Thursday, February 4, 2016

THE MORGAN HORSE By Cheri Kay Clifton

I'm going to make the bold statement that I bet all the Sweethearts of the West are horse lovers.  Many of you may be horse owners, of whom I am truly envious!  One such lucky gal, I know is Peggy Henderson.  Actually, it would be nice to know how many of our authors are equestrians.  Although I've never owned a horse, over my lifetime I'm had the joy of riding many horses.

Since I wrote about the history of Fort Kearny which was referenced in my book, Trail To Destiny in my last blog, I decided this post and my next one would be about two breeds of horses I've always admired, the Morgan (a genetic breed) and the Pinto (a color breed), both of which I'd chosen for my two main characters, Laura and Grey Wolf, to ride.

I found out the Morgan was one of the earliest horse breeds developed in the United States and after reading that the United States Equestrian Federation stated, "a Morgan is distinctive for its stamina and vigor, personality and eagerness, and has a reputation for intelligence, courage and a good disposition, I knew he was the perfect choice for my heroine, Laura, to ride on her journey west.  I named him Sonny after a beautiful horse I'd enjoyed riding on scenic trails in the Smokey Mountains.

All Morgans trace back to a single foundation sire, a stallion named Figure, who was born in West Springfield, Massachusetts in 1789.  At age three, he was given to a man named Justin Morgan as a debt payment.  As was the practice of the day, Figure became known by his owner's name, the Justin Morgan horse.  This colt was the founding sire of the Morgan breed.

After Justin Morgan's death, Figure moved on to other owners and spent a life working on farms, hauling freight, and as a parade mount at militia trainings.  He spent his life working and died in 1821 from an untreated kick received from another horse.  His three most famous sons - Sherman, Bulrush and Woodbury - carried on his legacy to future generations of Morgan horses.  I won't go into depth about the bloodline groups or the extensive breeding history, only to add that there were estimated to be over 175,000 Morgan horses worldwide in 2005.  They come in a variety of colors although they are most commonly bay, black and chestnut.

 These beautiful steeds were used as cavalry mounts by both sides in the American Civil War.  They were in much demand due to their endurance, weight carrying ability, strong short back, excellent feet and legs, and a calm and cheerful temperament with an abundance of natural style that appealed to the Cavalry officers.  

Many tributes to these hard-ridden heroes are displayed in paintings, as public statuary, as well as some rare mounted hides and heads staged in proud museums.  Famous Morgan, Rienzi (also known as Winchester) was ridden by General Philip Sheridan to rally his Union troops and was preserved and is at the Smithsonian museum.

General Philip Sheridan Memorial Civil War Bronze Statue 
Depicts Sheridan riding his horse Rienzi
Washington, D.C.

Little Sorrel was a Morgan ridden by Confederate General Stonewall Jackson in his Civil War campaigns.  After Little Sorrel's death in 1886, his hide was mounted at the Virginia Military Institute Museum, where it's still a popular attraction. The taxidermist took the bones as partial payment and gave them to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, something that never sat right with Southerners. The VMI Museum got the bones back , cremated and interred them in 1997, on the parade grounds, at the feet of a statue of General Jackson.  "It's the right thing to do," said the curator. Today, Little Sorrel stands near the raincoat that Stonewall Jackson was wearing when he was mortally wounded. The coat is displayed so that visitors can see the bullet hole.

General George Armstrong Custer rode several Morgans.  One of his favorites was a horse named Dandy.

"Sighting the Enemy," equestrian statue by Edward Clark Potter of
General George Custer at Gettysburg, located in Monroe, Michigan.
Since Custer was not killed in this battle, his Morgan horse is depicted with
all four feet on the ground.

While Morgan enthusiasts have stated that the horse Comanche, a survivor of the Custer regiment after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, was either a Morgan or a Mustang/Morgan mix, records of the U.S. Army and other early sources argue that claim, stating more likely he was of "Mustang lineage" with possibly "Spanish" blood.  Many also believed Custer rode Comanche, but in fact, Captain Myers Keogh owned and rode the bay horse into battle.

