*From Voice Magazine, June, 1970

Feature Column: The Old Hitching Post
by Dr. Bob Womack

Almost any study of man reveals that he impatiently moves toward what he considers perfection. And since his concept of perfection is constantly changing, the techniques he employs to produce his ideal also constantly change. In effect, the situation is one in which man looks at the product with which he is working, imagines what it should look like, and then begins experimenting to move the product from where it is to where he believes it should be. Interestingly enough, the process never ends for when the product finally reaches the idea which prompted the experimentation, man suddenly realizes that the ideal has moved forward and the process of evolvement continues. So it has been in the development of the Tennessee Walking Horse.

The evolution of training techniques employed on the Tennessee Walking Horse ranges from the practical to the desperate. The examination of this evolution offers an interesting study into how breeders, owners, trainers and spectators have convinced themselves that nature is too slow in her gradual process of change. It reveals how man in his enthusiasm and impatience for perfection took matters into his own hands to do nature’s work for her. The fruit gathered from this endeavor has not always been sweet to the taste but its significance to the industry is so great that it merits examination. And so let’s take a look at the early techniques employed in training Walking Horses.

When the characteristics which make the Walking Horse unique are examined, they are relatively simple in nature. Reduced to simple terms, this horse can perform a gait in which the front foot hits the ground a split second before its diagonal back foot, producing the smoothest ride of any horse in the world. No other horse in the world can produce this gait. When the farmers of Middle Tennessee realized the uniqueness of the animal, it was only natural that a process of refinement would follow, and so the Walking Horse began the never-ending process of moving toward a constantly changing ideal that existed nowhere but in the minds of Walking Horse people.

Actually the first efforts toward training the Walking Horse were aimed at capturing its natural gaits rather than manipulating them. All that was attempted by the rider was the development of nature’s handiwork. Both the techniques and equipment employed in training the Walking Horse during its early history were simple in nature. The equipment was that which the owner already possessed and varied in terms of the owner’s affluence and personal tastes. Since the early Walking Horse doubled as a utility animal, he was treated exactly like any other farm animal. The chief purpose of early equipment was to make the horse manageable and comfortable to ride; in no way was it designed to tamper with the natural gaits of the animal. The goal of all training was to establish the four-cornered lick, the potential for which has been infused into the horse’s bloodline through selective breeding.

It should not be assumed that all Walking Horses did the running walk without some training, although a few outstanding animals seemed able to perform the gait almost overnight.The very act of putting the animal under saddle removed him far enough from nature that special techniques were demanded in most instances to produce the running walk. Since Walkers were either trotters or pacers they might reflect on or the other and sometimes both of these gaits in the early stages of their training. If the horse paced, fence rails were placed at regular intervals in front of him and the horse was made to walk over them. Such a technique required the horse to lift his front feet higher than normal which, in turn, led to the desired square way of moving. If the horse trotted, it was usually ridden in a flat walk for a longer period of time and gradually pushed up into a running walk.

In the earliest days of the Walking Horse, training techniques were dictated as much by practicality as anything else. There were no trucks. What shipping was done was by rail, an expensive and sometimes impossible method since many shows were held in towns not served by railroads. This meant that more often than not horses had to be ridden from their home stables to wherever the show was being held, sometimes a distance of many miles. In order for the horse to meet the demands placed on him, he had to be kept as natural as possible, a condition that insured a maximum of endurance.

The original breeders of Walking Horses were unhurried individuals. Most were farmers who set their own tempo of life. When they established the counties of Middle Tennessee one consideration dominated all others: the man who lived on the outer extremity of the county must be able to leisurely ride his horse to the County Seat, transact his business, and return home during the daylight hours. Since his horse was one of his most prized possessions, he had no intention of burning it out between his home and the seat of county government.

