- HEIGHT: 14.1–15.2 hands, may reach 16
- PLACE OF ORIGIN: Vermont
- SPECIAL QUALITIES: Exceptional strength, staying power, soundness, and versatility
- BEST SUITED FOR: All-around athletes; compete successfully in almost every discipline, from dressage and jumping to Western pleasure and cutting
One of the greatest true American horse stories is the tale of Figure, an undersized, handsome, three-year-old bay stallion who in 1792 was given to a Vermont music teacher and sometime blacksmith in partial repayment of a debt. The little stallion matured to barely 14 hands. Possibly because his small size meant that he wouldn’t bring much at a sale, the teacher, Justin Morgan, did not try to sell him right away. Morgan sometimes managed stallions as a business, so perhaps he saw potential in the horse and preferred to keep ownership. He leased the horse to a local farmer for fifteen dollars a year, and ultimately sold him in about 1795.
The little horse stunned everybody by being able to outwork every other horse in the state, and he seemed to do it with ease and even a carefree, happy manner. It was said that after a hard day in the fields or skidding logs out of the woods, Figure would return to the barn bright-eyed and looking as though he had just enjoyed a relaxed day off.
One of the horse’s most famous feats had to do with a bet placed at a tavern after a hard day of logging. Robert Evans, who had been working Figure and knew his strength, was told there was a huge pine log ten rods from the lumber mill. (A rod is sixteen feet, six inches.) No horse or team of horses had been able to budge it. Evans bet that Figure could pull the log to the mill in three starts; to make it a little more of a challenge, he asked three of the largest men in the tavern to sit on the log, which they happily did.
This unusual color for Morgans is sought after by some fanciers.
The typical color range in the breed is bay to dark brown.
Without commotion, the little horse sat back on his haunches, leaned forward with his head bowed, and pulled steadily, just slightly to one side. The log wobbled, then moved, and continued moving. Halfway to the mill, Evans stopped the horse to let him catch his breath, and then they finished the trip. Figure moved the log the entire distance in two starts, for which Robert Evans won a gallon of rum.
Figure’s fame spread as fast as the story could travel, and he became a much-sought-after breeding stallion. He had excellent gaits and was also a lovely driving horse. In addition to the famous log pull, Figure outperformed every horse ever put against him in any sort of contest: trotting, running, or pulling. Owners held walking races in those days, which he also won.
Although the horse was known as Figure for most of his life, after the death of his owner in 1798 he came to be called the Justin Morgan horse, and later Justin Morgan. He contributed the Morgan name and type to an entire breed. Justin Morgan the horse stood about 14 hands but weighed about 1,000 pounds. He was a solid dark bay with a thick wavy mane and tail and feathering along the back of his legs and fetlocks. His back was short, his body rounded and very compact with well-sprung ribs, a very deep chest, and powerful quarters. He was a good-gaited horse, with gaits that were square and even but not high stepping. His legs were short, and he was much more heavily muscled than most horses of his size, although he showed no signs of coarseness or draft horse breeding.
Justin Morgan turned out to be far more than just an exceptional working horse. He was an incredibly prepotent sire, meaning that he stamped his type on his offspring. His offspring looked like him and inherited many of his exceptional traits, even when the foals came from dams of unknown ancestry and differing types. This suggests strongly that he himself was linebred, meaning that he was the result of the breeding of closely related animals, although it may have happened by accident. In those days, everybody had horses, and there were a good many stallions around. Fences were not always of the quality we have today; escapees and fence jumpers were fairly common. A stallion may have jumped a fence and bred a close relative.
Such an accident could account for Justin Morgan’s small size, although other factors may have contributed, and it could also explain his ability to stamp his type on subsequent generations. The ability of closely linebred animals to do just that is why people sometimes use linebreeding or inbreeding in their breeding programs.
Although there were certainly many sons of Justin Morgan, records have been found for only six that became breeding stallions in New England, and of those, three were particularly notable.
