The American Saddlebred horse is a charismatic equine breed with high-stepping gaits and eye-catching looks.

Often called the horse America made, the breed traces back to Colonial America when settlers crossed imported Thoroughbreds and gaited breeds to produce a distinct riding horse. Further refinement during the 18th century in Kentucky created a breed revered for its quality, size, stamina, and ambling gaits.

Today, the traits that made the American Saddlebred a preferred mount of cavalry officers during the American Civil War make this breed the ultimate show horse. Unfortunately, performance demands on American Saddlebreds can increase the risk of specific health problems.

Strategic management and balanced nutrition can limit these risks to support overall health and peak performance in American Saddlebreds. But some Saddlebreds also carry genes linked to incurable medical conditions.

This article will review the origin, history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the American Saddlebred. Keep reading to learn more about caring for and feeding your Saddlebred horse.

American Saddlebred History

The ancestors of the American Saddlebred gained recognition under several names throughout American history. These horses served primarily as all-purpose riding mounts and war horses until the foundation of the official breed registry for the American Saddlebred in 1891.

Origin

American Saddlebreds are considered a gaited breed. Some Saddlebreds can perform ambling gaits, which include several four-beat gaits with no suspension phase. These gaits are more comfortable for riders than a standard walk, trot, or canter.

The first breed developed in America, the Narragansett Pacer, was a gaited horse. These now-extinct horses significantly influenced several modern American breeds, including the American Saddlebred.

Narragansett Pacers descended from ambling horses imported to the continent from the British Isles. Research suggests that the traits responsible for ambling gaits originated in 9th-century medieval England and were spread throughout Europe by the Vikings. [1]

Settlers in the American Colonies crossed Narragansett Pacers with imported Thoroughbreds to produce a distinct riding horse breed called the American Horse.

In the 1800s, American Horses accompanied pioneers to the western frontier, where Kentucky breeders refined the horses with additional Thoroughbred blood. This new breed of saddle horses became known as the Kentucky Saddler.

Morgan, Standardbred, Hackney, and Canadian Pacer bloodlines also helped shape the breed during the 19th century.

Historic Use

The American Horse and the Kentucky Saddler were popular all-purpose mounts during their time. The comfortable gaits and quality of the original American Horse even attracted the attention of an American diplomat in France who wanted to gift one to Marie Antoinette.

Kentucky Saddlers were larger and more attractive than their American Horse ancestors. Renowned for their endurance and bravery on the battlefield, these horses proved superior war mounts for cavalry officers.

High-ranking officers on both sides of the American Civil War rode Saddlers. Famous Saddlers included Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Traveller and Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Cincinnati. [2]

The demand for Saddlers as show horses allowed the breed to thrive during peacetime. Saddlers competed in exhibitions as early as 1816 to showcase their quality. The industry gained popularity throughout the 1900s as formats and rules became standardized.

Breed Registry

The American Saddlebred Horse Association began in 1891. Originally known as the National Saddle Horse Breeders Association, the organization maintains a registry of almost 250,000 American Saddlebreds.

Horses must have pure American Saddlebred blood verified by DNA testing to meet eligibility requirements for registration with the American Saddlebred Horse Registry. However, the ASHA also offers a Half American Saddlebred registry for crossbred horses. [3]

Breed Characteristics

American Saddlebreds are easily identifiable by their distinctive features and animated movement. Their physical characteristics allow them to stand out in the show ring, and their willing attitudes make the Saddlebred a versatile equine partner.

Conformation

A typical Saddlebred horse stands between 15.1 and 16.3 hands, with an upright head carriage that makes them seem taller.

These horses have slim, arched necks and graceful ears, with large eyes and alert expressions that enhance their elegant appearance. Their heads should be well-shaped with a straight profile.

The ideal Saddlebred has a well-portioned body, sloping shoulders, well-sprung ribs, defined withers, a strong back, a level croup, and correct legs. Most Saddlebreds also have a high tail carriage, adding to their characteristic look.

Colours

American Saddlebred can have any coat colour. The ASHA recognizes the following coat colours in registered horses:

  • Black
  • Brown
  • Bay
  • Chestnut
  • Gray
  • Palomino
  • Buckskin
  • Pinto
  • Roan
  • Champagne
  • Dun
  • Silver
  • Cremello
  • Perlino
  • Smoky cream
  • White
  • Albino

Temperament

Most American Saddlebreds have people-oriented personalities that owners find endearing. These horses are generally intelligent, sensitive, alert, and curious. Their willingness to work and their natural confidence make these horses excellent partners for competitive riders.

