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Morgan Horse Breed – History, Types, & Temperament

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In 1792, a stocky little bay stallion was given to a schoolteacher in New England to repay a debt. More than three hundred years later, the stallion’s many descendants turned into one of the most popular and versatile horse breeds. Keep reading to learn all about one of America’s first horse breeds – the Morgan.

Justin Morgan Had a Horse

Justin Morgan, a singing school teacher from Vermont, received a little stallion called “Figure” (who was later renamed Justin Morgan) as partial repayment of a debt.

Justin Morgan dabbled in horse breeding as a side business and didn’t sell the colt right away, despite his small stature (at the time, tall and leggy English carriage horses were all the rage).

Though he was a handsome three-year-old, Figure barely cleared 15 hands.

Despite his short height, Figure was well-muscled, strong. His athletic prowess soon became apparent. He could outperform every other local horse at nearly anything – trotting races, pulling competitions, and even walking races!

Figure could do it all without breaking a sweat (as the legend goes).

Figure and the Log

In fact, the most famous story detailing one of Figure’s accomplishments goes something like this:

Justin Morgan leased Figure to a man named Robert Evans to work on his farm, and Evans was well aware of his talents. Down at the local tavern, Evans heard about a log that nobody in town –horse or man – could move.

Evans proposed a wager that Figure could drag the log 160 feet from where it lay, all the way to the lumber mill. He upped the ante by inviting three tavern patrons to sit on the log, adding extra weight.  

Figure managed to move the log the entire 160 feet in just two starts, stopping halfway to catch his breath. For his success, Robert Evans earned a barrel of rum – and Figure became a local legend.

Figure As A Sire

Aside from his pulling prowess, the little stallion with feathered fetlocks was extremely prepotent. He gave his best qualities to his offspring, and soon became the father of one of the first all-American breeds – the Morgan.

Several of his offspring became foundational sires for other breeds such as the Standardbred, the American Saddlebred, and the Tennessee Walking Horse.

His progeny also influenced the American Quarter Horse and the Hackney as well. Today, his legend lives on, as many Morgans look a lot like the original Figure – or Justin Morgan horse.  

Breed Development

At the time, horses were a necessary instrument in the Colonial way of life. They provided transportation, both before the existence of well-traveled roads, and eventually pulled carriages through bustling city centers.

As settlers migrated west, they needed horses that had good “cow-sense” and who could manage large herds of cattle and travel long distances.

During the Civil War, cavalry horses were needed to fight on all fronts, and small farmers used their horses to tend crops (and race down the local town streets on the weekend).

The Morgan was there for it all – providing officer mounts in various conflicts, herding cattle in the American West, and teaching families with small children how to ride.

Morgans appeared in nearly every discipline, becoming extremely popular as a versatile, athletic, and spunky horse – qualities they still maintain to this day.  

Physical Characteristics

While the Morgan horse breed has a specific set of physical qualities that differentiates them from other breeds, they are also expected to display the following attributes:

  • Animation. Morgans are known for their lively gaits and expressive self-carriage. Particularly animated Morgans excel in saddle seat pleasure classes.
  • Stamina. This breed has excellent stamina, which makes them popular choices in endurance competitions or working on the trail.
  • Vigor. Morgans are often working well into their 20s, when other breeds may tend to slow down and need to be retired. Ethan Allen, the famous trotting horse champion, was winning races until he was 23.
  • Alertness. The ideal Morgan has short and shapely ears that are “intelligent and alert.”

Temperament

Morgan horses are flashy good movers that generally enjoy working with people. The ideal Morgan has the appropriate:

  • Adaptability. Suited for nearly every discipline, Morgans are excellent all-around horses. Many Morgans can train and be successful in multiple disciplines.
  • Attitude. Morgans can sometimes be known as “hot” horses – excitable or nervous. But, just as many are calm and collected under pressure. They generally have a good attitude and are willing to perform for their owners. Most Morgan horse owners appreciate a little “spunk.”
  • Tractability. Known as “the horse that chooses you”, Morgans are exceptionally affable and family-friendly. They are intelligent and trainable.

