The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse is a breed that has existed for nearly 200 years, but only people in eastern Kentucky knew about them. Their popularity soared once the rest of the world discovered the breed, and now these compact gaited horses are winning hearts wherever they go with their gentle dispositions and smooth ride.
The name Kentucky usually brings up thoughts of the bluegrass and the famous Thoroughbred horses that live there. But Kentucky is also home to another horse, the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse. The sure-footed and versatile gaited breed developed in the rugged Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky.
Their original purpose was for farm work and riding horses that could traverse the rough terrain. Tennessee Walking Horse and other bloodlines developed the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse. These horses have long been bred in eastern Kentucky. The official breed association wasn’t founded until 1989 though.
History of the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse
The Appalachian Mountain range has notoriously tough terrain with steep narrow trails. People living in this area needed a sure-footed horse that could help them traverse that terrain and was also versatile enough for farm work and other duties. Most farm families also had children, and their horses need to be kind enough for the youngest member of the family to handle.
Farmers started selectively breeding the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse almost 200 years ago and continued breeding their own horses. Old Tobe was a stallion owned by Sam Tuttle in the early 1900s. Much of today’s bloodlines trace back to him. Eastern Kentucky residents were the only people that really knew about them. Some became feral and self-sufficient in this challenging environment.
Discovered and domesticated feral horses in the 1980s put the breed on the map. They were no longer unknown. The breed characteristics of the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse made it popular. A registry was started in 1989 to record bloodlines and steward the breed.
There are two classes of Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses and a sub-organization under the official Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association. Let’s start with the horses’ breed characteristics.
All horses are compact in size and with a muscular body type. The height ranges from 11 hands to 16 hands. Horses that are 14 hands or taller are in Class A, and those that are 11 hands to 13.3 hands are in Class B. Even the taller horses in Class A still have that same muscular appearance. The facial profile is flat (versus the dish of an Arabian or roman nose of other breeds), and they have arched necks with a sloping shoulder.
Horses can be any solid color with a limited amount of white. There are more detailed color specifications for their breed registry though. Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses are kind, gentle, and have a willing disposition. They need that willing disposition in order to navigate some of the more challenging mountain paths in the region. Registration requires a kind and gentle attitude. It’s also a prerequisite for breeders whose children would also be handling the horses.
The Ambling Gait
First, the ambling gait, or single-foot, is a defining breed characteristic. Instead of trotting, the horses have this ambling gait. It’s a four-beat gait, so one foot is always on the ground, with the intermediate speed of a trot. It’s faster than a walk but slightly slower than a canter or gallop. The gait is very smooth because one foot is always on the ground – it minimizes the bounce that a trot has. A registration requirement is that horses exhibit the ambling gait under the saddle. The ambling gait is easy to ride and means that riders can spend hours in the saddle without tiring out.
Colors and the Breed Associations
The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association registers all solid colors with limited amounts of white. Hence, they created the Spotted Mountain Horse Association in 2002 for horses with more white. The Spotted association registers horses with more than 36-inches of white. Bald faces, white above the knees and hocks, and pinto horses all fall in this category. This association is a subsidiary of the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association.
Breeders that have a solid-colored foal from their Spotted Mountain horses generally register them with that association, because if that foal eventually breeds on, it can pass high white onto its offspring. A gelded colt, however, is often registered with the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association, the parent association.
Registration requirements state that horses must be a minimum of 11-hands for either association. The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association registry is closed. Accepted horses must have two registered parents. Registration is still open in the Spotted Mountain Horse Association.
Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses Today
The breed registry is growing quickly, for a relatively young association. Registered horses number over 18,000 today. Of course, many are in Kentucky, but the breed has also expanded throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. Pleasure riding and show are uses of the breed. Each October a breed show is held at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The horses are known as easy keepers. With their smooth ride, sure-footedness, and easygoing personality, it’s not surprising that they’ve become so popular. Finally, the Mountain Horse breeds are gaining in popularity throughout the country, and the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse is the most popular of all of these. I expect that we’ll be hearing more about them in the future as equestrians continue adding them to their herds.