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Why Half the Horses You Think Are Tennessee Walkers Probably Aren’t

When you see a big-striding horse, wearing a cut-back saddle and being ridden by a human in a suit and English-style hat, that’s a Tennessee Walker, right?


It could be, but there are also numerous other breeds that perform in the discipline called saddle seat—breeds that are continually confused with Tennessee Walkers despite their vast differences, and deserve to be judged on their own merit.

All styles of riding can be separated into one of two categories: western or english. Under english riding fall disciplines such as hunt seat, dressage and saddle seat.

Many breeds can perform in the discipline of saddle seat, but the most common are American Saddlebreds, Morgans, and Arabians. Though less common, Hackney horses and ponies, and a growing number of Friesians and Dutch Harness horses also compete under saddle seat tack.

Tennessee Walkers are also commonly used for saddle seat, but they are so different from the other saddle seat breeds that they almost deserve a category unto themselves.

Unfortunately for the other breeds, uninformed people both in and out of the horse industry continually confuse Tennessee Walkers with their peers. This can be seen most clearly on Google, where even a simple Google search of the term “Tennessee Walker” turns up almost as many pictures of other breeds as it does Walking horses.

The horse most often confused with the Tennessee Walker is the American Saddlebred and, in one sense, it is easy to see why. Both breeds originated in the 18th century and thrived on plantations in the Southern United States, both are big horses, with long necks and high-stepping gaits, and both were used as the mounts of generals during the Civil War.

But the modern-day breeds are quite different in both use and training practices.

There is nothing wrong with the Tennessee Walker as a breed. Tennessee Walkers are versatile and good-tempered horses, and thrive on the trail or in the show ring. There is probably nothing wrong with the vast majority of the people involved in the Tennessee Walker industry either—most of them probably love and care for their horses. The problem is with the percentage of them that don’t, and how it is affecting the perception of all breeds that compete under saddle seat tack.

The Tennessee Walker has been making headlines in the news recently due to the prevalence of a practice called “soring,” where horse owners or trainers apply chemicals or pressure to the feet or legs to force the horse to pick up its legs higher and faster than it normally would and achieve the desired animated look.

It is important to note that this practice is really only a problem in what is known as the “Big Lick” Tennessee Walker. There are many Tennessee Walkers ridden for pleasure purposes, and many that compete in the show ring in other divisions, such as the plantation pleasure division, that do not have any use for these practices.

However, the United States government is rightfully concerned about this cruelty, and looking into how to stop it. This is good. It only becomes problematic when other saddle seat breeds are grouped in with the Walking horses, and that is why public knowledge is vital.

If it’s trotting, it is easy to tell that it is not a Tennessee Walker.

Even if these other breeds wanted to sore their horses for whatever bizarre reason, they wouldn’t benefit from it. While Tennessee Walkers do not need to trot in the show ring, Saddlebreds, Morgans, Arabians, Hackneys, Friesians and Dutch Harness horses do. There is a reason the trot is used as a soundness check in eventing competition—if a horse is unsound or hurting, that is the gait where it is most likely to show up. While soring may “improve” (emphasis on air quotes) the gait of a horse performing a running walk, it would severely damage the gait of any horse that needs to trot.

So how can you tell the difference between a Big Lick Tennessee Walker and, say, a five-gaited American Saddlebred?

First, look at the gait the horse is performing. If it’s trotting, it is easy to tell that it is not a Tennessee Walker.

It is when the horse is performing a gait that is not a regular walk, trot or canter that it gets a little more complicated. Most horse people are familiar with the Tennessee Walker’s signature gait, the running walk. What they may not know is that some American Saddlebreds are known as “five-gaited” horses, and are able to perform an extra gait called the rack. The rack has the same footfalls as the running walk, though in practice it looks quite different.

