Working Morgans on Working Farms
All Over the Country, Morgans are the Star of Small Farms
By Helga Loncosky
Small-scale farming, sustainable living and homesteading often come with different needs than conventional or large scale farming operations. Economy, ease and hardiness often help make these endeavors more successful. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to the marvel for the small-scale farm: the traditional Morgan horse.
A traditional Morgan is also referred to as a foundation Morgan. This Morgan carries none or almost no outside blood of other breeds. This horse closely resembles the original breed standard and has differing abilities from those Morgans used basically for riding and related horse show competition.
Traditional, or foundational, Morgans are more rare today, but are still being bred and used on farms, logging, packing and ranch work while also being able to drive 30 to 50 miles and be ridden as a great trail mount. You can find Morgans in the show ring being ridden saddleseat, being ridden dressage, driving and combined driving, hunter/jumper, working cows, cowboy mounted shooting, ranch work, packing, competitive trail, gaming and so much more. Their temperaments are as a partner, not a thing. They love to be involved with you, and often can be considered an extra-large dog following your around the farm. They like to be helpful as well. In height they range from 14.1 to 15.2 hands with some individuals as much as a hand shorter or taller. Colors include bay, chestnut, black to gray, palomino, cremello, buckskin, dun, and multicolored splash-like pinto-colored. One of the Morgan’s hallmarks is its versatility. The Livestock Conservancy also has the traditional Morgan listed on their “critical” list due to their declining numbers.
Morgans descended from one prepotent sire, Figure, who was born in 1789. Figure was owned by a music teacher named Justin Morgan, and as horses were often tagged with their owner’s names back in that day, the Morgan Horse was born. Figure was a hardy horse bay stallion that was talented in several areas, including being able to out walk, out-trot, out run and out-pull other horses, making him a very valuable horse and a legend.
Figure is thought to have been sired by True Briton, a horse widely respected for his ability. Figure’s dam, was “…of the Wild-air breed, of middling size, with a heavy chest, of a light bay color, with a bushy mane and tail—the hair on the legs rather long, and a smooth, handsome traveler.”
The Disney movie, “Justin Morgan Had a Horse” is about Figure. If you get the opportunity to watch it, it’s a great movie based upon real life. His stud services were offered throughout the Connecticut River Valley and numerous Vermont locations during his lifetime. His most valuable contribution was the ability to pass on his distinguishing characteristics as a prepotent sire through his offspring, and through subsequent generations.
After Justin Morgan’s death, he went through other owners and spent a life working on farms, hauling freight, and as a parade mount at militia trainings. He spent his life working and died in 1821 from an untreated kick received from another horse. His three most famous sons—Sherman, Bulrush, and Woodbury—carried on his legacy to future generations of Morgans.
Nothing could be more patriotic than using America’s first breed the same way our forefathers did in working and settling this great land. Morgans were used by pioneers and ranchers in settling and working the west. Laura Ingalls Wilder and husband Almanzo (Little House on the Prairie) made a large stir when Almanzo brought some of the first Morgan horses to their area. Laura referenced them in her writing numerous times and their Morgan stallion was Governor of Orleans.
Morgans were already very popular in New England where they had originated for versatile use. They later were the mount of choice for the Civil War, as they were hardy and easy keepers and very sane minded.
Some of the working applications that Morgans are used in can be seen every year in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in September at The Old Threshers Reunion.
The Wistroms, Jacky, Dan and their family breed both Percheron drafts and Morgan horses. They are very involved in the demonstrations and work days for the threshing reunion. They use their Morgans, who are in the 15 hands range and bigger bodied, and these horses have to be able to work around steam engines, tractors, locomotives and a lot of public watching them. The horses must be able to stand quietly in a crowd to get where they need to go to.
The Morgans’ size and agility make them better suited for the single-horse powers and the treadmills as they are more agile than the drafts and their size make them easier to get around in the barns and to harness. They are also more agile and get around better in the timber to get firewood out. They do very well mowing and racking hay, which requires less power, and pulling manure spreaders and light chores around the farm such as pulling wagons and moving lighter loads. They live almost twice as long as drafts, and are easy keepers, not needing the housing or heavy feed those larger breeds might. They also have hardy, tough feet, and usually require no shoes to work. The Wistroms share that the downside is that their size limits them for heavier loads that the drafts can do and they wouldn’t go to the field and plow all day with them (unless smaller fields and gardens), although do hook with the draft team to use for a little more power occasionally and for the bigger logs.
Rory McGoff from Georgia uses his Morgan mares around their small acreage for everyday tasks as well. His two Morgan mares, Springlake Rita Skye and Venturous Wind Chime, are used for pulling work sleds and stoneboats, cleaning out fence lines and logging, with more chores being added.