The method of breaking a colt and the amount of time required to prepare it for competition were far different from what we know today. Henry Davis, one of the real pioneers in the industry, related a story about old MERRY LEGS which illustrates both points. In the spring of 1913 when MERRY LEGS was a coming two-year-old and before she had been ridden, Mr. Davis started to a show in Winchester, Tennessee. As Mr. Davis told the incident, “We borrowed MERRY LEGS from Mr. Dement and tied her with some other horses we were leading. She was two years old at the time and had never been broken. When we arrived at Winchester, which is about forty miles from the Dement homeplace, I spent two or three days breaking MERRY LEGS. Then I won first place with her at the show, and there was plenty of competition. I followed the entire circuit that year and rode MERRY LEGS in every show. She won every time, in spite of the fact that her tail–which had been chewed off by calves on Mr. Dement’s farm–didn’t reach down to her hocks. To further illustrate the uncomplicated techniques employed in training horses at that time, Mr. Davis took MERRY LEGS to the Tennessee State Fair in the fall when she was still a two-year-old and won second in the big stake.

One remarkable characteristic of Walking Horses during the first era of their existence was their longevity as show animals. If we extend this era to World War II, we find HAYNE’S PEACOCK winning the celebration he was over fifteen years of age. Many years before, HUNTER’S ALLEN, was brought out of retirement when he was sixteen to win the Tennessee State Fair. But it must be emphasized that these horses were doing a natural gait and now great strain was placed on their feet or legs. In those days the sweepstakes ring was the last ring of the night, and to be eligible, a horse had to have qualified in a previous class. To make two strenuous shows on the same day together on the same night, a horse had to be going on as naturally as possible.

Jean Hunter wrote an article telling how Fred Walker, who later rode MIDNIGHT SUN to the Championship, once rode and drove HUNTER’S ALLEN from Wartrace to Nashville, a distance of some eighty miles, and won his class the following night. On another occasion, as Jean tells it, Fred hitched HUNTER’S ALLEN double with another horse, drove from Nashville to Wartrace to see a young lady, drove back to Nashville during the night, and arrived at the fairgrounds at daylight. That night the old horse won first in his class. It seems safe to assume that in the early days of training Walking Horses for show purposes the animals were subjected to much more riding than at the present. Two-year-olds were taught to canter after their walking gaits had been firmly established. Gradual sloping hills were utilized in teaching the canter since such a terrain seemed to be a natural setting for the development of this gait. High grass and weeds were also utilized in teaching the canter.

Warning against, of all things, over-work, one authority wrote, “During his regular training period, teach him how to have speed when necessary; but do no let him go fast or push, especially if you intend to show him. When he seems too playful–after he has been thoroughly broken–put him on the road for 10 or 12 miles, and use him enough to keep the enthusiasm subsided.” The question naturally arises as to the lick these early horses were actually hitting. Unfortunately, there are few action shots of early Walking Horses but from the late thirties on, such pictures are available. It is important to remember that action shots of Walking Horses in the late thirties and into the forties are authentic photographs taken before photographers developed the practice of faking a horse’s way of going. From the comments of men who were familiar with the earliest Walking Horses and the pictures that are available, it seems safe to make a few generalizations about their movements.

The early Walking Horse certainly did not possess the high breaking action in its front legs that we know today. Margaret Lindsey Warden quotes an old-time trainer, Jim Miller, as saying a Walking Horse needed just enough action to tip a baseball and keep it rolling. The modern-day enthusiast must remind himself that this was before the day of trotting balls and other devices employed to produce a high rolling action in front. It is also safe to assume the early horse carried a low head, since the bit was not used to manipulate his way of going and reins were usually held very loosely. As comfort was more desired than speed it is probably true that the early horses traveled at a very moderate rate of speed. In truth the early Walking Horse often suffered in comparison with his three- and five-gaited cousins. The gaited horse was finer, carried himself more proudly, and breezed around the ring in a way of going that made the Walking Horse appear somewhat of a country bumpkin. Time would take care of this situation.

By the early forties, the men who had nourished the Walking Horse from infancy were growing old and a new generation inherited the fruit of their efforts. Appreciative of what the old men had done but restless in their enthusiasm for improvement, the young men envisioned changes in the Walking Horse. The horse that represented an ideal to the old men would become raw material in the hands of their grandsons who now started the pursuit of their own ideal.

And so one era ended and another began.

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