Tennessee Walker Horse Breed

Breed characteristics

The Tennessee Walker or Tennessee Walking Horse is a gentle and comfortable riding horse. The breed was originally bred in the Southern United States to carry the owners of plantations around their lands. (A closely related breed is the Garrett Walking Horse) Their unique four-beat "running walk" is especially comfortable to ride, making the breed a well-suited trail companion. The breed is rarely seen in any of the sport horse disciplines; however, they are good for trail riding because of their smooth gaits, stamina and easy temper, and are also seen in Western riding disciplines and in harness.

The Tennessee Walker has a reputation for having a very good disposition. It is a calm and easygoing breed, typically easy to train. While the horses are famous for flashy movement, they are quite hardy, popular for trail and pleasure riding as well as show.

Although many Tennessee Walkers are black, other colors and patterns such as roan, chestnut or sorrel, bay, champagne and tobiano are common. Recently, the breed registry began to recognize the sabino pattern, and it must be noted that many horses registered in the past as roans were, in some cases, sabinos. Walkers are generally 15 to 17 hands tall, but can range from 13.2hh to 18hh. Weight is generally between 900 and 1200 pounds.

In conformation, the Walker is a tall horse with a long neck and sloping shoulder. The head is traditionally large but refined in bone, with small well-placed ears. The horse has a fairly short back, short strong coupling, and an elongated stride. In the show arena, Walking horses are known for their gliding running walk and are usually shown with long manes and tails.[1]


The Tennessee Walker originated from the Narragansett Pacer and the Canadian Pacer. In the early 1800s, these two breeds were blended by Tennessee breeders who were looking for a horse that could handle the mountainous terrain of the area. Confederate Pacer and Union Trotter blood was added during the Civil War, creating the sturdy Southern Plantation Horse (aka the Tennessee Pacer). Breeders later added Thoroughbred, Standardbred, Morgan, and American Saddlebred blood to refine and add stamina to their gaited horse.

In 1885, Black Allen was born. By the stallion Allendorf (from the Hambletonian family of trotters) and out of a Morgan mare named Maggie Marshall, he became the foundation sire of the Tennessee Walking Horse breed.

The breed became popular due to their smooth gaits and incredible stamina. It was common for farmers to hold match races with their Walkers, who they also used for plowing fields. Even after the coming of the automobile, Tennessee communities kept their Walkers to manage the poor roads of the area. The Walkers began to gain a reputation as a showy animal, and breeders sought bloodlines to produce refined, intelligent, flashy horses.

The registry was formed in 1935. The stud book was closed in 1947, so every Walker after that date has to have both parents registered to be registered themselves.


Tennessee Walking Horses are known for their gaits: the running walk, the flat walk, and their "rocking horse" canter. Although many members of the breed can perform other gaits, including the trot, fox trot, rack, stepping pace, and single foot, these gaits are typically penalized in breed shows since they are not considered "correct" gaits for a Walking Horse. The running walk is the most famous gait, with speeds from 10-20 km/h (6-12 mph). As the speed increases, the horse's rear foot overstrides the front print 15-45 cm (6-18 in). The greater the overstride, the better a "walker" the horse is said to be. The horse nods its head in both the running and the flat walk, the ears swinging with the gait. Some Walkers even snap their teeth with the gait.

There are two main classes: performance horses and flat shod.

  • The flat shod horses are further divided into trail pleasure, light shod, and plantation, and are judged on way of going and animation. The trail pleasure classes have the least animation, the plantation horses the most, with the plantation horses often wearing a heavier shoe. They are not allowed to use pads, action devices, or tail braces.
  • Performance horses exhibit a very flashy and animated running walk, often referred to as "big lick." They appear to sit on their hind ends, lifting their front end high off the ground. Riders wear saddle seat attire, and tack. Horses are shod in double and triple-nailed pads. These pads, along with lightweight chains around the fetlock, accentuate the gaits, making them more showy.

History of the "Big Lick"

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Walking Horses enjoyed a surge of widespread popularity with the general public, exaggerated front leg action, especially at the running walk, drew spectators to horse shows and helped further increase the popularity of the breed. This action was also was rewarded by judges. Thus began the rage for "big lick" movement. While "lite shod" horses with naturally good movement could comfortably perform this crowd-pleasing gait at the time, it took both natural ability and considerable time to properly train and condition the horse.

Some individuals, wishing to produce similar movement in less-talented horses or in less time, borrowed practices used by other breeds to enhance movement. This included action devices such as weighted shoes, "Stacks" (stacked pads), and the use of weighted chains around the pasterns, all of which, within certain limits, were allowed.

As these methods produced horses that won in the show ring, and as ever-higher and more dramatic action was rewarded by the judges, some trainers turned to less savory methods to produce high action in a hurry. These methods including excessively heavy weighted chains, use of tacks deliberately placed under the shoe into the "white line" or quick, of the hoof, and the controversial practice of "soring," the application of a caustic chemical agent to the front legs to make it painful for the horse to put its feet down.


Action Devices

There are two common action devices that are permitted on the show grounds, and are used for training and show to enhance the horse's gait.

  • Chains: bracelet-like chains are attached around the front pasterns of the horse, and may be no more than 6 ounces in weight. They are intended to be used with a lubricant to allow them to slide easily along the pastern, though if the horse has been sored, they will cause additional irritation.
  • "Stacks": Added under a horse's natural hoof, stacks can vary in height. They are usually made of plastic, although some may be made of leather. Stacks have a metal band that runs across the hoof to help keep them on the horse's foot. Stacks may be up to 4" thick in the heel and no more than 2" in the toe.

Users of chains do not believe they cause the horse pain, stating that it creates a similar feeling as a loose bracelet would around the wrist of a person. However, some trainers and veterinarians believe that they may be harmful. The well-known "Auburn Study," conducted from September 1978 to December of 1982 at Auburn University, examined the "Thermography in diagnosis of inflammatory processes in horses in response to various chemical and physical factors." Using thermography, the researchers found that chains "altered thermal patterns as early as day 2 of exercise with chains. These altered thermal patterns persisted as long as chains were used," with normal thermal patterns seen after 20 days recovery. A stallion in the study also developed lesions from his 8 ounce chains, after wearing them in nine 15-minute exercise periods (scattered from September 22 to October 3). The Auburn study also showed that 2,4, and 6 ounce chains produced no adverse effects in the horses being studied. A 6 ounce chain is the legal weight of chain allowed in NHSC horse shows.

Stacks are also controversial. Some are also critical of the band that holds the stack on, which they believe cuts into the hoof and may wear a slot into it. However, it is a common practice for a trainer to loosen the band when the horse is not being exercised, which may minimize the problem. It is also dangerous if a horse wearing stacks tears off a shoe, as the stack will come off and the band may rip into the hoof and tear off a good part of the hoof wall. Therefore, horses wearing stacks should not be turned out.





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