THE AMERICAN SADDLEBRED -
Martha Utley Aitken
The American Saddlebred is the old new sport horse: old because it was a national caliber jumping horse in the days of the U.S. Cavalry ; new because its sport horse ability is being rediscovered in the US and overseas after a lengthy hiatus.
The American Saddlebred has a definite place in today’s sport horse world as hunt, jump, dressage or event horses. The Saddlebred can excel in these areas, however our owners and trainers need to be educated as to how to present and market them.
Sport horses are not rejects. We need to eliminate the word reject from our vocabulary. Only a select few of any breed of animal in the show world ends up in the winner’s circle. What happens to the rest? Saddlebreds used to be versatile prior to the 1940s. They were working ranch horses or jumpers or field hunters and many a show horse pulled a plow during WWII. An attitude change sneaked in and for some reason, if a horse can’t step six inches over level and command a $25,000 and up price tag, today it is a reject. The remaining horses frequently go to a local livestock sale and some are sold by the pound. We have not only lost numbers but also lost valuable sport horses and ultimate cash to the owner plus a genetic pool that may never be recovered.
The first way to turn this around is to learn something about the language of the sport horse world. The American Saddlebred is an American Warmblood: a blending of the blood of imported European stock, half-breeds and full-bloods. A Warmblood is not a cross between "hot" full-bloods and "cold" draft horses. The true Warmblood is a very slow and deliberate breeding program, neither an accident nor a one-time cross.
The Saddlebred has more than a hundred years of documented breeding to qualify as a Warmblood and a sport horse. The Europeans have been wise enough to take our horses and cross them on their Warmbloods. The resulting animal many times has become an outstanding performing or breeding horse. The past fifty years has found the majority of Saddlebred breeders focused on the show ring candidate. At the same time the European breeders have changed from the utility horse to the under saddle jumping and dressage horse. Today, breeders and owners of Saddlebreds are seeking new disciplines to increase the market exposure of their horses. Dressage is the fastest growing discipline in the world with eventing a close second. It is only natural to focus on these disciplines. The Saddlebred is once again being bred for sport horse use.
The ideal Warmblood sport horse is a combination of beauty with substance, athletic ability and a willing disposition. This description certainly sounds like an American Saddlebred. The Warmblood is bred to be a sport horse with style and stamina coupled with speed and durability, yet is still elegant. The temperament should be lively but docile and willing to obey the requests of the rider or driver. These requirements eliminate both the dead-head and the hyper Saddlebred. Sometimes the traits are caused by environment and/or training, but some bloodlines just naturally seem to be unsettled.
The ideal sport horse must have straight legs. These horses work with a relatively short hoof and a standard flat shoe. The foot flight path should be true and correct. The closer the legs are to ideal, the better the chance the horse has to stay sound in the legs and feet. A horse in pain cannot perform up to ability. Remember that these horses show in the ring one at a time, not in a group situation, whether doing dressage or jumping. Any flaw is readily apparent. Furthermore, soundness has to be proven prior to competition.
The sport horse can have a medium to large frame. The tendency today is to keep the horse’s height under 16.2 hands. The four key words for describing a sport horse’s movement are suspension, extension, elasticity and impulsion.Conformation determines this natural ability.
The horse’s back should look relaxed so that the energy from the rear should flow to the front. The horse should have well-sprung ribs with a deep girth line. The loins should be elastic and flexible to help the hind legs reach up under the horse for impulsion. The hips should be wide and muscled. The croup should have a moderate slope because the very flat croup usually inhibits impulsion. Knowledgeable judges today no longer fault the flat croup to a great degree. What is severely penalized is the short flat croup.
A hindquarter weakness can cause problems with the horse’s mouth and back. The rider tries to force the horse to do something that the horse’s conformation precludes. If the hind legs naturally stand out behind the body, the horse leaves its energy behind instead of propelling forward. For this reason a sport horse is judged standing square. Many Saddlebreds are faulted for being unable to stand square but it is simply a matter of training. When standing square, the sport horse should not have a rump higher than withers, creating a downhill look.
