"If the Arabian is an Energizer Bunny on the trail, the Quarter Horse is a 1957 International truck: You can let him sit all winter, and in the spring he'll start right up and head down the road!" Terri Bertelson says with a hint of merriment. "They're reliable and easy for beginners to drive, they know how to conserve their energy, and are very fuel efficient."
Bertelson, a native of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, and her husband, Woody, have explored the spectacular Olympic National Park aboard their Quarter Horses, from the wide-open vistas of the sunbelt near Sequim, to the dense, primal rainforests that cloak the Hoh and Elwa Rivers.
Bertelson was 34 years old when she bought her first horse, a Quarter Horse mare and veteran of countless trail miles with her first owner, an Olympic Park employee. Bertelson wasted no time to join the local chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington (www.bchw.org). On group rides, she honed her horsemanship skills on well-maintained trails with experienced mentors at her side.
"It was a great way to build confidence, meet riders who loved the trail, and see places I never would've seen otherwise. Plus, the Backcountry Horsemen teach members to be good stewards of the land, through classes in 'leave no trace' camping and work parties where volunteers donate thousands of hours, clearing and maintaining local trails."
Eventually, Bertelson was bitten by the show bug, and bought a Quarter Horse gelding, Dawson, then 8, to enjoy in and out of the show pen. Today, at 21 years old, he's still going strong. "He's a great representative of the breed: sound and social, with one speed-slow and steady. And he loves fried chicken and hot dogs, which makes him easy to feed at campouts," she jokes.
Plenty of others are similarly impressed with this easygoing, versatile breed. Read on to find out why this good-natured, athletic horse is a favorite of riders who seek a reliable trail mount and best friend.
Passport to Adventure
The American Quarter Horse Association (806/376-04811; www.aqha.com) offers several recreational-riding programs for trail riders.
- The AQHA Ride Program. This program, which began in 1997, hosts 80 rides annually around the world; more than 39,000 riders have participated so far. Riders aboard any breed are invited to participate, and you don't need to be a member of the AQHA. For more information and a ride schedule, call (888) 414-RIDE; or visit www.aqha.com/recreation/ride/index.html.
- The Frequent Rider Program. This program is designed to recognize trail riders who participate in more than one AQHA ride per year. When you enroll, the association will issue you a Passport to present at every AQHA-hosted trail ride you attend. At year's end, you're entered in a random drawing; prizes include a paid vacation, a saddle, and a gift certificate. Riders with 5 AQHA trail rides to their credit receive a leather headstall and reins; 10 rides garner a leather breastcollar; and 15, a Montana
- The Horseback Riding Program. This program is for any recreational rider who's an AQHA, American Quarter Horse Youth Association, or Amateur member. Once you enroll, you'll log every hour spent in the saddle; AQHA-hosted rides earn double credit. After you record 750 hours, you're presented with a Tex Tan basketweave belt. At your 1,000-, 2,000-, 3,000-, and 4,000-hour marks, you get sterling conchas to decorate your belt; at 5,000-hours, you'll receive a Montana Silversmiths belt buckle.
- The All Breed Horseback Riding Program. This program is open to AQHA, AQHYA, and Amateur members who own and ride other breeds. Riders are often friends or spouses of Quarter Horse owners, and those who like to log hours during an AQHA Ride. Just a year old, the program already has more than 650 participants. Enrolled riders redeem year-end rewards.
In the late 1990s, Janice Tramel of Locust Grove, Oklahoma, purchased three Quarter Horse mares and bred them. One good thing led to another, and today, the retired school principal and her husband, Gary, have more than 40 Quarter Horses in the pastures at their T-N-T Ranch.
"We've fallen in love with these horses," she says. "They're so willing to please and versatile, they'll do anything for you. I've used my mare for cutting, team penning, barrel racing, drill team, and of course, trail riding.
Tramel participates in the American Quarter Horse Association's Ride Program and Frequent Rider Program. (See "Passport to Adventure" on page 40). She says that on AQHA trail rides, she enjoys great camaraderie, the opportunity to explore venues otherwise not open to the public, peace of mind knowing that trails will be safe, and excellent food. She also notes that if she goes alone, she knows that she'll make new friends on the ride. "Everyone always makes me feel completely welcome."
And in Tramel's case, there's an added ride bonus - a new Tex Tan saddle, her Frequent Rider award for logging 17 AQHA rides in 2004, more than any other participant.
With so many AQHA rides under her belt, Tramel says it's nearly impossible to choose a favorite. "The scenery at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, is spectacular, but the ride in Norwood, Missouri, was unique," she says. "After our daily rides, we had a delicious supper, then the hosts presented an evening of cowboy poetry and little dramas to illustrate the history of Missouri. Every AQHA ride has its own special evening entertainment - all well worth the price of admission!"
Jeff and Diane Mowen have four Quarter Horses: two 4-year-olds, one 17-year-old, and their treasure, Cee Bonnie Bar, 30. "And she's still going strong," Diane says. "Last year, Bonnie carried Jeff's dad, an inexperienced rider, on the trail. If he happened to 'press the wrong button,' Bonnie would pause as if to say, 'Are you sure?' She took great care of him. She's a sweetheart, and it's easy to see the same patient, kindly disposition in our other Quarter Horses."
The Mowens manage the Woodmont Ride and Gun Club, a historic lodge on 3,400 wooded acres, for the State of Maryland. Founded in 1871, the club is open only once a year to trail riders, when the Mowens host an AQHA Ride on the expansive grounds.
