For over 200 years, the saddle horse has lived in the hills and valleys of many parts of Kentucky. Originally bred by the Appalachian mountain people in Eastern Kentucky for the demanding needs of farm life, the horses had to be tough to survive the rugged mountain lifestyle, and versatile enough to work the land, be ridden in style and comfort and perform multiple tasks with a stable, and willing nature. These were the roots of the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse.
When roads improved As the United States entered the motorized transportation age and new means of travel were created, gaited horse populations in the United States started to decline as the horse lost its position as a necessity of daily existence. One exception was the less-developed area of the Appalachian Mountains where gaited horses were still necessary for travel where there were no roads, and so breeding continued and several early breeders were determined to maintain records on the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse because the unique, surefooted, four-beat gait was still essential for getting around the rugged mountain terrain where no other vehicles could traverse.
The exact origins of the Mountain horses are sheer speculation, but the Narragansett Pacer, Spanish Jennet, Mountain Pleasure Horse, and ambling Galloways are all ancestors of the modern Kentucky Mountain Saddle horse. Old Saddlebred stock and Tennessee Walking Horse bloodlines were also used. These breeds were well known for their comfortable gaits and willing attitudes which were essential for spending long hours in the saddle when the horse was the primary mode of transportation.
The traditional belief is that around 1890, a family on their way back to Virginia brought a young, gaited colt with them that was the foundation to a line of horses that has been treasured in the area ever since. He was called "the Rocky Mountain Horse" by the local Appalachian people because of the area he had come from. Little is known about this foundation stallion, but the oral history indicates that he was chocolate-colored with a flaxen mane and tail, and that he possessed a superior gait. That stallion was instrumental in the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse breed, and sired two influential sons that settled in Estill and Clark Counties in Kentucky.
In Spout Springs, Kentucky, Sam Tuttle purchased a mare in 1918, Lucy, and bred her to one of the descendants of the original chocolate stallion. The mare was eventually bred to the Hinz Stud, located at Hinz Farm, and the resulting foal was Tobe. Mr. Tuttle tapped into the Mountain Horse Heritage by crossing the native Mountain Pleasure Horse stock with Tobe. Tobe was the sire of Old Tobe, his favorite stallion, and was also his primary breeding stallion and sired foals until the age of 34, and lived to age 37. He had the perfect sure-footed gait and a calm, gentle temperament and was the one that carried the young, the old, or the unsure over the mountain trails in Natural Bridge State Park for 10 years without faltering, even though he was a breeding stallion. Everyone who rode the stallion fell in love with him and his offspring were always in demand. He passed on his gait, disposition, and other great qualities to his offspring but one outstanding trait passed on was longevity, and many of his offspring are still breeding in their late twenties and early thirties. It has also been said that his offspring followed in his perfectly-timed footsteps.
Even through the hard times of the Depression and World War II years, Sam Tuttle kept a sizable herd of thirty to forty horses on his farm. In the 1950s, when the horse populations in general were rapidly declining due to tractors and farm machinery available, breeders still bought their mares to Old Tobe from several different states and he was always in demand for stud service. Old Tobe was a virile and prepotent stallion who became a "breed shaper" for several Mountain horse breeds. Many of the present Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses and Rocky Mountain Horses can trace back to Old Tobe. One of his sons, also named Tobe, became an influential foundation sire of the modern type.
Tobe became well known for producing various hues of chocolate with a flaxen mane and tail in his offspring and his outstanding sons include Sewell's Sam, Maple's Squirrel, and Yankee, the last stallion that Tuttle stood at stud. All offspring sired by these stallions were consistent in type, gait, temperament, and quality and it became obvious that there was a need for a registry to showcase the breed. So, in 1989, the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association (KMSHA) was formed to document and preserve the ancestry of the breed and in 2002 the Spotted Mountain Horse Association (SMHA), a subsidiary of the KMSHA, was formed to register those Mountain Horses that had large areas or spots of white that were considered to be too much coverage for any of the existing Mountain Horse registries that followed solid color standards.
But there are several breeds of Mountain Horses that have been developed in the Appalachians of Kentucky around the same time and sorting them out can get confusing when all the breed association sites say much of the same thing, but in different ways. For example, in writing this article, I came across this comment from the Mountain Pleasure Horse Association (MPHA) website: "Horses registered in the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association are often referred to as Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses. Several gaited breeds of horses are included in the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association's registry, the Mountain Pleasure Horse being one of them. Whereas, the Mountain Pleasure Horse and the Rocky Mountain Horse are "breeds" of horses, the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse normally refers to the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association registry.
Many horses registered with the Mountain Pleasure Horse Association are also doubled registered with the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association." However, on the website of the KMSHA, it states that "the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse and the Spotted Mountain Horse breeds, each with their own distinctive characteristics and genetic DNA markers, are recognized by the University of Kentucky, Equine Parentage Testing and Genetic Research Center as their own unique breed of Horse."
Both the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse and the Spotted Mountain Horse have the same conformation standards. They must be of medium bone and substance and stand no less than 11 hands high. There is no upper height limit but there are two size categories. Class A horses stand 14.2 hands and above and Class B is for horses that are between 11 and 14.1 hands at maturity.
The head of the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse is attractive and cob sized, not too long or wide, with a broad flat forehead. The profile is neither severely Roman nor dished. The neck is of medium length and thickness, with the top line being longer than the underline. Traditionally, the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse has a compact, well-muscled and close-coupled frame. The tail set should be natural.
The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse may be any solid body color with minimal white markings that should be limited to the face, the lower legs, or on the belly not to exceed an area larger than the size of a hand. Any horse that does not meet the limited amount of white requirement, or that carries tobiano, overo or sabino, may be registered as a Spotted Mountain Horse with the SMHA if other criteria are met.
The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse should be able to demonstrate a smooth, comfortable and natural four beat gait, with four distinct hoof beats, when under saddle. The breed should present an overall appearance of athleticism and the ability to perform useful work as well as have a gentle temperament with a willing disposition.
In Kentucky alone, there are at least 9,700 Kentucky-owned Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses with several hundred Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse and Spotted Mountain Horse stallions, mares and geldings being boarded and trained in Kentucky that are owned by residents of other states. The breed can be found in all 50 states, Canada, and is rapidly growing in Europe.