History of the Gaited Horse in North America

by Annette L. Gerhard

History of gaited horses in North America closely parallels the events of 17th century Europe. When settlers in North America moved into a new area, gaited horses carried them, because no roads existed in those wilderness areas over which carts and carriages could travel. This is the type of horse on which Daniel Boone rode into the wilderness, making the first of many trips to the Kentucky region in 1767.

Gaited horses reigned supreme as basic transportation and a means of conquest of the native Americans until areas became civilized and settled enough for road systems to be developed. Then the gaited horses would rapidly disappear to be replaced by trotting horses more efficiently able to pull carts and carriages over the roads.

In addition to the construction of road systems, the other pressures that led to the disappearance of gaited horses in Europe existed in North America as well, including horse racing. Horse racing was very popular. Until the mid-19th century, horse racing was the principal form of organized sport in America. It was of course the Thoroughbred that dominated that sport in the United States as well as England and Europe. Once again, the Thoroughbred was used as the top or sire line to improve most American breeds.

Gaited horses nonetheless survived in rugged areas in isolated pockets where a utilitarian purpose remained for their use as basic transportation as well as for daily work. The Mountain Saddle Horses survived in the Appalachian Mountains, as did the later breed developed in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, the Foxtrotter. Tennessee Walking Horses survived in part for utilitarian reasons but also in large part because of a cultural attachment to them in the Southeast and South, where they had been developed as smooth transportation over Ante Bellum plantations. A tradition of using horses riding astride continued in the Southeast and Southern parts of the U.S. which remained largely agrarian and rural after the war, in contrast to the victorious and more urbanized North which had largely abandoned using horses ridden astride, and instead used horses to pull carts and carriages, even before the Civil War. There was also more of a Spanish influence in the Southeast and South, which even today continues to support a cultural tradition of gaited horses in those regions. Thus, the Southeast and South culturally favored the preservation of gaited horses, whereas the culture of the North did not.

On the frontier of Kentucky in the early 1800’s, a new breed was developed out of the base stock of the Narragansett Pacer and the later American Horse: The American Saddle Horse. Tom Hal, a Canadian Pacer foaled in 1802, was imported from Canada and lived in Kentucky until 1843. Copperbottom, foaled in 1809 was imported about 1816, and Davy Crockett in the 1830’s. These three Canadian Pacers were among the original 17 foundation sires designated when the National Saddle Horse Breeders Association was formed in 1891.

American Saddle Horses were widely ridden by officers on both sides of the Civil War, and even by enlisted men in the Confederate forces. This is the basis for the claim made by the American Saddlebred Association that Civil War Officers on both sides of the conflict rode Saddlebreds. That is not entirely accurate, since the horses of the day were not the modern American Saddlebred that was developed, as we shall see in a moment, post-1888, with a heavy infusion of Thoroughbred blood.

Confederate soldiers supplied their own mounts, whereas Union soldiers did not. The decision by the victorious Northern Generals to allow the defeated Southern forces to retain their horses probably did more for the preservation of gaited horses in North America than any other single decision ever made.

Al Prewitt was one of the founders of the Mountain Pleasure Horse Association. He was also a friend of mine from 1993 to his death. I visited him at Cypress Lakes Stables in North Carolina in 1993. My senior stallion Just N Time of High Desert came from Cypress Lakes. Al’s family was breeding American Saddle Horses in the middle of the 1800’s, at the Prewitt home farm, Vergeland, in Kentucky. Al’s grandmother died in 1938. She had told him that in 1865 a man had come to her farm with an exhausted horse, ridden hard because the man was a messenger carrying news of President Lincoln’s assassination. She let him take a fresh horse from her barn to finish his mission, with the provision that he return it when he was done. When he returned about a month later, he wanted to buy that horse from her. She declined to sell the horse, and told him to take his original horse, now rested.