Rory uses Morgans because, as he says, “I like them. Not all Morgans are suitable for use on the farm but neither are all draft horses. I really don’t see Morgans and heavy drafts as competitors on a farm as they serve two different needs. For someone who is starting a commercial farm using modern machinery such as the ground drive PTO and other heavy equipment, I would not recommend Morgans, as primary source of power, they wouldn’t be effective. If you are looking at doing something smaller, I wouldn’t recommend heavy drafts as it would be more efficient to use a smaller horse. Morgans should be considered as they can handle the work.”
Rory states that the reasons Morgans are his choice are that he wants a horse that excels at all things a horse should. This includes under saddle, whether working cows or on the trail, and in harness, whether working the fields or pulling a cart. The old style or Foundation Morgan is still arguably the best all-purpose horse. Today’s horses have been bred for a very one-sided use, whether draft, or show, or speed which is why the old Morgans aren’t as popular. He thinks the values of the world are changing and folks see the value in the all-purpose horse again.
Jenny Blanchet-Morse from Wyoming keeps things simple and is very low budget/low tech as a rule in using her Morgans. Jenny even made her first two sleds and stoneboats, which were pallets from the trash. She looked for hardwood pallets with just the top deck.
On her current main sled the “runners” wore down so she has been bolting on 2 x 8s on the original and replacing them when they wear low. Jenny bolted a 2-by-6 across the front to make it wide enough to attach the metal shafts from an old sleigh with eye-bolts and clevises. She built a small box with a plywood (the smoothest large surface on hand) bottom for hauling manure.
Jenny shares the following in giving some practical advice for those working their Morgans: “I’d like to re-emphasize that versatility and economy are major benefits with Morgans. Mine all ride and drive plus the first two I raised (haven’t had quite as much time lately but I think they all could) have done all the activities I could find: working in harness (drag yard, haul manure, firewood and hay) pulling carriage, lower level eventing, dressage, jumping, games, barrels, poles, trail riding, endurance competition, herding cattle and (at age 11 since I’m no expert trainer) reining. One foundation type Morgan really can do it all!”
Lucy Ray, also from Georgia, uses her traditional Morgans ranching and working cattle. Her first reason for choosing Morgans as a working partner is their incredible work ethic and how they never give up or say no. Tractability is key to her and she says they aren’t hard to get along with and coupled with that work ethic and people pleasing personality make Morgans the obvious choice. She likes that they stay sound, no health issues, no barn, no blankets, and with good pastures, no feed. She is still using her 29-year-old Morgan for ranch work.
For folks that think they are too small to be a cow pony, they have plenty of barrel and well sprung ribs to take up the leg room. She finds that for the majority of daily tasks around their operation, a shorter horse is handier. Lucy’s range from 14.1 hands to an honest 15.2 hands. For working or dodging cattle, Lucy prefers something in the 14.2-.3 hand range. They have plenty of barrel to take up a taller person’s legs and she has never had a problem with her smaller horses keeping up with taller ones checking fence, etc. For roping, she says you really need a 15-hand stout horse to head on. They take a heck of a jerk with a 700- to 800-pound steer on the end of the rope. She’d rather have a smaller, handier one for catching heels or roping calves. Lucy enjoys working with her Morgans whether she is using them for a 4-H demo, working cows, teaching a 4-H’er to ride, checking fence or hooking to some firewood.
Jo Johnson from California trains and raises traditional Morgans as stock horses for working cattle, cattle drives, packing into the back country and other practical purposes. She also uses her own stock for contract packing trips throughout the mountains, sometimes for several weeks at a time. Jo has even used her Morgans to pack for the Forest Service. This requires the horses to be sound, sane and hardy. Jo also adds that her Morgans all go barefoot, requiring no shoes, as their feet are so tough. The Morgans fit the bill.
Sharon Amick of West Virginia uses her Morgans in many of the same ways around the farm, also engaging her Morgans to pull the sled for sugaring season when they are making maple syrup, and to even plow snow. But Sharon has another great focus for the Morgans besides all of the normal using ones. She used them in a group she calls WHOA. WHOA is to make one sit back and WHOA from life, to reflect on the important things, life skills, conservancy and sustainability for the future. Besides Morgans, they focus on heritage livestock breeding and farming. The group has members from small children to 100-year-olds.
And then, there are my own experiences. I am fortunate enough to be a second generation Morgan owner and breeder. My family used Morgans for everything, from working cows to logging, using in parades and historical functions, driving, English, Western, hunting, packing and even showing. I’ve even used them in state forests for doing trail mitigation work as the horses could pack stone and tools back into problem areas that are too sensitive or remote for machinery to get to. I’m currently training my youngsters for logging work and garden work around the farm besides riding and driving. Their personality, hardiness, and versatility are the best bargain going in my book. The traditional/foundation Morgan is a true rare and special heritage breed.
Helga Loncosky, raised on a multipurpose farm, is a second generation Morgan horsewoman. She has lived the whole experience of breeding, training, showing and practical use of America’s horse. She is a supporter of small farm and sustainable living with non-GMO and organic farming methods. Helga has presented the Morgan horse story at numerous venues, including Equine Affaire and seminars.