🐎 The American Saddlebred Horse Breed

Breed Description

The Saddlebred is a five-gaited breed. Most Saddlebreds are born with the ability to learn the slow-gait (stepping pace) and the rackÒ€”a few can do these gaits naturally.

Average Height

The average height of an American saddlebred horse is typically between 15 – 16 hands.


No color restrictions. Bay, chestnut, brown and black are the most common Saddlebred colors, with grey, roan, palomino and pinto colors seen occasionally.



Well-shaped with large, wide-set expressive eyes, gracefully hooked ears set close together on top of the head and carried alertly; a straight face line with a relatively fine muzzle and large nostrils and a clean, smooth jaw line.

The head is the most revealing part of the horse. The proportion of the head is usually a good indication of body proportion. Generally, a long narrow head will be accompanied by a long narrow body, while a coarse head will usually be seen on a thick body that lacks quality. The head should show breeding. By looking at the head alone, one should be able to distinguish a Saddlebred from a Quarter Horse. The head should be lean, in proportion to the body, and it should indicate femininity or masculinity. It is important that the head not be too large because it is a heavy mass of bone. If the head is large in proportion to the rest of the horse, the horse’s neck will tire easily in its attempt to carry the head. It should have an angle at the throat latch that allows for sufficient space so that the larynx is not compressed when the neck is flexed. The bones, muscles, and veins should show prominently through the skin. The skin and hair should be fine textured. The horse should have a well developed jaw, which indicates good masticating power (the Quarter Horse is noted for having an exceptionally well developed jaw). It is very important that the horse be wide and clean between his jaws so he can flex without interfering with his throat latch area.

The space between the eyes should be broad. Usually, there is a concavity in profile, beginning just below the eyes. This concavity should be only slight, and should not suggest a dished face unless you are critiquing an Arabian.

The horse is known for having exceptionally good hearing. The ears should be of a size in proportion to the head and body. They should be pointed, closely set, alert, and active; however, ears that are too thin and pointed are called “pin ears” by Quarter Horse people. Many breeders are partial to mares with large ears and stallions with small ones. Ears that clearly show the blood vessels are a characteristic of a quality horse. Ears that are constantly moving might indicate a nervous disposition or impaired eyesight, while ears that are seldom forward and alert can indicate a lazy, sluggish temperament.

The eye should be full, clear, bright, intelligent, and kind. Some families of Saddlebreds are noted for an eye that shows a lot of the white, or sclera, at all times. This makes the horse appear somewhat bug-eyed and very alert; it does not signify that the horse has a nasty temperament. The eyelids should be reasonably thin and give an appearance of good health.

The nostrils should be large but thin, a characteristic that denotes good breathing capacity. They should be fine, sensitive, and stand well open. The muzzle should be fine and soft with the lips sensitive and closed naturally over the teeth. The muzzle should be reasonably suggestive of the square shape. The mouth should be firmly chiseled and reasonably tight. The lips should be thin, long, and firm. The teeth should meet evenly, making the mouth as a whole have a good bite. One should avoid an overreaching of the upper teeth, known as parrot mouth. Also undesirable is the undershot jaw called monkey mouth. Both impair the horse’s ability to eat.


Long, arched and well-flexed at the poll with a fine, clean throat latch.

Whether a horse is considered long necked or short necked, he has seven cervical vertebrae. The shape of the neck is a result of the muscular development. The neck should be long, muscular, and elegant. When seen from the side it should appear light, slender, and graceful. However, when seen from above the line of the crest, it should be rather thick, firm, and muscular to touch. The neck should be arched, but not crested to the extreme of being thick.

Two main faults in the conformation of the neck are the ewe neck and the turkey neck. In the former the neck curves downward from the withers and then has a flat, straight appearance to the head, like a sheep’s neck. The turkey neck curves upward to the head giving the horse a cocky look. With this neck the anterior, or the front of the neck, is extremely convex.

Withers & Shoulders

Well-defined and prominent, shoulders deep and sloping

The withers should extend well into the back and they should be reasonably lean and prominent. They should not be low, heavy, thick, or round. A horse with low thick withers usually travels with a low head and is awkward with the movement of his front legs, making him predisposed to forging. (Forging is when the toe of the hind shoe strikes the underneath surface or the heel of the front shoe).

The shoulders should be long, sloping, flat, and smooth. A horse with a long sloping shoulder has greater extension of the forearm and the front leg can be raised higher. A horse with a good sloping shoulder will have a more graceful way of going and will stay sound longer. A good shoulder gives the appearance of being lean and muscular, not beefy. A long, sloping shoulder generally allows for the higher neck carriage desired of horses who will be ridden under saddle seat tack.

Back & Croup

Strong and level with well sprung ribs, level croup with tail coming out high.

