All About the Tennessee Walking Horse

Tennessee walker gelding at dusk
Laura Palazzolo / Getty Images

Gaited horses are very popular with riders of all experience levels, but are particularly appealing to those who may be getting into riding later in life or who experience back pain. Even riding another horse at a sitting trot helps loosen up your back, and the Tennessee Walking Horse—with its smooth-as-silk running walk similar to a single-foot gait—is a popular breed that is desired by many riders for its steady movements.

What is a Tennessee Walking Horse?

Tennessee Walking Horses, also called "Walkers," are a type of gaited horse that originated in Tennessee during the late 19th century. Bred for their gentle, four-beat gait, these horses have a distinctive running walk and are one of North America's most popular breeds.

Tennessee Walking Horses are often used for trail riding in addition to competing in horse shows. With their unique gaits, elegant bearing, and sensible temperament, there's no question about the appeal of this breed.

Body Type

The Tennessee Walking Horse has a finely chiseled head without appearing dainty, large eyes and short, erect ears. The neck is long and refined with a clean, thin throat latch. The horse has a long, sloping shoulder with an equally long, sloping hip. The top line is shorter in relation to the ventral midline to allow for a long, striding overstep when gaiting. The body is substantial, with long, clean legs. It's acceptable for the hind legs to be slightly cow-hocked or sickle-hocked.

Average Size

Tennessee Walking Horses generally range from 14.3 to 17 HH and weigh 900 to 1200 pounds.


The Tennessee Walking Horse was developed to provide a smooth, safe ride for farmers traveling over rough terrain, and although they were originally bred to do all types of farm work, TWHs are now primarily a riding horse equally prized in the show ring or on the trail and ridden under English and Western tack.

Color and Markings

Tennessee Walking Horses come in many different coat colors and patterns and rarely is a TWH turned away from the registry because of color. Backs, browns, bays, and chestnuts are common as are buckskins, duns, roans, pintos, and palominos. Some breeders will base their breeding programs on producing specific colors.

Girl on Tennessee Walking Horse
Anita Atta / Getty Images

History and Origins

The Tennessee Walking Horse, as its name suggests, originated in the state of Tennessee and has a combination of different breeds in its ancestry. Its pedigree includes the antiquated gaited or pacing New England breed called the Narragansett Horse that has been attributed as a founding breed of several modern gaited horse breeds. Another antiquated breed in its lineage is the Canadian Pacer, thought to be closely related to the modern Canadian Horse, that was well-known in New England and traces its pedigree to horses brought to Acadia and New France from Europe in the 17th century. The American Standardbred, Thoroughbred, Morgan, and American Saddlebred also contributed their bloodlines. It is, of course, the official Tennessee State Horse.

Unique Characteristics

The Tennessee Walking Horse's unique walking gait makes it a favorite ride with beginners, older riders, and riders with back problems. Competition at TWH shows can be fierce, and horses are judged on conformation and gait in mounted classes like western pleasure and plantation pleasure. The distinctive head-nod is regarded as imperative when the horse is performing a running walk. This running walk can carry a rider between four and seven miles an hour. Their canter is described as being rocking horse smooth, and comfortable for the rider. Shown in hand, the TWH is made to stand 'parked out' with the weight on the forehand and the hind legs stretched out.

Soring Controversy

It's unfortunate that the story of such an interesting breed is somewhat marred by incidents of soring and that TWH shows are often the targets of animal activists and humane society's attention. Soring is the application of a chemical agent or the physical injury of the horse's fetlock, pastern, or hoof area to cause pain that will make the horse lift its feet higher during competition. Also under scrutiny are the "Big lick" or "padded shoes” and chains put around the fetlocks, called "action devices" used to make the horse step higher. Many TWH lovers are against these devices and other potentially harmful methods that continue to be used (although the practice of soring has been illegal since 1970). Many TWH lovers ride their horses either barefoot or with regular shoes and enjoy their elegant and unique gaits without forcing their horses to perform any unnatural movements.