Eventing Alternate Breeds: The American Saddlebred
Chris Uhlinger, VMD
The American Saddlebred horse can trace its roots to the natural gaited horses that came to the US in the 17th and 18th century. These horses were crossed with the Thoroughbred, as well as the Arab, and later, Morgans and Standardbreds. From the beginning, American Saddlebreds were used for riding and driving, and were known for their eagerness, animation and stamina. The Saddlebred has a long history as army remounts, and up through the early 1950’s and 1960’s often competed in dressage, open jumping and eventing. Since that time these jobs have largely been taken over by European Warmbloods, and Thoroughbreds, and as a result, the American Saddlebred has largely fallen off the map in the eyes of the sport horse community. As a result, many people know the American Saddlebred only as a gaited show horse.
Saddlebred as a sport horse. In many ways, this is a natural activity for the breed, as it was created, first and foremost, to be a reliable, tireless, cross-country ride. Despite common misconceptions, most American Saddlebreds are not naturally gaited, and are happy to restrict themselves to the “usual” gaits. They are active, people oriented, outgoing horses with a “can do” attitude. In build, they are generally uphill, have “big motors” and possess self-carriage. Their “we try harder” attitude makes them a natural for dressage. Dr. Deb Bennett, PhD., recently analyzed the American Saddlebred in her Applied Conformation series (Equus 225), and states: “For more than 100 years, American Saddlebreds have been produced for the purpose of carrying a riders weight comfortably and efficiently…I have never seen any Saddlebred horse – even a part bred – who did not readily perform the passage …Most have incredibly comfortable and coordinated canters as well … I think they are the most neglected of all breeds suitable for dressage.”
It is rare Saddlebred that doesn’t love to jump. All of these characteristics make them great choices for the multifaceted challenges of eventing.
My first American Saddlebred, “Ace,” was acquired at auction, and was intended as a trail horse. However, he had entirely too much ambition for cruising around the countryside. I was astonished by verve, focus and level of intelligence. He scored well in dressage, often got “8’s” on his trots and was usually mistaken for a warmblood. He evented up to Preliminary, and never met a jump he didn’t like. I thought I was the ONLY person out there eventing who would consider a Saddlebred, but as it turned out, I had lots of company.
Karen McCollum, an eventer for 30 years, and a three-star competitor who has finished in the top 10 at Rolex several time, is also a self-proclaimed Saddlebred fan. A friend, had an Intermediate event horse that was a big, enormous moving, bold jumping, and was amazingly talented. When Karen asked what on earth breed he was, she was told, “American Saddlebred”. Karen admits her first reaction was “you’re kidding!!”
However, the seed was planted and from then on, Karen kept an eye open for Saddlebreds and Saddlebred crosses. At the National Horse Show Karen says she saw a Saddlebred class sandwiched between some international jumper classes. She was impressed with the athleticism and temperaments of the horses. She reports they looked as fired up and wild as possible, and then at the end, after all the noise and cheering and zooming about, they had to stand rock still and pose. In comparison, when the jumpers came back into their ring to be pinned for their class, they all had draw reins or short tie downs, just to keep them on the ground long enough to receive their prizes! She was also impressed with the fabulous little half-Saddlebred pinto, Montana Native who appeared on the advanced eventing scene. Finally Karen’s sister-in-law, (knowing of her secret Saddlebred daydream), knew of a nice pinto mare and said, “You know that mare is a Saddlebred.” And so, Karen ended up with Pearl. Pearl won her very first event, a beginner novice schooling trial, and started out at Novice in several recognized events this winter/spring, never out of the ribbons. She has just moved up to Training and, is headed to Prelim! Karen says, “ I simply look forward to riding her every day.”
Joy Beaston is another upper level rider who loves her Saddlebred. Speer (“Sauce and Spirit”) started life as a show prospect, but was deemed to have “a poor work ethic.” When he came to a sport that involved galloping, all that changed! Joy and Speer competed at horse trials all over the East coast, often placing in the top three in the company of the eventing “greats”, like Karen and David O’Conner, Philip Dutton, Phyllis Dawson and Stuart Pitman. Joy and Speer had a good go at the Essex 3-day event prior to his retirement. For many of us Joy and Speer set the benchmark of “what was possible” with an American Saddlebred Event Horse. Joy says of Speer “I would make mistakes, and he would cover up and take care of me. Often, I would come through the finish flags, thinking, “Well, he saved us again!” Just another example of what I felt with Ace — once you ride an American Saddlebred (particularly at full speed over a really scary cross country course!), you’re hooked forever!
Other American Saddlebreds competing in the Southeast this season include Moet, a 5 year old competing at Novice with Patricia Roberts, Sprite, ridden by Laura Cullins, Scope Me Out, a training horse owned by Teresa Del Vecchio, First Class, ridden by Genevieve Arens, Bean Sprout, ridden by Rachel Eckert and The Tazmanian Devil, ridden by Jenna Brown. The American Saddlebred is out there and coming home with double-clears! Consider this beautiful and capable breed when you look for your next event horse.
Eventing a saddlebred or half saddlebred? Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.