These qualities can be colloquially summed up as “spunk.” They can sometimes be a handful, but if you take the time to get to know your Morgan and find out what he likes best – you’ll have a friend for life.

Appearance       

Morgan horses are elegant, attractive, and athletic. Designed for work in all disciplines, Morgans bear some resemblance to their foundation sire, Figure. The ideal Morgan should have the following qualities (though it varies slightly based on type):

Conformation

The ideal Morgan horse should have the following physical attributes (source):

HeadExpressive and refined with a broad forehead, large eyes, and nostrils, a straight or slightly dished profile, and short, shapely ears.
NeckElegant and slightly arched, with a deeper throatlatch to allow proper flexion at the poll.  
BodyCompact with well-defined withers, a short back, long croup, well-sprung ribs, broad loins, and a tail carried high and straight.
LegsStraight legs with “an appearance of over-all substance and refinement.” They should have a spring in their step, and well-formed rear legs are important.

Size

Most Morgan horses stand between 14.1 and 15.2 hands and weigh around 1,000 pounds, but some individuals may be over or under. They are heavy and strong despite their smaller size and are often capable of carrying or pulling heavyweights.

Color

Morgan horses may be any color, but most Morgans are bay, black, brown, or chestnut (although occasionally gray, palomino, dun, or buckskin appear as well).

Disciplines

The Morgan horse is a versatile pleasure, driving, and show horse. They are found in almost every discipline and make excellent family horses.

Their strength and stamina allow them to excel at competitive sports like endurance and combined driving, but their personality and heart make them stars of the performance ring too.

Morgans compete successfully at every level of dressage, show jumping, and cross-country, but they are also excellent stock horses too, competing in Western pleasure or other stock events such as cutting and endurance.

They have long been known for their flashy performance in saddle seat rings, and their elegant way of moving while in harness. Even if you never plan to compete with your morgan, they can really do it all!

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the American Morgan Horse Association boasts their horses’ participation in the following disciplines:

  • Carriage
  • Saddle seat riding and driving
  • Combined driving
  • Competitive trail and endurance
  • Dressage
  • English pleasure and pleasure driving
  • Equitation
  • Eventing
  • Hunter/jumper
  • Hunter pleasure
  • In-hand
  • Park saddle and harness
  • Trail riding
  • Show ring trail classes
  • Western pleasure
  • Western Dressage
  • Reining
  • Cutting
  • Ranch horse
  • Rodeo events (barrel racing, pole bending, goat tying, etc)

Regardless of what discipline you choose, a Morgan can probably do it!

Different Types of Morgans

Modern Morgan horses can differ quite a bit from the stocky pulling horses of yesteryear. There are various clubs and organizations dedicated to preserving specific types of Morgans, although they all generally fall within the American Morgan Horse Association umbrella.

The Morgan is an exceptionally versatile horse, but there are still those that are looking for a Morgan to specialize in ranch work, saddle seat show rings, or competitive driving. Here are some of the different types of Morgans that are currently being bred today:

Lippitt Morgan

Lippitt Morgans are closely related to Figure, and resemble the “old-type” Morgans – stocky and strong. One of Figure’s sons, Ethan Allen, became the cornerstone sire for this sub-type of Morgan. The original foundation stock all were direct descendants of Ethan Allen with no outcrossing to other breeds. (source)

Lambert Morgans

Lambert Morgans also trace back to Figure, but their cornerstone sire is a fine horse named Daniel Lambert. Like Lippitts, Lamberts must be “clean-blooded”, which means that they have no outcrossing to other breeds in their pedigrees.

For a Morgan foal to be considered a Lambert, his sire must be clean-blooded Lambert, and his dam must be a clean-blooded Lambert or a full-blooded Lippitt (as Lamberts and Lippitts share a pedigree in certain places). (source)

Foundation Morgans

Another Morgan horse breed sub-type is the Foundation Morgan. These horses must trace their pedigrees back to Figure, and they may not have any Saddlebred ancestry after 1930.

