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Horse Breeds
First Posted: July 13, 2009
Sep 28, 2010

Tennessee Walking Horse, Tennessee Walker, 'Walker, TWH - Gaited Breed

by Debora Johnson


3-D Flags
Country of Origin: United States

The above pictures are of my Gambler's Luck. He was a jewel and stood as a stallion for several years. He was both a registered Tennessee Walking Horse and Racking Horse. Gambler was fully 5-gaited. Although the gaited horse community might not like this for the Walking Horses, I loved it. Gambler was adept at jumping from both a trot and a canter. He could do everything a Thoroughbred could do as well as had the wonderful easy riding fast gaits of a gaited horse! He also sired many beautiful babies!

The Tennessee Walking Horse is a breed that was developed by the plantation owners so that they could cover lots of ground comfortably. It was necessary to be able to check the plantations, by horse back, with ease, speed, and comfort. At that time, the Tennessee Walker was considered a working animal. His roots are in the Saddlebred, Narragansett Pacer, Morgan, Thoroughbred, and Standardbred. He is the only breed to be named after a state.

The movement of the Tennessee Walker can be described as a four beat gait. 1-2-3-4. These four beat gaits are called the flat walk (4 to 8 miles an hour)and the running walk (10 to 20 miles per hour). Sometimes you will hear them referred to as the "four-cornered lick." Each foot hits the ground at separate intervals (right rear over right front, left rear over left front). The flat walk is loose, bold, and square with plenty of shoulder motion. The running walk is much the same but faster. You can see the pulling with the front feet, and the pushing or driving with the hind. Often there is a moment of suspension that is felt as you glide. The action of the back foot slipping over the front track is known as over stride. Over stride is unique to the walking horse breed. The hock should show only forward motion, with vertical hock action being highly undesirable. A Tennessee Walking Horse will nod its head in rhythm with the cadence of its feet. This nodding head motion, with the over stride, are two features that are unique to the Tennessee Walking Horse. Sometimes you can hear a clicking sound as the horse smacks his lips as he steps. This 4-beat gait is a natural gait that is passed on by genetically. The third gait is a canter which is especially smooth and collected. Sometimes it is referred to as a "rocking chair" canter.

The Tennessee Walking Horse generally ranges from 14.3 to 17 hands and weighs 900 to 1200 pounds. The modern Tennessee Walking Horse possesses a pretty head with small well placed ears. Originally the head was often large and plain. The eyes had characteristic wrinkles above which gave a sad look, and many had larger ears. The horse has a long sloping shoulder, a long sloping hip, a fairly short back and short, strong coupling. The bottom line is longer than the top line, allowing for a long stride.

Tennessee Walking Horses come in all colors and a variety of patterns. The diverse color choices are sure to please any horse enthusiast. Different colors are not discriminated against.

Tennessee Walking Horse

Breed Standards

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. 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.

Breed Characteristics

The Tennessee Walking Horse has a reputation for having a very good disposition. It is a calm and easy-going 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.

Tennessee Walkers, as they are commonly known, are generally black, chestnut, sorrel, bay, or champagne. Other colors patterns such as roan and spotted 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.

Tennessee Walking Horse exhibiting the long neck, sloping shoulder, and correct head - 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.


The Tennessee Walker originated from the Narragansett Pacer and the Canadian Pacer. In the early 1800's, 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 Standardbreds) 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.

Middle Tennessee is Walking Horse country, and one of the greatest Tennessee Walking Horses is buried on the MTSU Campus. A venerated MTSU faculty member talks about this curious fact.

Dr. Bob Womack

Cultural References

The Tennessee Walking Horse is the official state horse of the U.S. State of Tennessee. The town of Shelbyville, Tennessee promotes itself as the "Walking Horse Capital of the World," as it hosts the annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, a ten day exhibition that draws over 30,000 breeders, exhibitors, and spectators from across the country. Driving through Tennessee, one is bound to see one or more billboards advertising nearby TWH exhibitions or pleasure riding areas.


The Tennessee Walker is used for horse show events, particularly under saddle seat style English riding equipment, but is also a very popular trail riding horse, both in western riding equipment as well as English. The breed is a popular parade horse, and has been used in television, movies and other performing events. For example, the Lone Ranger's horse "Silver" was at times played by a Tennessee Walker, "Trigger. Jr." the successor to the original Trigger made famous by Roy Rogers was also a Walker, and the position of mascot of the University of Southern California Trojans, Traveler, was once held by a horse of Tennessee Walker bloodlines. Horse Equine Actors


A "flat shod" Tennessee Walker performing the Running Walk - Tennessee Walking Horses are known for their ambling gaits: the running walk, the flat walk, and for their gentle, "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 click their teeth with the gait.

There are two main categories of competition: performance horses and flat shod.

The flat shod horses are further divided into trail pleasure, country pleasure, light shod, and plantation, and are judged on way of going, which includes head nod, overstride and front 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" 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.

