A Breed Apart

The Morgan horse is more than a breed to Vermonters; it's also a brand.

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

Vermont's most visible gift to the world beyond the Green Mountains might be the Morgan horse, state animal and one of the most beautiful and recognizable equine breeds. "When you drive across the country and see weathervanes in the shape of horses, a lot of those are recognizably Morgans," says Fred Braden, executive director of the American Morgan Horse Association in Shelburne.

"Every American breed of horse can trace back to the Morgan horse, although quarter horse people don't like to think about that!" says Anne Brown, president of the Vermont Morgan Horse Association (VMHA). "It's the first American horse. It's also the only American breed that goes back to one foundation sire," she adds. There lies much of the romance of the Morgan horse.

The original sire was a small bay stallion named Figure, bought in 1795 by Justin Morgan, a music teacher from Randolph. Put to work on local farms, Figure soon earned a reputation for ruggedness and hard work far greater than his size should have allowed. When he wasn't hauling a plow or dragging timber, he was making a reputation as a galloper and trotter. Figure -- now known as Justin Morgan after his master -- was also in demand as a breeding stallion. Although in 1821 he died, ironically of a neglected wound, he had already founded the breed that would carry his name.

As Stephen Davis, director of the University of Vermont Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge, explains, "Justin Morgan was such a prepotent and prolific breeding horse that his descendants resemble him to this day."

"The resemblance to the original is the thing that binds us all together," thinks Brown.

"There's a possibility that the Morgan might be on the new Vermont quarter," says Braden. "We mobilized Vermont school kids to write to the appropriate authorities about it." The VMHA also hopes the breed will be immortalized in coin.

The VMHA, which was founded in 1966, has approximately 150 members; its directory lists many stables and farms where visitors to Vermont can see, ride and purchase Morgans. Brown, who owns Mettowee Morgans in Westford with her husband, Harold, says the club's members are "a very diverse bunch of people -- as diverse as the breed.

"We'd like to think Vermont is still the center of Morgan horse activity," she says. The club holds several annual events. The Vermont Spring Classic Morgan Horse Show takes place in May in Northampton, Mass. The Morgan Heritage Days, every July in Tunbridge, are designed to showcase the versatility of the breed. The event features the Justin Morgan Performance Competition: Horses trot a half-mile in harness, race a half-mile under saddle, are shown in the ring, and pull a 500-pound stone boat.

Brown believes Morgans are an attraction to people visiting Vermont. "People come to Vermont to see animals," she says. "The state has so many pretty things to offer, and the Morgan is certainly one of those."

"I came to love being around Morgans," says Fred Braden, "and I came to love being around Morgan people." Braden is executive director of the American Morgan Horse Association in Shelburne.

Bonnie Sogoloff, who owns Cedar Spring Farm in Essex Junction, agrees. "Morgans are as much a part of Vermont as maple syrup and skiing," she says.

"There are lots of opportunities here for urban people to get out and see Morgans," Brown points out. "The club has a booth at the Champlain Valley Fair every summer, and we see so many kids that just want to touch the horses." Brown believes the effects go beyond providing an enjoyable tourist experience: "There's lots of prestige to buying a Morgan from Vermont."

"Oh, absolutely!" agrees Sogoloff. "There's a real cachet to buying a Vermont Morgan. We have really good horses here," she explains. "For instance those at the UVM Morgan Horse Farm."

The Morgan breed has its spiritual home at the University of Vermont Morgan Horse Farm. Situated in the rolling landscape north of Middlebury, the farm is centered around the beautiful, white, Victorian-style barn built in 1878 by Joseph Battell, a wealthy local philanthropist and horse-lover. Battell worked tirelessly to compile a history of the breed -- the Morgan Register -- that led to the foundation of the Morgan Club in 1909 and official recognition of the breed. In 1907 he gave his farm, and his collection of the finest Morgans of the time, to the federal government, which began to develop the breed to provide remounts for the cavalry. The Morgan already had a fine record as a war-horse: The Vermont Cavalry rode Morgans, as did Stonewall Jackson and Gen. Philip Sheridan. The only survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn was a Morgan horse, Comanche.

