IF a member of a breed of horse known as the Morgan ever flew like Pegasus it was not recorded, but apart from that the animal is reputed to be capable of doing just about anything useful a horse has been known to do. Able to pull almost like a Clydesdale, trot like a standard-bred, cut cattle like a quarter horse, ride as smoothly as a Saddle horse and run and jump something like a Thoroughbred, the Morgan is no superhorse—only an unusually versatile one. This equine Jack-of-all-trades now rarely competes with the specialized breeds which are masters of only one, but before the others were imported into this country and developed for specific purposes, it was the Morgan, the first distinct breed produced in America, that could outdo his early 19th century contemporaries.
The horse that started it all in New England was not even a horse by the standard, as he measured a mere 14 hands. But what Schoolmaster Justin Morgan's little bay lacked in height he amply compensated for in heart, stamina, muscle and bone. His log-pulling feats brought him fame, as he was able to drag more weight than horses measuring up to 16 hands; his speed at short distances became almost legendary, and racers from other states came to challenge him in Vermont only to meet defeat. His demand as a sire increased with each triumph, and in this role he earned equine immortality. His unique characteristics were passed on so unfailingly to his get that to do him honor his breeder's name, Justin Morgan, was bestowed on the mutant "big little horse" and then transferred to the breed he begot, the only breed to be named after an individual.
From New England, Morgan-bred horses soon spilled into every state and territory. Success was not limited to the farm, where they were valued for their versatility. Their style and endurance also made them suited to the cavalry: General Sheridan rode his Morgan up the Shenandoah Valley to save Washington; General Custer went astride a horse of the same strain to his famous last stand.
The attributes that made this particular breed valuable to the cavalry during the last century have not disappeared during this one. Nationalist China, in 1947, dispatched army veterinarians to the United States to select Morgans to bolster her own cavalry stock. Twenty-five were chosen and, led by the chestnut stallion Magellan, left aboard the Philippine Sea; all but one survived the trip. After the fall of the mainland the herd was known about only indirectly—but the horses were obviously a focus of pride as they were quickly labeled "Russian gifts." Then during the Korean action two Morgans, one of which was Magellan, were recognized.
Ironically, they were now being ridden by Chinese Communist generals.
The continued existence of the Morgan, now slightly taller and longer in the neck than the founding sire, is due mainly to the fervor of the few, intent on saving the breed's identity—the combination of equine specialization, motorization and the Depression had nearly led to the Morgan's extinction. In 1933 only 78 horses were registered and an even smaller number of transfers of ownership were recorded. But the proselytizing by the hard core of the Morgan Horse Club braked the downward breeding spiral, and interest in the Morgan's survival as an entity was revived. The buggy horse that had been pushed off the road by the Model T was rediscovered as a saddle horse for pleasure riding, and new owners had the additional comfort of knowing that their horse had other talents.
One hundred and fifty years after the birth of Justin Morgan, in 1939, the first National Morgan Horse Show was held. The event, as with most horse shows, was held to improve the breed, and, surprisingly enough, it did. Morgan owners from various parts of the country came together and examined each other's stock—which resulted in firm efforts to standardize the type by more selective breeding and to eliminate careless outcrosses. A magazine devoted only to news of the breed was launched and flourished. The continuing interest in the show and the increasing number of Morgan owners and breeders (about 600 horses are now registered annually) attest to the success of the drive. This week (July 27-29) almost 300 top-grade Morgans will be brought to Northampton, Mass. to demonstrate anew that the breed has lost none of its aptitude. The owners, mainly amateurs, often groom and then show their own horses, as the Morgan is exhibited in its natural state with a full mane and tail. The breed's sensitive yet tractable disposition—old-fashioned virtues—add to the pleasure of handling and showing.
Several years ago, however, one Morgan reacted to a situation in an unhorselike but modern manner. At stud he became highly nervous and insanely jealous of the other stallions. Barely middle-aged for a horse, his health declined and, despite all efforts, he finally died. His sorrowing, perplexed owner requested an autopsy, and to her was duly reported the cause of death: ulcers.