Why are Morgans, a tiny segment of the US horse population and many of whom are bred today exclusively for the show ring, so successful as sport horses? Why are Morgans winning at Combined Driving Events (CDE), Dressage, Eventing, Endurance Racing, Cutting and other sports disproportionate to their small numbers? Why are Morgans the most consistent winners in the battle of the breeds competition? The answer is a combination of their legendary temperament and a uniquely athletic conformation.
Starting with the breed's progenitor, Justin Morgan, the Morgan has always excelled at whatever task he was put to. From clearing the land and farm work to match racing; from pulling the vehicles that moved the nation's goods and people to dominating the early harness racing tracks; from long grueling days spent as dedicated Civil War Calvary mounts to equally long hard days working cattle on Western ranches; from the gentleman's roadster to the modern show ring, the Morgan has done it all and done it well. The breed survived because it could adapt to the uses demanded by the times into which each generation was born.
Today, the Morgan is rising to yet another challenge -- the demand for first rate sport horses as an American Warmblood breed. The same qualities of body, mind and spirit that insured their usefulness in the past are propelling them to the forefront of sport and earning them the title of American's Sport Horse.
In this article we will examine the special physical characteristics that have enabled the breed to succeed at so many different tasks over such a long period of time. An obvious point of departure is the conformation of Justin Morgan himself. We are fortunate in having a fairly accurate picture of the horse despite the fact that he died 30 years before photography was available. An illustration appears as the frontis piece of the book Morgan Horses by D.C. Linsley published in 1857. Although the drawing was made after the death of old Justin, it was based on descriptions by men who knew and owned him. Linsley includes several letters from these men attesting to the accuracy of the portrait.
I have carefully traced the outline of the picture so that we can examine the proportions of the original of Morgan type. First note that the depth of the body (fig.1, A-AA) is almost equal to the distance from the body to the ground (fig. 1 AA-B). This is what horsemen refer to as "deep bodied", and is a Morgan characteristic related to endurance (lots of heart and lung room) and easy keeping (plenty of room for groceries). Another aspect of Morgan body type is shown in Figure 2.
The balanced conformation of the Morgan is demonstrated by drawing a vertical line down through the middle of the hip. The front, middle and rear quarters are of equal length. Balanced conformation is necessary for strength and athletic ability. If the front quarters were short in relation to the other parts, it would indicate straight, upright shoulder and probably short, upright pasterns. This means rough gaits and eventually leg and foot problems such as navicular and ring bone. If the middle section were too long, it would indicate a long, weak back and/or poor coupling (too long between the last rib and flank groove). Low backs and dragging hind quarters can result from these problems. If the rear quarters were too short, it would cause loss of power, action and impulsion in the hind legs. Fortunately, sound body conformation is one of the enduring legacies left to the breed by Justin Morgan.
Also characteristic of the Morgan type is the fact that body length (fig.1, C-D) is greater than height at the wither (fig. 1 A-B). This rectangular shape is a hallmark of successful sport horses of all breeds, and is not the result of either short legs or long backs, rather, it comes from a great length and slope of the shoulder and an extremely long, powerful hip, See Figure 3, D-E and F-G. Shoulder lay back is responsible for another Morgan trait in that it causes the neck to rise up out of the body rather than hanging out in front as in some other breeds. The role of a long, sloping shoulder in producing easy gaits and the ability to both raise and extend the forelegs has long been appreciated. The benefits of a long hip and correct rear quarter conformation, while equally important, are less well understood. Mechanically, the front legs bear most of the weight, while the rear legs propel the horse forward; as the engine that drives the horse forward, the rear quarters are of paramount importance in selection the sport horse. As rule of thumb, the triangle formed by the point of the buttocks (fig. 3, G) and the point of the stifle (fig. 3, H) should be roughly equal lateral. This configuration provides the best combination of strength, propulsion, and the ability to reach forward under the body to balance the weight of the horse in motion. Relative shortness on any side of the triangle will seriously impair the animal's athletic ability and long range soundness as a sport horse. The original Morgan was correctly formed in this area as can be seen in Figure 3.
The drawing doesn't show us much about the underpinning except that the legs are strong with well defined joints. One distinctly Morgan feature is evident: note the relative shortness of the cannon bones (fig. 4 B-C & EE-F) and the length of the forearm (fig. 4 A-B) and upper hind legs (fig. 4, D-E). Short cannons guarantee soundness and strength while the long upper legs allow for length of stride. Note also the great depth of thigh (fig. 4 D-G) and the well developed gaskin. Unfortunately we have no view of Justin Morgan from the rear or front. Considering the many years of punishing use he endured without blemish, we must assume that the original Morgan was correct in leg conformation. Viewed from the rear, he was almost certainly as wide or wider in the gaskin as in the hips showing great muscling on both the outer and inner surface of the thighs. Surely both front and rear legs formed perfect columns with well defined joints. It is interesting that the picture shows pasterns, that while short, are very fine and sharply angled, the feet are small but adequate for the size of the body.
Concerning top lines: The illustration shows a strong yet gracefully curved outline. The head is of medium size with a prominent eye, straight profile, small ears and fine muzzle. The neck is quite long in relation to the body (fig.3, A-B & B-C), wide at the base (fig. 4, j-k) and narrow at the poll (fig. 4, H-I) with a clearly defined crest. This neck will allow a horse to bend easily at the poll yet have the muscular strength to use the neck to balance the body and lighten the forehand, the withers are well defined and slightly higher than the croup.; the back is short and powerful; while the croup is long and gently sloped to allow the horse to easily lower its haunches and get its hind end under itself. The tail is set high and carried proudly.
It is interesting to measure the drawing of Justin Morgan against the U.S. Calvary purchasing guidelines which call for the shoulder, hip and head length to be approximately equal. Figure 3, D-E, F-G and A-H shows that the Morgan type fits these specifications almost perfectly. Equine artists use two rules when drawing horses. One is that the ideal horse is the same in depth of body (fig. 1, A-AA) as from the body to the ground (fig. 1,AA-B). The other is that the horse should be about the same length from the middle of the wither to the poll (fig 3, B-A) as from the middle of the wither to the base of the tail (fig 3 B-C). The Morgan fulfills both the Calvary and artist's requirements, making it an equally useful and beautiful animal. The proportions of the Morgan horse are remarkably similar to those of horses that are performing successfully at the highest levels of international sport competition. This is no accident, only proof that form follows function.
The Morgan type has stood the test of time. It is the hallmark of a breed that is sound, athletic and beautiful. Its has produced a race of horses that can do more things better than any other ever bred. Given half a chance the Morgan will continue to excel as a sport and using horse, and perhaps even be given the recognition is so richly deserves.