What to Know About the Tennessee Walking Horse

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on January 09, 2023
5 min read

The Tennessee Walking Horse is a famous American breed of gaited horse. This horse glides smoothly across the ground when it performs its distinctive “running walk” and other gaits. These motions make the Tennessee Walking Horse extremely comfortable and easy to ride even for beginners. 

The Tennessee Walking Horse is a handsome horse with a small head, delicate ears, and graceful, sloping neck. It has a short back, powerful hindquarters and legs, and hardy hooves. 

The Tennessee Walking Horse’s eye-catching gaits are its most unique characteristics. This breed can perform three natural gaits that carry the rider forward smoothly: 

Flat-foot walk. The Tennessee Walking Horse can reach 4 to 8 miles per hour while performing this fast, square gait. The flat foot walk has four beats, as each hoof touches the ground separately. The horse steps forward with the right front foot and simultaneously moves the back right foot forward to slide ahead of the right front footprint. This motion is known as an overstride. 

As the horse glides across the ground, it bobs its head in time with its steps. The Tennessee Walking Horse is the only horse breed that overstrides and bobs its head while walking.

Running walk. The extremely smooth running walk is the Tennessee Walking Horse’s most famous gait. The horse moves its feet in the same way it does during the flat-foot walk but much more quickly. During this gait, the back feet overstride the front steps by 6 to 18 inches. True walkers bob their heads and take long overstrides, propelling forward powerfully and effortlessly. 

The Tennessee Walking Horse can move at speeds of 10 to 20 miles per hour during a running walk. Its muscles relax during this gait to allow seamless movement. The horse may also snap its teeth in time with its steps. 

Canter. The canter is a collected gallop, which is a three-beat gait performed by many horse breeds. The horse moves its legs diagonally to the left or right. For instance, a horse on the right lead moves its left front leg and both hind legs at the same time and then moves the right front leg. 

While all horses canter, the Tennessee Walking Horse performs the gait with its characteristic rhythm and smoothness. Enthusiasts often call this breed’s canter the “rocking chair”.

Many Tennessee Walking Horses can also perform other gaits that aren’t unique to the breed, like the fox-trot, rack, and stepping pace. These fluid movements make the breed popular with pleasure riders and trail riders who want a comfortable mount.

Many equestrians favor the Tennessee Walking Horse for its gentle and obedient temperament. Most Tennessee Walking Horses are polite and easy to control in a show ring with light handling. The breed is also very easy to train and often doesn’t need a professional trainer. 

The Tennessee Walking Horse’s docile nature and flowing gaits have contributed to its growing popularity. This breed is especially suitable for beginning riders, children, older equestrians, and people who aren’t confident in their riding abilities.

The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA) accepts many different coat colors and markings. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the possible colors: 

  • Bay: A light- to dark-brown body with black legs, mane, and tail
  • Chestnut: A light gold to dark brown coat with reddish hues
  • Classic champagne: A chocolate brown body with a darker mane; tail and eyes are blue at birth but turn to brown or hazel
  • Cremello: A cream body with a white mane and tail
  • Gold Cream Champagne: A pale to dark golden body that lightens with age and a flaxen mane and tail
  • Palomino: A pale to rich gold body with a white mane and tail 
  • Roan: A dark body mixed with white hairs
  • Sorrel: A chestnut body with a paler mane and tail  
  • Tobiano: A solid-colored body with white legs and vertical white spots

The most common Tennessee Walking Horse colors are bay, black, champagne, chestnut, and sorrel.

The Tennessee Walking Horse can stand 14.3 to 17 hands tall. Most horses are on the smaller side of this range, with the breed averaging 15.2 hands. They weigh 900 to 1,200 pounds. 

The Tennessee Walking Horse origin is central Tennessee in the late 1800s. The breed’s foundation sire was Black Allan, a black stallion produced by crossing a Hambletonian Trotter and a Morgan mare. Horse breeders crossed Black Allan with Tennessee Pacer mares. Other breeds were added later to produce today’s Tennessee Walking Horse, including the American Saddlebred, Standardbred, and Thoroughbred. 

Originally, the breed’s smooth gaits made it a popular choice for people who rode long distances in the rugged Tennessee mountains. For example, country doctors, Southern plantation owners, and traveling preachers frequently rode Tennessee Walking Horses. 

In 1935, breed enthusiasts formed the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ Association of America (later renamed the TWHBEA). The organization closed the breed’s studbook in 1947. Today, the association has registered over 400,000 Tennessee Walking Horses, cementing the breed’s status as one of the best-loved American horse breeds.

The Tennessee Walking Horse is a versatile breed with many modern uses, including: 

  • Dressage
  • Equine therapy
  • Obstacle driving
  • Reining 
  • Trail riding
  • Western riding  

The breed’s athleticism and biddability allow it to excel in many disciplines.

This breed is generally healthy and long-lived. The average Tennessee Walking Horse lifespan is 28 to 33 years. 

Congenital stationary night blindness (CSNB) is one genetic health issue that may affect this breed. A horse with this condition can’t see in low lighting because the retina rods don’t properly transmit signals to the brain. There is no treatment for CSNB, but the disease doesn’t progress.

The Tennessee Walking Horse is an affectionate and smooth-riding horse. Its gentle nature and smooth gaits make it an excellent choice for riders of all abilities and ages. 

Expect to feed your Tennessee Walking Horse at least 1% of its body weight in hay or pasture daily. Your horse may also need calorie-dense grains to supplement its diet if you spend a lot of time working it. For example, a horse that works 2 to 4 hours daily will require approximately 15 to 20 pounds of hay and 3 to 8 pounds of grain. 

If you’re looking for a flashy but easily trained horse that will draw admiration in the show ring and on the trail, the Tennessee Walking Horse could be the right breed for you.