Saddlebred Sport Horses


Photo by E. Susan Vine

Learn how the “Horse that America Made” is Turning Heads in a New Division

If you are in search of a talented sport horse with stamina and heart, consider the American Saddlebred. From eventing and dressage to competitive trail riding and side saddle, the American Saddlebred is capable of excelling in a wide variety …

ImageAlan Balch of the ASHA explains, “Having evolved from the cavalry mounts on both sides of America’s war between the states, it’s no wonder that the American Saddlebred is suitable for just about every equestrian pursuit. The name says it all, because our horse was literally bred for the saddle—comfort, lightness, responsiveness, but at the same time brave and bold and always in the bridle.”

Come along as we meet several Saddlebred sport horse superstars who are making a name for themselves and promoting the versatility of the breed.

Dynamic Dressage Performers

Many physical characteristics of the breed make them suitable for sport horse divisions. A long, supple neck, flexibility of movement and natural balance make American Saddlebreds a good fit for dressage. Their upright build and natural ability to collect are also key advantages for this division.

For Sandy Rabinowitz, Desdemona’s Wild Chance, who is fondly known as Sequoia, has left no doubt in Sandy’s mind that American Saddlebreds have what it takes for dressage. Sandy was first introduced to the breed through a friend 13 years ago. “What thrills me about this breed is their heart,” she says with a smile; “they are a lot of fun and very sensitive.”

For Sequoia, it is a combination of his free-flowing gaits, easygoing temperament and good work ethic that are helping him excel in the dressage arena. This pair is currently schooling Third Level at home while they continue to work on their freestyle at Second Level this year in the show ring.

Like many of the Saddlebred owners that we spoke to, Sandy does the majority of Sequoia’s training herself. Common misconceptions prevent many people from becoming involved in the breed since they are perceived only as show horses that require professional training. Many people, like Sandy, are working to dispel this misconception.

Most of the sport horse stars that we met are accustomed to facing a variety of other breeds in competition and serve as great ambassadors for the versatility of the American Saddlebred. Because Sequoia is commonly mistaken as a Thoroughbred cross, Sandy uses the opportunity to spread the word about the breed, noting that most people haven’t ever experienced the American Saddlebred and are eager to learn more.

Eventing Excitement

Chris Uhlinger’s first Saddlebred, Ace Invasion, came from an auction. She originally purchased Ace on a whim, as she had no prior experience with Saddlebreds, and all she really knew was that she was saving a tall, good looking horse from an unfortunate end. Unexpectedly, “Ace turned out to be the best riding horse I ever had.”

Ace proved to be Chris’s ideal mount for dressage, eventing, combined driving, and her specialty, “adventure trail riding” (think high speed and lots of tough terrain). “Ace proved to be absolutely fearless cross-country, and an exciting ride for me,” Chris says. His natural jumping ability and willingness to think through challenges that he encounters on jumping courses make him the ideal partner in competition.

Chris went on to explain that Ace totally changed when a timid rider got on: “He turned into a total teddy bear. He would actually slow down or stop if I thought they were losing their balance,” Chris added. “I had never met a horse that could match him for sheer ‘want to’ and interest in taking care of his rider.”

Chris now owns several other Saddlebreds. They all participate in “adventure” trail riding, dressage and eventing. Chris notes that she has never met an American Saddlebred that wasn’t an excellent jumper, or who didn’t just love work over fences. They also excel at all the natural horsemanship games. “Saddlebreds seem to excel at puzzling out the challenges,” Chris explains. “They all have an enormous amount of personality and interest in humans—and all the weird things humans ask them to do!”

Although their popularity in the sport horse and recreational disciplines is growing, Chris agrees that misconceptions about American Saddlebreds—that they are “only” show ring horses and too hot a ride for most people—discourages people from considering them for general riding purposes. As a result, those that don’t succeed are often “discarded” and not given a second chance at a different discipline. But Chris notes that this is changing. “Once people get to know a Saddlebred, they come to understand the horse’s versatility, and, even more important, the enjoyment and companionship that this breed brings to their owners.”

