The U.S children's story Justin Morgan Had a Horse is very loosely based on the celebrated founding father of this beautiful and versatile breed. The modern Morgan horse is a rare instance of a breed which can not only excel at the top levels of competition but also be gentle enough for even therapeutic riding.
In spite of the breed name the founding father of these compact and versatile little animals was actually called Figure. He was given to Massachusetts resident Justin Morgan in 1792 as payment of a debt. Although his pedigree is more a matter of folklore than fact, his performance is beyond doubt as was his general good nature. This naturally led to him being used for stud and it quickly became noted that his issue inherited all of his good qualities. He, quite literally, sired a breed in his own image and contributed to the development of other U.S. breeds such as the American Saddlebred and the Standardbred, through his sons and grandsons.
By the turn of the 19th century the breed was already well-known not only in the United States, but also abroad. A Morgan stallion was exported to the UK to improve the renowned Hackney breed, which was already the carriage horse of choice for the nobility. Morgans were already recognized as excellent trotting horses in the U.S. and were also popular riding horses. They were used by everyone from Californian miners to the U.S. military. Unfortunately by the late 19th century, the public wanted bigger horses. While the Morgan was in demand for cross-breeding the fact that so few purebred Morgans were being produced obviously generated concerns regarding the long-term future of the breed itself. In 1907 the U.S. Department of Agriculture stepped in and began a breeding programme aimed at creating sturdy, healthy, all-round work horses and securing the future of the Morgan breed (which were largely one and the same goal). This still exists today, although it is now run by the University of Vermont.
The breed, however, is currently well and truly out of danger with Morgans being popular for all sorts of disciplines. The Morgan is possible unique amongst horse breeds in that Morgans are consistently gentle enough to be used for therapeutic riding but still excel in competition. With its famous versatility, the Morgan can regularly be seen amongst the prize winners in everything from driving to dressage to western riding. They are also still very much in demand as working horses for cattle ranches, where they demonstrate the common sense and “cattle sense”, which are both prerequisites for this work.
The modern Morgan horse looks much the same as its famous founding father. Most are around the 14.2HH to 15.2HH mark, although it is acceptable for individuals to be slightly bigger or smaller. While the most common colours are chestnut, bay and black, the breed registry recognizes essentially all coat colours except spotted. Only a handful of Morgans are, however, anything other than the three main colours. All Morgans, however, are compact, powerful horses. Although they stop short of being cobs, they are clearly muscular, making them very strong for their size. They tend to be relatively short in the back, which is not ideal for top-level dressage, which requires extreme flexibility. They are however perfectly capable at lower levels and at competitions based on an animal’s ability as an all-round riding horse. One reason for this is that they have excellent gaits, full of energy and athletic grace. Morgan horses are very distinctive heads, which are full of character. Although they can have slightly convex profiles, this is essentially the extent of any obvious Arab influence. Their eyes are set wide apart in broad foreheads and are very expressive.
Morgan horses are, quite simply wonderful animals both to ride and, quite simply, to be around. They can be trusted with the most vulnerable of riders and yet they make excellent competitive mounts for those seeking to reach the highest levels in many disciples, both under saddle and in harness. Many people, however, buy Morgans purely for their qualities as all-round riding horses. Their combination of common sense, intelligence and friendliness makes them ideal companions for those who simply wish to enjoy recreational riding in a non-competitive environment. Although often ridden by adults, they can make excellent mounts for older (larger) children/teenagers as they are completely trustworthy but still athletic, energetic and generally more than capable of tackling any challenge a young rider may present to them.
Morgan horses are known as good doers and so may need to be watched for obesity and related issues such as laminitis. Overall they are healthy animals however there appears to be a small degree of susceptibility to MCOA (Multiple Congenital Ocular Anomalies) and LWS (Lethal White Syndrome). MCOA as its name suggests is a disorder which can lead to problems with vision and although it has been observed in Morgans, it is closely linked with the gene which produces dapple-grey coats and this is very rare in this breed. LWS causes foals to be born with non-functioning colons and currently this means that they die shortly after birth. Breeders are trying to eliminate both of these conditions using genetic testing to identify carriers.
Caring for a Morgan
In practical terms, Morgans are easy to keep although they will need some degree of protection from the worst of the UK weather. They may also need to have their grazing limited in summer to prevent them becoming overweight and will need to be monitored for laminitis. They will also need the standard requirements of daily grooming and regular foot care and worming. Like all horses, Morgans enjoy the company of their own kind, so turn-out time is a must, but they also enjoy human company, which means that owners need to be prepared to spend quality time with them even when they are not actually being ridden.
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