While a knowledgeable saddle seat rider would be able to tell instantaneously which gait is which, for the newbie, it can be tricky, and might be easiest to tell this way: while pictures of Tennessee Walkers performing the running walk will often show two feet flat on the ground, the best pictures of the rack (the ones Saddlebred owners will be most likely to display) show only one foot flat on the ground at a time at a time. You may have to look closely, as the foot may be tipped up just getting ready to leave the ground, or hovering above just getting ready to hit it, but there are probably not two feet entirely on the ground at once.

A Tennessee Walking Horse performing a running walk. Notice the two flat feet on the ground that is signature of the gait. ©Randall R. Saxton/Flickr CC BY 2.0,

A Saddlebred Horse performing the Rack. Notice that only one foot is flat on the ground at a time. Photo courtesy of the American Saddlebred Horse Association.

The shoeing between these breeds is different as well. While most saddle seat breeds offer some divisions where horses are allowed to wear leather pads between their hoof and shoes, they are extremely different than the large stacks seen in the Big Lick Tennessee Walker.

More often than not, the use is limited to just a single pad to cushion the impact of the horse’s naturally animated gait, or fix an uneven angle in the horse’s heel. The goal is to shoe the horse as lightly as possible to preserve its natural free-flowing gait, while keeping the horse sound and moving correctly. Finding that balance is the art of show horse farriery.

Other details set the breeds apart as well.

The Saddlebred’s face, like that of the Morgan and Arabian, is generally more refined than that of the Tennessee Walker.

Saddlebred horses tend to have a more refined head than Tennessee Walkers.

There are subtle tack differences, too. While Tennessee Walkers perform with only one rein and one bit, a curb, other saddle seat disciplines compete with two bits and reins—a snaffle and a curb with a shorter shank—and there is no need for them to wear a breast collar like many Tennessee Walkers do, because their gait is not as exaggerated.

On the left: Saddlebred bridle featuring two bit and reins, a curb and a shank. On the right: A Tennessee Walking Horse with a single curb bit and rein. (Saddlebred photo courtesy of the American Saddlebred Horse Association. Tennessee Walking Horse )

Additionally, while Tennessee Walkers are allowed to compete with action devices around the horse’s ankles, other saddle seat breeds would never be seen competing with anything on their feet except protective boots, such as bell boots or quarter boots.

If nothing about the horse is able to help you determine what breed you’re looking at, take a look at the rider. The rider position between Tennessee Walkers and Saddlebreds is extremely different, due to the difference in the horses’ way of going. Because Big Lick Tennessee Walkers have such an exaggerated movement of the hindquarters, riders tend to lean forward to maintain their balance, while riders of Saddlebreds and other saddle seat breeds must maintain an upright posture to stay with their horse’s motion.

Rider dress may be useful in helping distinguish between breeds as well, particularly when riders are in show ring attire. As a general rule, Tennessee Walker riders tend to be less conservative in their dress, sometimes wearing brighter colors or large bows in their hair. Additionally, they often utilize homburg style hats rather than the derbies that are almost solely worn in the Saddlebred world, or forego hats and gloves completely.

It is clear that the differences between these breeds are many, and with the current government intervention, recognizing them has never been more vital. It’s fine to not like Tennessee Walkers as a breed. It’s fine to not like saddle seat as a discipline. It is the prerogative of every human to have an opinion, but it is also human duty to have an educated one.

So remember that Tennessee Walkers comprise only a small section of the saddle seat discipline, and most saddle seat enthusiasts detest soring practices just as much as you do. And remember this too: there is a chance that the horse you are lambasting in the online comments section isn’t a Tennessee Walker at all.

©Studio 637 Photography

About the Author

Allie Layos is a lifelong equestrian with a passion for the written word, and she likes nothing better than to combine these two interests. While she has ridden multiple disciplines, her first love is saddle seat, and she serves as editor-at-large for the international show horse magazine, Saddle & Bridle. Her work has also been featured in a variety of equine-related books, websites and other publications.

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