For Shirley Hoffman, giving American Saddlebreds a second chance has become her full-time job. She is founder of Horses Forever, a national non-profit organization devoted to placing unwanted Saddlebreds in new homes. As a result of her work with the breed, she has also become a huge advocate for their versatility—participating in equine expos, breed demonstrations and sponsoring sport horse classes for the breed at shows.

Although she is quick to acknowledge those who are successful show horses, for Shirley, it is the Saddlebred’s intelligence, sensitivity and build that helps make them suitable for all types of riding. Most notably, Shirley’s daughter Sherri Cooper and granddaughter Courtney Cooper rode the entire Colorado trail on their Saddlebreds Berolina and Tracey—a feat that took nearly eight years to finish. They were part of a group of eight equestrian females—the first group of females to ever complete the task.

Side Saddle Success

Shanna Gregg and Firefly by Carnival, better known as Flash to his fans, continue to turn heads in the side saddle division, competing successfully together at dressage and open shows. In search of a horse with a good work ethic, flashy looks, and plenty of heart, Shanna purchased the pinto gelding with high hopes over three years ago. Flash was green broke and used as a breeding stallion before Shanna owned him.

A lifelong side saddle rider, Shanna was first introduced to riding aside at the tender age of six. She has continued to pursue her passion with Flash, training him for the division from the time that she purchased him. His smooth gaits and willing attitude have made him an ideal fit for side saddle in the English pleasure and dressage divisions.

Shanna is almost always the only rider showing aside at both open shows and at dressage shows. She is accustomed to fielding questions about both Flash’s breed and the side saddle style of riding at shows where she typically competes in open English, open adult and light horse classes. Shanna is appreciative of the support that she has received from the Saddlebred community. She adds, “It’s been a great way to combine an elegant breed with an elegant way of riding.” There is no doubt that this dynamic duo will continue to turn heads for years to come.

Driving, Costume & More

Susan Vine’s four-year-old American Saddlebred Starbuck is also helping to dispel common stereotypes associated with the breed. As a weanling, Starbuck placed first out of twenty-five horses at an American Warmblood Society inspection and in AWS year-end rankings was the number four weanling colt in the country. “The judge was astounded to learn that he is 100 percent Saddlebred,” she explains.

Four years later, he is broke to drive, is showing tremendous natural jumping ability and will begin dressage training this fall. For Susan, who grew up riding American Saddlebreds as pleasure horses, the breed’s versatility is no surprise. Encouraged by their growing popularity as sport horses, Susan is thrilled to see that ASHA will introduce its first dressage classes at the St. Louis Saddlebred show this fall. She hopes that the interest continues to increase as people realize their potential.

“There is a positive energy and serious commitment to Saddlebreds in every discipline at ASHA right now,” Susan explains. The ASHA is sponsoring the individual breed class for American Saddlebreds at the NEDA Fall Festival. In addition, the diverse “I can take you there” advertising campaign, which shows the full range of the breed’s talent including sport, pleasure and saddle seat disciplines is also reinforcing the breed’s appeal to many different types of horse owners.

Other initiatives include the ASHA year-end sport horse awards and high-point neck ribbon for open shows, which recognize Saddlebred exhibitors succeeding in the sport horse divisions. Also, look for the ASHA-sponsored booth at Equine Affaire this year in West Springfield, Mass.

From costume classes to combined driving, Lynn Harrington has experienced just about everything with her Saddlebreds. Most people will recognize her aboard the Palomino mare, Supremes Golden Serenade, or Sass, a familiar fixture in western pleasure classes and at area breed demonstrations. A true ambassador for the breed, Sass has been to area zoos and Equine Affaire time after time—and she just can’t get enough of the attention from the crowd.

The International Spotlight

Beyond the U.S., American Saddlebred sport horses are gaining recognition internally. Phoebe Harper is working hard to spread the word in Australia, helping to establish the American Saddlebred Sport Horse Association in her home country. Members compete in all aspects of sport horse competition, from driving and eventing to endurance.

Phoebe currently competes in competitive trail riding and endurance with Southern Son. “These horses truly are the most versatile breed I know,” she explains. Known for their willingness to please and good work ethic, the talent of the American Saddlebred breed extends far beyond the saddle seat disciplines. Next time you are in search of a sport horse, consider an American Saddlebred. They have unlimited potential to excel in these divisions and given the right opportunity will become a willing, successful partner for life.