The American Saddlebred: A True Showstopper

Often referred to as the ultimate show horse or the “peacock of the show ring,” the American Saddlebred has flashy, high-stepping motion and a distinct appearance that is unlike that of any other breed.

ImageOriginally developed as a utility horse, today’s American Saddlebred has evolved into a versatile show horse capable of excelling in many divisions. In addition to the sport horse disciplines, American Saddlebreds are a popular choice for saddle seat, including the five-gaited, three-gaited, fine harness, park and pleasure divisions. Their brilliance in the show ring, innate talent and distinct look have helped make this beloved breed a favorite among many horse show enthusiasts.

Each division has a different set of standards that judges use to measure performance, manners and conformation. The factors are weighted differently depending on the requirements of the division. To that end, manners play a more important role when judging a junior exhibitor five-gaited class than an open five-gaited class, since safety and rideability are paramount for a junior exhibitor mount.

Have you ever wondered what it takes to train a show horse for one of these divisions? Read on to hear how four World Champion trainers evaluate a show horse prospect for the saddle seat divisions. Learn how training, breeding, temperament and talent each play a key role in maximizing the potential of a show horse. Walk away ready to select the blue ribbon winner next time you’re on the rail watching Saddlebreds perform at a show.

Five-Gaited: Power and Precision

A trademark of the American Saddlebred is their ability to perform two additional gaits, the slow gait and rack. Five-gaited entries show with a full mane and tail and must exhibit the walk, trot, canter, slow gait and rack both ways of the ring with brilliance, animation and speed. The slow gait and rack are lateral four-beat gaits inherited from the breed’s ancient English ancestors. The slow gait is more collected, while the rack requires more speed and animation. The five-gaited classes are extremely popular with spectators. The open five-gaited championship is often the grand finale of a show, listed as the last class on the schedule.

In order to be successful and to endure the extensive training required for this division, five-gaited horses must be strong and have great stamina. When evaluating a prospect, look for a strong hind end and a thick, solid bone structure. Since this division is more taxing physically and mentally, a horse with a good work ethic and a desire to move forward is also a must.  

“A good gaited horse must have a ground-covering, long gait,” explains Jack Noble, trainer at Jack Noble Stables in Georgetown, Ky. In his 43 years of involvement with the breed, he has seen the emphasis in this division shift. “Horses are required to have greater animation and be more collected,” he explains. “While speed is still a factor, today’s gaited horses are not as fast as their ancestors.”

Many prospects are evaluated at a young age to determine if they are suitable for this division. Ancestors of the Saddlebred were naturally gaited and most can learn the additional gaits with training. Some prospects show a natural aptitude for performing the slow gait and rack at a young age. “I first look at their quality and the way that they move in order to determine what division they look like they might fit in,” explains Dena Lopez, trainer at Double D Ranch in Versailles, Ky.

Dena trained Wild Eyed and Wicked, a two-time World Grand Champion Five-Gaited Horse and winner of the Saddlebred Five-Gaited triple crown — an honor he earned by winning the Open Five-Gaited Championship at the nation’s top three Saddlebred shows: the World’s Championship Horse Show, the Lexington Junior League Horse Show and the American Royal. Only a small handful of horses have this incredible honor on their show record.

“What made Wicked so unique for the five-gaited division was that he could go so fast and keep his form,” explains Dena. “Very few horses can do that.”  

His accomplishments are also unique in that he won the top prize offered in the amateur five-gaited division with his amateur owner Sally Jackson as well. An increasing number of top quality show horses are being trained for the amateur division, and many show horse owners are no longer content to sit on the sidelines while their horses perform.

“Most of the great horses that once graced the show ring in the open divisions are now in the amateur division,” notes Melissa Moore, trainer at Sunrise Stables in Versailles, Ky. Melissa won her first world championship at age twelve and has since accumulated 50 world titles. “I think that trainers have developed their skills to make these high powered horses suitable for the amateur rider,” she continues.

Three-Gaited: Collection and Charisma

If elegance and beauty outweigh your need for speed, then watching a good three-gaited horse perform is a sight to behold. Collection and animation are paramount in this division. Three-gaited horses are shown with a roached mane in order to accentuate their headset and facial features.

Both the trot and canter are collected and animated.

