Morgan horse is among the oldest horse breeds in the United States. It was named after Justin Morgan, his best-known owner.
Morgan horse played many roles in American history of the 19th century, being used as coach horses, harness racing, general riding animals, and cavalry horses during the American Civil War on both sides of the conflict.
Morgan horse inspired other major American breeds such as the American quarter horse, Tennessee walking horse and the Standardbred.
They were exported to other countries during the 19th and 20th centuries, including England, where the Morgan horse influenced the Hackney horse’s breeding.
The US Department of Agriculture founded the US Morgan horse farm near Middlebury, Vermont in 1907 to perpetuate and develop the Morgan breed. The farm was then transferred to the University of Vermont.
The first breed registry was founded in 1909, and many organizations have formed in the US, Europe and Oceania since then. In 2005, there were estimated to be over 175,000 Morgan horses globally.
The Morgan horse is a small elegant breed of colour, commonly bay, black or chestnut. However, they come in several colours, including some pinto variants. The breed is renowned for its versatility, being used in both English and Western disciplines.
The Morgan is Vermont’s state animal, Massachusetts’ state horse, and Rhode Island’s state mammal. Popular children’s authors have portrayed the breed in their books, including Marguerite Henry and Ellen Feld. Henry’s Justin Morgan horse was later made into a Disney movie.
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There is formally one breed standard for the Morgan species, regardless of the individual horse’s discipline or bloodline.
It has strong legs, an expressive head with a straight or slightly convex profile and broad forehead.
Other features include being compact and polished in structure, having wide, prominent eyes, well-defined withers, laid back shoulders, and an erect, well-arched neck.
The back is short, with a long and well-muscled croup, the hindquarters are strongly muscled. The tail is attached high, gracefully and straight.
Morgan horse tends to be a powerful, strong horse, and the breed is well regarded as a simple keeper. The breed’s height level ranges from 14.1 – 15.2 hands (57 – 62 inches, 145 – 157 cm), with some people above and below.
The gaits are animated, elastic, square, and collected, with a flat front and rear legs, particularly the trot. A few Morgan horse are gaited, meaning that an intermediate speed gait other than the trot such as the rack, foxtrot, or pace can be performed.
The United States Equestrian Federation states that a Morgan horse is distinctive for its stamina & vigour, character as well as eagerness, and a healthy natural way of moving.
The breed has a reputation for intellect, bravery, and a pleasant disposition. Registered Morgan horses obtain varieties of colour that include Gray, roan, dun, silver dapple, and cream dilutions such as palomino, buckskin, cremello and perlino are less common colours.
In addition, three patterns of pinto colours are also recognized, including sabino, frame overo, and splashed white. However, the tobiano trend has not been noted in Morgan horses.
Among the Morgan breed, one genetic disorder has been reported. This is myopathy of type 1 polysaccharide storage, an autosomal dominant muscle condition predominantly found in stock horse and draft horse breeds caused by a GYS1 gene missense mutation.
Morgan horses are one of the many dozen breeds found to have the allele for the disease, but its prevalence appears to be very low in Morgan horses relative to stock and draft breeds.
In one survey, less than one per cent of randomly tested Morgan horses carried the allele for this condition, one of the lowest percentages among races in that study. Genetic disorders have also been associated with two coat colour genes present in Morgan horses.
One is the Multiple Congenital Ocular Abnormalities (MCOA) hereditary ocular syndrome, initially called equine anterior segment dysgenesis (ASD). The abnormal development of specific ocular tissues is characterized by MCOA, which causes diminished vision.
Although it is usually of a mild form, the condition is non-progressive.
All Morgan horse date back to a single sire of the foundation, a stallion called Figure, was born in 1789 in West Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1792, Figure was given to a man known as Justin Morgan as a debt payment.
The name of this particular owner later came to describe the horse, and “the Justin Morgan horse” developed into the breed’s name. The Figure is estimated to have stood about 14 hands (56 inches, 142 cm) and weighed around 1,000 pounds (450 kg).
He was renowned for his prepotency, passing on his distinctive looks, conformation, disposition, and athleticism. His exact pedigree remains uncertain, but his parentage has been extensively discovered.
One historian states that the writings on the probability of his sire being a thoroughbred called Beautiful Bay will fill 41 detective novels and a membership application for the Liars’ Club.
In 1821, another horse kicked Figure and later died of his injuries. He was then buried in Tunbridge, Vermont.
Although Figure was used as a breeding stallion records, only six of his sons are known to exist, and three became notable as the Morgan breed’s foundation bloodstock. Woodbury, a chestnut, stood 59 inches (150 cm) tall and stood at stud for several years in New England.
Bulrush, a dark bay, having the same size as the Figure, was known for his stamina and pace in harness. Another chestnut stallion, a bit shorter than Figure, who was the sire and grandsire of Black Hawk and Ethan Allen, was best known as Sherman.
