(as first published in the Chronicle of the Horse Friday, February 8, 1985)
It is sad that American sport horse enthusiasts are concentrating their time and attention on European Warmblood while a breed of American Warmblood horses are heading toward extinction. Europeans, at the turn of the century, were looking with equal enthusiasm at American Warmblood horses.
In 1893, Max Lansberg was sent by the German Government to sculpt models of outstanding American horses for study in Germany's agricultural schools. One of the eight horses selected by Lansberg was the Morgan stallion, Denning Allen sire of General Gates. General Gates was the foundation sire of the U.S. Morgan Horse Farm that supplied the United State with the legendary Remount stallions.
In 1942, a near fatal blow was directed at the only American breed ever bred specifically for military use by the U.S. government. The U.S Calvary was ordered to mechanize and all the government-bred Morgans in actual Calvary use were destroyed. The basis for this decision was never actually determined.
Approximately 150 government horses avoided the destruction because they were not in actual military service. The horses that survived, some mares-in-foal, a few stallions and yearlings, still resided at the U.S. Morgan Farm. During the next eight years, these remaining horses were scattered by an auction and government gifts to schools, universities, and Indian reservations.
Military reports to the U.S. War Department brought the Morgan horse to the attention of the government during the Civil War. The Morgans' intelligence and courage, alert walk, easy trot and collected canter aided them to withstand the hardships of war campaigns better than any other breed.
In order to assure the U.S. Calvary a good supply of the Morgan horses, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Vermont State Experiment Station were authorized, in 1806, to assemble a band of Morgan mares at the station farm near Burlington, VT.
Joseph Battell, Middlebury, VT. became interested in the government's work and in 1907, for the sum of $1.00 , he gave a farm of 400 acres to the U.S. Government. The stock from the Burlington station was moved to the Middlebury facility and, in 1908, Battell deeded an additional 35 acres to the government. In 1917, two years after Battell's death, Middlebury College offered the government a 550-acre gift Battell had made to the College and the ownership of the Morgan Register. The government did not purchase the register because of their own detailed record keeping. They did, however, purchase the land and buildings for its final investment on expansion of the U.S. Morgan Horse Farm.
The government's choice of General Gates as the foundation sire for the farm brought protest from Morgan breeders of the day. General Gates, a 15 hand black stallion, greatly resembled his great great grandsire, the Morgan Black Hawk, but, General Gates was out of the thoroughbred mare Sally / Fanny Scott, a descendent of the imported Grey Diomed. General Gates was not a purebred Morgan.
Since the farm's concern was to supply the Calvary with horses between 15 and 16 hands, who were sound and substantial. They ignored the criticism directed at their foundation sire. The government breeding experts felt General Gates would provide a proper genetic base for the herd. The stallion had already proven his prepotency and by 1920, the average government-bred Morgan was 15.2 hands and 1,200 pounds.
From the beginning of the program, the Morgans bred by the government were tested. One test was a 300 mile service ride in which horses were expected to finish in a maximum of five days and stay sound. In 1991, Castor, bred on the Middlebury Farm, made the ride in 51 hours and 18 minutes carrying 200 pounds. He beat his own performance in 1920, as did another Morgan, Dolly, who also beat his time.
In 1941, the Bureau of Animal Industry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture began conducting additional performance tests on Morgans to determine the characteristics associated with performance and whether these were inherited and could be used in the selection of breeding stock. A large number of characteristics were scored for each horse so that associations between them and performance could be determined. The results were used to better their breeding program.
When the destruction order was given in 1942, government experts pleaded for the Calvary horse. "This blood will be of value again and this country may be calling for it to inject more bottom and courage into light-horse stock" they said. But no one listened and the appropriates for the U.S. Morgan Horse Farm were totally ended in 1950.
Lamenting the loss of these sire lines in the Morgan breed, Margaret Gardner, owner of a Morgan Horse Farm in South Woolwich, Maine, said, "The current emphasis had been on small brilliant high-stepping show horses. This is to the detriment of the athletes of yesteryear. The loss of bloodlines within any breed is serious. Without suitable outcross material, a breed can reach a genetic plateau and find itself irrevocably frozen into some specialization.
Vice-president and director of the American Morgan Horse Association, Dr. Phillip M DuBois said, "When we study bloodlines to find the genetic sport horse, a substantial animal, time and time again it carried the blood of the Government Stud."
In the final analysis, only time will tell if the government-bred Morgan will survive. American sport horse enthusiasts have chosen the European Warmblood and there are no American societies to protect the government-bred Morgan. Breeding animals are now at dangerously old ages and these horses, so much a part of American history may become extinct if considerations are not made to preserve this strain.
There are a few breed survival organizations that are listing these Morgans in their records and requesting information on any of the surviving horses. The irony is that these organizations are based in Europe.