A short back and loin, combined with a long underline and deep well sprung ribs, make for a correctly conformed horse. However, if the back is too short, combined with long legs, the horse will be predisposed to forging. If the back arches, or is convex, the horse is said to have a roach back. A horse that is low in the back is said to be sway backed. The back should carry out the appearance of a “straight top line.”

The croup should be long, muscular, broad, and level. A reasonably level croup adds to the ease of structure, and helps to place the legs in the proper place. A croup that is too horizontal, however, will place the hind legs too far behind the horse. The opposite condition, called “goose rumped,” is when the croup slopes downward from the hip to the dock. This conformation places the hind limbs too far underneath the horse. Saddlebred trainers often prefer the latter for a five gaited horse so that he can get his hind legs underneath him, making it easier to slow-gait and rack correctly.


The front leg should set well forward under the shoulder. The line of the hind leg, in a natural stance, should be vertical from the point of the buttock to the back edge of the cannon bone. The forearms and hindquarters are well-muscled to the knees and hocks. Legs are straight with broad flat bones, sharply defined tendons and sloping pasterns.

The arm should be short in comparison to the shoulder. If the length of the arm is excessive in comparison with a short straight upright shoulder, the front leg will cover less ground with each stride. The elbow should not be tied down against the body of the horse, nor should it be bucked out. The forearm should be long and powerful. Because the forearm carries the knee forward and upward, the longer the forearm the longer the stride will be. The leg should be longer from the elbow to the knee than from the knee to the ankle.

The knee, when viewed from the side, should be straight, broad, and smooth. The knee should be well supported and it should taper smoothly into the cannon bone. One of the most undesirable conformation faults if calf knees, also known as back at the knees or sheep knees. Calf kneed horses have a predisposition to knee fractures because there is so much concussion on the knee joint, since it is somewhat bent backwards when the hoof strikes the ground.

The opposite condition of calf knees is buck knees, which is also known as over at the knees, shaky in the knees, knee sprung, goat kneed, or easy in the knees. This fault is not as serious since the knee is simply over-bent in the direction that it is supposed to bend. Some jumper trainers actually look for a horse that is somewhat over at the knees because it is easier for the horse to get his knees up over the top of a fence and there is less concussion on the landing side.

When viewed from the front, the knees should be straight. An offset knee is known as a bench knee. Knees that are too close together are called knock knees, while knees that are too far apart are bow knees.

The cannon bone should be short, flat, and strong. It should be equipped with smooth tendons that are well-placed and parallel to the bone. These tendons should stand out and give a lean appearance to the bone. The fetlock should be large and strong in order to provide plenty of room for the attachment of ligaments and tendons. The pastern should be fairly long and sloping, but strong. It should have enough angle to be able to reduce concussion. The shoulder, pastern and hoof generally have the same degree of slope. This slope should be a forty five degree angle to the ground.


Good and sound, open at the heel, neither toed in nor toed out.

The feet should be as wide apart at the ground as the space between the limbs at their origin in the chest. The size of the feet should be in proportion to that of the horse. The hoof wall should be hard, smooth, and flat without any ridges, dryness, or flaking. The sole of the foot should be firm, strong, concave and not dropped. The bars should be firm, strong, and well defined. The frog should be elastic yet firm.

The horse’s feet should be planted squarely underneath him and should point to the front, neither turning out nor turning in. A horse whose toes point outward is called splay footed. A splay footed horse often interferes when he travels, and is predisposed to developing splints. A horse whose toes point inward is said to be pigeon toed. The pigeon toed horse is predisposed to side bones, but will not interfere when he moves. Winging, or the milder form called paddling, often occurs with the pigeon toed horse.


Saddlebreds are extremely intelligent and very people-oriented.

Members of this breed often excel in the following disciplines:

  • Show / Pleasure
  • Driving
  • Gaited Events

Breed History

The American Saddlebred is descended from the Narragansett Pacer, a breed that is technically “extinct” in the United States. In the early 1700s, Narragansett mares were crossed with imported English Thoroughbreds, and their descendents were known simply as the “American Horse.” Horses of this type had the size and refinement of the Thoroughbred, but retained the ability to learn the pacing gaits that were the forte of their Narragansett ancestors. American Horses were particularly popular as riding horses, since their smooth gaits made them much more comfortable over long distances.

The American Horse played an essential role in the American Revolution, and by the early 1800s these sturdy horses were prized for their endurance and style. They became particularly popular in Kentucky, which claimed the breed as its own. The addition of Morgan and Standardbred blood helped to further refine the breed, and by the Civil War the American Saddlebred was one of the most popular riding horses in America. General Robert E. Lee rode a racking Saddlebred (Traveller), and so did many other Civil War generals.

Today, the American Saddlebred enjoys popularity all over the world, in such diverse places as South Africa, Holland, Australia, and Japan.