While these friendly horses often form strong bonds with people, their sensitivity and intelligence may not be suitable for complete beginners without guidance. However, every horse is an individual, and temperaments can vary significantly based on several factors.

Gaits

Although the American Saddlebred is considered a gaited breed, not all horses of this breed can perform ambling gaits. Unlike some gaited horses, Saddlebreds are also a trotting breed.

Three-gaited Saddlebreds can perform the standard walk, trot, and canter gaits. These gaits should be animated, fluid, and balanced in Saddlebreds.

Some American Saddlebreds can perform two additional ambling gaits: the slow gait and rack. These horses are considered five-gaited Saddlebreds. These gaits are comfortable for the rider since they don’t have a moment of suspension.

The slow gait and rack are both four-beat gaits where each foot reaches the ground independently, but the slow gait is not a slow version of the rack. Instead, a hesitation between the second and third beats distinguishes the slow gait from a rack.

The rack has equal intervals between each footfall and is performed at speed. The lateral legs leave the ground together in the slow gait, but the hindfoot reaches the ground before the front foot. [4]

While the slow gait is also called a stepping pace, Saddlebreds are not pacers. Pacing horses have a proper lateral gait called a pace, where both legs on one side of their body hit the ground simultaneously.

Disciplines

Saddle seat is the most popular discipline for American Saddlebred horses. Owners can participate in recognized breed competitions for Saddlebreds that offer pleasure, three-gaited, five-gaited, and fine harness divisions.

Pleasure divisions prioritize rideability and require the horse to perform a flat walk, trot, and canter. In this division, Saddlebreds can compete in show pleasure, country pleasure, hunter, and western classes.

Horses in three-gaited and five-gaited divisions are evaluated on conformation, presentation, and gaits. Three-gaited Saddlebreds perform an animated walk, trot, and canter, while five-gaited horses also perform the slow gait and rack.

Fine harness Saddlebreds pull a four-wheeled cart during competition and perform a trot and animated walk.

Saddlebreds aren’t limited to breed shows, and many owners also participate in other western, hunter/jumper, dressage, eventing, and driving disciplines.

American Saddlebred Health

Since many Saddlebreds are show horses, this breed often struggles with health problems associated with the increased demands of training and travelling.

Other health issues affecting Saddlebreds arise from genetic disorders due to selective breeding.

Genetic Diseases

Junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB) is the primary genetic disease found in American Saddlebreds. Also known as red foot disease, this inherited condition causes moderate to severe blistering and skin lesions in newborn foals.

JEB has no cure, and foals eventually succumb to severe infection.  Researchers have identified a causal variant in Saddlebreds, and breeders can use DNA testing to identify carriers of the gene in their breeding stock. [5]

Other research has linked health problems in adult Saddlebreds to a genetic predisposition for lordosis, also known as swayback. Lordosis is a spine curvature usually seen in older horses, but in American Saddlebreds, this condition often affects much younger animals.

Studies of affected horses found that 80% of Saddlebreds with swaybacks shared a genetic marker on chromosome 20. The gene is recessive, so Saddlebreds need two copies to exhibit the physical trait. Interestingly, 15% of unaffected horses also have two copies. [6]

Health Problems

Saddlebreds with mild swayback can lead relatively normal lives. However, extreme lordosis can physically damage the vertebrae, ligaments, and tendons of the back.

Digestive problems and lameness concerns that commonly affect performance horses are the most significant health concerns for Saddlebred show horses.

Show horses are exposed to numerous risk factors associated with poor digestive function during training and competitions, including stalling, altered schedules, transportation, and intense exercise.

