America's Own by J. Bryan Hickman and Curtis Buck by J. Bryan Hickman and Curtis Buck - Read Online

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America's Own - J. Bryan Hickman

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A grateful nation remembers... fifty true stories of the Morgan Horse, the horse that built America.

This isn’t so much an introduction as it is a disclaimer—this book will permanently influence your opinion of the Morgan Horse.

I believe that whole-heartedly. I believe if you’re a fourth-generation Morgan breeder, or even an avid supporter of the Quarter Horse, reading the text between these covers will educate, entertain, and enlighten you in a way that no other commentary on the Morgan Horse has ever done.

And this collection, this assembly of moving, completely true stories, encompasses the heart of Morgan service in a manner completely unprecedented in the literary world. What makes these stories unique is that they are not just a random assortment of Morgan tales—there are fifty of them, one for every state in the Union; one story of Morgan influence from the rocky tip of Maine to the tropical beaches of Hawaii. If it calls itself a United State, the Morgan has been there, it has served, and it has left a legacy. And finally, this project of tremendous effort preserves the cherished memories and ongoing sagas of the breed that deserves to known as America’s Own. It has been here since the start, and it continues to serve us today. This book tells that story.

Some are riveting battle epics, others are heart-warming accounts of commitment and excellence, and all are a glowing example of the qualities that have made the Morgan synonymous with heroism, hard work, and America.

No stone was left unturned in our efforts to make sure that every account of the Morgan in this work was completely and irrefutably accurate, and no haste was made in the decision-making process to determine which stories would best represent the heart of the Morgan, and by association the heart of America. Our hope is that once you have read these stories, you come away with an understanding that we know to be truth—that the Morgan Horse has left an impact on more facets of American life than any other breed of horse in history.

You may notice one other thing—any time the phrase Morgan Horse is used, the ‘h’ in ‘horse’ has been capitalized (excepting quotes). There is a distinct reason for this—we feel that it is appropriate that we display the full title of Morgan Horse as the proper noun phrase that it is, with both words capitalized. It may seem trivial, but it is a nod of respect that we feel the Morgan is deserving of, and that is the reason for that stylistic change.

Fifty states, fifty stories, millions impacted. We invite you to turn the page and begin to experience everything that the Morgan is all about, letting the uniqueness, excellence, and importance of this breed be the factors that guide you to your final determination. We invite you to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, a part of our nation’s history.

We invite you to celebrate America and its horse.

--Curtis Buck, finish author of America’s Own

When we think back to that spring morning in 1789 that the first Morgan was born, it’s easy to get caught up in everything we know now about the breed and imagine the wobbly little colt first rising to his feet in a blaze of morning sun and a chorus of singing birds. But what if it wasn’t like that at all? What if it was a typically wet and chilly April New England dawn; a dusty stall in the barn with only a poor farmer to witness the entrance of the horse that would change everything? And following this line of thinking, isn’t the latter scenario somehow more appropriate? The horse never sought fame, fortune, or legendary status—it was a simple, beautiful, versatile work horse; one that did its job to the best of its ability every time; one that could be relied upon to complete any task whether faced with a 100-degree heat wave or a 4-foot wall of snow. It did the dirty work, laying the foundation for the grander and more glorious future that Americans are embracing now, and for that it is fondly remembered and highly praised. And there, in the celebration of everything the breed has meant to America, is where the more appropriate picture of the first Morgan lies—that just like his country, he had a humble beginning that required grit, toughness, and perseverance.

• • •

In the heart of the lush green, rolling hills of Vermont, there is a kind of ageless aura that emanates from the countryside that can only be described as appropriate for the home of the first Morgan Horse. More than 200 years of unwavering service has its origin in this peaceful spot of New England, the starting point of a breed that built, shaped, and changed American history time and time again. It’s amazing to examine the parallels of America and the American Morgan Horse, for on the back of this horse the story of this country can be told: the Morgan helped establish the new nation in the East and was the trusted horse of the pioneer in forging a path to the West. Figure, the beautiful bay that began it all, is truly a champion in the equestrian world. One of the most famous sires in American history, Figure’s incredibly unlikely and heroically unique story is an account that mirrors the development of the country and provides a keen insight into the rise to prosperity that America enjoyed upon the foundation of his breed.

From the start, there was something different about him. The son of the legendary Thoroughbred stallion True Briton, Figure’s pedigree was held in high regard among New England horse breeders who craved the renowned qualities of his father, but in an ironic twist the horse was viewed as almost a disappointment upon his birth in West Springfield, Massachusetts during the spring of 1789. He was small, muscular yet compact, and seemed to lack the illustrious length and grace of True Briton. However, as the horse grew older, stronger, and more beautiful, there was an undeniable excellence that was unlike anything his owners had ever seen. His expressive eyes, his gentle spirit, and his willingness to attempt and complete any task with dawn-till-dusk durability signified a beginning of service that would change the face of the continent. And beneath the surface was something else—an unbridled prepotency, an ability to pass on every admirable trait that was ingrained into his DNA. Figure matured quickly, and for the first three years of his life he was advertised as a stud in his hometown.

