The versatile descendants of the Justin Morgan horse are sought after for their passionate loyalty, stylish carriage and can-do attitude. Plus, they’re cute. Go figure!
Ask just about any cowgirl which Breyer® plastic horse was her favorite growing up and she won’t hesitate to answer. Mine was the (now classic) Justin Morgan Stallion, with whom I spent many a long afternoon, posing him in the backyard grasses or near the creek behind my best girlfriend’s house.
To this day I can picture the toy horse’s beautiful black mane and tail, his head held proud and high. So it was with a mix of excitement and nostalgia (has it really been decades since I played with that horse?) that I agreed to write this issue’s equine article about Morgan horses.
Fast forward to 2012, when I attended a horse training clinic. One of the participants was riding a gorgeous little bay mare. This horse was attractive by any standards—well put together, with a flowing black mane and tail and a really cute head—but what made her really stand out amongst the quarter horses, appaloosas and paints was her personality and the way she moved. This horse just seemed to light up the arena. I recognized immediately that she was a Morgan, a fact which her owner enthusiastically confirmed, raving about her friendly temperament and willingness to do whatever was asked of her. This, it seems, is a common experience among owners of Morgan horses.
Julie Broadway, Executive Director of the American Morgan Horse Association (AMHA) has been riding and showing Morgan horses for years. “Morgans are wise, they want to please and they are easy keepers. They really like people, thus the AMHA’s slogan ‘The horse that chooses you.’ Some people say that Morgans are the Golden Retrievers or Labradors of the horse world. They just want to make their owners happy!”
The Morgan is a physically distinctive horse with a compact body, short back and well-sprung ribs. The head is fine, with a straight or slightly dished face, large eyes and short, widely set ears. The neck should be slightly arched, rising from strongly angled shoulders. According to the breed ideal, “viewed from the top line, the impression would be the neck sitting on top of the withers rather than in front.” Additionally, the top line of the neck should be considerably longer than the bottom line—and the throatlatch is a bit deeper than other breeds. A Morgan horse should never be taller at the croup than at the withers. Although the Morgan is often depicted as a classic bay, I learned the breed comes in a variety of colors including chestnut, black, palomino, buckskin, dun, cremello, and other hues. A lush, often wavy mane and long, flowing tail are the norm. In short, the Morgan is a looker.
Attractiveness, personality and a tractable temperament are great, but for those who have been exposed to the Morgan primarily as an elegant, aristocratic English mount or a high-stepping carriage horse, their suitability for western riding may have been overlooked. In fact, Morgans are used for a variety of western and recreational riding. The breed’s smooth gaits and undeniable “star quality” make them well-suited to western pleasure competitions. Their relatively small stature (14-15 hands on average) combined with a muscular, compact build create an athleticism that has been channeled towards a number of traditional “cowboy” disciplines, including cutting, ranch horse versatility, gaming and reining, to name a few. There is even a mounted shooting team in Florida that rides Morgans! Recently, the burgeoning interest in Western Dressage is creating a new and exciting arena for Morgan horse enthusiasts, offering a seemingly made-to-order venue for showcasing the breed’s charming blend of refined and rugged.
Of course a large number of recreational riders in the USA—especially women equestrians—are trail riders and this is where the Morgan horse truly excels, enjoying a reputation for “street-smarts” and a tireless, good-natured enthusiasm. Many Morgan owners report a deep feeling of relationship with their horses, and the sense that on the trail, their Morgan will “take care of them.”
“Morgans are the best companions!” exclaims Broadway, reminding me that the Morgan was the first horse breed developed and raised in the USA. Perhaps it is our nation’s long history of reliance on the breed that has forged such a passionate following.
Back in 1789, when the United States of America was still adjusting to its newfound status as an independent nation, the foal that would become the foundation sire for the Morgan Horse breed was also taking his first wobbly steps. The bay colt named “Figure” was owned by a teacher, composer, businessman and horseman by the name of Justin Morgan. As Figure matured, the stallion’s beauty, strength, speed, endurance and gentle disposition became legendary. At that time in New England, a horse might be called upon to plow a field in the morning, pull an elegant buggy to church on Sunday, and outrun the competition in local horse races that were popular entertainment for the townspeople (who no doubt missed the thoroughbred sports of England). Figure’s stud services were offered throughout the Connecticut River Valley and in Vermont, and, like the foundation stallions of other breeds to come, he consistently passed on his best characteristics—not only to his direct offspring, but to subsequent generations. By the mid 1850s, Figure’s descendants were commanding high prices across the United States, sought after as harness racers and as general all-around horses.
When the Civil War broke out many Morgans were drafted into the cavalry, prized as war horses for their endurance, bravery under fire and extreme loyalty to their riders. Regrettably, these same attributes caused many horses to perish in the fighting. As early as 1857, a book by D.C. Linsley was published documenting the history of Justin Morgan and America’s first horse breed. By 1909 the Morgan Horse Club was formed, and in 1927 the club began registration of individual animals (the name was changed to the American Morgan Horse Association in 1971). The first National Morgan Horse Show was held in Woodstock, Vermont in 1939.
Today, there are many local, national and international shows for Morgan enthusiasts, including the Grand National & World Championship held every October in Oklahoma City, which regularly draws crowds in the thousands. So whatever happened to Figure, the most famous Morgan of all? After Justin Morgan’s death, Figure went on to other owners, living out his life as a working horse: tilling fields, hauling freight, and as a parade mount. Little did he know that hundreds of years in the future, horse-crazy girls would still be cherishing his likeness. In the custom of the day, Figure would be forever after known as the “Justin Morgan Stallion.”
For more information about the Morgan horse, visit the American Morgan Horse Association’s website: Morganhorse.com.
(Originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).