So, you want to ride the glide? An increasing number of trail riders are taking a close look at smooth movers – gaited horses that carry their riders with nary a bounce or a bobble. That smooth ride, they say, is the essence of real pleasure riding!
Here, we’ll offer a brief overview of six popular gaited breeds. We’ll cover four all-American breeds: the Missouri Fox Trotter, the Mountain Horse (Rocky Mountain Horse/Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse), the Spotted Saddle Horse, and the Tennessee Walking Horse. We’ll also visit two breeds that evolved in Central and South America, but that have received a warm welcome here: the Paso Fino and the Peruvian Horse. For each one, we’ll give you history highlights, briefly explain the gaits, and discuss trail-riding talent.
Missouri Fox Trotter
The Missouri Fox Trotter originated after early settlers traveled west across the Mississippi River and into the Ozark Mountains with horses of Morgan, Arabian, and Thoroughbred blood. In time, those horses’ descendants evolved into the versatile, good-minded, smooth-gaited breed of today. The Missouri Fox Trotting Breed Association Inc., based in Ava, Missouri, currently boasts nearly 9,000 members with 85,000 registered horses.
According to the MFTBA, the breed has three natural gaits – the flat-foot walk, the smooth “fox trot” that gives the breed its name, and the canter, which riders liken to the motion of a rocking horse.
The fox trot is a “broken gait,” that is, the horse walks with his front feet and trots with his hind feet. The back feet shuffle and slide, frequently stepping into the track made by the front feet. This shuffling, as opposed to a hard-step trot, makes the fox trot exceptionally comfortable for riders.
On the trail:
“Missouri Fox Trotters combine the athleticism of a Quarter Horse, the stamina of the Arabian, and the smooth gaits of the Tennessee Walking Horse,” declares JoAnn Becker of Missouri. “We’re stuck on Fox Trotters.”
Becker and her husband, George, own 140 Fox Trotters, and offer guided rides at their Valley Springs Foxtrotters. The property, which adjoins the Mark Twain National Forest and the Ozark Trail, offers riders meandering trails through stands of picturesque oak and maple trees by sparkling creeks fed by the Black River.
Bill Hinkebein has owned Missouri Fox Trotters since 1956; he and his wife, Jeanne, have bred and ridden a dynasty of North American Trail Ride Conference champions. Their Fox Trotter stallion, Hickory’s Country Gold, is a NATRC Hall of Fame horse with more than 5,000 competitive miles. In 80 events, he marked 43 first-place and 22 second-place finishes. Twenty-five Hinkebein-bred Fox Trotters have logged more than 40,000 competitive miles, and 15 have earned 26 national championships.
A recently retired college department head, Hinkebein still teaches, only now he teaches riding on Missouri Fox Trotters. “They have good structure, with excellent bone and feet, great minds, and my students marvel at their smooth gaits,” he says. “The Fox Trotter wants to be your partner on the trail.”
MFTBA Trail Committee chairman Paul Martin notes that 90 percent of the members are trail riders. In fact, the association’s national show features daily trail rides from the showgrounds. “We want folks to see how terrific Fox Trotters are on the trail,” he says. If you already own a Fox Trotter, check out the association’s trail programs. “the MFTBA sponsors tow national trail rides in Missouri, and our affiliate clubs sponsor rides across the country, all of the Fox trot America Program, where riders log hours on the trail for year-end prizes,” Martin notes.
The Rocky Mountain Horse and the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse share the same rich history and beginnings in the tranquil rolling hills of eastern Kentucky. According to legend, an anonymous traveler from the Rocky Mountains arrived in the area early in the last century. The traveler traded a handsome young colt for supplies. Bred to local horses, the colt’s offspring were the beginning of the Mountain Horses.
The next milestone occurred 50 years later, when Sam Tuttle’s stallion, Old Tobe, and his five sons were recognized as foundation sires of the modern-day Mountain Horse. Strongly built and with a distinct four-beat gait, the horses became essential to Appalachian farms. They traversed trails, plowed fields, worked cattle, babysat children, and, hitched to a buggy, took the entire family to town.
The strengths of these horses became part of local legend, but remained an eastern Kentucky secret until 1986, when the Rocky Mountain Horse Association was formed in Mt. Olivet, Kentucky, to maintain and promote the breed.
Then, in 1989, Robert Robinson Jr. formed the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association, based in Lexington, Kentucky, to document and preserve the breed’s ancestry and rich heritage.
