The American Saddlebred: The Horse America Made

Photo courtesy of Izzy McSwain


Though hunter/jumper competitors know the Pin Oak Charity Horse Show as a heritage horse show in Texas with Grand Prix and International Derbies, but there is more breed representation there. Pin Oak was the first show in the USA to be designated as a heritage event and they embrace this by showing off a special breed of horse, the American saddlebred. Before the show, I did not know anything about saddlebreds but some great people at Bluebonnet farms and Izzy McSwain took the time to teach me.

The saddlebred is known as the horse America made, and it has a rich history. They were bred during the American revolution from pacers, morgans, and thoroughbreds. Saddlebreds are a more petite breed with their average sizes ranging from 15-16hh. They are gaited horses and show in 3 and 5 gait classes. Saddlebreds have a unique gait called the rack, a fast 4 beat gait that is synchronous, the legs rise and fall in a similar pattern to the walk. 

Saddlebred shows have many different types of classes, and it can be quite overwhelming to people new to the sport. These horses can perform under saddle, driving, and in hand. In under saddle classes there are 5 main divisions. saddle seat, park, pleasure classes, western pleasure, and hunter country pleasure.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

In park classes, exhibitors are judged on their horses’ high action at the walk, trot, and canter. They want to show off their horses fanciest and showiest trot. In pleasure classes, a smooth performance and good manners are more important than the horse’s gaits having lots of action. Hunter country pleasure is similar to a normal pleasure class but with an even bigger emphasis on manners. They show at the walk, trot, and canter, sometimes including extended gaits. The horses are also tested on their backing up skills. Equitation classes for saddlebreds are saddle seat, hunt seat, and stock saddle. Juniors and amateurs are judged on their riding style and ability to control the horse. Like hunter/jumper equitation, the horse is not judged in these classes. 

The classes where they are driving the carts are known as harness classes. The main harness divisions include the roadster, 5 harness, pleasure driving, and fine harness. In the roadster division, the harness is typical to what is seen in harness racing. They show at a trotting gait, a slow jog which is a medium speed known as a road gait, and then a rapid/ long strided trot that is called “showing at speed.”

But the American Saddlebred isn’t just limited to showing at special breed shows. Many riders I talked to at the show told me their horses love trail riding and are great family horses. This special breed has been gaining popularity across the nation in eventing and dressage. I had the awesome opportunity to talk to Izzy McSwain, a rider on the University of Kentucky’s eventing team, who owns a saddlebred she competes in eventing with. 

“Lucky, registered as Look Who’s Charming Now!, is a 16-year-old American Saddlebred sired by the legendary Santana’s Charm. We bought him back in 2010 to be my junior exhibitor show pleasure horse and he has been my best friend ever since,” she explains.

Photo courtesy of Izzy McSwain

“Lucky started out competing as a show horse in saddleseat, but we learned quickly that this wasn’t the sport for him. After a year of downtime, I absolutely fell in love with the eventing world and decided I wanted to train him how to jump. Lucky learned quickly and proved to us that he loved to jump and that this was the sport he wanted to pursue. 

“I decided to event him overall because of his bravery and he has the biggest heart of any horse I’ve ever met. He always wants to please and will do just about anything you ask him to do. Since switching to the eventing world he has become an ambassador for the versatility of the American Saddlebred and continues to show everyone just what saddlebreds are capable of.  Saddlebreds are incredibly intelligent, hard-working horses that have the biggest hearts. They’d jump the moon for you if you asked them to which is why they’re proving they make excellent sport horses. There’s no better feeling than competing on an American Saddlebred.”

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