The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse

A horse wearing a saddle

Kittymama / Wikimedia /CC by 3.0

Many horse breeds throughout the world have been developed specifically to suit the terrain and environment in which they perform their intended use. One such breed is the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse. These horses are closely related to the Tennessee Walking Horse and other gaited breeds originating in the southern U.S. The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse has a naturally smooth gait that delights riders who prefer an exceptionally even, gentle ride.

Breed Overview

Weight: Varies from 950 to 1,200 pounds

Height: Size varies a great deal within the breed; between 13.1 hands (53 inches) and 16 hands (64 inches) high

Body Type: Medium-boned and muscular, with arched, mid-length necks

Coat: Chestnut, sorrel, black, brown, gray, bay, palomino, buckskin, cremello, perlino, white, dun, red dun, grullo, red roan, bay roan, and blue roan

Best For: All-purpose

Life Expectancy: 25 to 40 years

History and Origins

For 200 years, the people of the eastern Kentucky mountains have bred these horses for their uniquely smooth gait, hardiness, and calm demeanor. They are an all-purpose horse equally capable of working in the fields and carrying a family member to town. They existed without fanfare or recognition until the 1980s and have since become quite popular as more people come to appreciate this gentle, steady, able breed. Two registries now exist, and the University of Kentucky's Equine Parentage Testing and Genetic Research Center now recognizes the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse as a distinct breed as well.

Like many of the gaited horses in the U.S., Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses are related to other popular breeds such as the Tennessee Walking Horse, Rocky Mountain Horse, and possibly the Florida Cracker Horse. The Narragansett Pacer is an ancestor of the bloodlines of such breeds as the Canadian Horse and the Morgan.


Size varies a great deal within the breed, but generally, these horses stand between 13.1 hands (53 inches) and 16 hands (64 inches) high. They must be 11 hands high to be registered, which means some horses are actually pony-sized. The registry divides the horses into Class A (more than 14.2 hands high) and Class B (between 11 and 14.1 hands high).

Breeding and Uses

Although they are called Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses, they perform just as well when hitched to a cart or sleigh. They were bred to be an all-purpose horse equally useful for riding, driving, and general farm work. The rough terrain of the area in which they were developed requires them to be particularly agile, reliable, alert, and calm, and they deliver these traits in spades.

Colors and Markings

The breed comes in all the typical solid colors and in beautiful patterns—palomino, gray, perlino, cremello, white, chestnut, roan, black, champagne, dun, grullo, brown, and buckskin. No matter the color or pattern, all have generous, flowing manes and tails that vary in color as well, creating a nearly infinite number of coat-mane-tail color combinations; the resulting contrast is often quite beautiful. For example, chocolates with deep brown coats and pale, flaxen manes and tails are particularly striking.

Two registries now exist in the U.S.: the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association (KMSHA) and a subsidiary, the Spotted Mountain Horse Association (SMHA). The first was begun in 1989 in an effort to preserve the unique characteristics of these horses; it registers Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses in solid colors with only minor white markings on the face, belly, and legs. The second caters to horses with pinto patterns (such as tobiano, sabino, and overo), white markings above the knees, and faces with a great amount of white coloring. A solid foal born to two parents registered with the SMHA usually retains the registration of its parents, but a solid gelding of such parents can be registered with the KMSHA. Horses, however, cannot be registered in both organizations.

Regarding white markings: The amount matters. To qualify as a Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse, the markings must not make up more than 36 square inches of the horse's coat. A horse with more white than that is considered a Spotted Mountain Horse instead.

Unique Characteristics

The most distinguishing characteristic of the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse is its natural four-gait beat, which is called an amble or rack. This is an unusually steady, gentle gait that the horse can maintain over rough terrain and has the same footfall pattern as a walk. At no time is there not at least one hoof in contact with the ground, lending the horse reliable, unflinching stability. As a result, the rider sits almost motionless while the horse carries him at speeds as fast as most horses canter. Developed in hilly regions where pasture was sparse, these horses are also known for their hardy stoicism and calm, kind dispositions.

Champion and Celebrity Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses

Owned by noted breeder Sam Tuttle, Tobe is the prominent foundation stallion of the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse breed. Most horses in the registry have Tobe in their ancestries.

Is the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Right for You?

The silky-smooth gait, even-keeled temperament, and sure-footedness of the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse make it a wonderful trail horse. A rider with chronic pain, particularly in the back, will find a jaunt atop a Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse a pleasant experience that doesn't jolt or jostle.

The farm work for which they were developed typically involved all family members, including children, so they're blessed with tolerant, forgiving, friendly, sweet natures. For this reason, they suit beginning riders, children, and seniors very well.

These are friendly, congenial horses that like the company of humans. If you'd like a horse that makes a loyal, loving companion and you have the time to spend with it, the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse would be a happy, appreciative choice. Regular grooming offers fun opportunities for bonding. In particular, the beautiful, flowing mane—a trait instantly recognizable among the breed's fans—requires regular brushing, a chore you'll find quite easy and pleasant with such an even-keeled horse.

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