’t going anywhere!

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