In 1888 a major change was made in the rules for showing American Saddle Horses. The change required that horses show at the trot in addition to the saddle gaits. This rule change led to a split in American gaited horses. In the ten years immediately after the show rule change, there was a very heavy infusion of Thoroughbred into the American Saddle Horse lines. During this period there was no effort to preserve the saddle gaits. There was instead a concentration on obtaining the big trot now fashionable, indeed required, by the show ring. Out of this effort was developed a large, flashy, weakly gaited horse that can trot and look sharp pulling a cart, at the expense of the riding gaits. The wealthy people who owned the horses no longer wanted to ride astride, but wanted instead to be pulled in comfort and style in elegant carts and carriages. In subsequent years this breed was renamed the American Saddlebred. Today most Saddlebreds do not exhibit the saddle gaits until and unless trained to do so, and not all of them can be so trained. As a result of the emphasis on the trot at the expense of the saddle gaits in the genetics of the Saddlebred, those that are trained to gait generally can not hold the gait with consistency over time and distance as is required for trail riding. A breeder of Saddlebreds for over 20 years told me in 1990 that Saddlebreds have never been naturally gaited, and have always had to be trained to gait. No doubt this was been true in his lifetime.

As a result of the show rule change, in the 1890’s there was suddenly a group of horses no longer popular in the American Saddle Horse bloodlines. These horses were too naturally gaited to perform the trot now required by the dictates of fashion and the show ring. When I told Al Prewitt this in 1993, he knew exactly where those horses had gone. He exclaimed,"They went to the [African Americans]"! That was not the term he used, as he was of a generation that used a term no longer acceptable to describe African Americans. But his point was valid. Those naturally gaited horses that were culled out of the American Saddle Horse bloodlines, were given to the poor and forgotten by the mainstream of American horse breeders. He said to me when my Daddy wanted to find a good gaited horse, he went to the {African Americans]! They continued to need and use the horses for what they were bred for originally, basic transportation.

They did not die out. The oldest pictures of Mountain Saddle Horses show a medium sized horse, up-headed, elegant, refined, and spirited looking. They must also have been willing and gentle enough to be used for basic daily transportation and farm work. They were bred with the remnants of the Narragansett Pacers still to be found up and down the Appalachian Mountains. They were known as Kentucky Walkers, Kentucky Saddlers, Appalachian Single Footers and Appalachian Walkers. This breeding resulted in a mix of body styles ranging from the original small, heavy bodied, short coupled, ground skimming type of horse to large, elegant horses with long necks, long backs, long heads and more lift in the front and more hock action in the back than the older type of horse typically displays. Regardless of body style or name applied to them, the horses were bred to perform an intermediate four-beat gait for a comfortable ground covering ride.

At the same time that the American Saddle Horse Association was culling its most naturally gaited horses out of its bloodlines, the oral history of Kentucky tells us that a young gaited stallion was brought to Kentucky by people traveling from the West to the East. It is said that he was traded for supplies in Kentucky. I always thought it odd that a group would be traveling from West to East with horses, one of which was traded for supplies, until I was told of the Hussey Manuscript. The Hussey Manuscript documents trips by the Cox family from Pennsylvania and later Ohio and Kentucky, to Central Texas over a period of 90 years from the late 1700’s through the late 1800’s, for the purpose of capturing feral mustangs descended from Spanish blood stock. The Cox family alone was responsible for the transport of thousands of horses of Spanish descent from Central Texas to the East. It may have been someone connected with the Cox family or it may have been some other enterprising horse trader that brought the legendary colt from the West to the East, but whoever it was, the Hussey Manuscript documents that it was not uncommon for horses to be brought from the West to the East throughout the 1800’s, and therefore supports the oral history of the origin of the stallion thought to have founded the Rocky Mountain Horse breed.

Another possible source for that foundation stallion could be the band of mustangs known today as the Pryor Mountain Mustangs, from the Pyror Mountains in Wyoming. Following is a description of those horses: The animal is generally 13 to 15 hands (52 to 60 inches, 132 to 152 cm) high, with an average of 14 to 14.2 hands. The horses weigh 700 to 800 pounds (320 to 360 kg) on the range, and more if raised in captivity.

