We all have our preferences (and a laundry list of reasons why) for what we consider the ideal horse. But in keeping with the underlying theme here at Hooves, that the discussion and focus is often primarily on riding and what constitutes good riding conformation, let’s stay on that train of thought…thusly based on several factors, including but not exclusive to, conformation trends within breeds, temperament, size and movement, I’ve come to the conclusion that the ideal average owner’s horse – that is your horse for your average older child (we’ll assume past the pony stage) to adult – is the Morgan.
If you rolled your eyes, slap the back of your head to put them back into place and hear me out. I didn’t just pull that breed out of thin air or my butt. I’ve said a time or two (or twenty) that Morgan breeders seem to have their acts together (for the most part). Whereas so many other breeds have been ‘Americanized’ (turned into a Thoroughbred replica), the Morgan is one that has stayed relatively true to type. There’s irony in that as the Morgan is recognized as the first ‘American’ breed.
The Morgan is still a smaller horse, squarer in build with a naturally arching neck set on high, has good substance, good feet, a big hip, well-placed LS joint, laid back shoulder, open shoulder angle, well-structured head, and generally of a more level build. All those traits make them excellent, versatile riding mounts; dressage, jumping, even gaiting. The Morgan is also an excellent driving horse. And before anyone says, ‘But, but, but with the exception of gaiting most horses can do all those other things at a lower level’, I’ll add that many Morgans can do all those things to at least a medium level. This is a breed that’s generally built well enough to exceed the capabilities of your average owner and in spite of your average owner.
It might help at this point to tell you why I don’t think the three most popular breeds; the Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse and Arabian are ideal average owner horses.
Thoroughbred: Most of what’s on this continent are specifically racing bred, which means downhill built with a straighter hind leg conducive to quick, thrusty strides, often lower set or ewe necked, and plagued with flat soles, underrun heels and stick legs. On top of that, this is a thin-skinned, sensitive breed that tends towards a weak constitution and thus it’s harder to maintain health and soundness. The OTTB – if it isn’t already unsound – requires retraining that shouldn’t be tackled by your average owner, nor could it be accomplished to the horse’s benefit by your average owner. Simply put, this is too much horse with too many potential problems. But hey, they are a dime a dozen and can be had cheap!
Quarter Horse: Navigating the QH breed is like taking the Titanic down a class VI rapids. The breed has several sub-types for specialty work, but that hasn’t stopped breeders from crossing those sub-types and making matters worse. You then have to be on the look out for the post legs, low set neck, downhill build, closed shoulder angle, calf-knees, stick legs and double aught feet. While there are plenty of solid riding conformed individuals in the breed, there’s so many that are not, and so many that have been used up by the time they are three that it can be a daunting task. And while their temperament is often considered great for the average owner, I feel that their ‘I’ll take it and then simply shut off when I can take it no more” attitude means that many owners think they are doing way better with the horse than they really are. A horse that’s forgiving is wonderful, but a horse that forgives all is on a slippery slope of self-destruction. But again, dime a dozen and can be had cheap!
Arabian: It’s no secret this is one of my least favorite breeds, but it’s not because it isn’t a good riding breed. Indeed, with the exception of the halter-bred individuals, the Arabian is a very good riding conformed horse with few problems. I eliminated it from being the best choice based on its general sensitivity and natural tendency to want to excitedly prance around with its head and tail in the air. This puts the horse into a hollow, inverted posture that is often perpetuated by the average owner, who then hauls on its face. The Arabian is superbly designed for Competitive Trail and Endurance and because of this I’ve seen a vast majority of people show up at these events with horses that are not in fact conditioned properly, but that ‘up-ness’ that Arabians have coupled with their lower average heart rates, and the ever efficient ability to dissipate body heat so well, fools people into thinking they’ve done a better job at conditioning than reality suggests. I find this breed is ignorantly physically used and abused a lot, but without the same repercussions to soundness of a bigger muscled breed like the QH, or the finer boned Thoroughbred.
It’s been a year since HighonEquine sent me a picture of their Morgan horse, Duke. In this picture, Duke is 17.
The biggest issue is the lack of conditioning; tight back and loin, sagging weak abdominals, and excess bulk on the base of neck. My first thought was that this horse was gaited because I see nothing else in his conformation that would suggest a natural tendency to move hollow. I believe Duke is standing up hill, so he wouldn’t be as level built as the photo suggests, but also not as straight through the stifle and hock. He is tied in behind the knee, and we might want a less round eye, more almond shaped. We could nitpick a few other things; a little more femur length, a little less tibia length, knee set on a touch lower, but overall he’d be a good riding candidate for your average owner; far easier to ride correctly than most OTTBs or specialized QHs.
The floor is now yours, but let’s assume we all understand that some individuals within any singular breed might very well be ideal for an average owner. No argument, and I’ve said as much already. The exercise here is to consider what breed, as it currently stands in the world, offers the most to your average owner and why, while still being able to have a modicum of self-preservation. A horse with a great temperament, but horrid conformation does neither its owner nor itself a service by suffering in silence and killing itself a little bit each day. We’re looking for the whole package. What say you?