Sherman was a bright chestnut who matured to just under 14 hands. He sired the very famous Black Hawk, who himself sired the great Ethan Allen.
Woodbury was a high-strung dark chestnut with a white stocking and a unique blaze. He matured to 14.3 hands and was the showiest of the sons. He spent many years in New England but ultimately was sold to an owner in Alabama. The trip south by boat was very difficult, and he arrived in poor condition. Never really regaining his health, he died two years later, leaving no record of offspring in Alabama.
The third son was Bulrush, who, like his sire, stood about 14 hands and weighed about 1,000 pounds. He had a few white hairs on the forehead but other than that was a solid dark bay. Bulrush’s forelock fell to the tip of his nose, and his mane came nearly to his knees. Like Justin Morgan, he had feathering at the back of the cannons. Bulrush was the fastest of the three sons in harness and was famous for his endurance. He died at the age of thirty-six, reputed to have never had a lame day in his life.
Black Hawk, a son of Sherman foaled in 1833, was known for great beauty, speed at the trot, and endurance. He was never beaten in trotting races and became a very famous sire. Some of his colts sold for between $1,000 and $3,000. Black Hawk was crucially important in the heritage of the Standardbred, the American Saddle-bred, and the Tennessee Walker.
Also important in the lineage of those breeds was Ethan Allen, foaled in 1849, a Black Hawk son. Ethan Allen was the fastest trotting stallion in the world in his day, earning that title at the age of eighteen by winning three incredibly fast heats against a horse named Dexter in front of a crowd of nearly 40,000 people.
Morgans often have large dark eyes and an abundant mane and tail.
Morgans today still closely resemble Figure (Justin Morgan), progenitor of the breed.
Versatile and Hardy
The Morgan Horse played a part in the history of the United States. As more miles of good roads were developed in the young country, the breed became popular as coach horses. Many stage companies, even as far away as Chicago, chose all-Morgan teams because they were sound, fast, able to do a tremendous amount of work, and very easy keepers. They were immensely popular as light driving horses, as well as riding and ranch horses, and the forty-niners used them during the California gold rush. The Army selected Morgans to pull artillery and also as officer’s mounts during and after the Civil War. The only horse to survive the Battle of Little Big Horn was of Morgan breeding.
BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES
According to the American Morgan Horse Association (founded in 1909 as the Morgan Horse Club):
• Currently, 155,000 horses are registered.
• Between 3,100 and 3,400 foals are registered each year.
• The worldwide estimate of Morgans is between 175,000 and 180,000.
• The first register of Morgans was published in 1894.
• Morgans are most popular in New England, California, and Michigan.
• The breed is also popular in Great Britain and Sweden and is represented in many other countries.
By 1870, there were Morgans in every state and territory, used for just about every purpose anyone could imagine. At about that time, however, fashion shifted, and there emerged a desire for horses with longer legs. Morgan mares were frequently crossed on other breeds in the hopes of getting the best of both types. In time, the original style of Morgan almost vanished, but enough of them survived in small pockets, mostly on farms in Vermont, that the original type was preserved.
To this day the Morgan breed remains sound and versatile, and a large number of the horses still look very much like the drawings and sculptures of little Figure. Morgans make excellent pleasure and driving horses, but they are also at home as ranch, trail, and endurance horses. They compete successfully in almost every discipline, from dressage and jumping to Western pleasure and cutting.
Morgans are known for beautiful heads with an alert expression; large, wide-set eyes; and small active ears. They have a finely shaped, arched, well-muscled neck. The withers are prominent. The shoulders are long and sloping, the ribs well sprung and angled toward the rear. The distance from the withers to the floor of the chest is greater than from the floor of the chest to the ground. This exceptional depth gives the horses great staying power. The legs are not long but are sturdy with clean joints and well-defined tendons. The feet are of excellent quality.
Morgans are typically bay, black, brown, or chestnut, though gray, palomino, creme, dun, and buckskin are seen.