The Morgan horse is a versatile American horse breed known for excelling in a wide range of disciplines. First developed in the Northeastern United States in the 1800s, modern Morgans have long maintained a reputation as dependable companions and willing partners.

The breed’s history began with the offspring of a legendary stallion whose descendants went on to serve many roles throughout American history.  Morgan horses are also prominent in the foundation bloodlines of several other horse breeds on both sides of the Atlantic.

Their kind characters and sturdy builds make the Morgan an ideal pleasure mount for horse owners today. However, Morgan horses are susceptible to health problems if owners don’t carefully manage their diet and weight.

This article will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional requirements of Morgan horses. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for your Morgan.

Morgan Horse History

The Morgan is one of the earliest breeds of horses developed in the United States. With deep New England roots, the horse is now famous throughout North America.

These horses are so central to Vermont’s history that the state made Morgans the official state animal. Morgan horses are also featured prominently in literature and film, and the breed continues to grow its fanbase today.

Morgan Horse Breed History | Mad Barn USA

Origin

All Morgan horses can trace their heritage to a single foundation sire, Figure. Born in 1789, the bay stallion became known as the Justin Morgan horse after his most prominent owner. [1]

The stallion’s exact origins remain a mystery, but evidence suggests he descended from Arabian, Thoroughbred, Welsh cob, and Friesian lines. Figure’s life is also clouded by legends and myths popularized by Marguerite Henry’s 1945 novel, Justin Morgan Had a Horse.

Today, it’s generally believed Justin Morgan only owned Figure from 1792-1795. The stallion had a long life with several owners and careers on the racetrack, in farm fields, hauling freight, and standing at stud. He even once carried President James Monroe as a parade mount. [1]

Figure gained recognition for his ability to pass on his unmatched versatility and distinguishing characteristics through several generations. After his death, his three most famous sons, Woodbury, Bulrush, and Sherman, carried on his legacy. [2]

Four widely recognized Morgan families include groups of horses originating from a specific breeding program or common ancestors. [3] These include the Brunk, Lippitt, Government, and Working Western families.

Historic Use

Figure’s offspring likely spent their days clearing fields and forests for their owners. The same horses often provided transportation to markets and meetings on the weekend. Many also pulled stagecoaches throughout New England.

These horses stood out in their ability to excel at both riding and pulling. By the 1840s, breeders began selectively breeding to concentrated Morgan lines. The horses produced by these breeders soon began selling for high prices to new homes throughout the U.S. [2]

During the early years of the harness racing industry, Morgans began setting trotting records. However, Morgans were mainly regarded as excellent general-purpose mounts and served as cavalry horses on both sides of the civil war.

Morgan characteristics also contributed to the formation of other notable American breeds, including the Quarter Horse, Standardbred, and Tennessee Walking Horse. [2]

Breed Registry

The American Morgan Horse Association (AMHA) is the official breed registry dedicated to preserving, promoting, and perpetuating the Morgan horse. Founded in 1909 as the Morgan Horse Club, the association underwent reorganization and was renamed in 1971.

Today, there are approximately 90,000 living Morgans registered with the AMHA. The organization only registers foals that have two registered Morgan parents.

The slogan of the AMHA, “The Horse That Chooses You,” reflects the heart, willingness, and intellect characteristic of the breed they represent.

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Breed Characteristics

While the breed may compete in several disciplines, all Morgans are evaluated based on the same breed standard. As a result, breed characteristics passed through generations of Morgans remain evident today in their distinct looks and amenable personalities.

Conformation

The Morgan is a small but sturdy horse that typically ranges in height from 14.1 to 15.2 hands. These horses have elegant features, yet with muscular builds developed for beauty and practicality. [4]

An ideal Morgan has an expressive head with a broad forehead, prominent eyes, and a straight or slightly dished face. Other facial features include firm lips, large nostrils, and well-rounded jowls. Morgans also generally have short and shapely wide-set ears.

A Morgan’s throatlatch is usually slightly deeper than other breeds but refined enough to allow flexion and respiration. The upright neck is set on top of a well-angled shoulder and slightly arched, with a significantly longer topline.

