They're the Golden Retrievers of the equine world," says Mike Hartong with a smile, "sweet and mellow, never high-strung or hyper." While a docile, people-oriented personality was what originally attracted Hartong, a surgeon, and his wife, Kathy, to the Rocky Mountain Horse, they soon found that the breed offers much more for avid trail riders: a naturally smooth gait that aging baby-boomers can ride all day (and still walk that night); intelligence and calm in challenging situations; and hearty constitutions that make them easy keepers, even in Vermont's sub-zero winters.
The Hartongs, of Cedar Grove Farm in Peacham, Vermont (802/592-3560; www.rockymountainhorsevermont.com), are among the many trail enthusiasts to sing the praises of the Rocky Mountain Horse. "They're part of our family," Mike says. "We imprint our foals at birth, then teach them to ride, drive, and pull sleighs. They're smart and willing partners."
Out of the national spotlight until just two decades ago, the Rocky Mountain Horse, with its smooth gait, stamina, and genial nature, is a natural choice for the trail. Read on, to learn about the breed that owners affectionately call "the Rocky," and to see if their "Cadillac ride" is for you.
Eastern Kentucky is a gentle countryside of tranquil woods, rolling hills, and picturesque farms. Its best-known exports may be bluegrass music and handcrafted wooden furniture. However, in recent years, a smooth-riding horse with its signature chocolate color, and silver mane and tail has given local exports some competition.
Ironically, the Rocky Mountain Horse isn't named for the area where it originated, was nurtured, and flourished. Legend has it that an anonymous traveler, far from his home in the Rocky Mountains, visited eastern Kentucky at the beginning of the last century. With his supplies dwindling, the traveler traded a fine young colt for much-needed goods. Bred to local saddle horses, the colt's offspring were the beginning of the Rocky Mountain Horse.
Fifty years later, there was another important milestone in the development of the breed. A local horseman, Sam Tuttle, owned a popular stallion named Tobe who, with his five sons, are recognized as the foundation sires of the modern Rocky Mountain Horse. Tuttle had the riding concession at the Natural Bridge State Park, and local horse breeders, impressed with the stallion, used him on their best mares.
Today, H.T. Derickson operates Van Bert Farm in Stanton, Kentucky (606/663-9437; www.vanbertfarms.com), with his children and grandchildren. The farm is one of the country's largest producers of Rocky Mountain Horses. In the mid-1950s, Derickson's father ran the farm; Derickson recalls the day Sam Tuttle introduced them to Tobe.
"Mr. Tuttle drove his cattle truck down our driveway, with nine or ten horses together in the back, including ol' Tobe. He unloaded them down our cattle chute, and then my father and I watched as he jumped on bareback, and rode Tobe up and down the gravel road in front of our barn. Tobe wasn't a big horse, but strong-built, and with a very smooth four-beat gait. My father bred one mare to him, and that offspring-a colt-was the foundation sire of our Rocky Mountain herd."
For decades, versatile Rocky Mountain Horses have been essential to the Appalachian valley and foothill farms. They traversed trails, plowed fields, worked cattle, babysat children, and, hitched to a buggy, took the entire family to town. Their good nature, strong heart, and stamina are legendary in the area. But eastern Kentucky's beloved Rocky remained a rather well-kept secret until 1986, when an association was formed to maintain and promote the breed.
In the mid-1980s, a group of Rocky Mountain Horse breeders and owners contacted the University of Kentucky to do a blood-typing study of their horses. They discovered five genetic markers unique to the breed, attributable in large part to the geographic isolation of the horses, as well as their owners' selective breeding. They formed the Rocky Mountain Horse Association (606/724-2354; www.rmhorse.com) to preserve and promote the breed.
Current association president Gary Gwisdalla fell for the Rocky's temperament more than a decade ago. "I was on a weekend trail ride, when my wife went to the Rocky Mountain Horse International Show at the Kentucky Horse Park. She was bowled over by their personalities, and couldn't believe that kids were sitting bareback on the breeding stallions. It wasn't long before we bought our first Rocky. Today, I'm still missing the show, because I'm out trail riding-only now it's on one of our Rocky Mountain Horses."