But as fate would have it, difficult times fell on the farm of his birth. Justin Morgan, a tax collector and teacher from Randolph, Vermont, came walking up the dusty path to the house one day to collect a debt owed him by Figure’s master. Morgan, who actually owned Figure’s dam, received the sturdy colt and two other horses in place of twenty-five dollars that the farmer had no means of providing. Figure was led outside the only pasture he had known and began the walk to Vermont, the place his accomplishments would make the first home of America’s first breed.

It began, as it always does, in the small towns closest to the attraction. Word began to spread in close-knit Vermont of a small yet mighty horse owned by that school and music teacher, Justin Morgan, who could pull anything, plow all day, and outpace the fastest horses in New England. In accordance with the times, the little colt adopted the name of his owner as his popularity grew, referred to as The Justin Morgan Horse by those who had witnessed his abilities. One event in particular that contributed much to the colt’s reputation occurred around 1793, at a sawmill in Randolph near where Figure was being rented out for work. Robert Evans, who paid Justin Morgan $15 a year for the little horse’s services, was returning home from a day of clearing when he came upon a party of men near the mill gathered at a particularly monstrous log. According to eyewitness Nathan Nye, every horse in the village had tried and failed to move the fallen tree towards its destination at the sawmill, overcome by the weight and size of the task.

Why not let the Morgan try? Evans asked the defeated crew.

The men, even though familiar with Figure’s prowess in pulling, responded with laughter. Not even the Runt can budge that piece of timber, they howled.

Agitated with their swift dismissal of the proposal, Evans put it all on the line. If you don’t believe he can do it, I’ll wager you all a gallon of rum that this horse can have it to the logway in less than three pulls—with three of you men astride it, besides! He added, with emphasis, You see, when this horse starts, something’s got to come!

Amidst much laughter and chatter, three stout loggers climbed atop the mammoth log. Figure was promptly hitched to the tugs, and when all were confirmed to be ready, Evans gave the command.

Git up!

A groan came from deep within the horse’s body as his chest and shoulder muscles rippled with the strain. The laughing from the men on the log was quickly silenced as the timber lurched forward with a jarring jolt, nearly toppling them to the ground. The deep footprints being carved into the ground were quickly plowed over by the weight of the log, and the only sounds were the crunching of twigs and the little horse blowing steam from his nostrils in the cool evening air. A shout rose up from the men as the horse made his first pause already halfway to the mill, and their cheering could be heard clear across town as Figure landed the log at the determined spot with his next mighty effort.

Even after the schoolteacher was forced to trade him in 1795, the powerful and versatile colt kept the name that he would make famous. Figure was a favorite among Vermonters, and he assisted those in need all over the countryside as he was rented out for jobs that other livestock just couldn’t complete. The horse had not inherited the length and stature of his father, but every ounce of his energy, power, and fleet-footedness had been packed into a compact form that was rapidly winning over hearts in young America. But shortly after his rise to fame, there were a few hearts in New York that weren’t convinced of his abilities. Returning home from an event in New England, two New York Thoroughbred owners caught wind of a unique horse who had set Vermont buzzing with his abilities, a shockingly versatile mount who could pull with the strength of an ox team and run with the fastest horses set against him. Eager to quell the excitement with a display of true racing excellence, they quickly scheduled a match with the little horse’s owner on a sandy stretch of road in Vermont to disprove the seemingly preposterous claims.

It isn’t a fair match, a bystander said gruffly as the horses were readied. Figure here has been at the plow all day, and now he’s to run three races besides? A crowd of witnesses gathered to observe the impromptu competition between the very unlikely competitors, and they were shocked to discover who was lining up on what is now known as The Morgan Mile. Unfamiliar Thoroughbreds, sleek, swift, and unquestionably bred for this purpose, stood resolutely by their proud owners from New York. And beside them, familiar little Figure, still covered in dust from hours of plowing, looked decidedly out of place among the pristine group waiting at the makeshift starting line. The plainspoken farmer shook his head at the questionable equality of the match.

They’re asking him to race against the finest horses in New York after a full day’s work, he said, gesturing at the colt standing patiently as his working harness was removed. He muttered again, It isn’t fair.

The Thoroughbred owners were approaching the whole event with an easily detectable disdain and candor. The colt was muscular and beautiful, no doubt, but it was implausible to assume he stood a chance against these fine Thoroughbreds. Finish your bets, one of the New Yorkers announced. I should like to get home.

