Missouri Fox Trotters have the athleticism of the Quarter Horse, the stamina of the Arabian, and the smooth gait of the Tennessee Walking Horse," says JoAnn Becker of Black, Missouri. She and her husband, George, have 140 Missouri Fox Trotters in their pastures at Valley Springs Foxtrotters, where they conduct guided rides on a wealth of trials. "We're stuck on Fox Trotters!"
The Beckers' property backs up to the Mark Twain National Forest and the Ozark Trail, and their horses gain trail experience in picturesque woods of oak and maple trees crisscrossed by sparkling, freshwater creeks fed by Black River forks.
Like the Beckers, more and more avid trail riders are choosing this breed, reports Mandy Baledge, a member of the Missouri Fox Trotting Breed Association. "Baby boomers want a sensible, reliable horse that's comfortable to ride," she says. "When I moved onto acreage and decided to buy a horse, my veterinarian suggested a Fox Trotter. It was a perfect fit. If you travel rough trails, they're surefooted. On wide open stretches, their smooth gait can eat up miles without jarring the rider. And they're sweet-natured, a great family horse. The Fox Trotter is the best ride you'll ever have."
The breed's naturally smooth gaits, stamina, and easygoing personality made it a local favorite for nearly two centuries. But the secret is out, and thousands of trail riders have embraced the Missouri Fox Trotter. Read on to learn more about this versatile breed.
Smooth on the Rough
"It's wonderful, the way they take you down the trail," says Deina Wilson, who owns the Missouri Foxtrotter Connection, and with her husband Ray, has Wilson's Foxtrotters in Ash Grove, Missouri. "After a stressful day, I'll visit them in the pasture or the barn for five minutes, and I'm completely relaxed. And we've met and made great friends through our horses."
The Wilsons met Elmer and Suzanne Scott of Buffalo, Missouri, through their mutual interest in the breed. Elmer often rides his well-mannered stallion, Travelin' Trouble, on the trail, while his wife rides her mare, Bacca.
One of Elmer's most memorable rides was in the Rockies, on the Colorado Trail between Durango and Silverton. "For five days we rode all day, and camped at night at 11,000 feet," he remembers. "At that elevation, even in July, it was cool at night, and every day we had a little rain. Often, we'd ride through spectacular valleys and climb narrow trails.
"One unforgettable day, we crossed a natural rock bridge, that was probably 60 feet long and 8 feet wide. You sure didn't want to go off the edge, because you'd fall several thousand feet before you touched ground.
"We went places that were inaccessible without a horse, and our Fox Trotters were just a pleasure. They're surefooted on rough terrain, and on flat stretches, their smooth gait is unbeatable. My grandfather owned Fox Trotters, and now I've owned them for 55 years. I wouldn't ride anything else!"
Stairway to Heaven
Don Gidcumb of Gidcumb's Foxtrotters, also met someone special through his Fox Trotters: his wife, Rivian. After he sold her a gray gelding, Gidcumb accompanied her on her first trail rides, and one good thing led to another. They've enjoyed many trail adventures together, including memorable rides in the 350,000-acre Shawnee National Forest of southern Illinois.
"One time, we met friends there for a ride, and they led us to a sheer wall of rock that had steps carved into it," Gidcumb says. "It seemed impossible, but without any hesitation, our Fox Trotters climbed that staircase, one step at a time, right up to the top." They found themselves in a heavenly spot.
Get with the Program
The Missouri Fox Trotting Breed Association, headquartered in Ava, Missouri, currently boasts nearly 9,000 members, with 85,000 registered horses; 90 percent of the members are trail riders. The association's Fox Trot America program sponsors dozens of trail rides across the country, and offers national recognition and awards for trail riders.
Paul Martin, MFTBA Trail Committee chair, reports that trail riding is so important to the association that its national show, held every year in Ava, features daily trail rides from the showgrounds.
"We want people to get a taste of the trail," Martin says. "Then we hope they join us on one of our two national trail rides here in Missouri, held every spring and fall, or take part in rides sponsored by affiliates across the country. Our trail riding programs are definitely expanding!"
Once riders sign up for the Fox Trot America program, they log their hours on the trail, either pleasure riding or driving. Then they're eligible for year-end prizes based on hours logged, from jacket patches to belt buckles. This year, a national trail ride for youth riders debuted in Big Creek, Missouri.
Member Mandy Baledge notes the $15-per-year association dues intentionally remain affordable for families. "We're family oriented, with our expanding youth programs and trail rides that cater to the entire family," she says. "While we're proud that people like Robert Redford and Ross Perot own Fox Trotters, we want the 'Jones family' to feel they're just as important."
The group rode through pine tree forests and meadows blanketed with wildflowers. They explored caves on horseback and rode under waterfalls. Gidcumb crossed a river that turned out to be deeper than expected. But his gelding, Cloud, effortlessly swam to the far side.
Gidcumb purchased the handsome black gelding, his first Fox Trotter, six years ago. Today the couple owns 11. "I bought Cloud off a cattle ranch, where he worked for his keep," he says. "His willing personality is important to me - he's never hesitated to do anything I ask. Fox Trotters are also very people-oriented and laid-back, so they're great to live with. But like a Corvette, there's plenty of power there if I need it!"
Myrna Warfel has a dramatic water-crossing story of her own. She and her husband, Joe, own Ridin' High Ranch, and love to spend Labor Day weekend on the Ozark Trail. One such trip two decades ago remains etched in her memory.
Myrna's beloved Fox Trotter gelding had recently retired, and she bought a beautiful purebred mare named Christy. But the mare just didn't have the effervescent personality of the gelding she'd replaced. She started to regret her purchase. Still, the couple headed out for a horse-camping adventure with friends.
