Justin Morgan was a teacher, composer, businessman, and horseman who acquired a small rough-coated bay colt of relatively unknown lineage who was born in 1789 and named him Figure. He was a rather unremarkable horse that nobody wanted because he was too small, yet he became the foundation of an entire breed of horses recognized for quality and dependability.
The ancestry of the colt name Figure who founded the Morgan breed is unknown, but is thought to be of Dutch, Thoroughbred, or Arabian breeding. History’s best guess is that his sire was True Briton, who was respected for his excellence and who sired quality horses. His unnamed dam was described as being of the “Wild-air breed” with her sire being a son of Church’s Wildair by Wildair (Delancey’s) out of a mare named Wildair.
There is quite an in-depth history and many stories about this particular little horse, including a Disney movie in 1972 “Justin Morgan Had a Horse” that was based on a book of the same name. Figure’s ability to out walk, out trot, outrun, and out pull other horses was legendary. For example, it is said that he pulled a log that no draft horse could budge, and that he outran the most winning racehorse central Vermont had ever known. From these anecdotes came the Morgan Horse owners’ claim that “this horse can do anything”, and apparently the breed does. Whatever equine discipline you can think of, the Morgan Horse will be found to be a part of it and likely excelling in it. Even when harness racing was popular in the1800’s, the world’s fastest trotting stallion was Ethan Allen 50, Justin Morgan’s great-grandson.
After Justin Morgan’s death, Figure was passed on to new owners and in the tradition of the times, he became known by his former owner’s name, Justin Morgan. He spent his life working on farms, hauling freight, and as a parade mount at militia trainings. Over a period of 30 years, the little horse remained sound in limb, stamina and sight, throughout a lifetime of two ordinary horses. He also had showy, ground-covering gaits with speed to spare at any one of them and was an extremely gentle horse around children.
Justin Morgan’s most valuable asset was the prepotency of his genes. No matter what type of mare he was bred to, draft or light racing horse, his offspring inherited his image, his abilities and his distinguishing characteristics. And not only his offspring inherited the traits, but the prepotency also went through several generations. Today, every registered Morgan Horse traces back to Justin Morgan through his most famous sons Woodbury, Bulrush, and Sherman. Sadly, the little Justin Morgan died in 1821 from an untreated kick received from another horse, so his true longevity was never realized.
Morgan Horses were used as cavalry mounts and artillery horses. They were sensible under fire; could march tirelessly all day; could maintain their condition on unpredictable rations; and were loyal to their riders. The only survivor in the Battle of Little Big Horn was Keogh’s Morgan-bred horse, Comanche. The First Vermont Cavalry was mounted entirely on Morgan Horses but of their more than 1200 horses, only 200 survived the war and in 1894, the first volume of the American Morgan Horse Register was published by Colonel Joseph Battell.
The American Morgan Horse Farm was established in Weybridge, Vermont in 1907, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the breeding and preservation of the Morgan horse. But it was not until 1909 that the Morgan Horse Club (MHC) was formed at the Vermont State Fair. In 1921, the MHC presented the Justin Morgan statue to the U.S. Morgan Horse Farm on the 100th anniversary of the death of Justin Morgan, and it is still exhibited there today.
The Morgan Horse ranges from 14.1 to 15.2 hands high with some individuals that are taller or shorter. They come in wide variety of colors, from bay, brown and black to silver dapple, roan, palomino, buckskin, dun, grulla, cremello, perlino, smoky cream, gray, flaxen, sabino, splashed white, and others.
The head is expressive with a broad forehead, large prominent eyes and a straight or slightly dished short face. The ears are short and shapely, set rather wide apart and carried alertly with mares having slightly longer ears. The throatlatch is deeper than other breeds. The neck is slightly arched with the top line of the neck being considerably longer than the bottom line and the stallion has more of a crest. The body of the Morgan Horse is compact with a short back and high-set tail that is carried gracefully and straight. The feet are in proportion to the size of the horse.
The Morgan Horse is distinctive for its stamina and vigor, personality and eagerness and strong natural way of moving. The Morgan walk is rapid, flat-footed, and has a four-beat elastic cadence with the accent on flexion in the pastern while the trot of the Morgan is a two-beat, diagonal gait that is animated, elastic, square and collected with the rear action in balance with the front action. The overall impression is a unique combination of draft-like substance, Arabian-like heads with a Saddlebred-like elegance.
The Morgan Horse is considered to be the oldest of all American breeds and was strong enough to contribute greatly to almost every other American light horse breed while retaining its own identity across two centuries. The American Saddlebred, the Quarter Horse, the English Hackney, the American Standardbred, and the Tennessee Walking Horse, among others, all owe much to the Morgan Horses in their own ancestry.