The animals exhibit a wide range of solid colors, including bay, black, chestnut, dun, grullo, and blue or red roan. Buckskin coloring is rare but does occur, and pinto coloring can be minimally expressed. However, the majority of colors are dun or grullo. Nearly all the horses on the range exhibit primitive markings such as dorsal stripes, transverse stripes across the withers, and horizontal "zebra" stripes on the back of the forelegs. The Pryor Mountains horse’s body is heavy, with strong bones. Manes and tails tend to be long, and the horse’s winter coat is very heavy and often curly. The head is convex or straight (the "Roman nose" identified by horse breeders), with wide-set eyes, hooked ears, and a broad forehead that tapers to well to the muzzle. The front teeth meet evenly, the upper lip is usually longer than the lower, and the nostrils are small and crescent shaped. The neck is medium in length, and most of the animals have only five lumbar vertebrae (an anatomical feature common in primitive horses),although some have a fifth and sixth vertebrae which are fused. The horse’s shoulders are long and sloping, the withers are prominent, and chests are medium to narrow in width. The croup is generally sloped, and tail-set is low. The hooves are ample and very hard.

Pryor Mountains Mustangs exhibit a natural Ambling gait. The horses are generally intelligent, strong, and sure-footed, and exhibit great stamina. Like all feral horses, they generally avoid human contact, are distrustful, and are easily spooked. However, once they are familiar with an individual, they can exhibit a strong social bond with that individual. Pryor Mountains horses can be broken and ridden and trained to do any task a domesticated horse can perform. Trained Pryor Mountains horses have a calm temperament, and are alert on trails.

The origins of the herd are documented in Lewis and Clark’s journal. They are believed to be remnants of the 65-head herd

Army Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor bought from the Nez Perce to trade with the Mandan Indians. By journal accounts, 15 escaped and the rest were stolen by the Crow, a nomad tribe. Obviously, not all of the characteristics attributed to the Pyror Mountain Mustangs track with those of today’s Mountain Horses, particularly having only 5 lumbar vertebrae, but enough of the characteristics do match up very strongly with those of today’s Mountain Horses to make that herd a possible source of that original Rocky Mountain horse. Wherever he came from, it is likely that he was from a group like the Pyor Mountain Mustangs, of tightly related horses in which the characteristics were genetically very strong, and very fixed, because he was prepotent for those characteristics. Like the original Morgan horse, he stamped his characteristics strongly on all his get, to the point that the horses of that type became known as the Rocky Mountain horses, named, as was, again, the custom of the times, for the geographical region of origin of that stallion.

One stallion does not form a breed though. He needs mares. As we have seen above in the story of Al Prewitt’s grandmother, there was a reservoir of at least several of the American Saddle Horse and older style Narragansett Pacer type mares who apparently been bred to this stallion, else there would have been no offspring to name after the geographic region the stallion came from.

In 1927, Old Tobe was born. The available photographs of that time show horses long in the neck, head and back, rangy, looking like nothing so much as a prototype American Saddlebred. I conclude that these horses were in fact essentially the American Saddle Horse as it had existed in the late 1800’s. Indeed, genetic testing done at the University of Kentucky, Department of Veterinary Science, by Dr. Gus Cothran, PH.D., Director, Equine Blood Typing Research Laboratory, shows that the modern breed to which the Rocky Mountain Saddle Horses tested are most closely related is today’s American Saddlebred, a fact often overlooked in the emphasis on the Spanish origins of the Rocky Mountain Horse. According to Dr. Cothran, the Spanish markers found in the Rocky Mountain Horse genetic testing are derived from the connection to the Saddlebred.

The Saddle Horse names even live on in the Mountain Horses. The RMHA stallion Maple’s Squirrel was one of the five sons of Tobe. The unusual name of Squirrel implies that these horses are descendants of the original Saddle Horse stallion Black Squirrel 58, foaled in 1872, and designated as a foundation stallion on the 17 horse list created by the National Saddle-Horse Breeders Association in 1891. The original Black Squirrel’s dam was an inbred Highlander mare, a line of Thoroughbreds descended from the Godolphin Barb. His sons include Red Squirrel 53, King Squirrel, Missouri Squirrel, and Squirrel King (also known as The King and Grey Squirrel). While the records of any direct connection of Mountain Saddle Horses to the Squirrel line of American Saddle Horses has been lost, it is likely no accident that the Squirrel name continues to be found in the Mountain SaddleHorses. As one breeder I spoke with put it, Squirrels’ gait like crazy, or as I have heard said of their gait in Kentucky like a squirrel going up a tree chased by a hound dog! I have found this to be true in my personal experience as well. It is also of more than passing interest that Black Squirrel 58’s most famous son was Chester Dare 10. The significance of that unusual name will be seen shortly.

