Evolution of the breed: 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. 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 and Exhibitors 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 six 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.
In 1998, individuals with a mission to preserve, protect, and promote the naturally gaited, flat-shod Tennessee Walking Horse joined to form the National Walking Horse Association. Their enthusiasm was contagious and the association has enjoyed rapid growth.
Owners tell us: In the late 1990s, Silicon Valley executive Hosam (“Sam”) Haggag visited a resort on California’s coast that featured a small band of Walking Horses. He suffered back pain from an old soccer injury, and he regularly endured long hours at a desk. When he heard about the “rocking chair motion” of the breed, he went for a pain-free spin – and was smitten.
Shortly afterward, Haggag learned that the resort had closed, and the horses were to be dispersed, so he impulsively purchased all seven horses. His new enterprise, The Walkers of Blue Sky, 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 numbers of trail riders to discover the sweet temperament and smooth gait of the Walking Horse.
Years ago, Diane Sczepanski of Whitehall, Wisconsin, owned a Walking Horse that carried her over hill and dale. After he died, she suffered a work-related neck and back injury that left her balance impaired. She’d nearly given up her search to find another smooth-riding Walking Horse when she met Leon Oliver.
For more than 70 years, three generations of Oliver’s family have bred usable, good-minded Tennessee Walking Horses. He and his wife, Mary Lou, own Brown Shop Road Farm in Corversville, Tennessee, and are founding members of the Tennessee Walking Horse Heritage Society.
“Something about Leon’s small red mare, a daughter of his stallion, spoke to me,” Sczepanski 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. 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.”
On the trail: 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’ve 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,” he continues. “Today, we have several generations of these ranch-raised horses in our pastures.”
Twice, Ginger Bailey’s 12 year-old gelding, 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 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.
“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.”
Selection savvy: 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; one with good bone and sound feet shod without heavy shoes or pads.
Check saddle fit: The wrong saddle can throw your horse out of balance, and he may lose his ability to perform his smooth gaits. Walkers typically have wide backs and need a saddle with a wide or extra-wide tree. 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.
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