Morgans are compact horses with short backs, broad loins, deep flanks, well-spring ribs, and muscular chests. They should also have long, level, well-rounded croups with a high tail carriage. [4]

These horses have short cannons and relatively long forearms. In addition, the deep angulation of the shoulders places the front legs farther forward on the body. Morgans should appear powerful and muscular but not overweight.

Colours

Modern Morgan horses can be any colour, including buckskin and palomino. Pintos are rare but also permitted. The most common colours in Morgan horses are bay, black, and chestnut. Other colours include gray, cremello, perlino, smoky cream, silver dapple, and overo.

The AMHA offers testing to verify coat colour by identifying genes responsible for specific coats. [5]

These colour verification tests include:

  • Red Factor/Agouti Test: Chestnut, Black
  • Cream Dilution Test: Palomino, Buckskin, Smoky Black, Cremello, Perlino, Smoky Cream
  • Silver Test: Silver Dapple
  • Gray Test: Gray
  • Splash Test: Overo

Temperament
Most Morgan horses are naturally good-natured, intelligent, willing, and hard-working. They have a reputation as an excellent breed for first-time horse owners due to their kind and courageous character.

Many owners appreciate the stamina, vigour, and spiritedness of Morgan horses. Morgans are also known for their presence, animation, and alertness. But unlike other breeds, these traits don’t come at the expense of attitude and trainability in the Morgan. [6]

Generations of selective breeding have created a horse that primarily exists to please people. That reliability and versatility allow the horse to adapt to the owner’s lifestyle and excel in multiple arenas.

Disciplines

The Morgan’s elastic, balanced, square, and collected gaits suit a wide range of equestrian disciplines. While most Morgans aren’t gaited, some can perform a pace, rack, or foxtrot.

Thanks to their excellent disposition, Morgan horses are popular pleasure mounts for riders of all capabilities. In addition, these horses compete in harness competitions and frequently appear in show arenas under both English and Western tack.

AMHA runs a series of Morgan-only shows throughout the US, but many Morgans can hold their own against specialized sport horses at the lower levels of dressage and show jumping.

Morgan horses also excel as stock horses and western pleasure mounts. Their versatility is also suitable for the hunter, equitation, and saddle seat rings. Some owners compete in competitive endurance rides, while others enjoy trail riding.

Morgan Horse Health

Figure lived to 32 years old, and many senior Morgans can live healthy lives into their 30s when cared for properly. While this breed does carry some genetic diseases, their predisposition for metabolic disorders is the most significant concern for their care and management.

Genetic Diseases

Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) is the primary genetic disease identified within the Morgan breed. This muscle disease is found mainly in stock and draft horses, and Morgans are just one of the dozens of breeds found to have the allele responsible for the condition. [17]

While the prevalence of PSSM is relatively low in Morgans compared to other breeds, the disorder requires specific dietary changes for effective management.

One study found less than one percent of Morgans carried the gene responsible for PSSM Type 1. However, this gene is not associated with PSSM Type 2, which can also affect Morgan horses. [8]

Symptoms of PSSM include muscle soreness, poor performance, and tying up. Genetic testing can diagnose PSSM1, but PSSM2 requires a muscle biopsy. Consult your veterinarian if you suspect your Morgan has this disease.

Health Problems

Morgan horses have sturdy conformation that promotes soundness and longevity. However, this breed is recognized as a high-risk group for metabolic disorders.

Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) is a complex disorder associated with insulin resistance and increased risk of laminitis in affected horses. Reducing dietary sugar and starch and maintaining a healthy weight is vital for managing the disease. [9]

Research suggests genetics significantly influence a horse’s risk of developing EMS. One study identified candidate genes associated with EMS in Morgan horses with a heritability as high as 80%. [10]

Owners should be careful not to mistake an obese Morgan as an ideal example of the breed’s naturally muscular build. While round hind quarters and a well-developed topline are breed trademarks, fat deposits and cresty necks are signs of an underlying metabolic issue.

