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 Confederacys General Stonewall
Jackson and the Unions 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 days 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 horses 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 whats 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
Morgans 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 breeds
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 UVMs 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.