The oral history of the Mountain Saddle Horses, gathered from people whose families have been breeding gaited horses from the time of the Civil War, indicates that a line of Saddle Horses called Peavines are a part of the history of the Mountain Saddle Horses as well. In recent years it has been determined that a stallion known in the RMHA records as Old Bob, who was used in the breeding program of the man given the most credit for preserving the Mountain Saddle Horses, Sam Tuttle, was in fact registered as an American Saddle Horse under the name of Chester Dare Peavine. The records of the American Saddle Horse Association show that this horse was by War Cloud by Rex Peavine, and his dam was Grey Princess by Jack Twigg by Rex Peavine. He was Peavine top and bottom back to Rex Peavine. War Cloud’s dam was Airy Lady by Madison Boyd out of Susan Doty, the Doty name being an old Madison County, Kentucky name. All of these horses were from the Madison County area, around Richmond, Brea, Winchester, etc. Note the "Chester Dare" part of his name, clearly, of American Saddle Horse origin of the Black Squirrel 58 line. The stallion Chester Dare was a son of Black Squirrel 58. Further, Peavine is an unusual name tracing back to the original Peavine stallion, Peavine 85, foaled in 1863, who was a great-grandson of the Morgan stallion Vermont Blackhawk, foaled in 1833, who was in turn a son of the Sherman Morgan foaled in 1808, a son of the original Morgan Horse. Sherman’s dam was said to have been a Narragansett mare, brought from Rhode Island in 1799. Chester Dare Peavine/Old Bob had a major impact on the Mountain Horse gene pool. Old Bob bred to Lucy produced Honey. Old Bob when bred to his own daughter Honey, produced King Tutt. King Tutt was then bred back to his own dam, Honey, to produce Cheek’s Rocky. Not surprisingly, this very tightly bred horse was very strong in passing on his Saddle Horse characteristics to his get.

As noted above, Old Bob bred to Lucy produced Honey. The Hines Stud bred to Lucy produced Old Tobe. Old Tobe was bred to his half sister Lucy, to produce Tobe. Tobe is the stallion to which most Mountain Horses trace their ancestry, either through his numerous daughters, or through 5 of his sons, Kilburn’s Chocolate Sundown, Maple’s Squirrel, Sam Clemon’s Tim, Sewell’s Sam, and Yankee (Ragtime). The Saddle Horse influence through Old Bob, aka, Chester Dare Peavine, is clear in the foundation of the Mountain Horses.

Chester Dare Peavine line horses also may have an arched profile to the head, reminiscent of Warmblood ancestry. The Chester Dare Peavine line of horses is, however, by no means the only line of Mountain Saddle Horses showing American Saddle Horse influence in their carriage, conformation, and way of going Tight breeding was used to produce another horse that is to be found in the pedigrees of most of the Mountain Horses, one of the sons of Tobe noted above, Kilburn’s Chocolate Sundown. Old Tobe bred to Honey produced Tobe. Tobe sired Nance I. Tobe bred to his daughter, Nance I, produced Kilburn’s Chocolate Sundown. The "Ohio Horse" as he came to be known, due to his ownership by Charles and Frieda Kilburn of Ohio, was stood at stud by Sam Tuttle in Kentucky for many years, and had a major impact on the Mountain Horse breed.

I was told by Al Prewitt that the Stith Mare, listed as the dam of the great RMHA/KMSHA foundation stallion was a Squirrel mare, although other sources dispute this information. I would believe that the Squirrel connection to Dock is correct, though, because, in my experience, horses of both the Dock line and the Old Bob/Chester Dare Peavine line are consistently upheaded, elegant, strong gaited horses with a slight air of arrogance about them that gives them a powerful presence, be it in a show ring or on the trail. Both Dock line horses and those in the Chester Dare Peavine line also tend to have more natural lift in front and hock action in back than other lines of Mountain Saddle Horses historically displayed, together with a high natural tail carriage. Dock line horses, however, despite the action in their movement, also have an exceptionally soft execution of gait that is a hallmark of the line. Very strong gait and smoothness of execution are very consistently passed down the generations in that line.

