Kentucky Thoroughbreds and Saddlebreds? Folks, It’s Time We Learned the Difference Rachel White

Everybody knows Kentucky is the Horse Capital of the World—but what many of even the proudest Kentuckians don’t realize is that while we are home to the Kentucky Derby, our Thoroughbreds aren’t the only horses that make our state famous.  

And Louisville and Lexington aren’t the only cities in the Bluegrass breeding champions. That’s right. Our little Shelbyville has had American Saddlebreds since the Civil War, when Confederate soldiers rode Kentucky-grown, high-stepping steeds, which Union officers promptly nicknamed “Kentucky saddlers.”  A few years later, the Kentucky Saddlebred became the first officially registered horse breed in America.

Fast-forward to today, and Shelby County is home to almost 90 Saddlebred horse farms and has hosted almost 30 Annual Horse Shows, the preliminary competition to the World Championship at the Kentucky State Fair. So who are these American Saddlebreds, and how are they different from our Derby Day Thoroughbreds? It’s high time we let the experts clarify the difference—and find out how both breeds make Kentucky proud.

Bred for different purposes It’s clear Thoroughbreds are bred to run, but Saddlebreds play a different game.  Some have called them the “peacock of the show ring,” but according to Charlie Kramer, our local Saddlebred-farm tour guide and lifelong horse-enthusiast, Saddlebreds are “the prettiest horse doing the prettiest thing.”  Basically, Thoroughbreds are bred for speed, whereas Saddlebreds are bred to show.

What to look for It’s pretty much impossible to tell a Thoroughbred and Saddlebred apart at a glance.  But when they pick up speed, it becomes pretty clear who’s who.

But what do trainers look for in a champion Saddlebred? According to Charlie Kramer, there are a lot of things judges look for in the ring, but when it comes down to the horse, you want a long neck, a high head with a tucked chin, and some ridiculously high-stepping hooves.

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A day in the life The process of training a Saddlebred and training a Thoroughbred looks about as different as their competitions themselves.  Just visit trainer Alex Gravett, who works with horses and riders alike 12 hours everyday, 6 days a week at Kismet Farm in Simpsonville. “This industry truly is a lifestyle,” Gravett says. “It’s hard, but really satisfying.”  

Saddlebreds typically train 15-20 minutes everyday (the same amount of time they’ll spend competing in the ring), but most days, they train without a rider. More often they’re long lined or hooked to the cart and jogged.

Want to check it out for yourself?   Lucky for us, Gravett says giving curious visitors tours of the farm keeps her inspired. “If people are showing passion for the sport, we want to help foster it.”  To respect their tight schedule, visits are by appointment only. So be sure to call in advance to get your taste of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into prepping Saddlebreds for the ring!

Both bred to win As different as the two breeds are, Saddlebreds and Thoroughbreds do share one important thing in common—what Charlie Kramer and Alex Gravett both call the critical characteristic of any Bluegrass-bred champion: a winner’s attitude.  Whether it’s competing for beauty or speed, the best of Kentucky’s Saddlebreds and Thoroughbreds both possess a fire to be the best, and that’s what sets them apart as the champions that make Kentucky proud.