The Tennessee Walking Horse or Tennessee Walker is a gaited breed known for its unique four-beat running walk. Developed initially as a light riding horse in the American South, Tennessee Walking Horses continue to enjoy popularity as a flashy recreational mount.

Tennessee Walking Horse competitions allow riders to show off their horse’s natural animated movement. However, some of these competitions have witnessed controversial practices as a result of trends towards exaggerated performances.

The striking appearance of these horses allows them to stand out in the show arena, but their calm dispositions and smooth gaits also make them ideal trail and pleasure horses. With quality care, these horses can continue to shine throughout their athletic careers and long lives.

This article will review the origin, history, characteristics, health problems, and nutrition needs of the Tennessee Walking Horse breed. Keep reading to learn more about caring for and feeding these American horses.

Tennessee Walking Horse History

The Tennessee Walking Horse combined the best traits of several American riding breeds. First recognized as a distinct breed in 1950, these horses would eventually become the official state horse of Tennessee and one of the most popular breeds in the United States.


Ancestors of the Tennessee Walking Horse descended from Narragansett Pacers, Canadian Pacers, and Spanish Mustangs brought to Tennessee in the late 18th century.

Known as Tennessee Pacers, these horses served as all-purpose mounts on local farms and plantations. Their smooth gaits made them comfortable rides for long days, and their sure-footedness helped them work over the rocky terrain.

Over the next century, breeders refined the breed with Morgan, Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Saddlebred blood. [1]

Black Allen is recognized as the foundation sire for the breed. Born in 1886, the black stallion failed as a trotting horse but produced offspring able to perform several ambling gaits. His progeny included Roan Allen, a successful show horse born in 1904.

Historic Use

The gaited ancestors of Tennessee Walkers were primarily used for working farms or trotting races. But Black Allen and Roan Allen’s progeny stood out most in the show arena.

In the early 20th century, these horses demonstrated their unique ambling gaits and their signature running walk at exhibitions and gained recognition under the Tennessee Walking Horse name.

The first Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration (TWHNC) was held in Nashville in 1939. Founded by Henry Davis, the event showcased Tennessee Walking Horses to over 40,000 people in its inaugural year. [1]

The Celebration is now held annually in Shelbyville, Tennessee. As the largest horse show for the breed, the TWHNC draws 2,000 horses and 250,000 people to the “Walking Horse Capital of the World” every year.

Tennessee Walking Horses can compete in several divisions at the TWHNC, but some have controversial histories.


In the mid-1900s, the TWHNC came under scrutiny due to concerns about soring, which involves the use of chemicals or other practices to inflict pain on the horse’s limbs.

Soring causes horses to pick their front feet up higher and faster, producing artificially exaggerated movement, often called the “big lick”.

Soring methods include the application of caustic chemicals, sharp objects, or the insertion of materials between the horse’s hoof and shoe to cause pain and encourage a higher, more animated gait.

The use of soring techniques is considered inhumane and has been widely condemned by animal welfare organizations and many within the horse industry. This practice is now illegal in the United States under the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970. [2]

However, the law does not cover action devices used in performance divisions of Tennessee Walking Horse shows. These include stacks of pads placed between the front hoof and horseshoe and bracelet-like chains around the front pastern.

Debate continues over the use of these devices and their implications for horse health and welfare. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) both support a ban on action devices in the training and showing of Tennessee Walking Horses. [3]

Efforts have been made by organizations such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), breed associations, and horse show organizers, to address these issues and promote the humane treatment of horses. These initiatives aim to encourage sound horsemanship and the exhibition of Tennessee Walking Horses in their natural gait without resorting to abusive practices.

Breed Registry

The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitor’s Association (TWHBEA) manages the official breed registry for Tennessee Walking Horses.

Founded as the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeder’s Association in 1935, the organization changed its name in 1974 to reflect the growing interest in the breed as a show horse.

This organization is dedicated to the promotion, preservation, and advancement of the Tennessee Walker breed. The association supports various activities related to the breed, including organizing shows, trail rides, and educational programs, maintaining breed standards, and promoting responsible breeding practices.

The TWHBEA closed the studbook in 1947 and stopped accepting new registrations for horses that did not already have a documented pedigree within the association.. Since then, only offspring of registered Tennessee Walking Horse sires and dams have been eligible for registration.

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Breed Characteristics

Tennessee Walking Horses have an elegant and robust body type that makes a striking impression in the show ring. While their smooth gaits are thee distinguishing feature of the breed, these horses also have an excellent temperament that helps them adapt to different disciplines.


Most Tennessee Walking Horses stand between 14.3 and 17 hands in height, but long, upright necks make them appear even taller.

These horses have long, sloping, well-muscled shoulders and hips that enable animated movements, while a short back and a longer bottom line encourage a longer stride.

Unlike other breeds, it is acceptable for Tennessee Walkers to have slightly cow-hocked, sickle-hocked, or over-angulated hindlegs. Straight hindlegs provide less impulsion and flexion in the ambling gaits. [4]


Tennessee Walkers can have any coat colour, and several pinto patterns occur in the breed. Standard coat colours include bay, black, and chestnut.

These horses can also have colours associated with dilution genes, including dun, palomino, and silver dapple.


The running walk is the iconic gait of the Tennessee Walking Horse. This gait is smooth and has a distinctive head nodding motion, which is highly valued in the breed.

This four-beat gait has the same footfall order as a flat walk but is significantly faster. In this gait, the rear feet overstep the front hoof prints by 6 to 18 inches, and the horse’s head nods with the rhythm.

Genetic studies have identified specific gene variations linked to the running walk in Tennessee Walkers. These variations have been identified in regions of the genome that play roles in biological regulation and developmental processes. [5]

While Tennessee Walking horses can canter, few can trot. Some are capable of performing other lateral ambling gaits, such as the rack, but these gaits are penalized in the show ring.


Tennessee Walkers are characterized as a docile breed. These horses have a calm disposition and ar