Explanations of Sport Horse Disciplines

Breeding Divisions

Dressage at Devon

From the very first, the American Saddlebred has done his owner proud. Whether carrying him into battle, across a plantation in style, or into a show ring, the breeds’ athleticism and beauty has been a constant. From Traveler to Fury, Flicka to My My, Appomatox to Hollywood, and back to Louisville, the Saddlehorse has risen to every occasion, and filled every bill. Anyone who is an afficianado of the breed is familiar with all of the divisions in which American Saddlebreds traditionally are shown, but the time has come to recognize the areas in which the breed has excelled unheralded for years; the Sporthorse disciplines.

As the Europeans, with their Warmbloods of divergent, yet essentially similar, bloodlines came to the fore in the Olympic Games, horses like “Jacks or Better”, an Olympic Show Jumper for the US and winner at Aachen in 1964, and an American Saddlebred, and “American Lady” an American Saddlebred Olympic Dressage horse, were left to history, and the United States imported European Warmbloods of every type- from German Holstieners, Hannoverians and Trakheners, to the Dutch, Danish, and Swedish Warmblood, and more. While the Europeans had been busily breeding these horses for Sport, the Americans had primarily ridden Cavalry remounts into the International scene. In comparison to the Europeans, the American breeding effort to produce horses of international caliber for the Sporthorses disciplines was practically nonexistent. So, we begin to import horses, in an attempt to “fast track” our competitive efforts.

The early imports were usually larger horses, of colder blood, with enormous bone and girth, but as time has passed, these heavier horses have given way to a lighter type. Just as the American Saddlebred is descended largely from Thoroughbred blood, more Thoroughbred has been infused into these Warmblood breeds, making them, amongst other things, more manageable as competitive ladies mounts. The door is opening again to competitive quality Sporthorse prospects, with movement and temperaments that suit the Amateur rider of today. What is more to the point, is that a market place exists, of enormous stature and potential, for the American Saddlebred to gain visibility and prominence. The Disciplines which are usually accepted under the Sporthorse heading include those which are also known as the Olympic disciplines; Show Jumping, Eventing (specifically three day at the Olympic level), Competitive Driving, Endurance, Dressage and most recently, Reining.

Combined Driving

Saddlebred Sport HorseCombined Driving takes us back to a time when the horse was our means of transportation. Throughout history, horses in harness have gone to war, plowed our fields, pulled our ferries, trolleys, and dressed up to pull the carriage on Sundays. The marathon vehicles are as state of the art as a racing bike- built to negotiate challenging cross country courses at speed, and stay in one piece. The sport of Combined Driving demands a horse to be obedient, brilliant, supple and fit. There are three phases; the Dressage test, Marathon, and the Cones course. In the Dressage phase, the horses complete a set pattern, showing their ability to perform brilliant movement, with balance, cadence, and expression, and correct and accurate transitions. Elegant turnout is essential, with horse, driver and carriage and harness gleaming with hard work and preparation. In the Marathon phase, the courage and agility, as well as accuracy and ability of the horse and driver are tested over a challenging course, at speed.

There are two types of Marathons- a three section and a five. The three section consists of a trot section, followed by a walk section, then the cross country. The five section Marathon adds an additional trot and walk section before the cross country. A stalwart navigator rides on the back of the Marathon vehicle with the driver, helping to balance the vehicle, and guide the driver, as they negotiate the course at speed, judged on the time they take to complete the course. The partnership between driver and horse is tested here, along with the strength of their vehicle and harness, making for an exciting competition. The final phase, the Cones Course, challenges the stamina, coordination, precision and timing of these teams. Each team must negotiate a course of cones with balls sitting on top, at specified distances (ten to twenty inches wider than the wheel track, depending on the division) and once again, against the clock. Time is added for each ball knocked down as the carriage passes too close to a cone, and the competitor with the lowest score, over the sections, is declared the winner. The American Saddlebred has the opportunity to truly shine here, with their wonderful movement, gameness, and flexibility.

Competitive & Endurance Riding

Endurance riding has been with us for centuries, from the Beduoins and their Arabians, crossing long expanses of desert. In modern times, the Cavalry and Pony Express trained horses for long distances, working on preparing their horses for maximum speed for extended periods of time. The modern endurance horse must travel at least 50 miles a day in competition, while maintaining optimum health and condition. Horses are examined by Veterinarians check points throughout the course, and again at the finish, for heart rate, soundness, and dehydration. Courses may include any kind of terrain, from mountains to desert spaces. The goal is to arrive at the finish line first, with your horse in excellent condition. The motto of the endurance rider is “to finish is to win”, as no minimum time is established. While traditionally, Arabs and horses of Arabian cross are at the top of this Sport, American Saddlebreds are great partners, and horses such as Squeezable (Squeeze Play-Wild Loveliness), owned by Mary E. McDevitt, have had great achievements.

