Local artist produces Morgan horse documentary

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury artist Doug Lazarus started to develop a real appreciation for the Morgan horse five years ago while researching, for a literary project, the Vermont roots of the celebrated breed.
But Lazarus quickly came to the conclusion that the history, attributes and many accomplishments of the Morgan horse could not fit in one book.
“It became clear that this horse was in many of the epic events in U.S. history, from the Revolutionary War to the present,” Lazarus said during an interview on Monday. “I believed this great story could be told on film.”
He knew it was too big an assignment to take on himself. Fortunately, he found an experienced teammate in Steve Murphy of Lake Champlain Productions to help commit his vision to film. And he also found a wealth of Morgan horse resources, some of them virtually just outside his front door, at the National Museum of the Morgan Horse on Middlebury’s Main Street, and at the UVM Morgan Horse Farm in neighboring Weybridge.
The fruit of Lazarus and Murphy’s labors can be seen in “The Fighting Breed,” a new 30-minute documentary about the major role the Morgan horse played in the Civil War. It is the first of an eventual series of six documentaries that will chart the breed’s illustrious history from its founding sire — a horse originally named “Figure” — to the Morgan’s vital contributions today, including in such fields as equine therapy for war veterans.
“It is the story of America,” Lazarus said of the Morgan and its contributions to agriculture, the military and other industries and historical events.
According to information provided by the American Morgan Horse Association, the first Morgan horse was born in West Springfield, Mass., in 1789. Its true origins “remain hidden in mystery,” according to AMHA. A man named Justin Morgan acquired the colt in 1792 as a debt payment. Morgan brought his horse with him when he moved to Randolph, Vt.
“His ability to out-walk, out-trot, outrun and out-pull other horses were legendary,” reads the AMHA history of the breed. “His stud services were offered throughout the Connecticut River Valley and various Vermont locations over his lifetime. However, his most valuable asset was the ability to pass on his distinguishing characteristics, not only to his (immediate) offspring, but through several generations.”
“Figure,” later renamed the “Justin Morgan Horse,” died in 1821 from an untreated kick from another horse. He is buried in Tunbridge.
But the Justin Morgan Horse left a variety of offspring that carried on the dominant traits of the breed, including strong legs; an expressive head with a broad forehead; large, prominent eyes; well-defined withers, laid back shoulders, and an upright, well-arched neck. The horse is also characterized by a short back and strongly muscled hindquarters.
This remarkable creature has been designated the official state animal of Vermont.
It was around two and a half years ago that Lazarus and Murphy began work on what they agreed would be their first chapter in the Morgan saga: The horse’s performance in the Civil War. The two men reasoned that the release of such a documentary would dovetail nicely with the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, which occurred earlier this year.
“It seemed like a natural fit,” Lazarus said.
Making the film was only part of the work. They first had to seek financing and, of course, line up file footage, Civil War re-enactment scenes and various experts to speak in front of the camera.
They obtained seed money for the project through the National Park Service, thanks to the efforts of Jim Brangan of the Lake Champlain Basin Program. Individual contributions also came in, most notably from Roberta Winter Knight. Her grandfather, Robert Lippett Knight, has a bloodline of Morgans — “Lippetts”— named after him, Lazarus noted.
“What was great about this project is the people I met,” Lazarus said, adding he learned that women, as opposed to men, have a particularly strong role in the stewardship of the Morgan breed. The filmmakers relied heavily on such experts as Morgan historian Brenda L. Tippin; Gail Perlee, a lifetime member of AMHA and an inductee into the AMHA Hall of Fame; Morgan military historian Christian Heidorf; and Elizabeth Curler, former curator for the National Museum of the Morgan Horse.
“The Fighting Breed” film tells the story of the 1st Vermont Cavalry, a much celebrated and respected force of the Union Army that rode Morgans into around 75 battles during the Civil War, including Gettysburg and Cedar Creek. The inimitable Civil War historian and author Howard Coffin of Vermont helps tell the story, as does Steven Sodergren, as associate professor of history at Norwich University.
Many Vermont soldiers, they explained, were plucked from farm fields, as were the Morgans that had been helping them do their chores. Suddenly, Vermonters had to ditch their shovels for rifles and the horses transitioned from plodding on farm fields to charging on battlefields.
“These men who showed up were green; they were very unprepared for the military service that awaited them,” Sodergren says during the film, punctuated with the sounds of musket fire and footage of Civil War re-enactments. “One day you went riding out to see your girl, and the next you had joined the cavalry and were riding into enemy fire. You either stayed in the saddle, or died in the mud.”
Lazarus, through his research, noted the Morgans got better on the battlefield and performed heroically as the war progressed. Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, commander of the Union Army at Shenandoah, rallied the troops atop his prized Morgan, Rienzi, during the battle of Cedar Creek, captured in a famous painting on display at the Vermont Statehouse. The National Museum of the Morgan Horse in Middlebury has samples of Rienzi’s hair; his remains are stuffed and on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution.
“They were a great favorite of Sheridan,” Lazarus said of the Morgans. He said the 1st Vermont was regarded as “as good as any cavalry unit as any, and better than most.”
In terms of casualties, the Civil War took an even bigger toll on horses (more than 1 million) than it did on soldiers (620,000).
“In many cases, (the soldiers) had to ride their horses to death,” Lazarus said, pointing to soldiers’ accounts of “the smell of dead horses wherever you went.”
Indeed, the Civil War nearly drove the Morgan horse to extinction. Fortunately, folks like Addison County’s Joseph Battell helped resurrect the Morgan horse breed. Battell began breeding Morgans on his farm in Weybridge during the late 1870s. He spent years studying and tracing Morgan pedigrees and published the first volume of the Morgan Horse Register in 1894. He gave his farm to the U.S. government in 1907; today it is the UVM Morgan Horse Farm.
Lazarus is proud of the “The Fighting Breed” film, and he and Murphy are now primed to work on the next five 30-minute installments. Those will cover the genesis of the Morgan breed, the role the horse played in westward expansion, the Indian Wars, the golden age of carriage driving, and the horse’s influence on modern-day culture and programs.
Middlebury’s Marquis Theater will screen “The Fighting Breed” at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 12, 13 and 14.
Information about the film, including how to order a copy of it, can be found at morgandocumentary.com.
Amy Mincher is director of the National Museum of the Morgan Horse. She is pleased with the first of the six Morgan documentaries.
“I really like how they got so many Vermont historians to comment,” Minter said. “It is going to definitely add to what is out there on Morgans and their history.”
The film might also increase Vermont’s profile as a destination for Morgan enthusiasts. Some fans already devise their own “Morgan trail” throughout Vermont to observe area examples of the animal and archives chronicling its history.
“It can only benefit our museum and its mission,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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