By the 1920’s, the old photos, although black and white, show that the color gene that is now associated closely with the Mountain Saddle Horses had found its way into the horses, the silver dapple gene that produces the chocolate with flax mane and tail. There are two other breeds of horses in North America in which this color gene is widespread, Icelandic Ponies and Shetland Ponies. The former is a gaited breed. We know that the ancestors of Icelandic Ponies were transported by Vikings from the Northern English Isles during a limited period from 874 A.D. to 930 A.D. Shetland Ponies also come from the Northern English Isles, the Shetland Islands for which they are named. The distribution of the color gene in those horses as well as common conformational characteristics would seem to imply an ancient genetic connection between the Shetlands and the Icelandic’s.

However, how to explain the widespread distribution of the silver dapple gene in Mountain Saddle Horses of Kentucky? Clues lie in studies of the development and origin of the English language. Those studies show that the Appalachian Mountains were settled by people of Scottish origin. The music and manner of speaking English by the peoples of the Appalachian Mountains are related to the music and languages of Scotland.

The Galloway’s were a gaited breed from Scotland. It is not unreasonable, then, to conclude that the Scottish settlers brought their gaited Galloway’s with them, and that those Galloway’s had the silver dapple gene found in other breeds of the Northern English Isles as well. I believe that in addition to the ancient connection of the Icelandic Ponies and the Shetland Ponies to each other, there is also a genetic connection with those breeds to the Mountain Saddle Horses, demonstrated by the presence of the silver dapple color gene introduced into Iceland not later than 930 A.D. It is from this side of the horses’ heritage that I believe comes the "cold blood" temperament, physiology and hardiness that the Mountain Saddle Horses of today display.

A flaw in this theory is that the Galloway’s and Hobbies were also foundation stock for Tennessee Walkers and American Saddlebreds, yet the silver dapple gene is not, to my knowledge, found in either of those breeds today, or to the extent that it is, it is very limited. A more recent explanation may be that the gene found its way into the larger riding horses from the ponies used in the mines of Kentucky. To those who may be offended at the suggestion that Mountain Saddle Horses may in some sense be nothing more than glorified Shetland Ponies, my response is: So What? They are still great horses. However it came to be, the silver dapple gene is widespread in the Mountain Saddle Horses.

The silver dapple color is an acceptable color listed for American Paso Finos by the Paso Fino Horse Association, where the color is described as Chocolate Palomino. It is found occasionally in Paso Finos. Further, I have seen photos of Morgan horses apparently also of that color. My conclusion that the Morgan’s in the photos are apparently silver dapples has been seconded by Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, a leading authority on horse color genetics, and the author of two very fine books on that subject. In late 1998 I also personally viewed a Morgan mare in Arizona that could have passed for a Mountain Saddle Horse in conformation, disposition and color, right down to the mottled palomino like highlighting on the legs, head and underbelly.

Knowledgeable Morgan authorities dispute the presence of the silver dapple gene in Morgan’s, however, instead maintaining that the apparent silver dapples are instead variations of palomino, caused by an entirely different color dilute, creme, particularly in conjunction with yet another dilute, "smutty". Yet, in his research into the Anterior Segment Dysgenesis, ASD gene that has been found to be linked to the silver dapple gene, Dr. David Ramsey of Michigan State University has stated unequivocally that he has seen the cysts that are part of the range of ASD markers in the eyes of registered Morgan’s that he has examined as part of his studies on the distribution of the ASD gene. This relatively rare color gene would thus also seem to show the common ancestry of the Morgan’s, Paso’s and Mountain Saddle Horses at some point before the horses split into distinct breeds. When or how the gene found its way into any of those breeds can not, however, be said with any certainty at this time.

With the advent of dynamite to carve roads out of the rugged terrain of Appalachia, carts, carriages, automobiles and trucks could finally replace the horse as basic transportation. Just as had happened in Europe, with the coming of roads, the gaited horses began to die out. In Kentucky, one man is given deserved credit for preserving a core of the Mountain Saddle Horses in the face of these pressures, Sam Tuttle of Spout Springs, Kentucky.