Care and Management

Like all horses, Morgans need quality basic care, including safe housing, regular grooming, exercise, and social interaction. Morgans should also follow an annual preventative veterinary plan with yearly vaccinations, worming, and routine dental exams.

While regular turnout is important for your horse’s mental and physical health, full-time access to lush pastures might not be safe for Morgans, especially in the spring. Spring grasses are high in sugars that can contribute to pasture laminitis in Morgans and horses with metabolic conditions. [11]

Exercise can help maintain a healthy weight and support bone strength in Morgan horses. Unlike some breeds, however, most Morgans don’t display undesirable behaviours from excess energy if their owners prefer light riding to intense training sessions.

How to Feed a Morgan Horse

Balanced nutrition is essential for every horse, regardless of breed. However, an appropriate diet is especially important for Morgans because of their increased risk of metabolic disorders.

Weight Maintenance

Morgans are notoriously easy keepers. These horses can maintain weight on fewer calories than harder keepers and quickly become overweight when overfed. However, this doesn’t mean you should cut back your Morgan’s hay.

Even easy keepers like Morgans need constant access to forage to support good digestive function. Read our article on feeding easy keepers to learn about the best diet for horse weight management.

Contact your veterinarian if your easy-keeper Morgan has difficulty maintaining his weight. Sudden weight loss can indicate an underlying health issue.

Diet for a Mature Morgan (450 kg) at Maintanence with Normal Body Condition

 

Feed Maintenance Diet
(Amount / Day)
Mature Grass Hay (7% crude protein) 9.5 kg / 22 lb
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
Omneity Pellets 200 g (2 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 101%
Protein (% of Req) 104%
NSC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 6.9%

 

Forage

Every equine diet should start with forage. Most horses should consume 1.5 – 3% of their body weight in forage daily. For example, an average 1,000 lb (450 kg) Morgan would need at least 15 pounds (6.8 kg) of hay daily. [12]

Morgans should be fed moderate-calorie, low-starch, low-sugar hay to prevent excess energy and sugar intake. Forages with high concentrations of hydrolyzable carbohydrates can contribute to elevated insulin levels, increasing the risk of laminitis.

It is always recommended to submit a forage sample for analysis to measure the energy, starch and sugar levels and determine whether it is an appropriate hay for your Morgan.

Mature timothy hay would be a suitable forage for Morgans. Horses that are overweight may benefit from the use of a slow feeder or adding straw to the ration.

Note that although straw has slightly fewer calories than mature hay, it typically has much lower protein and minerals that may require additional supplementation. Also check for residual grain and any signs of mold. Straw may may cause free fecal water syndrome, especially in older horses or those with a history of it.

Feeds & Supplements

Most Morgans do not need extra energy from commercial concentrates. These feeds often contain high levels of sugar and starch from cereal grains, which cause elevated insulin in the blood.

However, horses will not get all of the micronutrients they require from a forage-only diet. To avoid deficiencies in essential nutrients, select a vitamin and mineral supplement to fill any gaps and balance your hay.

A comprehensive vitamin and mineral such as Mad Barn’s Omneity can help balance a forage-only diet without adding extra calories to your Morgan’s daily ration. This supplement provides amino acids, vitamins, and minerals commonly deficient in forage.

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Morgans with metabolic concerns may benefit from AminoTrace+, a vitamin and mineral supplement with higher levels of key nutrients required to support metabolic health and hoof growth.

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Protein

Most horses get enough protein in their diet, but some low-quality forages may not provide adequate protein to support the Morgan’s musculature. Protein sources such as alfalfa cubes, soybean meal, canola meal and ground flax can add essential amino acids to the horse’s diet. [13]

Some horses may benefit from supplementing amino acids to support muscle growth and repair. Mad Barn’s Three Amigos contains lysine, methionine, and threonine, the essential amino acids most commonly deficient in the equine diet.

Water & Salt

All horses should have constant access to clean water and plain, loose salt. Salt is a source of the electrolyte mineral, sodium, which is commonly deficient in the equine diet.