Born in 1833, Black Hawk became a founding stallion for the breeds Standardbred, American Saddlebred, and Tennessee walking horse. He was known for his record of undefeated harness racing.
Another notable sire in the Morgan breed history is Ethan Allen, sired by Black Hawk in 1849, who was known for his speed in trotting races.
The Morgan horse was remembered for their useful capabilities in the 19th century. They were used comprehensively for harness racing, as well as for pulling coaches, due to the breed’s speed and endurance in harness.
They were also used as stock horses, light driving work, and for general riding. Miners used the breed in the California Gold Rush (1848 – 1855), as did by the Army for both riding and harnessing horses before and after the American Civil War.
Shepherd F. Knapp, the Morgan trotting stallion, was exported to England in the 1860s, where his ability to trot inspired Hackney horses’ breeding.
Many Morgan mares may have been brought down to the West during this time and incorporated into Texan horse herds, which inspired the American Quarter Horse breed’s development.
The Morgan horse was also an ancestor of the Missouri Fox Trotter. However, in the 1870s, longer-legged horses came into fashion, and Morgan horses were crossed with other breeds. This caused the original Morgan style to vanish largely. Nonetheless, a few remained in isolated areas.
A volume of Morgan breeding stallions, published in 1857, was collected by Daniel Chipman Linsley, a native of Middlebury, Vermont.
In 1894, the first volume of the Morgan horse register was published by Colonel Joseph Battell, also a native of Middlebury, Vermont, marking the beginning of a formal breed registry.
In 1907, the US Department of Agriculture set up the US Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge, Vermont in order to perpetuate and develop the Morgan breed.
The breeding program aimed to produce horses that were safe, strong, well-mannered and capable of performing well either under saddle or in harness. In 1951, the Morgan horse farm was transferred (now the University of Vermont).
Both sides used Morgan horses throughout the American Civil War as cavalry mounts. Horses with Morgan roots include Sheridan’s Winchester, also known as Rienzi, (a descendant of Black Hawk).
The Little Sorrel of Stonewall Jackson was alternately identified as a Morgan or an American Saddlebred, a breed heavily influenced by the Morgan horse.
Although Morgan horse enthusiasts have claimed that after the Battle of the Litt, the horse Comanche, was the only survivor of the Custer regiment, this does not support the Army and other early sources.
Most sources say that Comanche was either of the “Mustang lineage” or a combination of “American” and “Spanish” blood.
The University of Kansas Natural History Museum, which has Comanche’s stuffed body on display, does not comment on his ethnicity. All sources agree that Comanche originated in the Oklahoma or Texas region, making it his Mustang heritage more likely.
Today, there are four main bloodline groups within the Morgan breed, known as the Brunk families, Government, Lippitt, and Western working families.
There are also smaller subfamilies. The Brunk family, especially noted for soundness and athleticism, can be traced to the Illinois breeding program of Joseph Brunk.
The Lippitt family can be traced back to Robert Lippitt Knight’s breeding program, grandson of industrialist Robert Knight and maternal great-grandson Christ Christopher Lippitt, founder of the Lippitt Mill.
Robert Lippitt Knight focuses General Gates was the foundational sire of this line. When USDA participation ended, the farm and most of its breeding stock were purchased by the University of Vermont and is carrying on the program today.
There is no traditional breeder or ancestor for the Western working family, but the horses are bred to be stock horses and work cattle.
The ‘Morgan Horse Club’ was founded in 1909, and later changed its name to the ‘American Morgan Horse Association.’ There was a debate within the registry membership during the 1930s and 1940s as to whether the studbook should be open or closed.
This reflected similar disputes in other registries of US breeds.As a result of these debates, the studbook was declared closed to external blood as of January 1, 1948.
The US and Canadian registries signed a reciprocity agreement on the registration of horses in 1985. The registries made a similar agreement of the US and Great Britain in 1990. As of 2012, approximately 179,000 horses were registered during the association’s life, with over 3,000 new foals registered annually.
It is estimated that there are between 175,000 and 180,000 Morgan horses worldwide. Although they are most common in the United States, there are populations in Great Britain, Sweden and other countries.
The most prominent organization for the breed is the American Morgan Horse Association (AMHA). In addition to the AMHA, there has also been a National Morgan Pony Registry since 1996, which specializes in horses fewer than 14.2 hands (58 inches, 147 cm). Many other organizations concentrate on particular bloodlines within the Morgan breed.
These include the Rainbow Morgan Horse Association, which started in 1990, working with the AMHA to create and support unusually coloured Morgan horses, such as those with the silver dapple and cream genes.
The Morgan Horse Association Foundation tracks those horses bred to mimic the stockier form seen in the late 1800s and early 1900s, before mixing with the American Saddlebred.