Trail Riding Horses

Trail riding is an excellent introduction to the world of horseback riding for newcomers, whether you’re getting into the saddle for the first time at 16 or 60. Every horse is different, but there are some breeds that are more suited to trail riding than others.

First, it’s important to understand the qualities of a good trail horse: a smooth gait, good endurance and calm temperament. What’s a gait? Basically, it’s the way the horse gets from here to there. For trail horses, you’ll be most concerned with the walking gait, which has four beats, meaning that at least one foot is on the ground at all times. Each time the horse puts a foot down, that’s a beat. The more evenly timed those beats are, the smoother the ride, so a good trail horse will have an even, four-beat walking gait and have the endurance to maintain that gait throughout the day. Gaits are also often classified as either lateral or diagonal. All you need to know about that is that a lateral gait is generally considered to result in a smoother ride.

So, now that you know what makes a great trail horse, here are five top breeds for trail riding.

Rocky Mountain Horse – Believe it or not, this breed originated from a single horse: a stallion called “Old Tobe,” who was a trail horse at the Natural Bridge State Park in Kentucky at the turn of the 20th century. These horses are medium height (14.2 to 16 hands, with a hand equalling four inches) and generally chocolate brown with a cream mane and tail, although they can be any solid color. Their walking gait is smooth, even and lateral, and they have excellent endurance so they can be out on the trail all day without tiring. They are intelligent, and their temperaments are generally calm and steady. Finally, Rocky Mountain Horses tolerate climate changes well, so they aren’t likely to be put off by a rainy or snowy day on the trail, making the an excellent choice if you plan to ride in inclement weather.

Missouri Fox Trotter – This breed originated in – you guessed it – Missouri in the early 1900s. Settlers in the foothills quickly realized that they needed a sure-footed horse to navigate the uneven terrain and they began cross-breeding a variety of horses to get what they were looking for. The Missouri Fox Trotter is known for its distinctive four-beat gait: the Fox Trot. In a Fox Trot, the horse appears to be walking with its front legs and trotting with its hind legs. Although this might sound like it would cause a bumpy ride, the rhythm is actually quite smooth and steady. Missouri Fox Trotters are medium height horses (14.2-16.2 hands) and come in most solid and pinto (large patches of white) colors. Because of their sure-footedness, they are popular with forest rangers and are often used for long-distance, competitive trail riding as well. A Missouri Fox Trotter may be a good option if you want to tackle more challenging, uneven trails or prefer to maintain a faster pace over long trail rides..

Paso Fino – A Spanish breed, the Paso Fino was originally created by Puerto Rican and Columbian plantation owners who wanted horses with good endurance and a smooth gait. Paso Finos first came to the US in the 1950s, when members of the U.S. Armed Forces purchased these horses in Puerto Rico and brought them home once their tours of duty had ended. Paso Finos are known for having a unique four-beat gait that is neither lateral nor diagonal. Their steps are short, and their feet go up and down like pistons. The Paso Fino’s walking gait is slow, relative to other breeds, but they have excellent endurance and versatility. The breed comes in a variety of sizes, colors and body types because it is the gait, not the appearance, that makes a true Paso Fino. Paso Finos are often used for barrel racing, cow penning and endurance trail rides. A Paso Fino is a great choice if you like to do a lot of trotting on the trail, since their trotting gait is very smooth.

Tennessee Walking Horse – Black Allen, who is considered the original sire of the modern Tennessee Walking Horse, was born in 1885. Tennessee Walkers are taller horses, running between 14.3 and 17 hands. They are generally black, although other colors, like roan, chestnut and bay, are quite common. Tennessee Walkers have a smooth, fast, lateral walking gait and are very sure-footed. While they were originally bred for endurance and a smooth ride, they have grown in popularity, particularly as trail horses, because of their exceptionally calm temperaments. In fact, the Tennessee Walker is frequently used in therapeutic riding programs for the handicapped because of its sweet disposition. They have also been used frequently in parades and on television – The Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver, was sometimes played by a Tennessee Walker. The breed’s easy temper, together with its smooth gait, makes Tennessee Walkers a great choice for children, nervous beginners and those with back problems. Larger riders may also prefer them because of their height.

Pony of the Americas – A relatively recent breed, the Pony of the Americas was created in the 1950s when a breeder accidentally crossed a Shetland Pony with an Arabian/Appaloosa. The result was a larger sized pony with a distinctive Appaloosa marking pattern in the shape of a hand. Ponies of the Americas – or POAs – are midway in size between a pony and a horse (11.2-14 hands), making them excellent choices for children and petite riders who have outgrown the traditional pony but are still too small for a horse. POAs come in several colors and have the traditional Appaloosa markings – a white spotted area, often covering its hind end but sometimes covering the entire body. Although POAs are categorized by size, rather than a distinctive gait, most POAs have a slow, smooth walking gait and a calm temperament. They are also quite versatile, allowing smaller riders to use them in a variety of riding situations. POAs aren’t specifically bred for their endurance, but they are quite hardy and can generally hold up to the same trail conditions that a child rider might be expected to endure.

You’ll find other good breeds of trail horses, but these five are all particularly suited to the needs of the trail, and you should find at least one on this list that’s appealing. Happy trails!