Home Archive Morgans and Morabs: Perhaps the horse world’s best kept secrets?

Morgans and Morabs: Perhaps the horse world’s best kept secrets?

Morgans and Morabs: Perhaps the horse world’s best kept secrets?

Words by Peter Berry

I came to horses relatively late in life, only buying my first one when I was aged 40, after surviving a life-threatening illness, the two years following were spent confined to a wheelchair which made me realise that I should not put off achieving a childhood dream any longer. Now, almost 20 years later I continue to over compensate for my horseless childhood, having bred most of my 11 strong herd of Morgans and Arabians, the latter arrived much more recently; but not without a very steep and painful learning curve!

My first two purchases turned out to be complete disasters. First was a psychotic Dales pony that would bolt on a daily basis for little or no reason. After a collision with a bus, in which remarkably neither bus, nor pony was injured, I called it a day and sold her as a broodmare. My second acquisition was a 14-year-old Thoroughbred advertised as a so-called “schoolmistress”. She succeeded in teaching me that it hurts when you get dumped and, after breaking my hip and pelvis, I sold her back to her original owner. I also learned that you trust what those selling horses tell you, at your peril!

Still determined to find my perfect equine partner, I went back to the drawing board, or in my case the internet, and did some more research. I remembered seeing a photograph of a Morgan horse in an Observer Book of Horses I had as a child, and thinking that might be the breed for me, I focused my search.

Many of you may have heard of Morgan horses and my guess is that when you think of them, you may see in your mind’s eye, a small horse with a high head carriage, long feet, high knee action and yards of tail trailing on the ground behind it. You may then also wonder about their usefulness outside the show ring? It is perhaps this common, somewhat cartooned, public perception that has meant that generations of horse-owning public in the UK quickly overlook them when contemplating buying a horse to compete with, or simply to have as an all-round family horse; and so the true value of the breed has been kept secret among the small band of devotees it has attracted.

Having decided that Morgans were the breed or me, and concluded that the only way to really know the history and temperament of the horse you hope to ride is to breed it yourself, I bought a broodmare with the aim of doing just that. I was lucky enough to find a little diamond in Monnington Miracle, so called because she was conceived in this country using frozen semen from America, the first time it had ever been done here. She was only small, 14.1hh on a tall day, but she was as brave as a lion, and a dominant alpha mare whose calling was to be a mother. She loved foals, and young children too, actually. She produced and raised several foals that would do extremely well in the show ring, winning European titles, as well as in a variety of performance disciplines. My first foal from her was a colt that was sold at weaning; the second, Sophie, was to become my first show horse, trail partner, endurance horse and, most importantly, my great friend. 

Monnington Miracle (Min) in her prime and in her element, carrying a foal with her last one by her side.

What has all this got to do with Arabians? Well, firstly, the Arabian often suffers from a similar problem, of course; the public perception is of an extreme type bred solely to show, and yet the true worth of the breed is in the riding horses, of which there are many. In terms of history, the original Morgan traces back to the Godolphin Arabian, blood that came through his sire, True Briton (Lloyds Traveller x Betty Leeds) who was line bred to this famous Arabian and whose blood was introduced to America by an imported English Thoroughbred called Wildair (Cade x Steady Mare).

The breed takes its’ name from its founder, Justin Morgan, a school teacher and horse breeder from Vermont, who took back a young colt as payment of a debt. The spirited bay colt, foaled in 1789, was from a breeding programme that had produced quality horses for generations. The colt, named Figure, but later renamed after his owner as was the trend at that time, became something of a local legend, being able to out-pull the local draught breeds and out-trot and out-run visiting Thoroughbreds to the area, whom he raced in arranged matches and remained  unbeaten.

Justin Morgan (True Briton x Daughter of Diamond), the horse, was used widely at stud and proved to be a prepotent sire, re-producing himself when bred to mares of various backgrounds and breeding. There have been various descriptions of the stallion over the years but perhaps one of the more reliable ones comes from a man called John Woodbury. He bred and owned one of the great stallion’s three famous sons, that later become pillars of the breed. He saw the horse first hand and said:

“The original Morgan, as I best recollect, was in weight not more than one thousand pounds, and maybe one hundred pounds less; height, about the same as Backman horse [the Backman horse referred to was 15.2 hands]; short back, thick shoulder and broad chest; heavy stifle, and, I think, longer body and clear from flesh, with large cords and muscles; head rather small, wide between eyes, which were full and hazel; extremely large, extended nostrils; jet black flowing mane and tail; dark bay; very fast for both racing and trotting. I once saw him trot at Randolph and win some 50 dollars, matched against a large English horse, called King William, and whipped him easily.” 

Justin Morgan (Figure) from an original woodcut.

Now all registered Morgans trace back to this single stallion and many exhibit the same qualities and characteristics that this horse impressed with over 200 years ago. Indeed, the breed standard by which they are judged is largely based on the original animal.

Today the Morgan ‘spirit’ comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours, reflecting the influence of the many mare lines that were introduced into the genetic melting pot that is now the Morgan. They range in height from 14 to 16 hands high, most being about 15 hands, and although many are bay, as was the original, chestnut and black are also quite common with palomino, grey, and dun/buckskin less so. There are a few breeders in America with a special interest in preserving and promoting the rarer colours, producing silver dapples, grullas and pintos.

The gene pool, broadly speaking, is distributed between four family groups: Government, Western Working, Brunk and Lippitt. Used extensively as cavalry horses, the US Government, established its’ own re-mount breeding programme and bred a slightly taller animal, to cope with the specific demands of the role. Morgans were commonly used by both sides in the American Civil War and one of the few survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer made his last stand, was a horse called Comanche who was said to be half Morgan and half Mustang.

The Western Working family, as the name suggests, was made up of horses bred for working on the many ranches at that time and, way back, probably included some Mustang blood in its’ development. Brunk, named after Joseph Brunk who developed them, are notable for their soundness and athleticism.

Lippitts are arguably the purest of the four families in that they have the most crosses back to the original Justin Morgan with no outcrosses to other breeds in the 20th and 21st centuries. Most pedigrees today will include representatives from more than one of these family groups but no matter what genetic package a Morgan comes in, and despite their physical differences, they all share the same spirit and character.

The stallions below, although quite different, illustrate good examples of the breed and interpretations of the standard. 

Aireborne Enigma, now gelded after a brief stud career.


 Mossrose Triumphant (Sunup Neptune x Jacques Lor-don-lin), a buckskin stallion from Western lines, imported to the UK from America, has many offspring here and in Europe.


Pegasus Sir Lancelot (Aspenglows Insurrection x Trijas Penelope Pepper)

Morgans are extremely intelligent horses and very people-loving, being especially fond of children. They seem to be able to quickly estimate the ability of the person on their back’s likelihood to stay there and will tread very carefully with a child or novice on board but will go hell for leather, given half the chance, when they have a more competent, experienced rider. They can be extremely competitive and love to race, often not settling until they have passed a horse and rider they have spotted in the distance.

Their love of human company and willingness to please is almost dog-like but they can easily use their intelligence to create mischief if it is not channelled adequately. Seeming to have an opinion about pretty much everything, if the rider is a little indecisive, the horse will be only too willing to decide what should be done in any particular situation and act on it!

They are blessed with speed, strength and stamina and are a handy size for youngsters and those not as nimble as they once were, to mount. Easy keepers, they are pony-like in their dietary needs, and consequently can be more susceptible to laminitis and equine metabolic syndrome than other breeds if allowed to over indulge in their favourite pastime of eating!

Morgans make excellent carriage horses but are true all-rounders, competing successfully in dressage, show jumping, Le TREC and endurance. They have an impressive record in the Tevis Cup, perhaps one of the world’s most challenging competitive trail rides. One mare in particular, Lippitt Miss Nekomia, made the gruelling one day 100 miler her own, after successfully completing six times, once while in foal and still rearing her last baby!

Minion Millenium (Minion Valentino x Pompp And Pazazz), perhaps the world’s most successful Morgan stallion.

America’s first national breed, the Morgan has been instrumental in developing several other breeds such as Quarter horses, Saddlebreds, Tennessee Walking horses and Standardbred, to name a few. Perhaps the most recent breed to claim the Morgan as its progenitor is the Morab. Since the 1800’s horse breeders have been interested in combining two favourite breeds, the Morgan and Arabian, to produce the Morab horse. 

History’s first recorded Morab was the famous trotting horse, Goldust, who was unbeaten as a harness racer, and won a famous race in 1861 against Ironduke for $10,000 prize money! In 1920, William Randolph Hearst was credited with coining the name “Morab” for the athletic Arabian-Morgan horses he bred to work the mountainous terrain of the Hearst Ranch. In 1973, Ilene Miller founded the first Morab Horse Registry in Clovis, California, and she registered over 500 horses before her untimely death a few years later.  IMBA (International Morab Breeders’ Association) launched the first fully computerised Morab registry in 1992. The registry lays down strict criteria that must be adhered to in order for a horse to be legitimately called a Morab.

