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Horse Articles :: Tennessee Walker Horse

Tennessee Walker

In the early 1800s, Narragansett Pacers and Canadian Pacers were crossbred by breeders in the U.S. state of Tennessee while looking for a horse that could handle the hilly terrain of the area. Confederate Pacers and Union Trotters were added to the gene pool during the Civil War, creating the sturdy Southern Plantation Horse, which was also known as the Tennessee Pacer. Thoroughbred, Standardbred, Morgan, and American Saddlebreds were later added to refine and add stamina to this gaited horse. In 1885, a colt named Black Allen out of the Hambletonian family of Standardbreds and a Morgan mare was born. He became the foundation sire of the Tennessee Walking Horse, also known as the Tennessee Walker, or TWH.

The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association (TWHBEA) is the official registry and was founded in 1935. Headquartered in Tennessee, it is the oldest organization devoted to the Tennessee Walking Horse. In order to maintain breed purity, the stud book was closed in 1947 and now every TWH born after that date must have both parents registered with TWHBEA in order to be registered themselves. There are more than 430,000 registered Tennessee Walkers throughout the world and the breed has become the second-fastest growing breed in the nation.

Every year, a ten-day exhibition in the town of Shelbyville, Tennessee called the "Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration" draws over 30,000 breeders, exhibitors, and spectators. The show is so large that Shelbyville bills itself as the "Walking Horse Capital of the World," and now the Tennessee Walker is the official state horse of Tennessee.

The Tennessee Walker is a tall horse ranging from 13.2 to 18 hands with an average of 15-17 hands high and a weight of 900 to 1200 pounds. It has a long neck, a long sloping shoulder, a long sloping hip, a fairly short back and an elongated stride. The head is traditionally large but refined and has small well-placed ears. At least 20 color choices are available. Black, roan, chestnut sorrel, bay, champagne and pinto are the most common. The TWHBEA now recognizes the sabino pattern since many past registered roans were actually sabinos.

A TWH foal is never gray at birth but may begin to turn gray when the foal coat is shed or maybe not until several years later. When they start to turn gray, it is progressive and they continue to lighten until they are nearly white. If they are white with specks of color, they are referred to as a flea bitten gray. The birth color remains on the registration if the foal turns gray, but gray is then added to the base color, i.e., black/gray, palomino/gray, etc.

The Tennessee Walker has three distinct gaits: the flat foot walk, the running walk or "big lick", and the rocking horse canter, all of which the breed is famous for, with the running walk being an inherited, natural gait unique to this breed. Many are also able to perform the rack, stepping pace, fox-trot, single-foot and other variations of the famous running walk.

The Flat Walk is a brisk, 4 to 8 mile an hour, long-reaching four-cornered gait where each foot hits the ground separately at regular intervals. The action of the back foot slipping over the front foot's track is known as overstride and is unique to this breed. A Tennessee Walking Horse will nod its head and swing its ears in rhythm with the cadence of its feet. This distinctive nodding head motion, along with overstride, are two features that are unique to the Tennessee Walking Horse.

The Running Walk is the extra-smooth, gliding gait for which the walking horse is most noted and is referred to as "big lick". It is the same as the flat walk only at 10-20 miles per hour. As the speed increases, the horse overstrides the front track with the back by between 6 to 18 inches. The running walk has a motion that gives the rider a feeling of gliding through the air and the Tennessee Walker will continue to nod and swing its ears during this gait. Some horses even click their teeth during the big lick.

The Canter is much the same as other breeds, but the Tennessee Walker seems to do it in a more relaxed way. This gait gives the rider a feeling of ease with lots of spring and rhythm. In fact, the canter lifts the front of the body, giving an easy rise and fall motion that gives it the "rocking-chair" name.

The TWH easily adapts to both English and Western tack and attire and there are two main categories of competition under both disciplines: Performance and Flat Shod.

The Flat Shod variety has grown tremendously popular due to the easy training of the breed without the need of a professional trainer, and the naturally inherited gaits with no foot enhancements, although the plantation class may wear a heavier shoe. If used for pleasure riding, no special shoes are required, although when they are shod, it will be at a slightly lower angle with more natural toe than some of the other western type horses. A record of these angles and foot lengths should be kept handy for when the farrier comes by.

The Performance Horse (sometimes referred to as padded or built up) is shown in English attire and tack. It executes the basic gaits with flashier and more animated movements, particularly the "big lick." They appear to sit on their hind quarters, lifting their front feet high off the ground. They may also use tail braces.

Additionally, Performance horses are shod in double and triple-nailed tall pads to add dimension to the hoof to provide a sounder base and to change certain angles and paths in the motion of the front hooves. Additionally, lightweight chains, or "action devices" are worn around the fetlocks of the front legs to accentuate the gaits to make them showier. Pads are training devices and an integral part of the training because when utilized properly, they can aid greatly in accentuating the gaits of the show horse. However, their effectiveness will vary with the individual horse.

However, there is a dark side to the Tennessee Walking Horse's showy gaits. The use of pads and the accompanying chains that go with them is highly controversial, since some people put irritating chemicals on the pasterns to make them sensitive and sore when the chains touch. The practice has become so widespread that USDA inspectors are now attending shows to look for evidence of "soring" which is the illegal practice of deliberately injuring a horse's front feet to get it to step higher." Some owners even use eye drops to temporarily blind their horses which makes them lift their hooves higher to try to feel their way around. For more information on soring, what the pads and chains look like, and to see the big lick in action, watch the CNN Special Assignment video on the walkinonranch website.

These horses also tend to have joint problems because we tend ask them to do things they weren't designed to do. Show horses tend to shift their center of gravity to the rear, thus placing more stress on the hind limbs (especially the hock and pastern joints). The goal is to move with a lot of high front-end action and this is particularly true of the Tennessee Walker in competition. Horses that have more of a weight load on the rear legs are going to be prone to hock, rear fetlock, and stifle injuries and disease.

There are also a couple of genetic concerns with the Tennessee Walking Horse. Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSSM) which appears in the form of muscular atrophy, abnormal gait, back pain, and post anesthetic myopathy have been described and are thought to be inherited.

Equine Recurrent Uveitis (ERU) or "moon blindness" can lead to blindness if not treated. The University of Minnesota is currently conducting research to determine if there is a genetic factor involved and a potential gene region that may be linked to the condition may have been identified.

While these horses are famous for flashy movement, they are quite popular for simply pleasure riding. Combined with having an easygoing, docile temperament and being easy to train, their naturally smooth and easy gaits insure the popularity of the Tennessee Walker as the "world's greatest show, trail, and pleasure horse".

About the Author
Crystal Eikanger writes for









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