Top 5 Breeds of Trail Horses

Top Five Horse Breeds for Trail Riding

If you know horses, you know that any horse can carry you down the trail. Each mount, no matter what breed, has his own strengths, personality and peculiarities. Sizing up a horse, of course, is the essence of horsemanship.

I’m going to assume, though, that in reading this article you want to gain equine trail knowledge and may have little to no long-distance riding experience. In general trail riding, most of us simply want to be comfortable and not look like a total greenhorns.

A number of “light” (under 1500 lbs.) or “hot-blooded” horses make good trail hoofers, as opposed to “heavy” work horses which we can rule out for obvious reasons. Within the light horse category, however, I’m also going to rule out a few breeds that are known to be fine trail animals IF you’re an experienced rider. The main thing that separates the experienced from the novice is the ability to sit a trot. With a little experience, anyone can learn to walk or a run (gallop). It’s the trot, or the canter, however, that really defines riding ability. If you haven’t learned to post, or sit, your saddle’s going to feel like a butt trampoline without any padding! Depending on the trail, and your skill, this may not be an issue. In which case, a quarter-horse, appaloosa, or paint can be a versatile, easy-going horse. Morgans are sturdy and gentle and Arabians are used heavily as competition trail riders because of their stamina. I’m not including these breeds in the top 5, however, for one simple reason: odds are you’re going to ride at a trotting speed. The top 5 breeds of trail riding horses need to have one thing in common: a smooth ride, or in riding parlance, a “soft gait” that can be sustained all day.

Here we go, best trail breeds in ranking order:

1. The Tennessee Walker

An American hybrid, derived from Narragansett and Canadian Pacers, later interbred with Thoroughbreds and Morgans for stamina, this horse was bred specifically for it’s smooth gait over mountainous Appalachian terrain. The Walker has an overstride, a smooth rocking-horse action in which the rear hooves overstep the front. The faster he goes, the more he overstrides, making for a “running walk”. As a trail rider, you can’t get much better than a running walk! Part of this has to do with their four-beat gait, meaning that the feet touch the ground at four different times per stride. Think of this as the difference between a car having independent suspension versus a beam axle. Four independent points are always smoother than two. The Tennessee Walker has a distinctive head-bobbing action during the running walk, high stepping front legs, low stepping back legs, looking as if the front is pulling. ( For your car analogy, think front-wheel drive!) Show Walkers are even known to click their teeth with the gait, sort of like having its own pedometer! Easy to train, calm and easy-going.

2. The Racking Horse

Basically, a Tennessee Walker without the head bob. Racking is a four-point gait, or lateral amble, so-called because of the hoof sequence right rear, right front, left rear, left front. This, opposed to a diagonal gait, also 4-point, but usually right rear, left front, left rear, right front, is known to be a smoother gait. The Racking Horse also evolved as a breed unto itself in order to allow amateur horse breeders to dissociate from the controversy around Tennessee Walkers in the 1940s and 50s. During that time “soring” was a standard practice among many unscrupulous breeders, the practice of using painful compounds and devices to cause soreness in Walkers, thus elongating their overstride. The Racking Breed was not limited to any particular geography either. The official horse of Alabama and your pal on the trail.

3. The Paso Fino

A Colombian plantation breed that became popular in the States in the 1950s and 60s, the Paso Fino also has a four-beat lateral gait known as the paso corto, comparable to a rack in the Racking Horse or the running walk of the Walker. These four-beat gaits are comparable to the speed of a trot in two-beat trotters, about 10-12 mph. Like the other four-beat hoofers, the Paso Finos can move in a slow gallop, known to Paso Fino breeders as paso largo, a speed of 25-30 mph. Paso Finos are also quite hearty, ranging in size from small to large, but a 900-pound Paso could easily carry a 275-pound man around mountains all day without too much trouble. Also related to the Peruvian Paso, another breed from south of the equator, equally smooth and durable.

4. The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse

The Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association was formed in 1989, recognizing a horse breed that had been relatively obscure outside of Kentucky. These animals are compact and refined, bred over decades to accommodate the topographical challenges of Kentucky farming. Another four-beat ambler, prized by breeders as very intelligent, willing, versatile horses.

5. The Missouri Foxtrotter

This breed is known for it’s peculiar foxtrot, a four-beat diagonal gait in which the feet stay low to the ground unlike the aforementioned front-legged highsteppers. This makes for a very smooth, natural gait, easily sat by the novice to intermediate trailrider.
The foxtrotter appears to be walking with it’s front legs, trotting with it’s hind, it’s head shaking in unison to the gait, an amble that can be maintained all day, reaching speeds of 12-18 mph. Another breed with great stamina, increasingly used in competitive trail riding.

Do you see a pattern here? In general, the Top 5 were bred for the purpose of covering vast areas of farm or plantation in the course of a day. These are gentle breeds of medium size, 14 to 16 hands, muscular, compact, and long-winded. All have a four-beat gait, highly prized for sure-footedness,speed, and comfort in mixed terrain. That equates to trail riding pleasure from the amateur to the expert. Happy Trails!