After World War II the days of the cavalry were long gone, and in 1951 the government handed the farm over to the University of Vermont. "It's very probably the oldest farm of its type," says Davis, the farm's director. A national historic site, the farm is a charitable institution. "We have our own budget, and we're mandated to be operationally self-sufficient," explains Davis, who is enjoying his 27th year at the site. "The university supports us with capital improvements and administrative services."

Stephen Davis is director of the UVM Morgan Horse Farm, a national historic site in Weybridge. Anne Brown is president of the Vermont Morgan Horse Association and co-owner of Mettowee Morgans in Westford.

UVM uses the farm as the base for its equine studies program. "Our mission is always to educate. We have a certified apprenticeship program" -- which attracts candidates from as far away as Europe -- "and we also educate the public informally, through visits, and formally with events like our clinics and Open Days.

"The uniqueness of this operation," he adds, "is our huge public profile. We have 40,000 visitors every year between May and October. That's a challenge."

The Morgan Horse Farm has a commercial side as well. "We are looked to as a supplier of superior stock," says Davis. "We sell all over the world: to the U.K., Europe, Brazil, Peru and Canada, which is our largest foreign market. Some Morgans even went to China during the government years," he adds. "The equine market is generally bullish; it's doing great." The farm has embraced new technology with open arms. "We're certainly looking to expand into Internet marketing," states Davis.

The majority of UVM animals are sold as pleasure horses. "We sell from 12 to 20 animals a season," he says. As to price, "there's an old saying: 'A horse is worth what two fools will agree on,'" he grins. UVM Morgans cost an average of $7,000, although a particularly fine animal will fetch considerably more.

Sogoloff agrees that "the equine business is on the up. It's amazing what it brings into the economy." This is a national trend, but Sogoloff thinks that "Vermont is primed to take off. We're still pretty rural, and people are finding that Morgans are really getting profitable. Horses are selling for six figures!"

Sogoloff, whose business is centered around training and marketing Morgans, cautions that "it's a risky, risky business, and making a living is quite a difficult thing to do." The profitable areas, she believes, are standing stallions at stud, giving lessons, and training. She specializes in the latter. "The trainer's job is to assist the breeders in selling their horses," she explains, "but you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. I do a little breeding on the side, and we do things like embryo transfer as well. If someone wants to do something, whatever it is, we'll try to do it." Sogoloff estimates that up to 25 percent of her business comes from within Vermont.

"Nationally, the horse industry is worth $7 billion a year," explains Braden. The national association boasts 14,000 members. "There are 85,000 registered Morgan horses today," Braden says, "and around 3,500 are registered each year."

All Morgans can be traced back to Figure, a small, bay stallion owned by Randolph music teacher Justin Morgan in the early 19th century. Pictured: Stephen Davis and an assistant groom Fire and Ice.

The association publishes a monthly magazine, The Morgan Horse. Its sister organization, the American Morgan Horse Institute, runs the National Museum of the Morgan Horse. They share the large post-and-beam building ("the largest in Vermont when it was built in 1988," says Braden) that looks out onto the Round Barn of Shelburne Museum and a sweeping panorama of farmland and the Adirondacks. "The association chose Vermont as its home because it was here that the breed originated," says Braden. "The museum had 8,000 visitors last year," he continues. "We market the museum nationally through the magazine. Most of our visitors are either Morgan owners or have other equine interests. But people have come from as far away as Bolivia and Australia. People in, say, California who have kept Morgans for generations do want to come to Vermont just to see where it all started."

"The Morgan is definitely a brand," says Braden, who came to Shelburne from California in 1994 to run the magazine, and after a brief return to his home state came back last year to assume the executive directorship.

He thinks the Morgan, "breed-wise, is probably one of the most aggressively marketed. We're constantly looking for ways to reach young people -- who have a tremendous pull on what their parents do. We've just updated our logo to make it more contemporary," he continues, "and we have a national advertising campaign running in airports."

Locally, however, Braden believes that "our impact on Vermont from a business standpoint is the fact that we own this building and have 24 people on our payroll, which isn't a small business by Vermont standards."

