The American saddlebred is a breed of horse that was developed in Kentucky by plantation owners. Today, they are used almost exclusively for the show ring, although their uphill build has also begun to draw dressage enthusiasts to the breed. They are also used as barrel racers, hunters, jumpers, and parade mounts.
The park horses used for the show ring are flashy, high-stepping animals, with exagerated action. The saddlebred is very sensitive and alert. They have a long, arched neck which is very swan-like. Saddlebreds also have long, sloping pasterns, a narrow chest, level croup and back, and large eyes. Saddlebreds are usually black, bay, chestnut, or brown, but grays, palominos, roans, and pintos are also found. They range in height from 15–16 hh.
Park horses may have extremely high-set tails. This is done by nicking a muscle in the croup. When the muscle heals, the tail is held up higher. The horses are also kept in elaborate tail-setting devices while in the stalls to keep the tail from returning to its original position, which can occur if the setting device is left off for many days. It is sometimes thought that the high tail of the saddlebred comes from actually breaking the tail bones. While this did occur years ago (they would break the bones and allow them to heal upright), it is illegal now.
Saddlebreds can also be five-gaited, performing not only the walk, trot, and canter, but the slow-gait and rack. The slow gait is a four-beated gait performed in a prancing motion, lifting the legs very high. The rack is a more ground-covering four-beat gait, and is much faster, with the horse snapping their knees and hocks up quickly. Saddlebreds are bred specifically for these gaits, and naturally perform them.
In the 18th century, American colonists crossed the Narragansett Pacer with the Thoroughbred. Known as the American Horse, this cross was used in the Revolutionary War, and made its way into Kentucky. In the 1800s, the breed become known as the Kentucky Saddler. It was used mainly on plantations because of its comfortable, ground-covering gaits, and sure-footed manner. It was developed into a very stylish, fancy horse: beautiful for harness, strong enough for farm work, fast enough for match races.
In the 1830s, Morgan and Thoroughbred blood was added to give the more substance and action. This produced the American Saddlebred. The horse gained popularity in the 1940s. The stallion Denmark, born in 1939, became the foundation sire, with over 60% of todays Saddlebreds tracing back to this one horse.
General Robert E. Lee had a Saddlebred named Traveller. General Ulysses S. Grant and Stonewall Jackson also rode Saddlbreds. When the American Civil War was over, breeders began premoting the breed as a show horse, breeding for flash and animation.