The Dance of the American Saddlebred

These high-stepping show horses are bred for beauty and trained to perform.

Katy Sterba “long line” training a 2-year-old colt at Famesgate Stables.

Photo by Kieran Wagner

It’s the Fine Harness Junior Championship at the World’s Championship Horse Show in Louisville, Kentucky. Spectators line the ring in anticipation, and the atmosphere is electric. When the white gates at the end of the arena swing open, the best Saddlebred horses in the country—many from Virginia—trot energetically into the show ring pulling buggies, one after another, high-stepping on the bright green footing. The crowd cheers and whistles as the gleaming horses strut around the ring, heads high, ears pricked forward, manes flowing, tails trailing like trains; their feet are light, covering the ground with style and grace. One of these horses will be crowned a World’s Champion.

The music begins to play, and the dance of the American Saddlebreds begins. As the announcer calls out the gaits and the judges take notes, the horses and drivers whisk up and down the grand ring, demonstrating countless hours and years of hard work and training. More than 2,000 of the country’s best Saddlebreds have been whittled down to a handful competing for championship titles and $1 million in prize money.

“Park trot,” calls the announcer.

The horses’ steps become more coiled and collected, their necks more arched, heads tucked tighter to their chests with their power coming from their hind ends. Each foot touches the ground in equal but separate intervals—impossibly powerful, yet graceful and controlled. The crowd cheers and the horses love it; these are, after all, show horses.

Next, the announcer calls, “Show your horses, please!”

One horse, Lovely, a stunning 4-year-old mare with a flowing flaxen mane, effortlessly switches to a dazzling trot, executed with grace and athleticism. She is a performer, in her element, moving with power and precision, and winning over the judges and the crowds. Elegant in formal wear, her trainer and driver, Nancy Troutman of Meadow Wood Stables in Salem, holds the lines while riding in her shining harness buggy. Her owner, Carol Reedy of Roanoke, watches with tears in her eyes.

The judges make their decision: Lovely is the World’s Champion Fine Harness Junior Horse! The stands erupt. A tricolored World’s Champion ribbon is pinned to Lovely’s harness and a blanket of roses draped across her withers. Taking her victory lap, Lovely holds her head a little higher and prances as the ribbon flutters like streamers in the wind.

“Some horses have that ‘it factor’ that separates the great ones from the good ones,” says Bob Funkhouser, executive editor of Saddle Horse Report, a weekly industry publication, and former president of the American Saddlebred Horse Association. “They just have charisma. You can’t train that into them. We talk a lot about heart. The great horses are so game and eager to please. Riding or driving a really great Saddlebred is like driving a powerful sports car, but you’re totally under control.”

American Saddlebreds were developed when European horses were brought to the New World and crossed with other breeds, including Thoroughbreds, with the goal of creating an “American horse” that was large, strong, elegant, and comfortable to ride long distances. The resulting Kentucky Saddlers were renowned for their heart, courage, and stamina, and became the preferred mounts of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, among others. Today’s Saddlebreds are unique in the horse world in two ways: They are used for both riding and driving, and they are capable of five gaits (walk, trot, slow gait, cantor, and rack), rather than the more standard three. Energetic and high-stepping, they are natural-born performers; in the show ring, they are considered the ultimate show horse.

Despite their natural abilities, training a top horse takes years of work. Katy Sterba, a trainer at Famesgate Stables in Troy, says the process begins when horses are young—“they learn to be groomed and become comfortable with someone touching them”—and continues throughout their lives. “Most competitive show horses remain in training for the entirety of their career, as consistency helps to hone their particular skill set, very much the same as competitive athletes who continuously train with a coach,” she says. 

And those careers can last for many years. “American Saddlebreds are extremely versatile and can have successful show careers into their late teens and early 20s,” says Sterba. Once they retire from the show ring, some transition into beginner show rider or lesson programs.

Funkhouser notes similar longevity for humans as for horses—showing Saddlebreds is one of the only sports in which age is not a limiting factor. “Whether you are 6 or 86,” he says, “since we compete in driving and riding, you can still be a top contender at any age.”

Stonewall Jackson on Little Sorrel.

Call it fate, destiny, or just serendipity: In 1987, operating room nurse Carol Reedy went to the Roanoke Valley Horse Show and fell in love with Saddlebred horses. It was a defining moment. “I thought they were beautiful,” she says. “I knew I had found my passion. It was what I wanted to do.” A few days later, Reedy began riding lessons.