A balanced horse is easier to train and to ride. It is usually not practical to have to remedy mechanical defects by having to train the horse to elevate the forehand and to engage the hindquarter. The horse lifts when moving, displaying suspension, elasticity and impulsion. It lifts its spine to use its back, rounding and moving in a supple manner. Traditionally Saddlebred trainers have taught the horse to hollow the back to raise the forehand rather than allowing the horse to round the back to engage the hindquarters. This is a very important difference in basic training techniques. It takes longer to train the horse to round and transfer weight but horse and rider both benefit in the long term. Think of how Tom Bass "high schooled" all of his horses. He was rounding the horse.
The walk is most important because very little can be done to improve a horse’s walk. Ideally, the hind foot should step into or over-step the front footprint, however, few Saddlebreds will do this. They will come to within a few inches of the front footprint.. The shoulder should be free and reach forward in an elastic manner. Many of our present-day horses are so up-tight that they take short, choppy inelastic steps. Relaxation with the head down and free will correct this. Again, think of the rounded top line.
At a trot the horse should engage the hindquarter to free the forehand. The first step at a trot is telling. If the horse can do all this in one motion, then assuming that the other traits are present, this horse might be a dressage candidate. A horse is walked and trotted on a hard surface to allow evaluation of the true way of moving for the sport horse disciplines.
A canter can be judged at liberty or during a performance test under saddle. It is imperative that the horse shift its weight to the hindquarters when it steps into the canter, not after a cantering stride or two. It should be light and lifting, not thundering like a draft horse.
Jumping ability is frequently demonstrated in a chute without a rider or tack. A jumper needs a relaxed back over fences. The body should arc with the front legs lifted and tucked. This arc is called a bascule and is highly desirable, yet many top jumping horses do not bascule. Once again heart and desire prevail over perfect form. Saddlebreds love to jump and many a Saddlebred has competed nationally while masquerading as a Thoroughbred.
There are always at least two judges at a sport horse inspection, although USEF Dressage Sport Horse Breeding Judges work alone. The judges must assess a lot of horses in a short time. Many considerations are discussed and scores of one to ten are ranked. A score of 7 or above is First Premium. These horses are sought out by buyers for performance prospects. Breeding stock scoring First Premium receive preliminary breeding privileges but must undergo more extensive tests at a later date before they are approved. A score of 5 to 6.9 is Second Premium. These horses are not second rate citizens or failures. They simply have several flaws which caused the scores to drop. Sometimes the judges will recommend that the horse be resubmitted the next year. The Second Premium horses are not recommended for breeding. They may likely become very good performers through physical maturity and judicious training.
Inspections for the American Warmblood Registry are held each fall in various locations around the country. Foals to aged mares and stallions are evaluated. The grading is tough because the American Warmblood Registry uses the Danish model approved by the World Breed Federation for Sport Horses. This form is essentially used for all sport horse grading in Europe. The American Warmblood Registry is an A member of the World Breed Federation.
American Warmblood Registry judges must attend a training session in England and the next year in Germany. Each session has a practical exam which requires a minimum score to receive credentials. In addition they must judge in the US as a judge trainee.
Assuming that a Saddlebred is thought to be a sport horse candidate. How should it be presented for marketing? It should be stood square. One hind leg may be slightly forward. If video is used, it should be filmed from all four sides and each leg featured. It should be walked straight out and back, then viewed from the side. This is repeated at a trot. Under saddle, the horse should be presented in a calm, relaxed manner, but not allowed to string out. When being filmed for sale, all three gaits should be presented from the side as well as a front and rear view.
Most sport horse buyers will not consider a horse with a cut tail or a five-gaited horse. Never wrap a tail with a bandage in the set-tail position. Certainly you should omit the ginger. Don’t present a horse wearing a toe-weight or heavy shoe with pads and wedges. The sport horse must be a natural product. Do present a substantial horse with plenty of bone with good legs and feet. A pretty horse is always nice but drop-dead gorgeous doesn’t get the horse over a big fence, or perform a piaffe and passage. Sport horse buyers are looking for an over-all picture that represents the four qualities of suspension, extension, elasticity and impulsion.
The American Saddlebred Horse can become a valuable member of the sport horse world. Owners and trainers will have to become educated to the needs, likes and dislikes of the buyers. A local, national and international market awaits the successful breeder and marketeer.