One study of 23 horses found that the prevalence of gastric ulcers increased from 17.4% to 56.5% after participating in a single competition event. These results support previous research suggesting that nearly 60% of performance horses have gastric ulcers. [7]

Increased stress and grain-based diets can also disturb the gut microbiota and contribute to hindgut problems. Ulceration and dysbiosis lead to poor nutrient absorption and discomfort, preventing optimal health and performance. [8]

Show horses can also suffer from musculoskeletal injuries and degenerative joint conditions associated with athletic performance. Maintaining a high-head carriage is also strenuous, and high limb action can increase concussive force in American Saddlebreds. [9]

Studies in other breeds demonstrate that five-gaited horses distribute more concussive load to their hindlimbs than three-gaited horses, which can lead to a higher prevalence of hindlimb and hock lameness. Compensatory lameness can also occur in the forelimb. [10]

Care and Management

Like all horses, American Saddlebreds need adequate basic care to meet their physical, mental, and social needs. Saddlebred owners should work with their veterinarian to develop a preventative wellness program that includes vaccinations, deworming, and routine dental care.

Owners should also consider scheduling regular lameness exams for their competitive Saddlebreds to catch minor problems before they become more significant. Your veterinarian may recommend joint injections for your horse’s maintenance program.

Saddlebreds are athletic horses that thrive with regular exercise. Owners should always work with a qualified trainer to develop a training and competition schedule that provides adequate time for recovery.

Appropriate farrier care that maintains optimal hoof balance can help limit the risk of distal limb injuries in show horses. Shoeing should prioritize soundness over artificially enhancing animated movement. [11]

Regular turnout can significantly benefit Saddlebreds. One study found that two hours of daily group turnout decreased stress-related behaviours in stalled competition horses. [12]

Research suggests management that minimizes stress can reduce gastric ulceration risk. Proper nutrition and feeding programs are also critical for maintaining digestive function in show horses. [13]

American Saddlebred Nutrition

The best feeding program for your American Saddlebred will depend on their lifestyle and workload. Saddlebred show horses need adequate energy to support performance, but excess calories can cause horses to become over-conditioned.

If your Saddlebred is overweight, they are at higher risk of metabolic disorders, laminitis, joint problems and other health issues.

Weight Maintenance

American Saddlebreds are often considered easy keepers and among several breeds predisposed to insulin resistance and equine metabolic syndrome.

Owners should carefully monitor their horse’s body condition score and make adjustments to their feeding plan if their horse gains excess weight. [14]

Showing Saddlebreds have higher energy requirements to maintain body condition. But high-energy grain-based commercial feeds often contain elevated levels of sugar and starch, which can lead to digestive problems. [15]

Conversely, if your Saddlebred has difficulty maintaining weight or begins to lose weight, it could be a sign of poor digestive health or dental issues. Consult your veterinarian to investigate the underlying causes of your horse’s weight loss.

Sample Diet

Diet for a Mature American Saddlebred in Light Work with Normal Body Condition

 

Feed Maintenance Diet
(Amount / Day)
Mid-Quality hay (10% crude protein) free-choice
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
Omneity Pellets 200 g (2 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 101%
Protein (% of Req) 145%
NSC (% Diet) 8.9%

 

Forage should be the foundation of every horse’s diet. The average 1,100-pound (500 kg) Saddlebred at maintenance will need approximately 22 pounds (10 kg) of forage daily.

Providing appropriate quality free-choice forage is the best way to support your horse’s digestive function and behavioral needs. Using a small hole hay net can also support health by slowing consumption and ensuring constant access to forage. Learn more in our guide on how much hay to feed your horse.

Saddlebreds generally do best on average-quality hay. However, show horses may need higher-quality forage, such as mixed legume hay, to meet additional energy and protein requirements.

Alfalfa is a popular legume hay for performance horses. Some research suggests feeding alfalfa hay can also reduce the risk of gastric ulcers because the high calcium levels in this hay can buffer stomach acid. [17]

Feeds & Concentrates

If your competition horse needs additional energy, choose fat and fibre-based feeds as a safe source of calories. Examples include:

Avoid feeding large volumes of high-starch concentrates, which can disturb the intestinal microbiota and contribute to hot behavior.

When providing commercial feeds or grains to your Saddlebred, split your horse’s daily ration into multiple small meals to reduce the risk of digestive problems. [16]

Nutrition Requirements

Ensure your horse has constant access to clean, fresh water and free-choice plain loose salt. Add one to two tablespoons of salt to your horse’s daily ration to help them meet their sodium requirements.

Hay is usually deficient in essential nutrients, including amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. A comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement can help fill these gaps to ensure your Saddlebred horse is meeting their nutritional requirements.

