Learn about Shelbyville’s Saddlebred horses during Derby Week
by Kathy Witt


While thoroughbred horses are preparing for their biggest event of the year – the Kentucky Derby on May 6 – another breed of horse, the American Saddlebred, will be welcoming new foals and preparing for show season.

Just 35 miles east of the track where the “greatest two minutes in sports” annually gallop into history are the 80-plus saddlebred horse farms and breeding and training facilities of Shelbyville and Shelby County, KY, the American Saddlebred Capital of the World.

Taking visitors behind-the-scenes and into the heady world of the saddlebred is local tour guide Charles Kramer, founder of Kentucky Backroad Tours. During Derby Week, Kramer invites visitors to get to know this “peacock of the horse world” on highly personalized tours that include a discussion of the breed, the training aids the horses may be wearing and how and why saddlebreds do what they do.

“In the spring you’ll see the babies with their mamas, playing in the field,” said Kramer. “You’ll see some two-year-olds, working toward getting ready to show. They’ve been training for four, five, maybe six months, and they’ll be under saddle or pulling a cart.”

Like the thoroughbred, the saddlebred has a long and storied history. It dates back to the late 18th century when explorer Daniel Boone, his brother Squire and scores of pioneers traveled to Kentucky on “American Horses,” the forerunner of the modern Saddlebred horse. A century later, Confederate General Robert E. Lee rode his famous horse, an American Saddlebred named Traveller, into many battles of the Civil War.

“Saddlebred horses were initially an expression of wealth and prestige,” said Kramer. “Like a Ferrari or Lamborghini, people would buy saddlebred horses. Today’s saddlebred is an outgrowth of this idea.”

“What makes a Saddlebred a champion is inside, it’s his heart, his will to win,” added Shelbyville saddlebred horse breeder Hoppy Bennett. “They move and go like they’re breathing fire, yet they’re trained to be mannerly enough for anyone to ride them.”

On Kramer’s tours, visitors will see the saddlebred up-close, stroll through the barn and talk to a trainer. They will learn about the distinctive gait of these beautiful show horses and their extreme motion.

“You might even get to pet a new foal,” said Kramer.

Plan Your Visit

Saddlebred stables are abuzz with activity all year long, but the most exciting time is during the spring when the babies arrive. Each spring, as many as 300 foals are born in Shelby County. (Nationally about 1,500 saddlebred horses are born each year.)

Book a behind-the-scenes saddlebred horse farm tour this spring during Derby Week with Kentucky Backroads Tours at 502-321-5979 or guidedbycharles@gmail.com. The one-hour tours are available at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday, May 3; Thursday, May 4; and Saturday, May 6, (10 a.m. only). Note: On Friday, May 5, a general tour of a training farm will be conducted by Kismet Farm Tours (651-248-2027). Tours are $10 per person. Space is limited so advance reservations are mandatory.