He used the horses in his concession for trail riding at Natural Bridge State Park in Kentucky. His treasured stallion, Old Tobe, lived from 1927 to 1964, was used for many years in the pony ring, and to carry the most timid riders over the rugged mountain trails even while being used as an active breeding stallion.

Other people in Kentucky also continued to own and preserve the horses, although not in any organized way. From the Depression of the 1930’s into the early 1980’s, there was so little interest in the horses that they were sold in the auctions for a few hundred dollars apiece, often going for slaughter. In part because of their kind, gentle, accepting temperament, the mares were frequently used as "milk mares." In some cases the mares would nurse not only their own foal, but also accept another foal. In other cases the newborn or very young valueless foals of the mares would be taken from them, and Thoroughbred or other valuable foals put to nurse on the mares.

The dams of those valuable foals could then be shown or raced, or otherwise not be tied up with a foal. The luckier Mountain Saddle Horse foals torn from their dams were given away, or purchased, the beneficiary of someone who took pity on a bewildered and lost suckling foal a few days or weeks of age, bereft of its dam, otherwise doomed, bought for a few dollars and raised on the bottle. This was a sad chapter in the horses history, but one that contributed to their survival. After the need for the horses as basic transportation vanished, perhaps they would not have survived at all if another economic reason had not been found to preserve them. Some of the older foundation horses in the associations were in fact such bottle raised babies of milk mare dams from whom they had been taken.

Finally, in the 1980’s people who had known and used the horses all their lives, whose fathers and grandfathers before them had bred and used the horses, realized how unique the horses were, like no others in the United States or the world, and began to organize to preserve the horses and bring them to the attention of the world outside of rural Kentucky.

In 1989, Junior Robinson and several others from Kentucky who saw their way to preserve what was kin to their nature since their childhood, the Kentucky Saddlin Horse or "Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse" as to be newly named, was a "breed" of horse and pony to be conserved forever into the future.

In 2002, the Spotted Mountain Horse Association was formed. Preserving Mountain horses of multi-color derived from the foundation stock.

Now today as the story relates, there are two prominent Mountain Horse Breeds, each with their own agenda, preservation techniques and ideals. The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse association registry has over 28,000 horses registered and growing. "God thank you, we love and cherish our Mountain horses"! -

Note: The book so far took 7 years in the making, with research and development with information from a wide variety of scientific resources together with oral history from many knowledgeable people in Kentucky. The book remains a work in progress and hopefully one day to be published.


About the Author

Annette L. Gerhardt went to Kentucky in April, 1990 to look at one Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse. She bought 4, went back to Wisconsin and sold her other horses of another gaited breed, and has never regretted it for a minute. Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses became the horses of her heart. One of the first horses she bought was a bred mare, so she also immediately became a breeder, too. She bought two of her first horses from Junior Robinson. They became close friends, sharing their mutual love of Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses. Junior allowed Annette the great privilege of standing his wonderful foundation stallion, Robinson’s Sundown Rocky, at stud in Wisconsin in 1993 to get the horses going there, the only time Rocky was ever leased, and the only time he ever left Kentucky. Many of the horses that went into Wisconsin between 1990 and 1994 came through Annette, from Junior Robinson. Annette moved to Arizona in 1994, and has continued breeding and promoting these wonderful horses in Arizona.

As people bought horses from Annette, they had many questions: as to the origins of the horses, whether the gait was natural, the conformation to look for, the genetics of gait, how to fit saddles and bits, how to trim, and how to ride Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses. Annette’s passion for the horses led her to do extensive research to find the answers to all those questions. Then when she would give answers to people in response to their questions, it was like opening the door to an overstuffed closet, everything would fall out on top of them all at once, so they would throw up their hands and say "Write it down!" So she wrote it down. The result is the book Glide Rides: Through the Gaits of Joy from which this excerpt is taken.

Annette is an attorney of 34 years, practice limited to estate planning. She currently lives in outside of Sierra Vista in Southeast Arizona with her husband of 37 years, Glenn, together with 7 dogs, a Manx cat and 5 Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses.