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Tennessee Walking Horse: History, Characteristics, and Care

Last updated: March 25, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Dive into the world of the Tennessee Walking Horse, a breed that combines speed with smoothness in its signature ‘running walk,’ reaching speeds up to 20 mph. As a testament to American heritage, these horses embody elegance and resilience.

Leveraging my extensive experience with horses, I’ll explain the unique qualities that make the Tennessee Walking Horse a favorite among equestrians of all levels, from seasoned riders to those just beginning their journey.

Picture of a girl leading a blue roan tennessee walking horse in the sunset.
Tennessee Walking Horse and her owner walk together.

Tennessee Walking Horse: The Origins of a Native Breed

Originating in the late 18th century in the Southern United States, the Tennessee Walking Horse boasts an ancestry that combines the endurance of the Spanish Mustang with the smooth gaits of Narragansett and Canadian Pacers.

This blend has given rise to the breed’s hallmark “running walk,” a gait that is both smooth and efficient, ideal for both showing and leisure riding.

A video display of the various gaits of Tennessee Walking Horses.

Why Choose a Tennessee Walking Horse?

For beginners, the temperament, trainability, and experience level of a horse are paramount considerations, often outweighing pedigree. The Tennessee Walking Horse, with its friendly disposition and ease of training, fits this bill perfectly.

Known for their calmness and patience, these horses are particularly suitable for riders who are just starting their equestrian journey.

Key Characteristics

  • Temperament: The breed is celebrated for its calm, intelligent, and eager-to-please nature, making it an excellent choice for many riders.
  • Gaits: The Tennessee Walking Horse’s signature “running walk” provides a comfortable ride, minimizing bounce and reducing rider fatigue. This is especially beneficial for novices or those with physical constraints.
  • Versatility: Beyond their smooth gaits, Tennessee Walking Horses are adaptable to various equestrian disciplines, showcasing their versatility.
Picture of a young Tennessee Walking Horse in a paddock.
Young Tennessee Walking Horse

Physical Traits

The Tennessee Walking Horse stands out for its robust and majestic stature, typically ranging from 14.3 to 17 hands in height. This breed is admired for its strong yet elegant build, characterized by:

  • Height: Tennessee Walking Horses generally range from 14.5 to 16.5 hands.
  • Weight: Tennessee Walking Horses typically weigh 900 to 1200 pounds.
  • Appearance: A harmonious blend of muscle and grace, with well-proportioned heads, small, alert ears, and expressive eyes that reflect intelligence and gentleness.
  • Physique: It is notable for its long, sloping shoulders and hips that contribute to its powerful and graceful movements. A distinctive body structure featuring a short back and strong coupling allows for extended strides.
  • Coat Colors: Tennessee Walking Horses come in a wide array of coat colors and patterns, including bay, black, chestnut, and palomino, plus roan and spotted patterns, offering a diverse spectrum of beauty.

Caring for Your Tennessee Walking Horse

Proper care is crucial for maintaining the health and performance of Tennessee Walking Horses. Essential aspects of care include:

  • Hoof Care & Diet: Attention to hoof care and a balanced diet is vital.
  • Regular Exercise: Exercise not only keeps them fit but also enhances their natural gaits.
  • Health Checks: Routine veterinary check-ups are essential for early detection of potential health issues.
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Tennessee Walking Horse in training.

Exploring the Tennessee Walking Horse’s Signature Gaits

The Tennessee Walking Horse stands out for its distinctive gaits, blending natural elegance with functional advantages for riders:

  • Flat Foot & Running Walk: Central to the breed’s appeal, these gaits provide a seamless experience for riders of all levels, including beginners and those with physical limitations. Their smooth, consistent rhythm significantly reduces bounce, ensuring a more comfortable and enjoyable ride, even over extended distances.
  • Canter: Characterized by its soothing “rocking chair” motion, the canter is as gentle as it is easy to manage, making it suitable for riders with varying degrees of experience. This gait highlights the breed’s versatility and user-friendly nature, essential qualities for both training purposes and leisurely rides.
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Tennessee Walking Horse leading a trail ride.

The Tennessee Walking Horse in Equestrian Disciplines

The Tennessee Walking Horse shines across a spectrum of equestrian disciplines, from the precision of dressage to the ruggedness of western riding. Its remarkable adaptability, paired with innate physical and mental agility, endears it to a diverse audience, catering to various riding preferences and training methodologies.

Excellence in Competitive Arenas

Renowned for its elegance and distinctive gaits, the Tennessee Walking Horse makes a significant impact in competitive settings, engaging in:

  • Model and Pleasure Classes: These events spotlight the horse’s physical beauty, graceful movement, and agreeable temperament, underscoring the breed’s inherent elegance.
  • Versatility Classes: These competitions highlight the breed’s flexibility and involve a range of challenges that showcase the Tennessee Walking Horse’s comprehensive skill set.
  • Performance Classes: These classes draw attention to the breed’s “big lick” gait, a point of contention that underscores the importance of ethical training and care in preparing these magnificent animals.