Although Comanche was touted as the sole horse to survive the famous battle, many horses survived and were taken by the Indians.  But the Indians had no use for a horse that couldn't dodge a bullet.  Two days after the Custer defeat, a burial party investigating the site found the severely wounded horse and transported him by steamer to Fort Lincoln, 950 miles away, where he spent the next year recuperating. Comanche remained with the 7th Cavalry, never again to be ridden and under orders excusing him from all duties. Most of the time he freely roamed the Post and flower gardens. Only at formal regimental functions was he led, draped in black , stirrups and boots reversed, at the head of the Regiment.

Comanche, aging but still in good health, continued to receive full honors as a symbol of the tragedy at Little Bighorn. Finally, on November 7, 1891, about 29 years old, Comanche died of colic.  The horse is currently on display in a humidity controlled glass case at the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History in Lawrence, Kansas.

Comanche taxidermy 

I hope you enjoyed reading about the Morgan Horse, including many of the breed's faithful steeds and in addition, the truth about the famous horse, Comanche.

I'll end with a couple horse quotes:

"Sit tall in the saddle, hold your head up high, keep your eyes fixed where the trail meets the sky and live like you ain't afraid to die, don't be scared, just enjoy the ride." Chris LeDoux

Many people have sighed for the 'good old days' and regretted the 'passing of the horse,' but today, when only those who like horses own them, it is a far better time for horses.  ~C.W. Anderson



  1. I've never ridden a horse, never owned one. But I believe a horse is one of the most beautiful animals on earth. I love to see them, watch them if I get the chance. Truthfully, I'm afraid of horses...maybe I wouldn't be if I'd ridden during my young years.
    I love to feature a Morgan in my Western Romance novels. To me, you've chosen the best horse to present in your post. The photos are wonderful, too. Thanks so much.

    1. They are so beautiful, especially when watching them run, their mane flowing in the wind.

  2. Nice post, Cheri Kay. I've never owned a horse and seldom ridden one but our daughters had them.

    1. THanks, Caroline. I've always said if their was such a thing as reincarnation, I'd love to come back as owner of a horse ranch!

  3. Morgans are absolutely wonderful horses! Not only are they gorgeous, but they are "honest." I owned a Morgan?Arab cross at one time, and he taught my mother how to ride. He was an awesome little horse. One of my good friends and former boss owned a full Morgan, Ranger, and again, he was such a great horse. Definitely right up there among my favorite breeds. Great post, Cheri!

    1. Thanks, Peggy. What breed of horses do you own now?

  4. This post is so interesting, Cheri. I stories are set in the 1850s and I have had to deal with a lot of horse situations. This information was very informative. Thank you! One of my heroes is a Sioux and I would think he'd need a Morgan. :)

  5. Thanks Paisley. I'll be writing about the Pinto next month, a horse many Indians favored. Just like the characters we become attached to when writing about them in our books, I fell in love with Four Winds, the Pinto Grey Wolf rode in my first book!

  6. I had no idea about the factoid you presented about a statue depicting Custer on a Morgan had all 4 feet on the ground because Custer didn't die in that battle. I never knew that. I also didn't know that Comanche almost died, but was saved and honored until he died.
    I enjoyed reading about all these famous Morgan horses and the men who rode them.
    I had Harmonica Joe arrive in my fictional town of Hazard, Wyoming on a Morgan named Black Jack. The only thing I knew about Morgans was they were expensive to show Joe came from wealth and privilege.
    Thank you for all this great information. Sorry I'm late getting here.
    All the very best to your corner of the universe, Cheri.

  7. Hi Sarah, glad you enjoyed reading about the beautiful Morgan breed horse. Happy Trails To You, too!

  8. Beautiful history in your article of the Morgan Horse. It is really nice to get such wonderful information. Thanks for sharing.


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