Most horses won’t consume all the sodium they need from a salt lick alone. Adding 1 – 2 ounces of salt to your horse’s daily ration can help meet sodium requirements.

Oils

Most Morgans don’t need extra calories from fat to maintain weight, but some studies suggest adding omega-3 fatty acids may help support insulin sensitivity in horses with EMS.

If your Morgan does need extra energy to gain weight or support a heavy workload, try free choice hay or add more calorie dense, high fiber feeds such as beet pulp or soybean hulls.

Feeding Recommendations

Regularly monitor your horse’s body condition to determine whether adjustments need to be made in your feeding program.

Ideally, hay should be provided free-choice at all times of the day. If your Morgan is overweight, a small-hole hay net can help slow consumption without restricting access to forage.

Morgans on grass pasture may need a grazing muzzle to moderate consumption. If your Morgan has metabolic health issues, work with your veterinarian to develop a turnout program that minimizes the risk of pasture laminitis.

Morgan Horses with PSSM

Morgans diagnosed with PSSM need special diets to manage the clinical signs of the disease. These horses do best on low-starch rations, with any additional energy supplied by dietary fats. [7]

Morgans with muscle disorders such as PSSM may also benefit from Vitamin E and Selenium supplementation. These antioxidants support muscle function and help minimize oxidative tissue damage. [16]

Owners should obtain a hay analysis and work with a qualified equine nutritionist to design a feeding program for PSSM horses.

Summary

  • Morgans are a versatile breed that are historically capable of playing numerous roles as working, competition and leisure horses
  • The Morgan horse is known for its’ small but sturdy conformation with an expressive head and upright neck
  • Morgans can be predisposed to health concerns and genetic diseases but can be maintained with proper management
  • Morgans are traditionally easy keepers indicating owners should prioritize a low-sugar, forage-based diet

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References

  1. Tippin, B. Justin Morgan, Fact and Fiction. The Morgan Horse. 2015.
  2. Linsley, D. Morgan Horses. C.M. Saxton. 1857.
  3. MacCluer, J. et al. Inbreeding and pedigree structure in Standardbred horses. J Heredity. 1983.
  4. AMHA. Type and Conformation. The Morgan Horse Judging Standards. 2014.
  5. Rieder, S. Molecular tests for coat colours in horses. J Anim Breed Genet. 2009. View Summary
  6. Hausberger, M. et al. Interplay between environmental and genetic factors in temperament/personality traits in horses (Equus caballus). J Comp Psychol. 2004. View Summary
  7. Firschman, A. et al. Epidemiologic characteristics and management of polysaccharide storage myopathy in Quarter Horses. Am J of Vet Res. 2003. View Summary
  8. Valberg, S.J. Exertional Myopathies in Horses. Merck Vet Manual. Accessed November 3, 2023.
  9. Frank, N. et al. Equine Metabolic Syndrome. J Vet Intern Med. 2010.View Summary
  10. Norton, E. et al. Genome-Wide Association Analyses of Equine Metabolic Syndrome Phenotypes in Welsh Ponies and Morgan Horses. Genes(Basel). 2019. View Summary
  11. Geor, R. Pasture-Associated Laminitis. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2009.View Summary
  12. National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Horses. National Academies Press. 2007. View Summary
  13. Gustavsson, B. Effects of crude protein intake from forage-only diets on muscle amino acids and glycogen levels in horses in training. Equine Vet J. 2010.View Summary
  14. Hess, T. et al. Effects of omega-3 (n-3) Fatty Acid Supplementation on Insulin Sensitivity in Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2013.
  15. Chameroy, K. et al. Effects of a supplement containing chromium and magnesium on morphometric measurements, resting glucose, insulin concentrations and insulin sensitivity in laminitic obese horses. Equine Vet J. 2010.View Summary
  16. Maylin, G. Selenium and vitamin E in horses. The Cornell Veterinarian. 1980. View Summary
  17. McCue, M.E. et al. Estimated prevalence of the Type 1 Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy mutation in selected North American and European breeds. Anim Genet. 2010. View Summary