The group camped in the woods that night, and in the morning prepared to cross the Current River. Friends forded the water first, careful to stay on a narrow gravel bar, just under the water's surface. Joe waded in on his Fox Trotter, with Myrna close behind. Suddenly, without warning, he disappeared from view. He'd missed the safe passage, and now both he and his horse were struggling to swim the river.
"Almost immediately, Christy and I sank into the deep water, too, and all I could think was, 'I can't swim!'" Myrna recalls. Weighed down by her heavy jacket, she found herself off her horse and flailing to stay afloat. Joe and his horse made it to the far side, as did Myrna's mare. Joe swam back to rescue her and brought an equine helper: Christy.
The mare reentered the deep water and swam back to her owner, who grabbed the saddle, and was towed to shore. "She saved me that day, no doubt about it," Myrna says. "As you can imagine, I felt a whole new respect for her. During the rest of the lifetime she spent with me, I realized that this Fox Trotter mare was truly my once-in-a-lifetime horse. She was small in stature, but her heart was huge. I'll never forget Christy."
Competitive Trail Champs
Bill Hinkebein of Chillicothe, Missouri, has owned Missouri Fox Trotters since 1956. He and his wife, Jeanne, breed, raise, and own a dynasty of North American Trail Ride Conference champions.
Bill's Fox Trotter stallion, Hickory's Country Gold, is a NATRC legend - a Hall of Fame inductee with more than 5,000 competitive miles. During his career, he won two NATRC national Grand Championships and the President's Award, earned nine national championships, and won the 1995 Championship Challenge.
Join the Dance
When early pioneers moved west across the Mississippi River and into the Ozark Mountains, they brought horses of Arabian, Morgan, and Thoroughbred descent with them. Over time, a versatile, smooth-gaited breed developed.
According to the Missouri Fox Trotting Breed Association, the breed has three natural gaits: the flat foot walk; the smooth "fox trot" that gives the breed its name; and the canter, which owners liken to the motion of a rocking horse. No training or special shoes are required for an owner to enjoy these natural gaits.
The fox trot is characterized as a "broken gait," that is, while
in gait, the horse walks with his front feet, and trots with his hind feet. The back feet shuffle and slide, often stepping into the track made by the front feet. This shuffling, as opposed to the hard-step trot of other breeds, makes the fox trot exceptionally comfortable for the rider.
While Fox Trotters come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, the MFTBA publishes this breed standard:
- 14 to 16 hands high, while standing square on all four feet.A graceful neck in proportion to the body.
- Clean, neat, intelligently shaped head.
- Well-shaped, pointed ears.
- Large, bright eyes and tapered muzzle.
- Deep, full chest and sloping, well-muscled shoulder.
- Reasonably short, strong back.
- Well-made, strong foot in proportion to size.
In 80 competitive rides, Hickory's Country Gold posted 43 first-place and 22 second-place finishes. Additionally, 25 Hinkebein-bred Fox Trotters have logged more than 40,000 competitive miles, and 15 have earned 26 national championships.
Although Hinkebein recently retired as head of the agriculture department at North Central Missouri College, he still teaches riding - on Missouri Fox Trotters.
"They're well-built, with good bone and feet, have great minds, and my students marvel at their smooth gaits," he says. "They want to be your partner. Hickory's Country Gold was a fantastic competitor, and today, at 22 years old, he's still siring foals and packing kids around barrels with just a halter on his head."
Finding Your Fox Trotter
Fred Mau and his wife, Esther, have made it their business to skillfully match horses to riders at Trail Horses of Colorado, in Penrose. He says the most important consideration when buying the horse of your dreams is taking the time to make sure the new match is one that will stand the test of time and trail.
"You have to spend more than just 15 minutes riding around the barn on a horse you're going to live with for the next 15 years," Fred cautions.
Mau's customers come from all over the country to check out his offering of gaited trail horses, including numerous Missouri Fox Trotters. Like the mother and daughter who arrived recently from New Mexico, buyers often find themselves ensconced in the couple's guest house and riding Colorado trails on the horses that catch their eye.
The couple encourages buyers to take several trial rides before making their decision, and their sales contract also contains a 30-day exchange policy. If a horse doesn't work out for the new owner, they can return that horse, and take home another from the Maus' barn. "It rarely happens, and we've never gone beyond a second choice," Fred reports. "But I want people and horses to have the right partner."
Fred has these suggestions for riders seeking Fox Trotter for trail riding:
- Learn all you can about the breed, and find a knowledgeable mentor who's experienced with Fox Trotters.
- Familiarize yourself with bloodlines. Talk with trail-horse breeders to learn about good pleasure-horse stock.
- Buy a horse with trail experience. Age doesn't necessarily equal experience: The 6-year-old horse with three years of trail experience will usually be better than the 10-year-old with none.
- Pick one that suits your size. A petite rider with a tall horse will have challenges mounting and dismounting on the trail.
- Test drive the horse on a trail; cross water, and climb hills.
- Spend time with the horse when he's wearing just a halter, and get to know his personality.
- Take a few lessons, and learn to recognize the Fox Trotter's special gaits, and when and how to cue for them.
- Carefully check tack fit. The Fox Trotter poses no special challenges; in fact, readily available Quarter Horse tack usually fits the breed perfectly.
- Know the seller's return policy before you take the horse home.
- Then have fun with your new trail partner!
Honi Roberts is an award-winning equine journalist and ardent trail rider based in Washington state. She's the co-author of Breed for Success, The Horseman's Guide to Producing Healthy Foals (Lyons Press) with The Trail Rider editor René E. Riley.