The Morgan horse has proven its worth in a variety of equine disciplines, including dressage, show jumping and driving. Known for its speed, courage and gentle nature, the Morgan also is America’s first native breed.
An unusual beginning
In 1789, a Middleton, Vt., schoolteacher named Justin Morgan acquired a small colt in payment for a debt. Giving him the name of Figure, the colt’s pedigree was uncertain, although there was some evidence to suggest that he was sired by English Thoroughbred True Briton. (a.k.a. Beautiful Bay).
Standing just 14 hands high, Figure was fast and smart with so much speed and stamina that he could out-pull a draft horse and outrun the speediest racer. Stories of his exploits spread throughout New England, and Figure was soon in demand for his stud services.
Known for his prepotency, Figure passed on his good looks and abilities to his progeny, including three of his sons — Bulrush, Sherman and Woodbury. They would become the foundation bloodstock of the Morgan breed.
In his later years, Figure was put out to pasture, although he did have one final moment of glory when he was chosen to carry then-President James Monroe on a July 1817 muster-day parade in Montpelier, Vt.
Four years later, Figure died at the age of 32 from the kick of another horse on the Levi Bean Farm in Tunbridge, Vt. He is buried on that farm under a a large gray stone just 15 miles away from the grave of his namesake and first owner, Justin Morgan.
A proud appearance
The Morgan’s broad forehead, fine muzzle and arched neck gives the breed an impressive bearing. Further distinguished by large, expressive eyes and a broad chest, they can be found in a variety of colors, including bay, black, chestnut, gray and silver dapple. The height standard for the breed is between 14.1 to 15.2 hands.
While not recognized as a gaited breed, some Morgans are able to perform the rack, pace or foxtrot. For the majority, however, the trot is their basic motion, which they perform at a lively and even pace. Their lifespan is longer than most equines, often surpassing 30 years.
A horse for a general
Morgans were used as cavalry mounts as far back as 1838 when they were acquired by Canada’s First Kings Dragoons, serving with distinction during the 1837-38 Canadian Rebellion.
Twenty-five years later, their incredible stamina during America’s Civil War kept them going for days over rough terrain, and they fought with courage during battle.
Indeed, a number of Civil War generals rode Morgans, including Union General Phillip Sheridan, whose mount Rienzi (later named Winchester) turned a Union defeat into a victory after completing an amazing 11-mile ride over rugged terrain in 1864. Winchester’s remains are preserved at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The breed’s numbers decimated by the war, in 1905, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established a Morgan breeding program in Middleton, Vt., to save it from extinction. Acquiring only Vermont Morgan mares and stallions with bloodlines from animals in the Civil War, officials tested each horse with 300-mile endurance rides, timed races and pulling trials. Only those who exhibited superior strength, athletic ability, endurance and temperament were allowed to pass on their abilities to the next generation.
The government’s program was successful until well into the ‘30s, when extensive pressure from Kentucky Saddlebred interests persuaded the USDA to allow Saddlebred and Standardbred stock to be bred into the Morgan line. Hoping to produce a taller and larger horse with longer legs, the result was a horse with weaker legs and shorter up-and-down stride.
This dilution of the pure Morgan type and waste of the original bloodlines would ultimately end funding for the Morgan Horse Program, and in 1951 the USDA transferred its breeding stock to the Vermont Agricultural College in Burlington, Vt. It is there that a program to carry on the purity of the Morgan breed continues to the present day.
The preceding historical information was provided by the American Morgan Horse Association and the Canadian Morgan Horse Association.
The ‘Lippitt’ Morgan
Additional efforts to preserve the purity of the Morgan bloodlines occurred in the early 1970s when a group of Vermonters researched and identified 25 horses minimum with no outcrosses to any other breed in the 20th century. The descendants of these horses are called Lippitts after Robert Lippitt Knight, a Providence, R.I., breeder of “old-type” Morgans from 1927 to 1962.
For Lorena Harrold, who has bred and raised Lippitt Morgans on Willo Pond Farm outside Random Lake for 40 years, the kind and gentle nature of the breed is their outstanding trait.
“Although I am retired now, as are the five remaining Lippitt mares who reside here, they are an important part of my life and will always have a home with me,” Harrold said.
In 1894, the first Morgan Horse Registry was published in Middlebury, Vt., and in 1909, the American Morgan Horse Association was established to maintain the purity of the Morgan bloodlines. Other registries have since been established in Canada, Britain and Sweden, and currently, more than 175,000 Morgans are registered worldwide.
The Morgan’s sunny disposition, calm demeanor and desire to serve man has remained an integral part of the breed for more than 225 years. They exemplify all that is good in the nature of a horse.