Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse
The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse is a relatively young breed. It’s history began in the 18th century in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky. This area is known for its hilly terrain, rough climate and lack of good quality forage. It was these conditions that created this gem among equine breeds; a horse that is intelligent, beautiful, tough, with a great stamina, surefooted under the saddle and devoted to his human partner.
Brief History of the Ambled Horses
The first written historical notes mentioning horses with a “strange” gait are from the period around 3000 years ago in a connection with a certain strain of the Akhla-Teke breed in the desert of Turkmenistan. In 850BC Homer uses the word “podarge” which translates as “fast walk”. In the first century AD the English pacer was the primary means of transportation on the British islands. In the 15th century Christopher Columbus brought top quality horses of the Spanish Jennet breed from the Iberian peninsula to the American continent. During the 16th century horses from France were imported to America that became foundation stock for the Canadian pacers. The blood of this breed can be found in many modern gaited breeds such as Morgan, American Standardbred and American Saddlebread. In the beginning of 17th century on the European continent the ratio of gaited to non-gaited horses was 80:20. In the beginning of the 18th century, thanks to the urban explosion and a rising demand for trotting harness horses, the number of comfortable riding gaited horses fell sharply. Luckily, at this period high numbers of gaited horses such as the Scottish Galloway and Irish Hobby were imported to America. The Governor of Rhode Island, William H. Robinson, used the above mentioned breeds (Spanish Jennet , Scottish Galloway, Irish Hobby and Canadian horse) to create the so called Narragansett pacer. The main reason for creating of this breed was the demand from owners of Rhode Island plantations for a sturdy horse with a stamina that could offer them an all day comfortable ride while checking on their plantations. The Narragansett pacer gradually spread across northern and southern America and Canada and became a foundation stock for other gaited breeds that developed in certain regions (Tennessee Walker, Missouri Foxtrotter etc.). The Narragansett pacer does not exist as a breed today, but it’s blood runs in the veins of all modern American gaited breeds today.
The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse is one of the breeds mentioned above. The Narragansett pacers brought by settlers to rough Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky in the 18th century were the best possible adepts for a hard life in this area. They were tough, sturdy and able to cope with the less than favorable living conditions. They were very easy keepers. Their biggest plus however was an excellent surefootedness and agility in the mountainous terrain while maintaining the smooth fourbeat gait which offered the rider a comfortable ride. This was very important as the horse was the only means of transportation at that time. Horses that didn’t possesss any of these qualities didn’t survive or weren’t used as breeding animals. The breeders called these gaited horses “saddlin’ horses” or “saddlers” , hence the “saddle gait” – another name for the amble. Owning a horse wasn’t a luxury back then, it was a necessity. Such a horse had to be able to work on the fields, rounding the cattle or pulling logs during the week and on Sundays take the family to church. Besides these duties the horses were frequently ridden under saddle. They had to be hard working and tough, but also look nice in harness. Another vital trait was a calm and willing temperament since women and children were regularly the passengers. Animals that possessed these traits were highly valued and used to breed extensivelly. It is common for a Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse to enjoy a long life, 30 year old individuals can often be found. KMSH matures physically around 5-6 years of age, but usually they are physically ready for being started to work under a saddle between the age of 2 or 3.
Conformation of KMSH is closely connected to the way the horses were used on regular basis. One of the important features is an overall symmetry of the body that ensures good balance while tackling a rough terrain under a rider. KMSH was not bred for one specific purpose, on the contrary, these horses had to be versatile and handle any work demanded from them. Ideal horse should manifest an above average beauty, refinement and athleticism and at the same time it’s constitution must show the ability to perform a useful work. The skeleton should be of medium substance with a compact, well muscled body, broader chest, short close coupled back and round rump. The head should be of a cob size, attractive, with broad flat forehead, clear and quiet eye and rather straight profile. Roman and concave profiles are not desirable. The neck should be of average lenght and width with topline longer than bottom line, it should be well flexible at the poll. The withers should be almost invisible. Legs should be straight when looking from the front and well angled from the side view.
