When my editor e-mailed me last weekend that “you need a breed” for the stolen horses in my novella for next year’s Lawmen and Outlaws Christmas anthology, I realized anew that a horsewoman I am not.
So I searched and snooped and came up with Morgans as well as lots of cool pictures. This historic American breed started up about the same time as the United States itself, when legendary stallion Figure was born in 1789 in southern New England. He is the origin of our country’s first breed of “light horse”.
Although Figure was not as big as colonial workhorses nor as tall and long-legged as race horses, he consistently outperformed both. He became widely known for his ability to pull stumps and logs for settlers, and was also used as a saddle and driving horse. As his reputation swelled, he had fun, too, winning races and pulling contests, and was a favorite mount at militia parades. He even carried President James Monroe on a muster-day parade.
All Morgans today trace back to Figure, the “foundation sire.” Since Figure was at one time owned by a man named Justin Morgan, the horse later came to be identified by that name. Subsequently, the entire breed as well. “Justin Morgan” became famed for his prepotency –the passing on all of his distinctive looks, conformation, temperament and athleticism no matter if the mare breeding with him was a large draft horse or an elegant racing type.
The “prince of steeds” died at the age of 32 from a kick in his flank by another horse. His offspring and descendents didn’t disappoint. Blessed with ground-covering gaits, Morgans covered many miles day after day at a steady rate of speed. They were dependable and determined to get the job done, making them a favorite horse in all lines of work. Earning a reputation as “horses of all work,” they were the preferred teams for stagecoach lines, for fieldwork on farms, and for transportation to town by the 1820’s. In the 1840’s, the breed’s trotting ability made it a favorite for harness racing, and its strength found Morgans headed for the California goldfields.
Justin Morgan’s grandson, Black Hawk, and great grandson, Hale’s Green Mountain Morgan, dominated the sires by mid-century. Black Hawk, beloved for his speed and elegant style, sired a world champion trotter, and in the 1850’s, these two stallions charmed visitors to Midwestern state fairs and heightened the demand for Morgans in the west. They were taken to California as ranch horses and harness racers, and helped run the Pony Express.
Several units of cavalry in the Civil War were comprised of Morgans, including the Vermont Cavalry. U.S. General Philip Sheridan’s charger Winchester (a.k.a. Rienzi), a noble horse immortalized after the war, was a descendant of Black Hawk.
The only survivor of Custer’s regiment at the Battle of Little Bighorn was his Morgan-mustang, Comanche.
Bred to be taller today, the Morgan’s deep body, lovely head, and straight-clean boned legs make still make it a hit from cowhands in Montana to show-rings and dressage. The Morgan is at home mounted by tourists on America’s trails and by-ways as well as mounted by police in the city. Its gentleness and soundness makes this horse beloved as a therapeutic riding horse for those with various disabilities. When you’re in Shelburne Vermont, you can visit the Morgan Museum.
How about you? Authors, what horses “ride” through your plots? Ever ridden a Morgan? Share your horse-tales today!