“Junior Robinson didn’t fully buy into the Old Tobe theory,” notes Dave Stefanic, KMSHA executive director and owner of Classic Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky. “He believed there was an existing herd of gaited horses in central Kentucky dating back to the 1890s, and that Old Tobe was one of several foundation stallions of the Kentucky Mountain breed.”
Early Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses were small, so two size classifications were created: pony size, 11 to 13.3 hands high; and horse size, 14 hands and up. There’s no predominant breed color, in contrast to Rocky Mountain Horses, which are known for their chocolate coloration.
In 2002, the Spotted Mountain Horse Association (a subsidiary of the KMSHA) was formed to register Mountain Horses that sported too much white to meet the existing breeds’ solid-color standards.
The KMSHA has closed its books and is working with the University of Kentucky to continue to identify new genetic markers that will further enhance the breed.
The Rocky Mountain Horse has an ambling, four-beat gait that owner/riders love. It’s a natural gait, requiring no artificial aids or action devices, and with no evidence of pacing. There should be four distinct and equal footfalls: left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore. Speed is between 7 and 20 mph.
The KMSHA, says Stefanic, promotes a more animated, showy horse. “There are four gaits,” he explains. “A trail walk; a show gait,which is an ambling gait between two and five mph; a canter; and a pleasure gait,which is a rack-y style, singlefoot gait between 10 and 14 mph. The RMHA doesn’t promote the canter; the KMSHA does.”
On the trail:
Mike and Kathy Hartong of Cedar Grove Farm in Vermont, describe their Rocky Mountain Horses as “the Golden Retrievers of the equine world, sweet and mellow, never high-strung or hyper.”
While their amiable personalities were what originally attracted the Hartongs, the couple quickly discovered that the breed offered so much more: a naturally smooth, four-beat gait; intelligence and calm on physically and mentally challenging trails; and hearty constitutions.
“Aging baby boomers can ride all day and still walk at night,” Mike says with a smile. “They’re part of our family. We imprint foals at birth, then teach them to ride, drive, and pull sleighs in winter. They’re smart and willing partners.”
Christie and Dave Goodman of Wild Mountain Farms in Frenchtown, Montana, are living their dream on 60 acres with 25 Mountain Horses. “From our property, we have dozens of beautiful trails into the Rocky Mountains, with vistas of snowcapped peaks,” Christie says. “We love the sweet, gentle nature of the breed.”
“When the mountains are wild,” Dave adds, “your horses shouldn’t be.”
Mary Beth Autry and her husband, Steve, have 27 Rocky Mountain Horses (also registered with the KMSHA) at their Broken Bone Farm in Mount Olivet, Kentucky.
“Time spent in the saddle is my bliss. Walking out my back door onto 800 acres of trails provides a wealth of possibilities. My passion is riding through the woods or through broad meadows, pausing while my gelding, Maximus, munches rich grass. Steve and I invite friends to horse camp with us at our lake, and we introduce them to our favorite horse: the Rocky.”
Paso Fino Horse
Equine ancestors of the Paso Fino arrived in the New World more than 500 years ago, when Christopher Columbus made his second voyage from Spain to what’s now the Dominican Republic. The Barbs, Andalusians, and Spanish Jennets that carriedconquistadorsinto Mexico, Central American, and South America would lend their genetic treasure to the new breed.
The explorers needed tough, surefooted mounts. Bred in relative isolation, these horses combined the durability and stamina of the Barb; the charisma and elegance of the Andalusian; and the naturally smooth, even gait of the Spanish Jennet. They became known asLos Caballos de Paso Fino– the horses with the fine step.
Centuries passed, and it was only after American servicemen stationed in Puerto Rico “discovered” the smooth-moving horses, that importation into the United States began. Today, the Paso Fino Horse Association Inc., based in Plant City, Florida, has 45,000 registered horses, and 8,500 members.
The ultrasmooth gaits of the Paso Fino are completely natural to the breed. In fact, so instinctual, it’s common to see newborn foals moving in gait around the pasture. The breed’s lateral, four-beat gait leaves three feet on the ground at all times, without any up and down movement to jar the rider. The rhythmic and evenly cadenced movement is absorbed by the horse’s back and loins.
The Paso Fino’s gait has three distinct speeds:
•The Classic Fino, primarily a show-ring gait, is slow moving and collected with a rapid footfall, like dancing in place.