When the association first organized, breeders could certify quality grade mares, breed to Rocky stallions, and register their offspring. However, that registration practice has been discontinued, as there's a sufficient genetic pool of Rocky Mountain Horses available to breeders. Currently, more than 12,100 horses are DNA tested (with mane and tail hair) and registered with the association.
Established breed characteristics are:
• 14.2- to 16-hands high, with a wide chest and 45-degree, sloping shoulder.
• An ambling, four-beat gait with no evidence of pacing. This is a natural gait, requiring no artificial aids or action devices. There should be four distinct and equal hoofbeats: left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore. Speed may be 7 to 20 miles per hour.
• A kind and trustworthy nature; easy to manage.
• A solid body color. Facial markings are permissible, but may not be excessive. No white is allowed above the knee or hock.
Gwisdalla notes that as other gaited breeds have gained in popularity, the tendency for some has been for their leg action to become high and artificially stimulated. "We're proud that the Rocky Mountain Horse is born with a wonderful gait," he notes. "My goal is to stay true to the breed standards, and keep our horses what they were intended to be-natural from the ground, up."
Ride the Glide
Frank and Nancy Puckett call Lexington, Kentucky, home. But The Trail Rider's readers have enjoyed reading about their adventures with their Rockies from California to the Grand Canyon to Vermont. One would never guess that Frank didn't-couldn't-ride until four years ago. Years earlier, he'd broken his back, and the trotting motion of Nancy's nongaited horse was just too painful to bear.
"But the Rocky was altogether different," he says. "It took five minutes in the saddle to fall in love. They always have three feet on the ground, so it's ride and glide. I can go for hours without pain.
"And they're so smart and surefooted, we trust them with our lives. On the trail, when I'm unsure of what to do, I give my horse his head and he always comes through. And they're great in tense situations."
The couple recalls a ride in Oneida, Tennessee, when downed trees forced them off the trail. The hillside was wet and slippery. When Puckett, in the lead, started to slide backwards and downhill, his wife and her horse stood their ground, preventing a more serious wreck had Frank continued farther down the hill.
"I could see my mare's brain working," Nancy says. "She saw them coming, and let them T-bone us, landing hard. There wasn't a moment of panic or flight. We stood firm until they could compose themselves, and start back uphill. Both horses remained completely calm throughout."
Almost 14 years ago, Ruth Purcell's young son, Roger, spied a striking, chocolate-colored horse with a flaxen mane and tail, and was immediately smitten. More than anything, he wanted a Rocky Mountain Horse for his own. The Purcells owned Tennessee Walking Horses, but Roger was insistent, so his mother bred one of their mares to a Rocky stallion. (At that time, the offspring could be registered.)
"We didn't get the color," she says, "but we got the best disposition of any baby I'd ever had. So good, I thought it must be a fluke." Next, Purcell bred two mares to a Rocky stallion.
"And they were the same: the most enchanting, people-oriented babies I'd seen. It was no fluke! And there's a moral to the story: You don't ride the color-you ride the horse. Their chocolate color caught our attention, but their disposition is what sold me. Whether palomino, buckskin, bay, black, sorrel, or chocolate, they are the sweetest horses you could ever hope to have."
Today, Purcell chairs the association's Trail and Endurance Committee. She touts the breed as one a knowledgeable amateur owner can train themselves. "I'm 66 years old and I train our horses-and I'm not unique," she says. "Whether I ask them to walk over tarps or cross creeks, Rockies are completely willing. If I make a mistake, they're forgiving. And their calm is unshakable."
Recently, Purcell discovered just how unshakable. On a trail near her home in Indiana, she was aboard her homebred mare, Sundown Lady, with a group of nine. Halfway up a steep hill, the leaders got into a ground nest of angry hornets. The first riders got through, but that left Purcell, mid-group, to deal with the wrath of the swarm.
