Tennessee Walking Horse: Breed Profile

Training, Grooming, and Care Tips

Tennessee Walking Horse cantering in a pasture

 Ryan Courson Photography / Getty Images

With its distinctive running walk and smooth gaits, it’s no wonder that the Tennessee Walking Horse has become such a popular riding mount. Today, you’ll find these horses in the show ring, on the trails, and even in lesson barns, thanks to their docile personality and laid-back temperaments.

This breed has excellent stamina and is versatile enough to accommodate beginning riders as well as more advanced horsemen. These horses come in many different coat colors and feature a spirited, beautiful appearance that only enhances their performance both in and out of the show ring.

Breed Overview

Weight: 900 to 1,200 pounds

Height: 17 hands (59 to 68 inches)

Body Type: Finely chiseled head with long neck; sloping shoulders and hips

Best For: All rider experience levels, families

Life Expectancy: 30 years

Tennessee Walking Horse History and Origins

The breed originated in the Bluegrass region of Tennessee during the late 19th century. Farmers in the region were looking for a horse that could not only work in the fields, but that could also be ridden under saddle comfortably. To create this smooth-riding, strong horse, farmers selectively bred together Thoroughbreds, Canadian Pacers, Saddlebreds, Morgans, American Standardbreds, and Narragansett Pacers.

The result of crossing these breeds was a gaited horse with a natural running walk. That horse could do both ranch work and offer its owners a comfortable, smooth ride. The breed gained in popularity and in 1935, the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders & Exhibitors Association was founded.

In 2000, the Tennessee Walker became the official state horse of Tennessee.

Tennessee Walking Horse Size

This horse is often claimed to be elegant but mighty, standing at about 17 hands (or between 59 and 69 inches). The horse is solidly built but tends to have a sloping hip or shoulder. The head is well-defined with smaller, well-placed ears, and the horse has a number of gaits it can learn.

Tennessee Walking Horse being shown saddleseat under saddle
Ritchiedigital / Getty Images
Tennessee Walking Horse
Ryan Courson Photography / Getty Images

Breeding and Uses

Tennessee Walkers were bred to be versatile and talented, and that versatility remains with the breed today. You can find Tennessee Walkers doing countless jobs, from trail rides and endurance rides to performing in the show ring. These horses are ridden both English and Western, and many show horses are ridden saddle seat. Thanks to their great temperament, these horses also make patient lesson horses for younger riders.

Performance and show horses are sometimes shown in padded or built-up shoes that help to show off their high-stepping action. Horses ridden for pleasure or on trails are flat-shod, which can help to keep the horse sound. These flat-shod horses can also be shown Western or English.

Colors and Markings

You can find Tennessee Walkers in many different coat colors, and the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibits’ Association accepts almost any coat color into the registry. Some of the most common coat colors include bay, black, chestnut, white, grey, dun, palomino, and roan.

Tennessee Walkers also occur in various coat patterns. Overo, Sabino, Tobiano, and Tovero coat patterns are common and the brilliant colors only enhance the impressive presence of this breed. No matter what coat color or pattern you prefer, you’ll probably find it represented within this breed.

Tennessee Walking Horse resting in a paddock
 Dcdebs / Getty Images
Chestnut Tennessee Walking Horse being ridden at the beach
 Paule858 / Getty Images
Perlino Tennessee Walking Horse in a paddock
Dcdebs / Getty Images 

Unique Characteristics of the Tennessee Walking Horse

Tennessee Walking Horses are prized for their unique gaits, which make them comfortable to ride and ideal for riders who have back issues or other physical restrictions. These horses have a flat walk in with a significant overstride, where the hind feet travel up ahead of the paths left by the front feet.

The breed is best known for its running walk gait. This extra-smooth gait follows the same footfall pattern as the flat walk, but is much faster; horses can reach 10 to 20 miles per hour in the running walk. The horse overstrides significantly as the speed increases, creating a gliding motion that is comfortable to the rider. Tennessee Walking Horses also bob their heads to the rhythm of their gaits.

While these horses have a natural walk, running walk, and canter, they can also learn how to perform additional gaits, including the rack, fox-trot, and stepping-pace. 

Diet and Nutrition

Tennessee Walking horses require a healthy balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, and water in their diet. They can sustain on fresh grass, hay, rolled oats, and other grains, such as barley and bran. Treats, such as carrots and apples, can be given in moderation.