"Pads" - Added under a horse's natural hoof, pads (sometimes called "stacks" or "packages") can vary in height. They are usually made of plastic, although originally were made of leather. Pads have a metal band that runs across the hoof wall to help keep them on the horse's foot. Pads may be up to 4" thick in the heel and no more than 2" in the toe. Thickness and the use of the band determine what class a horse can be shown in. Pads are an extension built off of a base shoe, and therefore are easily taken off or changed without having to completely reshoe the horse.

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 above a certain weight, 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.

Pads are also controversial. Some are also critical of the band that holds the pad 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. Under normal conditions, if a pad is lost, it usually only affects the pad itself and not the base shoe which remains intact. Injuries are usually very limited from "throwing" a set of pads. It is dangerous if a horse wearing pads pulls off a shoe, as not only will the pad will come off, but the band may tear off part of the hoof wall. Therefore, horses wearing pads should not be turned out.


Soring is an abusive practice that is associated in part with the production of a "big lick" Walker. It involves using chemical agents such as mustard oil, diesel fuel, kerosene, salicylic acid, and others, on the pasterns, bulbs of heel, or coronary band of the horses, burning or blistering the horse's legs so that it will accentuate its gait. These chemicals are harmful, usually quite toxic and sometimes carcinogenic, and trainers must use a brush and wear gloves when applying them. The area may then be wrapped in plastic while the chemicals are absorbed. The chemical agents cause extreme pain, and usually lead to scarring. A distinctive scarring pattern is a tell-tale signs of soring, and therefore may be covered up by a dye, or the horse's legs may be treated with salicylic acid before the animal is stalled (as many can not stand up after the treatment) while the skin of the scars slough off. Other signs that a horse has been sored include:

  • The horse stands with its feet close together, shifting his weight to his hind legs
  • Granulation or scars on the pasterns or coronet
  • Wavy hair growth or hair loss in the pastern area
  • Pastern has darker hairs than the rest of the horse's coat
  • Hocks are carried low and may twist outward when moving
  • Horse lies down for extended periods of time, and is resistant to standing up
  • Horse resists handling of feet
  • Horse has difficulty walking, and may fall

Other methods of soring include pressure shoes, where the hoof is trimmed to the quick so that the sole is in direct contact with the pad or shoe. The horse may then be "road foundered," ridden up and down hard surfaces on the over-trimmed hooves, until they are very sore. Trainers sometimes place objects, such as metal beads, nails, or screws, under the pad causing intense pressure, although this practice has begun to decrease with the advent of fluoroscope to detect such methods. Abusive use of chains (such as using them with chemical soring agents) is also a common practices by sorers.

Measures have been taken to stop the practice, and many supporters of the Tennessee Walking Horse have banded together for years to oppose cruelty. The 1970 Horse Protection Act, created specifically to stop such practices and to monitor the TWH in particular, prohibits the use of soring agents. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is working with the industry to enforce the law; Walking Horse organizations send DQPs (Designated Qualified Persons) to shows to inspect the horse, and, as funding permits, APHIS sends federally-employed Veterinary Medical Officers to work with DQPs at some shows.

Soring has been prohibited at sales and shows for decades, but is still practiced. It can be detected by observing the horse for lameness, assessing its stance and palpating the lower legs. Some trainers can bypass inspectors by training horses to not react to the pain that palpation may cause, often by severely punishing the horse for flinching after the sored area is palpated. The practice is sometimes called "Stewarding," in reference to the horse show steward who often is the first line of rule enforcement at any horse show. Trainers may also time the use of the agents so that chemicals will not be detected when the horse is examined, but will be in effect when the rider goes into the ring. Others use topical anesthetics, which are timed to wear off before the horse goes into the show ring. Pressure shoeing is also used, eliminating use of chemicals altogether. Trainers who sore will leave the show grounds when they find that the more stringent Federal inspectors are present.

In 2006, however, due to new techniques in both soring and detection, the USDA began a larger crackdown on soring within the industry. A new device known as a "sniffer" (also used to detect the chemical presence of bombs in airport security) can now be employed, where swabbed samples are taken from the horse and then "sniffed." At the 2006 Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, the longstanding dispute between trainers and USDA inspectors came to a head. The inspectors disqualified 6 of 10 horses from showing on the night of Friday, August 25, 2006. The trainers denied soring and challenged the monitoring methods. The result was that a number of celebration championship classes were canceled, and there is still considerable controversy over the situation. After a year long discussion between the industry and the USDA over the issues raised at the 2006 show, the 2007 championship went off without significant controversy.

Trainers who oppose soring have formed and joined alternative breed organizations, including the National Walking Horse Association (NWHA) and Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH). All of these organizations promote the sound Tennessee Walking Horse. In addition, in 2005, the national directors of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association (TWHBEA) voted to remove themselves from the National Horse Show Commission (NHSC) the sanctioning body closest to the soring issues. The TWHBEA formed its own sanctioning body, developed a new rule book and strict guidelines for affiliated horse shows and Horse Industry Organizations [HIO] that applied and were examined by the APHIS. The issue remains very controversial, particularly in the states of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association
National Walking Horse Association
EQUUS Special Report: Why Soring Persists
Links, articles and information on soring.
Natural Walking Horses

Horse Breeds