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When Vermont settlers carved hardscrabble farms from the wilderness, Morgan horses did the heavy lifting. When Vermonters moved west to the promise of blacker soil and greener pastures, Morgans pulled the wagons. When civil war split the country, the Confederacy’s General Stonewall Jackson and the Union’s General Phillip Sheridan both rode Morgans into battle. When Custer met his end at Little Big Horn, fate would have it that the only survivor standing among the U.S. forces was a Morgan. Plowshares or swords, all was in a day’s work for this breed celebrated for possessing strength, speed, and endurance beyond its stature.
The story and the breed begin with a schoolmaster/musician named Justin Morgan, and the three-year-old horse he rode from Springfield, Massachusetts to Randolph, Vermont in 1792. Figure was the name of the stallion Morgan had received as partial payment for a debt, but as the horse’s progeny and his legend multiplied in the next twenty years, he came to be known as “the Justin Morgan horse,” and finally “Justin Morgan.” Horse eclipses man.
If horses took up basketball, coaches would want a Morgan starting at point guard — small but rugged, willing to sacrifice the body in a drive to the hoop, and a floor leader without equal. But as much as Figure came to be known for his ability to tirelessly pull stumps and logs, his legend grew because of his progeny. Figure was prolific to be sure, but he also was blessed with what’s known in animal husbandry circles as “prepotency” or the uncanny ability to pass his own qualities to the next generation. You look just like your dad.
Sherman Morgan, Bulrush Morgan, and Woodbury Morgan may sound like the scions of a 19th-century financial powerhouse, but they were Figure/Justin Morgan’s three most famous sons. These animals would further the family tradition and take the next step in spreading it, as Morgans began to shoulder a significant load of the work America needed done in the century — pulling public transportation in growing cities like New York and Chicago, clearing the frontier, and carrying soldiers into battle.
Though the family tree would spread across the country, the Morgan breed’s roots held firmly in Vermont. Colonel Joseph Battell, a wealthy philanthropist and horse-lover living in Weybridge, Vermont (just north of Middlebury), devoted himself to improving the breed. He published the first volume of the Morgan registry in 1894, and by the early 20th century the Morgan was established as the first U.S. horse breed.
Battell would promote Morgans’ interest again in 1905 when the U.S. government looked to expand its Morgan breeding program to ensure that a high-quality supply of cavalry mounts was available. Battell gave the Weybridge farm and his collection of fine Vermont Morgans to the government to create a foundation for their breeding program.
By the middle of the century, though, it became clear that horses were fortunate enough not to have a place in modern warfare, and, in 1951, the federal government deeded the Weybridge farm to the state, which in turn asked the University of Vermont to be its custodian. That transition, fifty years ago, proved to be another revitalizing moment in the development of the Morgan breed. Donald Balch was hired by UVM’s Department of Animal Sciences to take charge of a farm and a herd that were in need of improvement. His efforts and those carried on by his apprentice, Steve Davis ’72, who succeeded him as director in 1985, brought the UVM Morgans to international prominence.

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