The Saddlebred Conversion

By Cheryl R Lutring  (ASAoGB)

The American Saddlebred is famous for his unique and splendid show ring style and persona.  Because he is superb among equines at this sensational activity, it could be only too easy to overlook his more mainstream virtues.   What a great shame this would be!  Many Saddlebreds proved themselves in other disciplines - notably endurance, dressage and carriage driving.   I accepted the invitation to write an article on the prospect of converting a show Saddlebred to a utility horse and rarely have I been asked to do anything so easy. 

A likely first encounter with a Saddlebred is probably going to be via the ubiquitous Horse Show and it is guaranteed he will catch your eye before any others.  Why?  Because he is essentially different: he is flash and glamorous, he is refined, he performs with athleticism, speed and animation.  In any of his many specialised showing divisions he will fulfill these criteria.  But if you are lucky enough to catch the top horses at the connoisseur shows, you will experience a real treat!  The crème de la crème of the Saddlebred Divisions will stun you with their lofty motion, their extreme collection combined with remarkable speed, and in the case of the unique five-gaited horses the thrill of their extra gaits.  Visiting simply out of interest to watch Rare Visions, my five-gaited mare, in a training session, my English veterinarian remarked, 'she makes the hair on the back of my neck prickle, sensational'.  I would add that this seasoned horseman also had tears in his eyes combined with the biggest grin I have ever seen!  And this is a regular response at all the demonstrations and displays we undertake.

However, amongst some onlookers, these precious attributes seem to send out a different message, and consequently the breed has become tarred with an unfortunate and misleading reputation.  The qualities listed above are not a reflection of a 'mad out of control' horse, nor are they an indication of an unworkable brain.  Quite the opposite.   The Saddlebred is born with a lot of natural presence, confidence and a 'hey look at me attitude' which cohabits with an amenable temperament that loves to learn and work.  If this were not so, the show trainers would not be able to put into him the education that is required to be a fine show horse, nor would the horses be able to take the stress and pressure of a top show class where twenty horses can be cutting up the tanbark at speeds of 30mph plus all at the same time!  Think about it, this is almost race conditions, yet these mounts, whilst giving an electric performance, must stay sensible in the head and alert to the aids (cues), they must remain totally calm and mindful of their rider.  Aren't these the qualities we look for in a 'utility' mount or trail horse?

CH Attache's Foxfire 
DIRECTLY after a show, on the trail!
At HorseExpo in Sacramento 
(we took a trail riding break)

So, obviously then, a retired show horse could easily be a very desirable candidate for utility work.   There are no hard and fast rules about converting a show horse because all show trainers have different methods and different environments.  But some specifics can be taken into account. 

  •  Top-flight show horses are unlikely to become readily available and big winners generally retire to valuable stud duties.
  •  An owner, who has always kept a horse in show training and then decides to take it home and convert it to a utility horse, must remember that he is inflicting on the horse a complete 'culture shock'.  But handled with tact and sympathy this shouldn't present too much of a problem, because the Saddlebred is intelligent and anxious to please (although rarely reduces himself to servility).
  •  Daily routine to a show horse would probably have been mostly long-lining with an occasional ride.  This would all have taken place in the barn aisle or a specially surfaced enclosed arena. He will not necessarily know about climbing hills, dealing with potholes, changes in the footing, metalled roads.  He will learn quickly but do take care of his confidence while he learns.
  •  The very fact of having to learn about changes under his feet will help him slow down and drop his motion considerably.  He will not want to hurry or pick up his knees when he feels the ground will give way under the next step.  But at first the uncertainty of the conditions may make him anxious - be tactful and he will respond he expects to take all decisions from his rider.
  •  You can pretty much expect that your show horse has been used to a routine where a groom has done all the personal and direct things for him; this groom would not have petted him much but he would be relaxed with him.   The trainer is the boss.  When the trainer puts a hand on him the horse expects to stand to attention and obey instantly.  In some cases this can mean that when you lead the horse from his box/stall he will bunch himself up and dash through the door - be prepared but do not scold.  It can also mean that as soon as your weight goes in the stirrup to mount, he will again collect up and move off quite rapidly in his brilliant animated walk.  Generally, professional show trainers train for the rigours of the arena not the gentility of the trail. The horse is not doing wrong, so scolding or severely correcting him would be unjust.  Prepare yourself for it and go with it for a while until he has learned to relax.  Take your time, he already has to make a lot of adjustments.
5 year old ASB owned by Jon  Tanner  Kaysville UT
at the El Jinete Competitive Trail Ride in Durango CO.

With these minor provisos taken into account, the rest of the conversion should be straightforward enough.  Other aspects of his show ring training will have prepared him more than adequately for the big outside world.  After all, he's probably had fire-crackers let off in front of him as he's come up the barn aisle, he's certainly had noisy tractors and vehicles passing by his nose in the aisle; he's had powder puffed in the air as he's approached; clickers clicked; football ratchets rattled; plastic bags rustled and flagged, whistles and cheers; he's more than likely lived with birds (peacocks, doves, chickens) flying around and sharing the food in his manger; definitely had dogs, large and small, barking and snapping at him and getting under his feet as he's worked.  And that's before he's seen the razzmatazz of the show arena with its hollering crowds and loud boisterous music! He's learned to take all this in his stride. What more can the trail throw at him?

Don’t' forget also that his show equipment would have been different to the likely tack you will use for the trail.  Again, adjust him slowly and carefully.  Your different saddle will distribute your weight differently; your bit and requirement of his mouth will have a different emphasis. 

The Gaited Saddlebred

Although the Saddlebred exhibits the most splendid trot, he also manages to be a talented gaited horse.  For showing purposes most professional trainers do not favour a young untouched horse that exhibits the amble in preference to the trot in the paddock. This is because the Five-Gaited horse must execute an astounding trot, and individuals that are strongly gaited tend to be weak in trot.   Trainers therefore prefer a horse with a strong trot and train it to gait, which is not difficult as all Saddlebreds inherit the ability from their Ambler ancestors.  Show barns tend to call the gaits of the five-gaited horse 'man-made’, which is confusing and misleading.  The breed inherits its gaited ability from its Ambler ancestors, and inherits its speed and good trot from the Thoroughbred ancestor; therefore the gaits are not artificial but encouraged and enhanced by knowledgeable training.  Just as, say, a dressage horse needs to be taught to execute its walk, trot and canter better, on cue and at various speeds, so the Saddlebred needs to be educated to produce his best performance in the show ring.

For utility purposes, after the initial adjustment period is over carry on as you would with any breed from any background.  That wonderful Saddlebred will convert you too with his willingness, his athleticism, his mental aptitude, and will most likely you will never want to return to another breed.  Good luck - enjoy.


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