•The Paso Corto,an effortless, medium-speed gait, is most commonly used on the trail. Comparable to a trot, the horse can travel at theCortofor hours, smoothly carrying his rider for great distances.
•The Paso Largois the fastest, least collected gait, but should be smooth and balanced.
Like other breeds, the Paso Fino has the same gaits as other breeds, including a four-beat walk and three-beat canter or lope.
On the trail:
Annie and Danny Keith own 10 Paso Fino horses, and own and operate Timber Ridge Horse Camp Ground, located adjacent to hundreds of miles of trails in Tennessee’s Big South Fork River and Recreation Area.
“The Paso Fino horses’ smooth-as-silk action gets into your soul,” Annie says. “Some trails can be daunting, but Paso Finos have the heart and spirit to rise to every challenge. Aficionados call thatbrio. The Paso Fino is a proud breed, and we’re proud to ride them.”
The PFHA recognizes its avid trail-riding members; both its Pasos for Pleasure and Ticket to ride programs award national recognition and prizes to the riders for hours in the saddle.
The Peruvian Horse is a descendant of the Barb, Spanish Jennet, Andalusian, and Friesian horses that Spanish conquistadors brought to South America more than 400 years ago. The breed developed in Peru as owners of vast haciendas sought horses to carry them comfortably throughout long days and over great distances. They selectively bred for the smooth, rocking gait, stamina, and willing temperament that characterize the horses today.
Although Peruvian Horses have been imported to the United States in significant numbers for only about 40 years, they’ve quickly endeared themselves to owners and riders. At the end of 2005, the breed’s two primary organizations, the Peruvian Paso Horse Registry of North America and the American Association of Owners and Breeders of Peruvian Horse Horses, merged to form the North American Peruvian Horse Association, which has registered more than 17,000 Peruvian Horses. Five years in the planning, breed aficionados hope the union will strengthen and enhance the visibility and promotion of their favorite horse.
From the walk, Peruvian Horses move into their signature gait, thepaso llano, an evenly spaced, lateral four-beat gait with a side-to-side rocking motion. It’s executed withtermino, a rolling movement that begins in the shoulders and ends as the front legs move out during extension. The Peruvian Horse is also known for itssobreandando, also a four-beat gait, but unevenly spaced and faster than the paso llano.
On the trail:
Ray Wood of Wood Guest Ranch and Equestrian Center in Boswell, Oklahoma, smiles when he calls the Peruvian Horse “the Rolls Royce of riding horses. They’re an elegant, gentle horse with an automatic transmission.”
The NAPHA’s Joy of Riding Program allows its members to keep track of their hours in the saddle, and earn recognition, certificates, and patches. Pat Stevenson kept track of her hours, came up with more than 2,500, and was honored at the NAPHA national show. “I’m just making up for lost time,” says Stevenson, who took up riding with her husband, Andy, after they retired.
“In springtime, the mountain laurel blooms and showers riders with delicate white petals,” Pat says. “We’ve also seen lots of wildlife – including black bears – on the trails, and our Peruvians take it all in stride. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. They ignore flapping tarps, barking dogs, and loud farm equipment with the same good sense.
“The Peruvians’ easygoing personalities, moderate size, and smooth gaits make them perfect for us,” Pat notes.
Spotted Saddle Horse
If you’re looking for a smooth ride with a bit of flash, the Spotted Saddle Horse might be for you. This eye-catching breed developed in Tennessee, when the Walking Horses and Fox Trotters were outcrossed on spotted horses of various breeds, with colorful results. Eventually, Standardbreds, Mustangs, Paso Finos, and Peruvian Horses also contributed to the rich genetic heritage of the breed.
While the current trend is for a Walking Horse build, the Spotted Saddle Horse initially was strongly influenced by the hearty pony breeds, so had heavier legs and heads, shorter necks, and more compact bodies than is common today. Currently, Spotted Saddle Horses may range from 14.3 to more than 16 hands high, with graceful, long limbs, tractable temperaments, and tremendous athletic prowess. Their most identifiable characteristics remain their colorful coats and smooth gaits.
The breed’s renowned saddle gait, smooth as silk, consists of a balanced four-beat gait that allows the horse to cover ground at 10 to 20 miles per hour.