Temperament is one of the most praised features of the breed. Not all animals were able to keep up with high demands of the owners . Only the ones who were willing and able to do so, were quiet, patient, gentle and possessed a very positive attitude towards their human partners became highly valued animals and were allowed to breed. And it is this trait that makes KMSH and ideal breed for beginner riders, breeders and youth.
The color variety of this breed is vast. Besides basic colors red, brown and black there are more rare ones such as palominos, buckskins, greys, roans, duns etc and also quite rare colors such as champagnes, cremellos, perlinos, smoky creams and more. The signature color of the breed however is a chocolate with cream mane and tail. Gene that is responsible for this color is called “silver dapple” or also “tuffy”. This gene modifies black pigment in black horse’s hair to a shade of chocolate and the black pigment of mane and tail to a color ranging from almost white through creamy, sometimes with silvery grey tint, to various shades of chocolate. If silver dapple gene is present in a genotype of a bay horse the resulting color is called red chocolate. These horses look like a combination of bay and chestnut with grey extremities and cream/silver mane and tail. White markings are limited to face and lower parts of legs. Also a patch that is no larger that 35 square inches and located on the belly behind the sternum is allowed for solid horses. No bald or apron faces are allowed for the solid horse registry. Any horses with white markings that are more extensive must be registered with SMHA as spotted. In SMHA registry we can find many color patterns such as tobiano, overo, splashed white, sabino etc.
The most important trait of mountain horses is their ability to gait/amble. Amble is a lateral four beat gait that enables the rider to comfortably stay in the saddle without any vertical movement. The footfall is basically a one of a walk – right rear, right front, left rear, left front. When a horse increases speed, instead of a transition into a trot, the horse maintains this footfall while increasing it’s speed. Amble lacks the phase of suspension, at least one foot is always in a contact with the ground, hence also the name siglefoot. Rear legs slide quite far underneath the body of a horse with a relativelly small hock action. That enables the horse to sustain the gait over long periods of time while conserving energy. Head movement during the gait is not prominent, there is more vertical movement of the horse’s back ( back and tail is “bobbing”) without having a negative influence on the smoothness of the gait. The ability to amble is genetically inherited in certain breeds and it can’t be learnt. Maximal speed of amble is individual for each horse, some are capable of ambling in speed of up to 20 miles per hour. Besides ambling kentucky mountain horses can also perform walk, trot and canter.
There are various associations in USA that assumed the responsibility to register Kentucky mountain gaited horses, set the breed standards and maintain them, preserve and possibly improve the desirable traits within the breed. The first one was Rocky Mountain Horse Association established in Kentucky in 1986 by Rea and David Swan. RMH founders decided to set the breed standarts (certain height limit, color etc.) in a way that prevented large part of population of mountain horses from entering the registry. Therefore in 1989 Robert “Jr.” Robinson established Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association that allows shorter horses (down to 11 hands) to be registered as well. Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association registers solid horses, Spotted Mountain Horse Association (part of KMSHA) registers the spotted ones. Among other associations are Mountain Pleasure Horse Association or Kentucky Naturally Gaited Horse Association.
Registration of Horses with KMSHA
A foal born out of a KMSHA registered mare and by a KMSHA registered stallion is issued temporary registration with KMSHA after it’s birth. 5 photos of the foal (both sides, front, back and under the chin), at least 20 hairs with roots for DNA testing and required forms are necessary for the issuance of the temporary papers. Permanent registration or also called Registration for Breeding is done before the horse’s first breeding or before he is 4 years old, whichever comes first. The horse must fulfill following requirements: 1. demonstrates calm, friendly temperament and willingness to please, 2. exhibits natural, smooth fourbeat gait, 3. it’s conformation complies with KMSHA breed standards, 4. minimal height in withers is 11 hands and 5. white markings are restricted according to KMSHA rules for solid horse registry. As for the SMHA registration, the rules are the same excluding point number 5.
Kentucky gaited horse can be used in countless areas. He will do or try his best to do everything his human partner asks him for. He is an ideal partner for long trailrides, competes successfully in long distance riding, manages well in many english disciplines as well as the western ones. KMSH hasn’t been bred to perform a particular task, but to be versatile and be able to do well in various areas. In USA KMSH is mainly used in trailriding and showing.