The Tennessee Walking Horse

Learn about the Tennessee Walking Horse breed, with a trail gait as smooth as silk.
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Learn about the Tennessee Walking Horse breed, with a trail gait as smooth as silk.
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These horses have a smile in their eyes," says Hosam "Sam" Haggag. "I've been riding since I was very young, and I've never encountered horses with such sweet personalities and kind intentions. Add to that, rhythmic gaits so smooth they spoil you for any other horse, and you have the Tennessee Walking Horse."

About seven years ago, the Silicon Valley executive visited a resort on California's coast that featured a small band of Walking Horses. His back suffered from an old soccer injury, and he regularly endured long hours at a desk. So when he heard about the "rocking chair motion" of the breed, he went for a spin - and was smitten.

Shortly afterward, Haggag learned that the resort had closed, and the horses were to be disbanded, so he impulsively purchased all seven horses. His new enterprise, Blue Sky Riding Experience, was born. Today, he owns 15 geldings, all Walking Horses, and operates guided riding tours along the Northern California coast. "I always liked riding, but never really loved it until I rode a Tennessee Walking Horse," he says.

Haggag is just one of the increasing number of trail riders to discover the sweet temperament and smooth gait of the Walking Horse. Some participate in the programs developed by the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association to recognize and reward members' accomplishments in distance and competitive trail. Sis Osborne, who runs both the TWHBEA Distance Award Program and the Versatility Program, reports that more than 800 members are currently enrolled in these popular activities.

And an increasing number of breeders are focusing on plain-shod horses, with the natural gaits, calm dispositions, and sound bodies to make them wonderful partners on the trail.

Rocking-Chair Gaits
In the mid-1800s, a new breed of horse began to emerge from the bountiful, bluegrass region of middle Tennessee. Bred by farmers to till the fields during the week, these horses were also expected to provide them a comfortable ride on weekends, and pull their buggies to town.

According to the TWHBEA, these farmers crossbred horses already populating the region: Morgans, Standardbreds, American Saddle Horses, Canadian and Narragansett Pacers, and Thoroughbreds. The most prized characteristic was the running walk, a ground-covering gait renowned to be as smooth as silk. When the first Tennessee Walking Horse breeders' association was formed in 1935 in Lewisburg, its founders designated 115 animals as Foundation Stock. The Tennessee Walking Horse became an officially recognized breed in 1950.

The horses are particularly appreciated for three smooth gaits:

The flat walk is a brisk, four-beat gait, clocking at four to seven miles per hour. The horse "overstrides"; that is, his right hind foot steps over the track left by the right front foot; and the left hind over the left front. The horse gently nods his head in rhythm to his step.

The running walk, the breed's great claim to fame, is a four-beat, lateral gait. In this gait, the Walking Horse can sustain speeds up to 10 miles per hour, while the rider feels nary a bounce. At speed, the horse may overstride 6 to 18 inches. This natural gait is easily maintained for long distances, a tremendous boon to the trail rider.

The canter is performed on the diagonal, like other breeds, but with exceptional spring and lift. It's the Walking Horse's canter that inspired the phrase "rocking chair gaits." Aficionados suggest that you just sit back and enjoy.

Preserving the Heritage
In the 1970s and 1980s, some Tennessee Walking Horse owners who preferred the breed's natural gait over the exaggerated "Big Lick" show gait began seeking out foundation bloodlines in an attempt to preserve the Walking Horse of old. Eventually, one small group formed the Tennessee Walking Horse Heritage Society.

Founding members Leon Oliver and his wife, Mary Lou, own Brown Shop Road Farm in Cornersville, Tennessee. For more than 70 years, three generations of Oliver's family have been breeding usable, good-minded Tennessee Walking Horses.

"The original Walking Horses were intelligent, people-oriented horses, with the smoothest gaits you can imagine," he says. "Unfortunately, during the 1950s, you couldn't give a horse away, and all breeds experienced a downturn. That's when folks who showed Tennessee Walkers created classes for extremely high-stepping horses.

"Those horses aren't trail horses! By 1957, people were breeding this new kind of horse, and the Walking Horse that had existed for nearly 100 years was in danger of being lost.

"Fortunately, my granddaddy, Robert Clark, had a 1921 Walking Horse stallion, and my uncle owned his son. When I got out of the Army in the mid-'60s, I bred one of my mares to him, which produced my stallion. These 'heritage' horses have the gaits, disposition, and intelligence of the horses I grew up with."

Years ago, Diane Sczepanski of Whitehall, Wisconsin, owned a Walking Horse that carried her over hill and dale. He died, and meanwhile, she suffered a work injury that left her neck and back permanently damaged, and her balance impaired. She'd nearly given up her search to find another smooth-riding Walking Horse when she met Leon Oliver. "Something about his small red mare, a daughter of his stallion, spoke to me," she recalls. "I really wasn't looking to buy a horse the day I saw her, but I brought her home.

"On our first trail ride, Lady took great care of me, and I lost much of the fear I'd developed," she continues. "At one point, my friends wanted to gallop across a broad pasture, and I told them to go ahead. Some horses would freak out at being left behind, but Lady calmly kept walking. Finally, I feel like I have a horse that will look out for me, one that I can trust: a safe, sweet, sane, Walking Horse."

