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.