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The Tennessee Walking Horse is the first breed to bear a state name. From a smooth-riding trail mount to a high-powered show horse, the Tennessee Walking Horse wears many hats. It began as a hardy utility horse and later became famous under the bright lights of the show ring.
PAST TO PRESENT
In the mid to late 1800s, farmers in the central basin of Tennessee developed, through selective breeding, a strain of saddle horse that was both an effective utility horse and a smooth-gaited mount. They crossbred horses that were readily available throughout the region: Standardbreds, Morgans, American and English Thoroughbreds, American Saddlebreds, and Canadian and Narragansett Pacers.
It was a Standardbred stallion named Allan that laid the foundation for what became the Tennessee Walking Horse. Though he possessed quality racing trotter bloodlines, Allan’s natural tendency was to pace. Regardless of the type of mare mated to him, the resulting offspring almost always performed an easy gliding gait capable of carrying a rider effortlessly across the farms and rural roads of middle Tennessee.
When the first breeders association was formed in 1935 in Lewisburg, Tenn., its founders were faced with the difficult task of selecting the foundation stock on which to underpin the breed. Because many of the more influential horses had long since passed, their pedigrees had to be researched and established. Ultimately, 115 animals were selected and designated Foundation Stock. Because of his profound influence in developing the breed, Allan was designated the number one foundation horse and became known from that point forward as Allan F-1. This designation was granted some 25 years after his death.
In 1939, the first Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration took place in Shelbyville, Tenn., and it remains today the breed’s largest showcase and its world championship show. In terms of entries and spectators, the 11-day event is considered the largest show in the world, drawing 250,000 spectators and more than 3,000 Walking horses annually. The Tennessee Walking Horse became an officially recognized breed by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1950.
Today’s Tennessee Walking Horses average slightly over 15 hands and weigh 900 to 1200 pounds. The breed features a pretty head with medium to small, well-placed ears. The neck ties high into a long sloping shoulder.
The topline is strong and short and the hip is long and sloping. The underline is long in relation to the topline, allowing for greater length of stride.
The predominant coat colors are black, chestnut, bay and sorrel, but a variety of other colors and patterns exist within the breed. They include palomino, roan, gray, buckskin, overo, sabino, tobiano, champagne and cremello.
GAITS OF THE WALKER
In the show ring, Tennessee Walkers perform three gaits the flat walk, the running walk and the canter. The flat walk is a smooth and easy, four-beat diagonal gait that reaches a speed of 5 to 7 miles per hour. During a properly executed flat walk, three feet remain on the ground at all times. Unlike the trot, at no time are all four legs suspended off the ground. This footfall absorbs the shock and is the reason for the smooth ride.
The hind legs function like a pair of scissors, driving underneath the body in an overstriding manner. Overstride occurs when a hind foot surpasses the imprint made by the corresponding front foot. For example, the right hind leg strides underneath and oversteps the imprint made by the right foreleg, and vice versa on the left side. A long overstride is a desirable trait that allows the Tennessee Walking Horse to cover more ground with less effort than other breeds. The forehand breaks off the ground and reaches out in an elevated arc, while the head nods in a cadenced rhythm with each step, prompting the old saying, “If he ain’t noddin’, he ain’t walkin’”.
The running walk is a more accelerated, gliding version of the flat walk, and reaches a speed of 8 to 10 miles per hour. The added speed of the running walk produces a bolder, more animated look, and is the gait for which the Tennessee Walking Horse is best known.
The third gait, the canter, is a three-beat gait as in all breeds. However, the canter of a well-trained Walking Horse lifts and flows with ease and comfort of a rocking chair. Today, walking horses are used in a variety of disciplines and compete in three divisions lite-shod pleasure, plantation pleasure and padded performance.
In recent years, the breed has grown by leaps and bounds. Backed by the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association (TWHBEA) in Lewisburg, Tenn., the official registry, is considered the second-fastest growing breed in the world, trailing only the Paints. Western Horseman magazine recently stated that Tennessee Walking Horses now stand fourth among all breeds in total equine population (based on new foal registrations). Just 16 years ago, walking horses ranked eighth in breed population. In 2003, TWHBEA registered approximately 15,000 horses and the walking horse industry bred more than 25,000 mares. To date, there are more than 400,000 horses in the TWHBEA registry system. The TWHBEA has grown to a membership in excess of 18,000, and boasts members in all parts of the United States and 14 foreign countries.