Trail Travelers
For the past two years, Ginger Bailey's 12-year-old gelding, Splendors Trojan ("Traveler"), has been the North American Trail Ride Conference's national high-point Tennessee Walking Horse. Bailey, of Longview, Texas, fell in love with the breed when she saw a "big, ol' sweet-eyed horse" staring out at her from a magazine.

The lifelong horsewoman admits, "I'd never taken riding seriously, but I'd always wanted to become an accomplished rider. I got a real nudge when my son told me, 'Mama, you'd better get on with it!'"

So Bailey turned to NATRC. Each year, the organization sanctions dozens of competitive trail rides across the country. Horse and rider teams compile scores based on finishing within a predetermined time limit; the horse's soundness, trail ability, and condition; and the rider's trail equitation, courtesy underway, stabling, and more. Unlike endurance rides, competitive trail isn't a race.

"At the end of the ride, you find out how you scored in each area, and that becomes invaluable in teaching a rider to be a better trail partner for their horse," Bailey says. "Traveler is really good over natural obstacles - a testament to his willingness and calm. He listens to me and fits into spaces you wouldn't think possible for a 16.1-hand-high horse - my gentle giant. And his flat walk and running walk are very energy efficient and comfortable for both of us."

Bailey says that NATRC rides have introduced her to beautiful new territory. "One ride in Louisiana's Kissatchie National Forest was magical. There were pretty little babbling creeks, and dogwood trees bloomed along the trail. When the breeze blew, blossoms drifted down on us like falling snow."

Barefoot Buddies
Jerry and Sharon Foster own Foster Farm in Leesville, South Carolina. An avid trail rider, Sharon has owned Tennessee Walking Horses for more than 15 years. She extols their gaits, gentle dispositions, excellent bone, and soundness.

Sharon rides both at home and at Hitchcock Woods, in nearby Aiken. "There are over 2,200 acres with trails dedicated strictly to equestrians and hikers, all beautifully maintained by the Hitchcock Foundation," she says. "There are some open areas and lots of trees - huge oaks, pines, and magnolias - that provide shade in the summer, which is especially appreciated."

Sharon, who uses Pat Parelli's training techniques, had a particularly memorable experience when a Parelli clinician borrowed her Walking Horse to use as his mount. Buck, 14 years old, was used to demonstrate technique, help get participants out of trouble on the trail, and pony problem horses. "I couldn't have been prouder," she says of her trusty trail partner. "He worked above my level of training without a hesitation or a hitch."

Like many Walking Horse owners, Sharon rides her horses unshod, in part, because the predominantly sandy South Carolina soil is easy on their feet. She also uses the "barefoot trim" and hoof-healthy lifestyle recommended by Hiltrud Strasser, DVM, PhD. When Sharon rides over particularly rocky terrain, she uses Boa Boots from EasyCare, Inc.

Finding Your Trail Horse
The Trail Rider contributor Dan Aadland and his wife, Emily, raise Tennessee Walking Horses on their Montana ranch. "They're the naturally gaited, 'using' horses, the kind that three generations of Emily's ranch family valued," Dan says.

"We bought our first Walking Horse mare in 1980, from an outfitter who used her for years in the mountains, and we never looked back. We worked hard to tailor our herd to the mountains, and collect broodmares with natural gaits, good bone, and the athletic ability to do most any task required of backcountry horses, including herding our cattle. Today, we have several generations of these ranch-raised horses in our pastures."

Aadland has suggestions for anyone shopping for a Walking Horse for the trail:

Avoid show horses, particularly those trained for "Big Lick" classes. You're likely to get a horse that's bred to be "pacey" (with two-beat, rather than four-beat gaits) and trained in the "charge-into-the-bit" tradition.

Look for a calm horse with a kind eye and sweet disposition, and that's interested in people.

Look for good bone and sound feet shod without heavy shoes or pads.

Avoid breeders who neither train nor ride their horses - how can they know what they're producing?

Visit breeders whose horses are successful on the trail and in rugged terrain. Ask them for references from people who own their horses.

Outfitting your Walker
After you purchase your Tennessee Walking Horse, use these tips to ensure optimal tack fit.

Saddle. The wrong saddle can throw your Walking Horse out of balance, and an unbalanced horse will likely lose his ability to perform his smooth gaits. Walking Horses typically have wide backs, so you might need a saddle with a wide or extra-wide tree.

An all-purpose or dressage saddle may work for English riders. Endurance saddles often fit well, too. If you prefer a Western saddle, look for one whose tree features flaring bars (which run along each side of the horse's spine) to accommodate shoulder slope, and a short, rounded skirt that doesn't infringe on the horse's hip movement. Check out models available through companies specializing in outfitting the Walking Horse.

Bridle. Walking Horses typically have longer heads and wider foreheads than other gaited breeds. Make sure your bridle's cheek straps and browband fit comfortably, and your reins are sufficiently long - 60 inches is usually a good length.

Bit. A simple snaffle bit is all you should need for your Walking Horse. You might even find that your Walker works best in a Bitless Bridle. Sometimes, less is more. 

Honi Roberts, an award-winning equine journalist and avid trail rider, shares life with Arabian horses on her farm in Washington state. 

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