Breed evolution: The Rocky Mountain Horse and the Kentucky Mountain Horse share the same rich history and beginnings in the tranquil rolling hills of eastern Kentucky. According to legend, an anonymous traveler from the Rocky Mountains arrived in the area early last century. The traveler traded a handsome young colt for supplies. Bred to local horses, the colt's offspring were the beginning of the Rocky Mountain Horse breed.
The next milestone occurred 50 years later, when horseman Sam Tuttle's stallion, Tobe, and his five sons were recognized as foundation sires of the modern-day Rocky Mountain Horse. Strong-built, with a distinct, four-beat gait, the horses became essential to Appalachian farms.
The strength and versatility of these horses became part of local legend, but remained an eastern Kentucky secret until 1986, when the Rocky Mountain Horse Association was formed in Mount Olivet, Kentucky, to maintain and promote the breed.
Then, in 1989, Robert Robinson Jr. formed the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association, based in Lexington, Kentucky, to document and preserve the ancestry and rich heritage of the Mountain Saddle Horse.
"Junior Robinson didn't fully buy into the Old Tobe theory," notes Dave Stefanic, today the owner of the for-profit KMSHA registry and of Classic Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky. "He believed there was an existing herd of gaited horses in central Kentucky dating back to the 1890s, and that Old Tobe was just one of several foundation stallions of the Kentucky Mountain breed."
Stefanic also owns the KMSHA's subsidiary, the Spotted Mountain Horse Association, which registers Mountain Horses that sport too much white to meet the breed's solid-color standard.
Early Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses were small, so two size classifications were created: pony size, 11 to 13.3 hands high; and horse size, 14 hands and up. There's no predominant breed color, in contrast to the Rocky Mountain Horses, which are renowned for their striking chocolate coats accented by flaxen manes and tails. Many horses are registered with both the Rocky Mountain and Kentucky Mountain Horse organizations.
In 1988, the Mountain Pleasure Horse Association was founded, registering "the old-time gaited breed of horse that existed in Kentucky 160 years ago and from which selective breeders developed the Tennessee Walking Horses, American Saddlebred Horses, and the Rocky Mountain Horses." The MPHA is a closed registry, open only to horses with registered parents.
Owners tell us: Like his father and grandfather before him, H.T. Derickson owns and operates Van Bert Farm in Stanton, Kentucky. One of the country's largest breeders of Mountain Horses, Derickson remembers the day, almost a half century ago, that Sam Tuttle brought his stallion, Tobe, to his farm.
"Mr. Tuttle drove his cattle truck onto our driveway, with nine or 10 horses in the back, including ol' Tobe," he says. "He unloaded them down our cattle chute, then my father and I watched as he jumped on bareback, and rode Tobe up and down the gravel in front of our barn. Tobe wasn't big, but he was strong-built, with a very smooth four-beat gait. My father bred one mare to him, and that offspring became the foundation sire of our Rocky Mountain herd."
Derickson's daughter, Vanessa Crowe, also deeply involved with Mountain Horses, serves as executive director of United Mountain Horse, Inc. Not a registry, the UMH and its affiliate, the American Gaited Mountain Horse Association, support and promote all Mountain Horses.
When Vernon Stamper looks over the 28 broodmares in his pastures, he sees Mountain Horses with some of the same bloodlines his great-grandfather used in his herd more than 100 years ago. The fifth-generation horseman, owner of Overlook Stables in Sharpsburg, Kentucky, is an eloquent spokesman for the breed.
"I breed selectively, keeping the old bloodlines alive, because they are a treasure," he says. "The Mountain Horse has the sweet temperament of a puppy dog and the physical abilities of the best all-around horse you can imagine. They have the smoothest gait you can find, a deep reservoir of stamina, and are surefooted and quiet."
Mountain Horses are people horses. Just ask Mike and Kathy Hartong of Cedar Grove Farm in rural Peacham, Vermont. "On summer evenings, we sit out on our stone patio, and within minutes, our horses are lined up at the fence," Mike says with a chuckle. "It's uncanny, as if they want to listen to, or be a part of, our conversation. Even the babies just want to be where we are. Mountain Horses are truly the Golden Retrievers of the equine world."
On the trail: Gordon Rife of Upper Cane Creek Stables in Stanton, Kentucky, organizes trail rides for the MPHA. Among his favorite trails is the Gladie Creek Trail in the Red River Gorge area of Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest. It offers a variety of terrain which, he says, the Mountain Horse tackles with surefooted grace.
"There's water to cross, hills to climb, and valleys to meander through," Rife says. "The Mountain Horse will carry you safely wherever you ask him to go."
Stamper starts all his colts on trails. "What better way to exercise youngsters and muscle them up?" he asks. "They're exposed to trail obstacles and wildlife, and we never ride the same trail twice. We take our time, and give them a solid foundation that lasts a lifetime. And we always have some trail-savvy horses available for sale."
Selection savvy: Derickson offers terrific advice for anyone contemplating purchasing a Mountain Horse. When you've found a prospect, take time to learn where his "control buttons" are located. Each animal is individual, so learn what specific cues your prospect answers to. Learn how to ask for the appropriate gait, how to recognize it, and how to maintain proper form in the gait.
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