Mad Barn’s Omneity is an expertly formulated vitamin and mineral supplement designed to address hoof health, energy metabolism, immune function, skin and coat quality, gut health and more.

With no added sugars and a low feeding rate, Omneity provides all the nutrients commonly deficient in forage-only diets and is an excellent alternative to a high-starch ration balancer.

Omneity Equine Mineral & Vitamin Supplement

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  • Complete B-vitamin fortification
  • Optimal nutrition balance
  • Our best-selling equine vitamin

Every horse has unique needs. Getting a hay analysis and working with an equine nutritionist can help ensure your Saddlebred’s diet provides everything he needs to thrive.

Additional Supplements

Studies show that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can help manage inflammation associated with joint conditions in horses. [18]

Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil is a fat supplement that provides high levels of the omega-3 DHA, as well as natural Vitamin E. Feeding w-3 oil can support joint health, inflammatory regulation, and give your performance horse a shiny coat to stand out in the show arena.

w-3 Oil Essential Fatty Acid Supplement

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  • Promotes joint comfort
  • Helps to fight inflammation
  • Skin & coat condition
  • Palatable source of Omega-3's

For horses that need additional joint support, Mad Barn’s bulk MSM powder provides a highly bioavailable source of sulphur. Sulphur is an essential component of glucosamine and collagen, proteins that make up connective tissue.

Peformance Saddlebred horses also benefit from Visceral+ to support the immune system and help maintain stomach and hindgut health. Visceral+ is a veterinarian-recommended gut supplement that helps to keep competition horses performing at their best.

Visceral+ Ulcer Supplement for Horses

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  • Maintain stomach & hindgut health
  • Supports the immune system
  • 100% safe & natural

Looking for personalized guidance on your American Saddlebred’s feeding program? Book a nutrition consultation online and get your questions answered by our qualified equine nutritionists.

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References

  1. Wutke, S. et al. The origin of ambling horses. Curr Biol. 2016.
  2. Pendleton, R. Traveller: General Robert E. Lee’s Favorite Greenbrier War Horse. Trafford Publishing. 2005.
  3. American Saddlebred Horse Association. American Saddlebred Horse and Breeders Association Registry Rules and Regulations. 2022.
  4. Nicodemus, M. et al. Temporal variables of four-beat, stepping gaits of gaited horses. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2003.
  5. Graves, K. et al. Partial deletion of the LAMA3 gene is responsible for hereditary junctional epidermolysis bullosa in the American Saddlebred Horse. Anim Genet. 2009.
  6. Cook, D. et al. Genetics of swayback in American Saddlebred horses. Anim Genet. 2010.
  7. Hartmann, A. et al. A preliminary investigation into the association between competition and gastric ulcer formation in non-racing performance horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2003.
  8. Garber, A. et al. Factors Influencing Equine Gut Microbiota: Current Knowledge. J Equine Vet Sci. 2020.
  9. Dyson, S. Lameness and poor performance in the sport horse: Dressage, show jumping and horse trials. J Equine Vet Sci. 2002.
  10. Axelsson, M. et al. Risk factors associated with hindlimb lameness and degenerative joint disease in the distal tarsus of Icelandic horses. Equine Vet J. 2010.
  11.  Van Heel, M. et al. Dynamic pressure measurements for the detailed study of hoof balance: the effect of trimming. Equine Vet J. 2010.
  12. Werhahn, H. et al. Temporary Turnout for Free Exercise in Groups: Effects on the Behavior of Competition Horses Housed in Single Stalls. J Equine Vet Sci. 2011.
  13. Malmkvist, J. et al. Behaviour and stress responses in horses with gastric ulceration. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2012.
  14. Frank, N. et al. Equine Metabolic Syndrome. J Vet Intern Med. 2010.
  15. Destrez, A. et al. Changes of the hindgut microbiota due to high-starch diet can be associated with behavioral stress response in horses. Physiol & Behav. 2015.
  16. Metayer, N. et al. Meal size and starch content affect gastric emptying in horses. Equine Vet J. 2010.
  17. Lybbert, T. et al. Feeding alfalfa hay to exercising horses reduces the severity of gastric squamous mucosal ulceration. AAEP Proceedings. 2007.
  18. Manhart, D. et al. Markers of Inflammation in Arthritic Horses Fed Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Prof Anim Scient. 2009.