Three-gaited horses have a more refined appearance and a lighter bone structure. An elegant head and neck coupled with a naturally high headset and the ability to set their neck back over their shoulders is a must to be competitive in this division. A good prospect must also have great expression, use his or her ears well and have natural rear end motion. They also must be able to channel their energy up and forward, not just forward.

Chris Reiser, trainer of Reiser Stables in Simpsonville, Ky., specializes in training three-gaited horses. He explains, “I am a fanatic on headsets and a true park trot, and I think that that is what can distinguish some of our horses from other three-gaited entries.” He agrees that a combination of conformation, innate talent, work ethic and correct training helps bring out the best qualities in each prospect. One of the horses that he trained, the record-setting mare CH An Heir About Her, won the Saddelbred Three-Gaited triple crown at the age of five.

“She was so perfect for the three-gaited division because she had an extremely long neck. She also had cadenced motion and a perfect park trot, which is hard to find today.” Many entries try to compensate for lack of motion through exhibiting more speed. He continues, “The main reason I think she was so successful is that she had the best owners a horse trainer could ever want. They were patient to wait on her, and listen to the input I had, and with that in mind the decisions that were made were in the best interest of the horse.”

When asked how the three-gaited division has changed in recent years, Chris echoes a similar sentiment to that stated above: “There seems to be a larger amateur/junior exhibitor base that are buying up some of the nice open horses, and converting them to win at their individual level.” To that end, more and more amateurs are competing for the bigger open titles. The conformation of the three-gaited horse has also continued to evolve. “Today’s walk trot horses are pretty and elegant,” explains Jack. They have become more refined over time and represent some of the best horses in the breed.

Fine Harness: Bold and Brilliant

Fine harness horses pull a four-wheeled buggy and are required to perform both ways of the ring at a walk and show trot. The walk is an animated, springy gait that shows great collection. A good fine harness horse has incredible presence and a balanced, open stride that is animated and cadenced. The ability to step up and move on when they are asked to do so in the show ring is also paramount for catching the judge’s attention and winning over the spectators.

A solid build and natural motion in both the front and back legs are key components for success in this division. The ideal fine harness prospect likes to trot, has a bright expression in the show ring and does not break into the canter. In addition to talent, Jack explains, “good fine harness horses have a ‘look.’ It’s not something that you can teach them.” They naturally possess the confidence and attitude that sets them apart from other competitors.

Great harness horses float above the ground when they move and appear effortless in the show ring. Look for a horse that has natural suspension in its stride. Nelson Green, trainer at Nelson Green Stables in Nicholasville, Ky., trained the three-time World Grand Champion Fine Harness Horse A Radiant Success. “He was balanced, proportioned and built to wear an overcheck,” Nelson explains, “he came from a family of harness horses.” His dam, La La Success, was a World Grand Champion Fine Harness Horse.

Like other top fine harness entries, A Radiant Success exhibits a lofty fine harness trot and is a more refined looking horse, a trend that Nelson has seen emerge in recent years in all of the show horse divisions. He also has the charisma and consistency that enables him to beat top entries each time he goes into the show ring.

Park and Pleasure: Rideability and Manners

Pleasure classes have become extremely popular within the five-gaited, three-gaited and fine harness divisions. Pleasure horses generally exhibit less animation and are required to flat walk. The pleasure division was developed solely for riders with amateur status; professional trainers are not permitted. Judges emphasize manners and rideability in these classes in addition to performance.

“I think the pleasure divisions are growing by leaps and bounds, especially the western division,” notes Chris. “I think that this is a good place to look at growing our industry. There are a lot of people who love western and hunt seat, but like the look of a Saddlebred. Having a way for them to easily enter our show world will only help increase the number of loyal Saddlebred fans.”

The three-gaited park division is also a relatively new division that continues to attract top entries each season. Park horses most closely resemble three-gaited horses, but are shown with a full mane and tail. “The park division has become very popular in the last five to 10 years,” explains Jack. “It started as a division for pleasure horses that wouldn’t flat walk, and has since become an important division that has taken some numbers from the three-gaited and fine harness divisions,” he continues.

The American Saddlebred is a highly gifted, spirited horse capable of lighting up the show ring in the five-gaited, three-gaited, fine harness and pleasure divisions. They have the inherent talent, stunning “look at me” attitude and charisma that sets them apart from other breeds. Whether you are searching for your next show prospect or are simply watching a Saddlebred class at a local show, armed with the information above, you’ll be sure to pick a winner.


Categories: Feature Articles