FROM  "ALBERTA  BITS"  -  Fall  2015

  The Morgan Horse

Versatile and hardworking, this breed is a favourite of many Alberta equestrians.

The story of the Morgan horse's origin is one horse lovers know well: Justin Morgan of Vermont buys a horse foaled in 1789 and names him Figure. The stallion becomes legendary for his ability to outperform other horses, whether pacing or pulling, and that legacy passes on to his get and, subsequently, down many generations. According to the American Morgan Horse Association, "...No other American breed can trace its pedigree back as far as the Morgan horse can to the same foundation horse."

The Morgan horse's history in Alberta is not nearly as old, but features the traits that made Figure and his offspring famous behind both the plow and carriage. The first Morgan came to Alberta in the late 1880s with the early settlers migrating from the mid-western United States. At this time, a good horse for hard labour on homesteads was crucial for those trying their luck on the prairies.

"The first record of registered Morgans was of two stallions, which were brought to the Cypress Hills ranching country in the 1920s to cross on the range mares," the Alberta Morgan Horse Club's website reads.

Today, the Alberta Morgan Horse Club promotes the breed and reaches out to all who ride Morgans, as it has for almost 50 years. "I know there are some assumptions or preconceived notions that the Horse Club is really only for those who are involved in the horse shows," says David Gillen, Club president. "It's intended for everyone who enjoys doing horse activities with the Morgan horse."

At the moment, the club doesn't have the numbers it did in years past, given a decreased number of local breeders and less money to be made in the horse industry. However, Gillen has hope for a resurgence in the coming years, thanks to the versatility of the breed and the growing popularity of new disciplines suited to its traits.

"...No other American breed can trace its pedigree back as far as the Morgan horse can to the same foundation horse."


BREED TRAITS Albertans involved in every kind of equine discipline are finding success on the Morgan horse, from dressage and eventing to ranch work and recreational riding. This is due to their stamina and agility, as well as their physical characteristics. According to the Alberta Club's website, "a short broad head, small sharp ears, a long laid-back shoulder, deep body and straight, clean-boned legs make the Morgan the choice of both casual rider and the earnest professional."

Due to its distinctive trot, the Morgan is known for its prowess as a carriage horse, which made the breed an ideal choice in centuries past. At that time, horse owners needed both strong, productive farm horses and quick harness horses, and the Morgan horse fit the bill perfectly. More recently, combined driving competitors at the FEI-level have found the breed to be an excellent choice for their discipline.

"The soundness of our horses is really significant," says David Gillen, president of the Alberta Club. "Our horses do compete regularly into their twenties and even at the National Oklahoma City level into their twenties and have no issues with soundness... Even our show horses, they could pull a plow all day if we needed them to."

"Morgans do compete successfully in  virtually  all  events."   savs  Gillen, who rode Morgans in both dressage and team penning. "They really are an excellent choice for a lot of disciplines because they're up-headed and have a natural up-hill build. So any discipline, like dressage or the up-and-coming western dressage, where you really care that the horse can shift its weight back and engage its hind quarters - it's a really great candidate for that."

The abilities of the breed were exhibited during the club's annual Labour Day weekend show, held this year on September 4-6 at Ponoka, AB, to a good turnout. "We had a lot of classes with some pretty good competition in them, and a lot of classes that had a fair number of horses in them," says Gillen, noting that some competitors travelled all the way from British Columbia for the show.

"The highlight of our show was trainers' equitation challenge, and we had 13 trainers in the ring competing," he explains. These competitors rode in a variety of seats, and rode Morgans as well as other breeds.

Youth involvement in the breed is a key component of the Alberta Morgan Horse Show. The Youth Challenge consists of equitation, judging and oral presentation competitions designed to develop and showcase the skills of junior exhibitors. Their participation is crucial to the club, says Gillen, who explains that they're currently working to revitalize their youth program, which had featured a summer camp in years past.

Morgan enthusiasts can participate in a number of activities through the club. One club mandate is bringing in top clinicians for sessions; last year they held clinics with trainers from Illinois and Kentucky. They're also exploring new events with a wider scope, such as a "series of ultimate cowboy challenge-type clinics," says Gillen. Other events include trail rides, breed demonstrations and sponsoring and assisting with events like endurance rides.

Currently, there are a number of local riders and horses who have done extremely well at the Grand National & World Championship Morgan Horse Show, held each October in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This success on an international level, Gillen explains, represents the quality of the breed in Canada and, more specifically, in Alberta, as well as a dedication to the breed. "We have had some very successful individuals, horses trainers   from   here,"   he   says, and "When they come home with a world championship, it's validating that Alberta is on the map and on the right track, and a contributor to not only the industry, but those horses are also bred here as well, so we're contributing to the breed."

Sonja Lorenson, a trainer who runs Gold Creek at Leduc, AB, is one of these successful Albertans. "In the past 15 years or so, we've taken horses that are Canadian bred, trained and owned to about 13 or 14 Grand National and World Championships, so we've been very lucky to have some really excellent horses to show," she explains. Last year, she trained the horses that her teenaged daughter, Aidan, won the Reserve World Championship Youth Hunter Pleasure and the Reserve World Championship 14-15 Year Old Hunter Pleasure aboard.

Lorenson - who has shown Morgans since 1979 and competed in a variety of disciplines - finds the breed is a delight to work with. "I think the most amazing thing about Morgans is their character and their personality," she says, noting how easy they are to train...  "The other thing that I really like about these horses is that I've had virtually no serious illness, serious injuries that are genetic ... In addition to that I love the way they carry themselves naturally and the way that they move naturally, which is very animated."

What does the future hold for the Morgan horse in Alberta? According to Gillen, and judging by the wide variety of disciplines in which the breed excels, there's much to be excited about. This is especially the case when it comes to an emerging discipline that's creating a buzz throughout the horse industry. "Probably somewhere we're going to see more Morgans is in the western or cowboy dressage," he predicts. "The Morgan is such a useful horse in that discipline because it's very easy for them to do it because of their natural build. But I think that discipline, in all breeds, is exploding positively, and I think we're going to see a big draw of Morgans to that."

Lorenson, too, sees opportunities to entice more people to the breed, such as combining shows with other breeds. "I think that combining some of these breeds and showcasing more than one can actually bring more new people into each one of our breeds, because it's a bigger show, it draws more attention, and ... we're getting some interest as people see what some other breeds are capable of doing, even in combining the shows," she explains. "They're a horse that because they're so versatile, there's definitely room for many different interests."