The founding stallion of the Morgan breed was born at West Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1789. This stallion, Figure, was a small horse of uncertain ancestry. A New England singing master named Justin Morgan received Figure in payment of a debt.
Figure first earned respect under Morgan’s ownership by pulling stumps for farmers. 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.
Only three of Figure’s 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. 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. In the world of saddle horses, riders favored flashy mounts with long legs. 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, horse breeders searched for authentic purebred Morgan horses and used them 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 as an attractive saddle horse through crossbreeding. 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.
However, most Morgan horses in the United States today are descended from the crossbred animals developed from the Morgan Horse Farm herd and are of a taller, flashier build than the original bloodlines. These older bloodlines, collectively known as the Foundation or Traditional Morgan are now considered to be critically rare.
The traditional Foundation Morgan makes a superb family horse due to its versatility. It can take part in jumping, dressage, eventing, and endurance racing. It makes an excellent pack animal. 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.
From Kansas westward, there is even a special kind of traditional Morgan horse known as the Working Western type, developed specifically for the ranch. This horse can rein and cut with the best.
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.
The more common Non-Foundation Morgan, while still suitable for pleasure riding, is primarily a show horse.
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, unpleasant experiences, particularly early in life, can sour the naturally sweet Morgan. 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, owners must monitor the Morgan horse’s weight 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 two 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.
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. A low-starch, high-fat diet will help reduce symptoms. 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.