Recreational Riding: A Blend of Comfort and Companionship

For those seeking a serene trail companion or a reliable partner in leisure riding, the Tennessee Walking Horse offers unparalleled ease and stamina thanks to its silky-smooth gaits. This breed ensures:

  • Effortless Exploration: Its gaits provide a bounce-free ride, ideal for extended treks across diverse landscapes, ensuring rider comfort throughout.
  • Reliable Companionship: Known for its tranquil nature, the Tennessee Walking Horse guarantees a secure and pleasurable riding experience for adventurers of all ages and skill levels, from solitary explorers to group excursions.

Broadening Horizons Beyond the Show Ring

Beyond its prowess in shows and on trails, the Tennessee Walking Horse demonstrates its broad applicability in:

  • Therapeutic Riding: Its docile temperament makes it perfect for therapeutic riding programs, which offer solace and support to riders with special needs.
  • Endurance Riding: The breed’s endurance and efficient gait make it a standout in endurance riding, showcasing its durability and versatility.

Tennessee Walking Horses are known for their ability to suit riders of all experiences, making them excellent family horses. Their accessible demeanor and willingness to engage in casual and formal equestrian pursuits highlight the breed’s versatile nature and capacity for partnership, making them a cherished addition to the equestrian community.

Tennessee Walking Horse in Competition.

Confronting the Issue of Soring in Tennessee Walking Horses

Soring, the unethical practice designed to exaggerate the Tennessee Walking Horse’s natural gait for competitive advantage, remains a significant concern despite being outlawed by the Horse Protection Act of 1970.

This act was a crucial step toward ensuring the welfare of these magnificent animals, yet the persistence of soring underscores the ongoing challenge of safeguarding ethical standards within the equestrian world.

Ethical Implications and Industry Response

  • Veterinary Insights: The detrimental effects of soring are not just physical but also ethical, a point Dr. Haffner highlights through his testimony. His observations shed light on the urgent need for comprehensive industry reforms to eliminate this cruel practice.
  • Breeding for Change: William T. “Marty” Irby, a prominent figure in the breeding community, addresses the critical state of the breed at the House Committee Hearing. He advocates for legislative action, such as the PAST Act (HR 1518/S 1406), as a pivotal measure to rescue the breed from the clutches of soring. He envisions a future where the Tennessee Walking Horse can flourish, free from abuse.

The fight against soring is not just about legal compliance; it’s a moral imperative that calls for the collective action of veterinarians, breeders, and the entire equestrian community.

By highlighting the ethical considerations and rallying for change, we can aspire to a future where the Tennessee Walking Horse is celebrated for its natural grace and athleticism, untainted by the cruelty of soring.


Reflecting on the Tennessee Walking Horse’s exceptional qualities, my personal journey with these horses mirrors the admiration detailed in my article. Riding numerous Tennessee Walking Horses has allowed me to witness firsthand their versatility and gentle demeanor.

From embarking on long trail rides, where their smooth, effortless gait truly shines, to the extraordinary experience of swimming with them, their readiness to explore any path and their trouble-free nature have profoundly deepened my appreciation for the breed.

These experiences underscore the Tennessee Walking Horse’s remarkable adaptability, reliability, and deep connection with riders. This combination of grace, resilience, and companionship endears them to equestrians at every level.

Share your stories and experiences with Tennessee Walking Horses. Whether you’ve navigated winding trails, enjoyed their serene company in new settings, or simply been mesmerized by their beauty, your stories enrich our collective understanding and appreciation of this distinguished breed.

Resources and References

  • Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA):
  • National Walking Horse Association:

Research studies:

  1. J. Lane Fletcher’s study, ‘A Study of the First Fifty Years of Tennessee Walking Horse Breeding,’ provides an insightful look into the breed’s early years. Published in the Journal of Heredity, it delves into the breeding practices and genetic milestones that shaped the Tennessee Walking Horse. For a deeper understanding of this breed’s historical development, Fletcher’s study is an invaluable resource. Read the full article here.
  2. In the study “Genome-wide association mapping of heritable temperament variation in the Tennessee Walking Horse,” published in Genes, Brain and Behavior, researchers E.A. Staiger, J.D. Albright, and S.A. Brooks explores the genetic factors influencing temperament in Tennessee Walking Horses. Recognized for their calm and docile nature, this breed is often chosen for trail, show, and pleasure riding. For a detailed understanding of the genetic aspects of this breed’s temperament, the full study can be accessed here.
  3. Tennessee Walking Horse. In Diagnosis and Management of Lameness in the Horse (Second Edition). This article provides an in-depth look at the Tennessee Walking Horse’s history, physical characteristics, and the specific nature of its gaits, offering valuable insights for enthusiasts and professionals alike. For more detailed information on the Tennessee Walking Horse, visit ScienceDirect.