Seven years later, Reedy began riding at Nancy Troutman’s barn, and the two became friends. Reedy decided to buy a horse to compete in Amateur Fine Harness events, so the two were on their way to Kentucky to look at a possibility when they received a call that the horse had sold. They decided to go anyway and discovered a chestnut mare named Take Me Home Tonight (Pauline) that had tremendous potential. Deciding it was fate, they bought Pauline, and she and Reedy have since collected more than 50 ribbons in the Amateur Fine Harness division.

Enjoying their success with Pauline, Reedy wanted to buy a second horse for Troutman to show as a professional, so they returned to Kentucky—where they found Lovely.

“We feel so blessed and excited to be where we are with these two mares,” says Reedy. Indeed, their 2018 record will go down in history. Lovely was the 2018 World’s Champion of Champions Junior Fine Harness, World’s Champion ASR Four-Year-Old Fine Harness Sweepstakes winner, the United Professional Horseman’s Association Overall Fine Harness Horse of the Year, and the UPHA Open Fine Harness Horse of the Year. Pauline, now 9 years old, was the UPHA Amateur Fine Harness Horse of the Year, among other titles earned throughout the year.

Reedy’s love for her horses and the sport is obvious. “Every time I go onto the green shavings at the World’s,” says Reedy, “it takes my breath away and just about makes me cry. It’s such an honor to be there. The organ is playing, and atmosphere is electric.”

Troutman shares Reedy’s sentiments. “This is beyond my wildest dreams,“ she says. “To have these caliber of horses is more than I have ever imagined would happen in my lifetime. Carol is a dear friend. We take every show as it comes and are so thankful to be where we are.”

Ceil Wheeler with Remember Me in the barn at East Belmont Farm.

Photo by Kieran Wagner

For Ceil Wheeler, horses—and especially Saddlebreds—have been a way of life as long as she can remember. She and her husband, Kenny, own East Belmont farm in Keswick, just down the road from Cismont Manor, where Kenny’s parents, Kenneth Sr. and the late Sallie Busch Wheeler, built a hunter/jumper operation. Together with their daughters, Catherine and Sallie-Mason, the Wheelers have won more than 100 Champion and Reserve World Championships titles over the past 24 years. “We are a unique family,” says Wheeler, “in that we do hunters/jumpers, Saddlebreds, and foxhunt. We have a mutual love and respect for horses.”

Wheeler is particularly known for her expertise with three-gaited and five-gaited horses. Although all Saddlebreds can walk, trot, and canter, they must learn the slow-gait and rack—and the ability to learn the rack is inherited, so not all Saddlebreds are capable of it. A physically demanding gait that takes a horse years to master, the rack is a pinnacle skill—a dazzling dance that gives the impression the horse is hovering, gliding across the ground. Each foot touches the ground in rhythmic intervals followed by high steps, executed with speed. As with elite athletes and born performers, the best horses make the feat look effortless, brilliant, magical. 

Wheeler’s dark chestnut gelding, Walterway’s Remember Me, was one of the best. He won nine World’s Championships, including six in the Ladies Five-Gaited division with Wheeler. “He’s such a wonderful horse, my horse of a lifetime,” says Wheeler. Although Remember Me is now retired, Wheeler continues to train with Mercer Springs Farm in Princeton, West Virginia, and shows in the three-gaited and five-gaited divisions. At last year’s World’s, she placed in four classes.

“There is nothing more thrilling, in my opinion, than showing a Saddlebred,” she says. “The horse’s energy, excitement, animation, intelligence—especially one that loves its job—there’s nothing better.” 

Saddlebred Gaits

Megan McDowell on Top Don at the Bonnie Blue National Horse Show in May.

Photo by Kieran Wagner

Saddlebreds are unique to the horse world in that they are used for both riding and driving, and are capable of five gaits: walk, trot, slow gait, rack, and canter. 

Three-gaited horses are characterized by a roached (shaved) mane, which showcases their long, elegant necks. Animated and elegant in their movement, horses are judged at the walk, trot, and canter and on their conformation.

The rack is a four-beat gait where only one foot touches the ground at a time. It’s physically and mentally demanding, and not something every horse is capable of doing.

Five-gaited horses are energetic, powerful, and elegant. They show at the three natural gaits (walk, trot, canter), but also the manmade gaits: slow-gait and rack. Five-gaited horses are shown with a full mane and long, flowing tail. 

Fine harness horses are shown in a four-wheeled cart with a driver. Elegant horses with full manes and flowing tails, they seemingly float through the air and perform at the walk and trot. Drivers wear long dresses or suits, different from the traditional saddle habit. 

This article originally appeared in our August 2019 issue.

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