"They started to land on us, and I yelled, 'Lady, take care of me!' It was all I could do, to just hang on. She didn't run or panic, she backed down almost the entire hill without bucking or running away with me. Lady was covered with bees, but she waited until we were safely down the hill to stomp them off, and even then, she didn't fuss.
"Trail riding can be a spiritual experience and it can relieve a lot of stress-that is, unless you run into bees. Then you'd better hope you're on a Rocky!"
H.T Derickson, who's introduced scores of newcomers to the Rocky Mountain Horse, has some advice for anyone contemplating purchasing a Rocky:
• Spend time with the seller to learn where the horse's "control buttons" are. These animals are individuals, so learn the cues they respond to.
• Particularly if you're new to gaited horses, learn how to ask for the appropriate gait, how to recognize it, and how to maintain proper form in the gait.
• Contact owners of gaited horses in your area to find a farrier who's familiar with gaited horses. Like any specialty, experience and common sense go a long way.
• Select your bit deliberately, use it wisely. Keep in mind that a bit is as severe as the hands it's in-even D-ring snaffles can injure sensitive mouth tissues.
• Chose a saddle with care. The average Rocky has rounded-not prominent-withers, so many saddles are too narrow and will pinch at the shoulders. For training and everyday riding, we use a Canadian trooper saddle. Its tree sits on either side of the backbone (much like a cavalry saddle) with a metal arch connecting the sides. It exerts no pressure on the backbone and shoulders. Since we've been using this style saddle, we've eliminated sore backs.
One caveat: In the early-1990s, owners and breeders of the highly coveted chocolate-colored Rockies became aware of a potentially serious health problem. In a small segment of the population, there was an abnormality in the front part of the eye, sometimes accompanied by cysts. Occasionally, it limited vision. Known as Anterior Segment Dysgenesis, it's inherited, and reportedly present in all breeds that carry the Silver Dapple gene (including Shetland Pony, Morgan, Haflinger, Bashkir Curly, and Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse).
The Rocky Mountain Horse Association acted quickly and proactively. They took part in studies by outside investigators, including one at Michigan State University, to determine if this genetic abnormality was a severe defect. The conclusions were that it was not. Today, conscientious breeding practices, such as breeding black horses to those carrying the Silver Dapple gene, have significantly reduced the occurrence of ASD. When potential buyers conduct a prepurchase exam, their veterinarian should be able to determine whether the prospect has ASD by thoroughly scrutinizing the eyes.
David Ramsey, DVM, Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists, writes, "I commend the Rocky Mountain Horse Association for recognizing a minor abnormality in their breed, for taking the initiative to determine its cause, and for their interest and participation in this collaborative study [at MSU]. In doing so, they have established guidelines that select against propagation of undesirable traits within the breed while promoting genetic diversity within the breed. The Rocky Mountain Horse Association should serve as the model against which other breed associations should be compared."
Rocky Mountain High
It'd be hard to find someone more passionate about her Rocky Mountain Horses than Gloria Northcote. Her enthusiasm is infectious-just ask the 200 happy folks that have Rockies in their barns because of her matchmaking skills. Northcote and her husband, Barney, own Paradise Canyon Ranch in Arroyo Grande, California.
"I was 53 before I owned my first horse, a wonderful little Mustang," she says. "I had her for about a year when Barney, who hates a bouncy trot, said that he'd ride with me if I found a gaited horse.
He'd seen Rocky Mountain Horses in a magazine and loved their looks, so I called the association, and they sent me a video and a list of people in California who had them."
It was love at first ride. Twelve years later, the couple owns eight Rockies. "That's so we always have horses for our friends to ride. In the rugged hills and arroyos of central and southern California, it's hard for other breeds to keep up with us. Rockies are very strong mentally and tough physically. They have tremendous endurance and excellent bone and knees-we've never had soundness issues."
The Northcotes always ride bareback-and why not, she asks, when the ride's a glide? "And if anyone offers you a spin on a Rocky," Northcoate cautions, "don't say I didn't warn you: One ride, and you'll be spoiled for life!"