Common Health and Behavior Problems

Tennessee Walkers are typically highly trainable, gentle, and eager to please. But they are prone to certain health issues. They include:

  • Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis: A condition that can cause uncontrollable muscle twitching, muscle weakness, or paralysis
  • Polysaccharide storage myopathy: A disorder that damages muscle tissue and can cause stiffness, pain, and more
  • Malignant hyperthermia: A condition that makes a horse susceptible to a state of abnormally high metabolic activity, which can result in a high temperature, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and more

Grooming

Daily grooming can help a Tennessee Walker maintain a healthy coat and clear skin. Before a ride, brush the legs, face, girth, and saddle areas to ensure the horse is comfortable and all the oils have been evenly distributed on its body. Grooming a horse after riding can also help distribute the oils and sweat, especially in the summer. Try a detangler to brush out the horse's tail, which will make it bushier and more adept at swatting away flies. In the winter, use a waterless shampoo to clean, condition, and detangle the horse's mane and tail.

Champion and Celebrity Tennessee Walking Horses

There are countless champion Tennessee Walking Horses. The stallion Midnight Sun was the first to become a world champion, and was named “Horse of the Century.” Prides Generator, a stallion, was a top sire, earning the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders & Exhibitors Association’s Sire of the Year title for seven straight years.

This breed has also appeared on television. After the original Trigger stepped down from playing the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver, Trigger Jr., a Tennessee Walking Horse, stepped into the role.

Tennessee Walking Horses have also hit the football field. A Tennessee Walker served as The University of Southern California Trojans’ mascot, Traveler.

Roy Rogers with his palomino horse, Trigger
 Bettmann / Getty Images

Is the Tennessee Walking Horse Right for You?

Versatile, docile, and with a laid-back temperament, the Tennessee Walker can make a great choice for many riders. Because of their smooth gaits, they’re ideal for older riders or for riders with back pain and other physical issues. At the same time, the Tennessee Walker can be a powerful show ring competitor, so younger riders who are looking for a great show horse may also turn to this breed.

One of the benefits of the Tennessee Walker is that you can do a lot with a single horse. A well-trained horse can learn to trail ride, to compete, and even to teach younger children how to ride. No matter how much riding experience you have or what discipline you’re looking to participate in, you can probably find a Tennessee Walker out there who has the skills and temperament that you’re looking for.

These horses are usually easy keepers, which can save you money in feed bills. Some show Tennessee Walkers do develop health issues, like back pain and Navicular disease, and hoof issues can result, especially when horses are shown in padded or built-up shoes. Tennessee Walkers ridden for pleasure and kept in standard, flat shoes usually have minimal health issues, as long as they receive appropriate care. Remember that a horse’s breeding can affect its health and risk for health issues, so consult a knowledgeable vet when buying a horse.

If you’re thinking that the Tennessee Walking Horse is the breed for you, then it’s important to ride a few different horses from this breed, especially if you haven’t ridden a gaited horse before. Gaited horses are great and very comfortable, but they move differently than non-gaited breeds. Try to find a trainer who can teach you how to get the most out of a gaited horse, and who can give you some experience so you can determine just what you want in your ideal gaited horse. The Tennessee Walker feels different from other gaited horse breeds, like the Paso Fino, so be sure that this breed works for you before you go shopping for your new horse.

How to Adopt or Buy a Tennessee Walking Horse

The purchase price to adopt or buy a Tennessee Walker ranges widely from $1,000 to $4,000. Pricing is dependent on age, health, whether the horse is coming from a rescue or a breeder, and any notable characteristics, such as lineage.

When choosing a horse, be on the lookout for red flags. For rescues, check that the organization is a registered nonprofit with a 501(c)(3) status, which means it had to go through more checks to be considered safe and legitimate. Also, especially for breeders, make sure you can receive documentation on where the horse was bred, its lineage, and any health history. If none of this is provided, you might not be dealing with a quality organization.

Spend plenty of time with the horse while it's still in the hands of the organization, so you can get to know it and make sure it's as healthy as the organization says. Look for any lameness, pain, trouble breathing, or other obvious signs of illness. You don't want to end up bringing home a special-needs horse when you are not prepared to care for one.

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