These horses have a smile in their eyes," says Hosam "Sam" Haggag. "I've been riding since I was very young, and I've never encountered horses with such sweet personalities and kind intentions. Add to that, rhythmic gaits so smooth they spoil you for any other horse, and you have the Tennessee Walking Horse."
About seven years ago, the Silicon Valley executive visited a resort on California's coast that featured a small band of Walking Horses. His back suffered from an old soccer injury, and he regularly endured long hours at a desk. So when he heard about the "rocking chair motion" of the breed, he went for a spin - and was smitten.
Shortly afterward, Haggag learned that the resort had closed, and the horses were to be disbanded, so he impulsively purchased all seven horses. His new enterprise, Blue Sky Riding Experience, was born. Today, he owns 15 geldings, all Walking Horses, and operates guided riding tours along the Northern California coast. "I always liked riding, but never really loved it until I rode a Tennessee Walking Horse," he says.
Haggag is just one of the increasing number of trail riders to discover the sweet temperament and smooth gait of the Walking Horse. Some participate in the programs developed by the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association to recognize and reward members' accomplishments in distance and competitive trail. Sis Osborne, who runs both the TWHBEA Distance Award Program and the Versatility Program, reports that more than 800 members are currently enrolled in these popular activities.
And an increasing number of breeders are focusing on plain-shod horses, with the natural gaits, calm dispositions, and sound bodies to make them wonderful partners on the trail.
In the mid-1800s, a new breed of horse began to emerge from the bountiful, bluegrass region of middle Tennessee. Bred by farmers to till the fields during the week, these horses were also expected to provide them a comfortable ride on weekends, and pull their buggies to town.
According to the TWHBEA, these farmers crossbred horses already populating the region: Morgans, Standardbreds, American Saddle Horses, Canadian and Narragansett Pacers, and Thoroughbreds. The most prized characteristic was the running walk, a ground-covering gait renowned to be as smooth as silk. When the first Tennessee Walking Horse breeders' association was formed in 1935 in Lewisburg, its founders designated 115 animals as Foundation Stock. The Tennessee Walking Horse became an officially recognized breed in 1950.
The horses are particularly appreciated for three smooth gaits:
The flat walk is a brisk, four-beat gait, clocking at four to seven miles per hour. The horse "overstrides"; that is, his right hind foot steps over the track left by the right front foot; and the left hind over the left front. The horse gently nods his head in rhythm to his step.
The running walk, the breed's great claim to fame, is a four-beat, lateral gait. In this gait, the Walking Horse can sustain speeds up to 10 miles per hour, while the rider feels nary a bounce. At speed, the horse may overstride 6 to 18 inches. This natural gait is easily maintained for long distances, a tremendous boon to the trail rider.
The canter is performed on the diagonal, like other breeds, but with exceptional spring and lift. It's the Walking Horse's canter that inspired the phrase "rocking chair gaits." Aficionados suggest that you just sit back and enjoy.