On the trail:
Photographer William J. Erickson has eight Spotted Saddle Horses at his Copper Horse Ranch in Warden, Washington. Many, like his stallion, Cabaret, are double-registered, both as Tennessee Walkers and Spotted Saddle Horses. Erickson and his children, Andy, Sunie, and Ben, are avid trail riders.
“Our world revolves around riding the high country,” Erickson says. “There are unlimited possibilities in Washington, but one of my favorite rides is the French Ridge Trail out of Icicle Creek near Leavenworth. We start at 1,500 feet, heading for Turquoise Lake at 7,200 feet.
“The trail is challenging-a lot more people set out for the lake than ever see it. In places, the trail is narrow and steep, with a 500- to 700- foot drop on one side. I’ve seen some horses slip on loose footing there and never mentally regain their confidence. But our Spotted Saddle Horses get you where you want to go.”
Tennessee Walking Horse
The Tennessee Walking Horse is an all-American breed, that emerged from the bluegrass region of central Tennessee in the mid-1800s. Horses brought to the region, including Morgans, Standardbreds, American Saddle Horses, Narraganset Pacers, and Thoroughbreds, contributed to the genetic
treasure of the breed
The first Walking Horse breeders’ association was founded in 1935; the breed was recognized in 1950. During the 1950s, owners who showed Walking Horses created classes for extremely high-stepping horses. These “Big Lick” horses – trained in the “charge into the bit” tradition and likely made painfully hoof sore with chemicals – don’t usually transition easily onto the trail, nor do the extreme methods used to train them foster a calm, good-minded individual.
Fortunately, an increasing number of breeders are focusing on plain-shod horses with the natural gaits, easygoing dispositions, and sound bodies to make them great trail partners. “The focus on artificial gait was making it a real possibility that the delightful natural gaits that made these horses popular in the first place would be lost,” says NWHA director of operations Don Bell. “We’ve had a terrific response.”
Their most prized characteristic is the running walk, but Walking Horses have three smooth gaits:
•The flat walk is a brisk, four-beat gait clocked at four to seven miles per hour. The horse overstrides – that is, his hind foot steps over the track left by the opposite front foot. Horses gently nod their heads in rhythm to their steps.
•The running walk is the breed’s claim to fame. It’s a four-beat lateral gait, which the Walking Horse can maintain for long distances at up to 10 miles per hour. Extremely smooth, this gait is well-suited to the trail.
•The canter is performed on the diagonal like other breeds, but with exceptional spring and lift. This gait inspired the comparison to a rocking chair. Sit back, and enjoy!
On the trail:
Eight years ago, Sam Haggag, suffering from an old back injury, heard about the rocking-chair motion of the breed and went for a spin. He was smitten. Soon afterward, the Silicon Valley executive purchased a resort on California’s northern coast and 15 Walking Horse geldings, and created the Blue Sky Riding Experience, open to the public.
“These horses have a smile in their eyes,” Haggag says. “I’ve ridden since I was young, and I’ve never known horses with such sweet personalities and kind intentions. Add their rhythmic gaits, and the Tennessee Walking Horse will spoil you for anything else!”
Owners and riders of gaited horses offer their suggestions for anyone shopping for a smooth-moving trail horse:
•Learn all you can about the breed.Start with associations, websites, libraries, and breed owners.
•Find a mentor who’s knowledgeable about the breedand its trail capabilities.
•Take lessons from a trainerfamiliar with the breed, and learn to recognize the breed’s special gaits, and when and how to cue for them.
•Shop around.Don’t buy the first horse you like – go home, and divorce yourself from the emotion of the moment – then make your decision.
•Note general health.Prospects should have clear, bright eyes, a shiny coat, and good body weight. Invest in a prepurchase veterinary examination.
•Look for a calm horsewith a kind eye and sweet disposition – one that’s interested in people.
•Spend time with the horsewhen he’s wearing just a halter, and get to know his personality.
•Pick a horse that suits your size.A petite rider with a tall horse may have challenges mounting and dismounting on the trail.
•Test-drive the horse on the trail.Cross water, climb hills, and look for challenges to see how the horse responds.
•Check tack fit carefully.Gaited horses come in all shapes and sizes, so your old tack might not do. Invest in new tack if you need to. Tack fit is crucial not only for the horse’s comfort, but also to allow him the freedom of movement to gait properly.
•Negotiate a trial period.Most sellers want a good match between horse and rider, too, and will have a reasonable return policy.
•Then have fun with your new, smooth-gaited trail partner!