The Morgan horse is truly an American breed. Its founding stallion was born at West Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1789, the year that George Washington took office and American government under the Constitution began.
This stallion, Figure, was a small horse of uncertain ancestry. Thoroughbred, Arabian, Barb, and Welsh Cob have all been mentioned as possible breeds in his background, but it is doubtful that horse historians will ever discover the full truth. A New England singing master named Justin Morgan received Figure in payment of a debt. Perhaps this was the most fortunate event that could have occurred to an undersized horse of doubtful lineage, because Justin Morgan occasionally kept stallions for extra income.
Figure first earned respect under Morgan’s ownership by pulling stumps for farmers. While only giving the locals a glimpse of the horse’s potential, this task established his reputation for strength well enough that he was worthy of being put to stud in 1792. As time went on, Figure, also known as “the Justin Morgan horse,” won further acclaim for hauling incredibly heavy logs and beating highly respected racehorses at their own game. His services as a sire were widely demanded, particularly when his offspring proved to bear his excellent temperament and ability to work.
Although Figure had many colts and fillies, only three of his sons went on to found the Morgan breed, the rest falling into obscurity. The offspring of these horses became an important part of the New England economy as America expanded. A mannerly and versatile horse was exactly what the young nation needed, so Morgans went everywhere that Americans did. They took up residence on farms as workhorses, and they moved into the cities to pull coaches, carts, and carriages of all types. They even traveled west to serve potential farmers, ranchers, prospectors, and stagecoach drivers. Later on, Morgan horses took part in the Civil War, serving in every manner from pulling artillery to transporting officers in style.
By the 1870s, the versatile Morgan horse had spread across the entire continental United States. The fashions were changing, however. Trains replaced stagecoaches, and trolleys replaced horse-drawn vehicles in city transportation. On the farm, heavy draft breeds became necessary to haul the bulky machinery of the Industrial Revolution. Although saddle horses were still important in parts of the nation, a flashy horse with long legs was preferred. The Morgan horse became a crossbreeding tool used to produce other horses that would fit new roles.
But there were too many dedicated lovers of the breed to allow it to become extinct. In the 1890s, persistent efforts were made to locate the authentic purebred Morgan horses scattered across New England. Survivors were found and used to rebuild the breed. In 1907, even the federal government took a hand in the breed’s future with the establishment of the United States Morgan Horse Farm, designed to improve and perpetuate the Morgan. When the automobile became the standard means of transportation, the versatile breed was ready to adapt to yet another new position—that of a family friend and companion.
Today, there are over 100,000 Morgan horses in America alone. The breed is the official state horse of Massachusetts and the state animal of Vermont. Not surprisingly, New England is still the stronghold of the Morgan, but it can be found in all parts of the country. From Kansas westward, there is even a special kind of Morgan horse known as the Western working type, developed specifically for the ranch.
The Morgan is still unsurpassed for versatility, making it a superb family horse. In English tack, it can take part in jumping, dressage, eventing, and endurance racing. Under a Western saddle, it can rein and cut with the best. And, of course, it is always ready for simple pleasure riding in the pasture or on the trail. The breed’s excellent disposition makes it a good candidate for therapeutic riding programs, as well.
Driving is another activity at which the Morgan excels, whether for fun or competition. It is even strong enough to carry out some of the farm work, such as plowing.
Finally, the Morgan horse makes an excellent pack animal.
Enthusiasts of the Morgan horse claim that the breed has a zest for life. It is always spirited and ready for anything, doing all that is asked of it tirelessly. In spite of its pluck and energy, however, the Morgan is easy to handle. It loves human companionship, and it loves to please. Furthermore, it is among the most calm and reliable of horses.
Unfortunately, the naturally sweet Morgan can be soured through unpleasant experiences, particularly early in life. A Morgan with a bad upbringing can be distrustful and stubborn.
Overall, the Morgan is a healthy horse. It is structurally sound, particularly in the legs and feet.
However, too many owners fail to realize how little maintenance their Morgans actually require. Even a little supplemental feed can lead to obesity and associated health problems. To avoid metabolic disorders and Cushing’s disease, the Morgan horse’s weight must be monitored carefully.
An unusual difficulty in the Morgan horse is hyperammonemia. This is usually seen in weanlings and presents itself as a failure to thrive. Further investigation uncovers high ammonia levels in the blood. The cause of this disorder is unknown.
Some colors in the Morgan are associated with various health problems. For instance, silver dapple is associated with eye anomalies that impair the horse’s vision, albeit mildly. Also, breeding Morgans displaying the frame overo variety of paint coloration can produce a foal with lethal white syndrome. A foal with this genetic problem is born pure or mostly white but otherwise apparently normal. However, its gastrointestinal tract is underdeveloped, quickly leading to colic. There is no treatment. Therefore, a frame overo horse should be bred only to a horse of another color.
A genetic disease in the Morgan horse unrelated to color is polysaccharide storage myopathy, in which glycogen accumulates in the muscle causing cramping and tremors. This problem can be avoided with a low-starch, high-fat diet. Fortunately, however, it is far less common in Morgans than in draft horses.
- Suitability for beginners, due to excellent temperament.
- Low feed requirements.
- Comfortable gaits.
- Great stamina.
- Exceptional strength.
- Cow sense.
- High prices in some parts of the United States.
- Relatively late maturity.
Justin Morgan Had a Horse
Great children’s book by a favorite author. Mingles fiction with fact, but still a nice introduction.