Distance Riding

Kinds of Rides
Pleasure Rides:

  • 5, 10, 15, 20 miles per day at 3-5 mph.
  • If a Judged Pleasure Ride, manners and condition of horse and horsemanship of the rider are judged.
  • This is the first level in trail riding.

Competitive Rides:

  • 25-40 miles per day at 6 mph.
  • Speed is not a factor.
  • Distance and time are set by ride management or the sponsoring organization.
  • The horse whose condition changes least from beginning to end is the winner.
  • You need to know how to take your horse’s pulse and respiration.

Endurance Rides:

  • 50 miles in 12 hours, 100 miles in 24 hours.
  • Minimum speed is 4.1 mph, but top speed is 10 mph (average).
  • This is a race, the first horse in that is able to go on is the winner.

Walk = 20 minutes per mile = 3 mph
Slow/moderate trot = 9 minutes per mile = 6 ½ mph
Fast trot = 6 minutes per mile = 10 mph

The condition of the horse is of paramount importance!! Horses must be at least 4 years old, and many organizations require 5 years of age at the time of the ride. Provided that you walk, almost any healthy horse can do a 5 mile ride (1 ¾ hours). A horse that is ridden in the ring for at least an hour a day, 5-6 days a week should be able to do a 10 mile Pleasure ride, at the walk, easily.

For longer or faster rides the horse and rider needs at least some specific conditioning. * (see conditioning) 6-8 weeks of serious conditioning (5miles per day, 5-6 days per week) will get you and your horse into condition for a 20 mile pleasure ride and or an easy competitive ride.

If you plan to compete seriously, plan to spend two riding seasons getting your horse in condition for competitive rides and 1-2 seasons of serious competing in competitive rides before you try endurance.


It takes at least two months to get an average horse into condition for an easy 25 mile ride. The following is a suggested conditioning program. Each horse is an individual and conditioning needs should be determined bearing this in mind. A green horse, for example, may be approached in a different way than the veteran campaigner. Many factors will affect your time schedule, but you won’t melt in the rain and you both might as well get use to the heat. Rides/drives are held rain or shine.

This is a sample conditioning schedule, one hour a day minimum, 5-6 days per week.

Week one: Three to five miles each day at a brisk walk.
Week two: Five miles a day, gradually increasing to a trot.
Week three: Five miles a day with one 10 mile day.
Week four: Five miles a day with one 10 mile day in 2 hours.
Week five: Five miles a day with one 15 mile day in 2 ½ hours.
Week six: Five miles a day with one 20 mile day.
Week seven: Five miles a day with one 20 mile day in 3 hours.
Week eight: Five miles a day, with the day before the ride off.

This schedule will condition a horse for any 25 – 40 mile Competitive Ride.

The distances need to be accurate. If you use roads, measure with the car speedometer. If you are using trails, use an ORV or at the very least use a ruler and a topographic map.

Remember if you are going to enjoy the ride, you must be in as good condition as your horse. This means you ride every conditioning mile.

As of 2001 Wing Tempo had the most miles of any horse in the North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC). His total miles at that time were 18,510, about 3,000 miles ahead of second place. I think he was in his late 20′s at that time and still going.


Saddlebred Sport HorseDressage is the single fastest growing Sporthorse discipline today. The United States Dressage Federation reports that from 1990 to 2000, their membership grew a remarkable 104% ! When you consider that this is only for those people who elect to join the USDF, as a reflection of those people with horses in their backyards, and in boarding barns across the united States, who are dabbling in Dressage- this discipline offers a truly outstanding venue for the American Saddlebred to excel- and a phenomenal resources opportunity for the breed. The word Dressage comes to us from the French “dresser”, which simply means “to train”. It is a sport which is pyramidal in it learning structure; laying a foundation in the lower levels that builds and confirms an athlete for the upper level work of Grand Prix, or Olympic level, Dressage.

Dressage has at its roots, the classic Greek horsemanship. As with Eventing, at the Olympic level, Dressage was originally exclusively for Military personnel. First introduced at the Olympics in 1912, Dressage was not opened up to civilians for another 40 years. Today, civilians are the dominant force in Dressage.

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