The average Morab is between 14.2 and 15.2 hands high and weighs between 950 and 1200 ponds. The Morab’s skeleton is very different than other horse breeds. Like the Arabian they have one less rib and three less vertebrae, but totally unique to the Morab is the shape of their hindquarters as well as the different pelvic angle. Along with other characteristics, these are the most apparent differences from any other breed.

Taking the Arabian horse, often called the “drinker of the wind” because of its powerful lungs, and combining it with the broad powerful chest of the Morgan, gave the Morab a naturally superior breathing system. A wide forehead sets off large, dark expressive eyes. A thick mane and tail balances out its muscular build. The Morab’s head may be straight to slightly dished with a big powerful jaw in conjunction with a small muzzle.

All well-bred Morabs have a consistently uniform look, with some degree of refinement; with successive generations showing very little if any change from the first generation. It is this ability to transmit their distinguishing characteristics to their offspring that makes the Morab a distinct breed rather than just another nice cross-bred horse.

Currently there are approximately 600 registered Morgans in the UK and no horses registered with the International Morab Breeders’ Association, however, that isn’t to say there aren’t horses here that would be eligible for registration.

 A Morab holds the record for completing 5,000 miles in one year in endurance rides. Another, named Tulip, has over 22,000 AERC endurance miles and has taken the all-time AERC lifetime mileage record. A Morab named Pinto holds the record for the longest continual trail ride in the northern hemisphere, completing 20,000+ miles in three years in the early 1900’s.

A Morab named “Kooter” went to the World Endurance Championships in Barcelona and took home a Team Silver Medal to ass to his AERC 6,000 mile medallion. Twice Tevis Cup winner, and Haggin Cup winner, Pancho, was a Morab and so the list of achievements goes on.

It is said that the turnover rate for the Morab breed is almost non-existent; once people have them, they keep them! The international Morab community is unified in its’ love and admiration for and devotion to the breed and are only too happy to testify as to its’ tremendous athletic qualities, gentle character and catalogue all the various sporting achievements. At the same time, they acknowledge and give credit to the Morgan and Arabian who each made an invaluable contribution in creating the Morab.

So far I have not crossed the two breeds so have yet to breed a Morab of my own, although I hope to do so in the near future. As I said earlier, I obtained my first Arabians eight years ago when I bought two brood mares from the famous Harwood Stud which was in the process of disbanding. Two Kasadi daughters, Marceline (ex Kashala) and Caecilia (ex Freyr), with her 10 day old filly foal at foot, the very last foal to be bred at Harwood, came to join the Morgans in my paddocks.

Having developed an interest in endurance and thoroughly enjoyed taking part at open level with the Morgans, I felt that if I wanted to become really competitive, at a higher level, I should ride an Arab. A series of setbacks has meant that Marceline’s five year old son Monty, by the Crabbet stallion African Emir, has been the first of his family to make it to the start line of an endurance ride. He made his debut recently, ridden by my friend Andrew Jaini, and I rode Martha, a Morgan mare born just six weeks after Monty. The two of them have grown up together and are great friends and it’s interesting to see their differences and similarities.

Later in the year, I plan to bring a couple of the older Morgan mares out of moth balls and do a few competitive rides with them too. I have shown the Morgans in hand and in ridden hunt seat classes with some success but I have to say I’m not a great fan of showing and prefer to be out riding over the countryside.  

Morgan mares,  half-sisters PJB Mirari and PJB Blame It On The Boogie enjoying an Endurance GB ride on Cannock Chase.

 Of the 11 horses I have currently, six are homebred and, despite all the expense, hard work and stress that breeding involves, I think it is my favourite part of horse ownership. Unfortunately, parting with foals is my least favourite and explains, at least in part, why I have so many! The few I have sold though, I have to say, have gone to wonderful homes, here and overseas. I imported a two year old Morgan filly from America, six years ago and was so impressed with her that I purchased frozen semen from her sire, the spectacular Miniom Millennium, from a stallion auction in the USA. The result is a now two-year-old colt that I am hoping to breed to my mares in the not too distant future. I am really looking forward to my first homebred Morabs!

Although I wouldn’t have said so at the time, I suppose I have much to thank the delinquent Dales pony and treacherous Thoroughbred for; had I stuck with either of them, I probably would not have had the joy of sharing my life with Morgan and Arabian horses, nor learned about the wonderful fusion of Morgan and Arabian blood that is the Morab, and I would not be party to these well kept secrets.

Morgan mares, half-sisters PJB Mirari and PJB Blame It On The Boogie on The Long Mynd ride









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