So what is it about Morgans that makes the breed so special to so many people? "It's a kind horse: It wants to please you," says Brown. "It has a great nature. Maybe it's a Vermont nature," she suggests.

"The Morgan is a very kind animal. It has such a great heart," says Braden. "And it is compelling. It has those large, beautiful eyes."

Sogoloff agrees. "Morgans have this beautiful expression that just goes right into you! There's something about the breed that gets you hooked," she thinks.

"If you speak to most Morgan owners, you find that the personal connection to their horses is incredible," says Braden. "When I first came out here from California I spent two years traveling to farms, barns, shows, learning about the breed. I came to love being around Morgans, and I came to love being around Morgan people."

It's the Morgan's versatility that makes it truly a breed apart. It's difficult to picture the small, stately Morgan reduced to hard labor, but as Brown points out, "Morgan horses cleared this state." It all goes back to the original, Justin Morgan. "He was a thrifty little horse, and the settlers had to be thrifty to survive," she explains. "It's the nature of the breed: It rises to the occasion."

VMAH's Heritage Days demonstrate the Morgan can do just about anything. One of Justin Morgan's descendants was Ethan Allen 50, the world's fastest trotting horse in the 1860s.

"There are a bunch of us diehards who are trying to bring that back," says Brown, who also loves to drive Morgan-drawn buggies and carts. "There's a great resurrection of driving horses," she says. "Morgans are the leading breed in singles competitions. And as the population ages, more people are learning to drive than to ride."

"Morgans can vary in size and shape while conforming to type," explains Sogoloff. "They can be built for trotting, jumping, racing, and still look just like a Morgan."

Dressage is another area being conquered by the breed, but as Brown points out, "The majority of Morgans are sold for family use."

"Keeping horses is very good for raising kids," thinks Braden.

"It teaches so many things, like responsibility and self-esteem," agrees Sogoloff.

"These animals can move themselves through your life," says Braden. "Morgans can live up to 33 years. That's a long time to have a relationship with anything, including close human friends," and as he points out, "Owning a horse puts people back in touch with the land."

Horsing around

The following Morgan destinations welcome visitors anytime, except where noted:

Absolute Morgans, Tom & Janet Kennedy Yager, 139 Schoolhouse Road, Waltham, Vt. 05491, (802) 545-2457

Danville Morgan Horse Farm, George & Cecil Lyon, 1906 Joe's Brook Road, Danville, Vt. 05828, (802) 684-2251

Destiny Morgan Farm Inc., Barry & Dawn Russell, 48 Creek Farm Road, Colchester, Vt. 05446, (802) 878-1319

East of Equinox Farm, Ivan & Sandy Beattie, 1696 Barnumville Road, Manchester Center, Vt. 05255, (802) 362-2286

Fayre Farm, Carol E. Dunsmore, Dunsmore Road, RR 1, Box 2900, Swanton, Vt. 05488, (802) 524-4819

G.T. Morgans, Greg & Dawn Tatro, 1159 Footbrook Road, Johnson, Vt. 05656, (802) 635-2948

Marathon Morgans, Roland & Connie Doucette, 113 Brigham Hill Road, Essex Jct., Vt. 05452, (802) 878-3701

Mettowee Morgans, Dr. & Mrs. Harold Brown, 1380 Old Stage Road, Westford, Vt. 05494, (802) 878-4128

National Museum of the Morgan Horse, 122 Bostwick Road, P.O. Box 700, Shelburne, Vt. 05482, (802) 985-8665, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon-Fri, Sat 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (also open Sundays during summer)

Saga Morgans Inc., Betty Johnson, RR1, Box 513, North Bennington, Vt. 05257, (802) 442-5945

UVM Morgan Horse Farm, 74 Battell Drive, Weybridge, Vt. 05753, (802) 388-2011

Whitney Hill Morgans, Margaret Mulligan, RR1 Box 110, Corinth Corner, Vt. 05039, (802) 685-3058

Windrush Stable, Barbara Ackley, 1406 Sheddsville Road, West Windsor, Vt. 05089, (802) 484-5552

(Source: Vermont Morgan Horse Association, www.vtmorganhorse.com)