"At the end of the day, we have a pretty good spread of food at the lodge for everyone," Jeff says. While riders enjoy their repast, they can enjoy the million-dollar view, across the Potomac River to the rolling hills of West Virginia.
In the early 1500s, the first Spanish explorers came to the New World, bringing Andalusian, Barb, and Arabian-bred horses with them. Then in 1611, English colonists imported the first horses from the British Isles to Virginia. These early settlers needed sturdy working stock to till their fields, pull their carriages, and baby-sit their children. Through selective breeding, a versatile, compact horse emerged - one with an easygoing temperament and well-muscled conformation.
On weekends, the hardworking settlers sought lighthearted diversion, and gathered with their horses for quarter-mile races. The winners of these trials were the preferred breeding stock, and their talents were passed on to future generations.
When pioneers pushed westward across the continent, the Quarter Horse pulled their wagons. On their broad backs, riders forged wilderness trails, scaled the Sierra Nevadas, and came face-to-face with the Pacific Ocean. Quarter Horses pulled plows over the first corn and wheat fields of the Midwest and drove cattle in the Southwest. Small wonder this steadfast breed has a special place in our hearts: For centuries, the American Quarter Horse has been our partner.
In 1940, the American Quarter Horse Association was formed to preserve and record the breed's bloodlines. Currently, there are 2.86 million registered Quarter Horses in the United States, by far the most populous equine breed.
Kentuckian Mardy Smith - another AQHA Ride coordinator - also touts the breed's calm disposition. "Once, riding through shallow water on the edge of a mountain stream, my horse made an unexpected hop to clear an underwater log. I popped onto his neck, forward of the saddle-but did he panic? Not one bit. He calmly waited while I regained my position by stepping onto another log and remounting, even though the other riders were more than 300 feet downstream. Other horses would've been frantic to keep up with the crowd."
One of Smith's most memorable moments on the trail occurred on a midnight ride. No flashlights allowed, every horse had a luminous glow stick hanging from his neck. "Watching the multitude of lights meander through the darkened forest was magical, mystical," she recounts.
Counting their 2005 foals, Smith and her husband, Mike, own 13 Quarter Horses. Two of their children, Kyle and Nathan, are professional Quarter Horse trainers. "The Quarter Horse is the breed for our family. We love its disposition, intelligence, and versatility."
Gary George and his wife, Patricia Kearney, own and operate Hondoo River & Trail tours (800/332-2696; www.hondoo.com) on the high Colorado Plateau out of Torrey, Utah. According to George, it's the largest tract of unspoiled territory in the lower 48 states, with multiple parks and designated conservation and wilderness areas.
"Our ranch-raised Quarter Horses are reliable and surefooted in rough country," he says. "We breed and raise our own horses, and always have between 20 and 25 Quarter Horses in our trail string. They grow up learning how to watch where they plant their feet, an indispensable talent on the trail in rugged country."
The couple specializes in small group tours, with a choice of riding inn-to-inn or camping out, using low-impact techniques. "We seldom cover the same trail or use the same campsite more than twice during a season," George says. "Riders just need to show up with a toothbrush-we provide all the rest, and Mother Nature furnishes breathtaking scenery. People come back year after year to relax, refresh, and rejuvenate. And they come back for our plucky Quarter Horses."
Pick Your Partner
Without exception, our trail riders said it was a breeze to find and outfit a good Quarter Horse for the trail.
However, since the Quarter Horse is used for everything from racing to ranching, there are several things to keep in mind. (We thank Bonnie Davis for contributing to these tips; for more information, see her article, "Selecting a Trail Horse," Special Section, July/August '05.)
Check out farms/breeders. Talk to trail riders in your area, and get their recommendations for local Quarter Horse farms and trail-horse breeders.
Trail-test ranch horses. Note that Quarter Horses used for ranching are great at jobs called for on a ranch - such as moving cattle, working gates, and roping - but may be spooky on the trail. Don't discount a former ranch horse, but be sure to trail-test him first.
Trail-test show horses. Similarly, a former show horse has been trained to excel in the show arena and may not be familiar with trail riding. Again, try out a show horse on the trail before you buy. If he seems calm and willing, consider him as a trail prospect, but be aware there will probably be a learning curve as he moves from controlled arena conditions to the challenges of trail riding.
Try sales/auctions. You'll typically find an abundance of Quarter Horses at sales and auctions. If you go this route, read the horse's catalog description, and watch him work. Ask the seller why the horse is being sold, how long the horse has been owned, and whether the horse has been ridden on all types of trails.
Look for a willing attitude. Look for a horse with a soft eye and gentle curiosity about people.
Look for balanced conformation. A short-backed horse can carry more weight than a long-backed one. A short-coupled horse with long legs may tend to "scalp" his front heels. A horse with an exceptionally wide front chest and wide base (distance between hooves) will have power going uphill, but may stumble on narrow trails. (Tip: Look for a horse with withers that will help keep your saddle in place.)
Try out the horse. Once you find your dream horse, arrange a two-week trial. Bring him to your barn, and try him out on the trail. Most sellers will encourage this - they want both human and horse to enjoy the new partnership.
Select a sound horse. Once you've selected your Quarter Horse, evaluate him for soundness, and invest in a prepurchase examination by a veterinarian. (For more information, see "What's Up Doc?" July/August '05.)
Consider tack fit. Finally, make sure your tack fits. Note that because of the popularity of the breed, you'll find a wide selection of saddles and tack made specifically for Quarter Horses.
Award-winning equine journalist and avid trail rider Honi Roberts shares life with Arabian horses on her farm in Washington state.
Ready to look for the right horse for you? Go to Equine.com, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, to search for the perfect horse!