These are “real Morgans” – horses designed to be a “family member, a solid working partner, a best friend, a versatile, athletic, sane, intelligent animal who wants to share his or her life with you.”

Foundation Morgans may also be classified as “high-percentage”, which means that the horse has 97% or more of Foundation bloodlines.

All three subtypes are concerned with bloodlines and pedigree. In the past, many Morgans were bred to Saddlebreds, Thoroughbreds, and Arabians in an effort to improve the breed. This is why Morgans may vary from individual to individual, and why they are so versatile.

There is a recent resurgence focused on reviving the heavier “old-type” Morgan, but the leggy Saddlebred-esque Morgans are still just as popular as ever.

Popular Morgan crosses

Morgan horses are commonly crossed with other breeds to create new and interesting combinations (such as the Moriesian – a Friesian and a Morgan). However, there is one particular cross that has its own breed registry and maintains purebred bloodlines.

The Morab

A Morab horse is a cross between an Arabian and a Morgan. To be registered, a Morab must have a documented pedigree with at least 75% and 25% Arabian and Morgan bloodlines, respectively.

In the 1940s, breeders began crossing Arabians and Morgans to create strong, swift, and hard-working horses suited for a variety of disciplines. This light workhorses became popular, and have been used for ranch work, showing, and pleasure riding ever since. 

Popular Morgans in History and Literature

  • Figure. Father of the Morgan breed, Figure became a legend in his own right, throwing his best qualities to his progeny and establishing a legacy that has lasted over two hundred years.
  • Ethan Allen. One of Figure’s most prominent great-grandsons, Ethan Allen was a star trotting horse (an extremely popular sport at the time). He broke records, consistently won titles, and raced for nearly twenty years.
  • Black Hawk. One of the most influential Morgan sires of his time, Black Hawk covered over 1,700 mares in his lifetime, and nearly all Morgans that exist today have a Black Hawk sireline somewhere in their pedigrees.
  • Justin Morgan Had a Horse (available on Amazon.com) is the 1945 classic novel by Marguerite Henry that spins a fictional tale of Justin Morgan and his little horse, Figure.
  • The Runaway, a poem by Robert Frost, features “a little Morgan,” who is alone in a mountain pasture and afraid of the falling snow.
  • White Buffalo, a 1975 film about Wild Bill Hickock (played by Charles Bronson) featured teams of Morgans as trusty stagecoach steeds. In fact, Morgans often play this role in many other Western-centric movies, including The Alamo, Tombstone, Wild, Wild, West, and the TV series Into the West, among many others. (source)

Health

Morgans are known for their good health, soundness, and long lives. They are generally easy keepers with good feet and legs, and minimal health problems.

They may suffer from polysaccharide storage myopathy, a genetic disorder that afflicts stock horses and causes symptoms of illness during light work.

They also carry the gene for lethal white syndrome, which is fatal. This is why genetic testing is encouraged for the breed.

Cost

Because Morgans are such a popular and versatile breed, you can find one at nearly any price point. If you’re just looking for a spunky companion or pasture puff, you can easily find a Morgan for $500 or less.

A solid pleasure or lower-level competition Morgan could fetch between $1,500 and $5,000, and a well-trained successful show horse can be $15,000 – $20,000 on Equinenow.com.  

 Is a Morgan Horse Right for You?

While the now extinct Narragansett Pacer was the first truly American breed, the Morgan horse was a close second. Their impact on other American breeds extends to the US and beyond, a legacy that is truly remarkable.

Morgans are spunky, good-hearted, versatile, and athletic. If you’re looking for a partner for life, a Morgan is a good choice – but choose wisely! After all, the Morgan is the horse that chooses you.

April Lee

I've owned horses for 25 years and have a particular love for gentling wild horses. I write these articles to help others learn more about horses. If you enjoyed the article please take a moment to pin it to Pinterest or share on social media. It really does help! Check out my about page for more detailed information.