The farm horse just nickered casually. Unbeknownst to the crowd, within this animal was the perfect gait of the fastest trotters and finest roadsters that would ever be seen, the working power of the American farmer, the preferred mount of soldiers in battles for a hundred years to come, and the key to unlocking the secrets of America’s far west coast.

Far down the road, two figures were barely visible scratching out a finish line for the horses. Eyes flashed back and forth between the illustrious Thoroughbreds and the dusty farm horse, contrasting the noticeable differences between favorite and underdog. The crowd snapped to attention as a man walked forward with his hat in hand to signal the start, holding his hands up as the riders set themselves. The Morgan’s ears twitched with anticipation.

Not a chance, a bystander whispered.

With a snap of the arm, the horses were set into motion. The Thoroughbreds jumped out to a half-length lead off the line, their powerful strides sending showers of dirt behind him. The recent rain had left the usually dusty road in perfect racing condition, and the mounts took advantage of it. Shouts grew louder as the Justin Morgan Horse crept closer, and halfway to the finish, the little colt found a high gear, his rippling legs and impeccable feet working in perfect unison to push his head out front. He wasn’t keeping pace. He was setting the pace.

Amidst a frenetic ovation, the world’s first Morgan burst out of the pack and streaked across the finish line a full length ahead of the competition. The local farmers and breeders, overflowing with new pride, waved and cheered Figure as the horses were brought back to the starting line. The New Yorkers angrily conversed amongst themselves as they walked their Thoroughbreds into position, determined not to let the mistake happen again.

At the start of the second race, the crowd reached a new level of excitement as the little colt stayed neck and neck with the leaders again, then exploded alone into first place with yards left to spare. He was almost toying with them. The sweat glistened on his back, his nostrils flared, and his body trembled with adrenaline as he was led back, but his fellow Vermont residents never thought the horse looked so radiant.

Again! one of the New Yorkers cried.

But it was no use. The durability, versatility, and sheer power of this unknown breed was too much for even the vaunted Thoroughbreds. The Justin Morgan Horse thundered uncontested over the line in the sand for the final time, putting a definitive stamp on his handling of the challengers. As the onlookers poured into the road to embrace one of their own, the New Yorkers slowly led their horses away from the scene, knowing that it was not the last they would hear of the little Vermont colt that they had severely underestimated.

As his legend grew, so did his breed. The incredible prepotency of Figure’s genetics ensured the continuation of everything that made the horse remarkable; and as time went on, the Justin Morgan Horse grew dearer and dearer to the Vermont residents who had discovered him, encouraged him, and benefited from him. By the early 1800s he was changing hands about every three years, as farmers and breeders alike took turns sharing the wonderful horse that worked so hard and did so much for them. With the maturation of his three most prominent sons, Woodbury, Sherman, and Bulrush, it became clear that the horse was doing more than injecting a fusion of excellence into Vermont’s equestrian world—he was creating an entirely new breed of horse. Already firmly established as a proud son of Vermont, the Morgan’s moment came in 1809 to be established as a son of America. President James Monroe selected him as his mount for a military muster held in the capital city of Montpelier; and as the commander in chief waved to the crowds, Figure was acknowledged by the citizens who had raised him as a true horse of America—a new breed for a new nation. Figure lived a full life of 32 years, passing in 1821 as the accomplished foundation sire of the nation’s first breed.

Was this colt bestowed on this fledgling country as a divine gift meant for America’s prosperity? Or was it simply one of those inexplicable events of nature that coincided perfectly with the needs of a new nation? Whatever the explanation, there is no denying the unifying impact the Morgan Horse has had on today’s society as we know it. And in true keeping with the united that begins our country’s name, the state of Vermont produced one of the greatest resources America has ever known—then graciously shared that treasure for a whole nation to benefit from. Forever linked, the state, the country, and the horse that served them both are alive and well today; and everywhere we turn there is evidence of a contribution that changed a nation, and in turn changed us. The unwavering sacrifice and service of the Morgan Horse will never be forgotten, for it is truly the horse that built America.

From North to South and from East to West, every farmer, soldier, and patriot thanks you, Figure, for you were just as much one of them as the Americans you served so willingly.

Very few places hold the proud distinction of being the final resting place of one of Figure’s original sons. But in Gainesville, Alabama, the 19th-century Southeastern hub of horse racing, there stands a historical marker stating just that. Described as the earliest known Morgan Horse in Alabama, the son was Woodbury, and the second-generation Morgan left an indelible mark on America as one of the main propagators of the nation’s first breed.

The largest and most physically gifted of Figure’s three prominent sons (the other two being Sherman and Bulrush), Woodbury has several exceptional distinctions. In addition to being the son of the cornerstone of his breed, Woodbury is also the starting point