Cecil Huff grew up riding and showing Missouri Fox Trotters. Years later, at a small, local Fox Trotter show, he met his future wife, Sonny.
"Today, our daughter says that her mother fell in love with my horse, not me!" Huff says with a hearty chuckle. "And why not? This is the world's best breed: They have the smoothest ride you could want, they're athletic, pleasant to look at, surefooted, and they're great on the trail. Why in the world would you want any other horse?"
For the past 15 years, the couple have owned and operated the Bucks and Spurs Guest Ranch in Ava, Missouri, 700 picturesque acres of diverse trail-riding opportunities. They boast two miles of trails fronting Big Beaver Creek, as well as a variety of peaceful meadows and challenging mountains that satisfy riders of all skill levels and ambitions.
"We're also riding distance to Mark Twain National Forest and the Ozark Trail," Huff adds. "Guests come from all over the U.S. and Europe to enjoy our Fox Trotters."
Today, an increasing number of trail riders are discovering the hardy breed that originated in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, where their naturally smooth gaits, stamina, and sweet nature have made them local favorites for nearly two centuries.
"Missouri Fox Trotters are gentle in the barn and tireless on the trail," says Jim Wood, the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association secretary/treasurer. "With their gliding gait, every ride is a pleasure."
The MFTBA, headquartered in Ava, Missouri, currently has approximately 9,000 members, with 85,000 horses registered.
"Over 90 percent of our members are trail riders," says Wood, himself a lifelong Fox Trotter owner. "Every year at our national show, we organize trail rides that depart from the show grounds, in an effort to give folks a taste of trail experience on a Fox Trotter. And of course, we sponsor trail rides and reward avid trail riders with national recognition and prizes."
One active trail-riding member of the MFTBA is Dale Lawson of Ava, Missouri. "I've been involved with Fox Trotters for the past 19 years, including breeding, training, showing, and lots and lots of trail riding," he says. "I've documented more than 1,200 miles on organized trail rides in each of the past two years.
"One aspect of the Missouri Fox Trotter that has remained unheralded is its speed in normal gait and over rough terrain," he notes. "The speed is subtle; you don't notice it until you ride with other horse breeds, which have difficulty keeping up with you while going along the trail, even at a walk. If I'm fox trotting, most other breeds are running."
Lawson currently owns a 14.2-hand Fox Trotter gelding named Pepper. "Pepper is a copper sorrel with a wide chest and will overstride more than a foot," he says. "He's compact and well-muscled, but at the same time quick-footed. He wears no shoes.
"I haven't found anything Pepper can't do," Lawson continues. "He's placed first in a performance class at the world championship show. He works cattle and pulls logs. And he's a trail horse deluxe. He can go all day, day after day, and is always willing. He may be tired, but if I touch my finger to his neck, he'll break into that ground-eating fox trot.
Six years ago, Jack Womack sold his buckskin and brought a pretty Fox Trotter mare home to his family's Crooked Antler Ranch, in the Beaverhead Mountains of Montana. He and his father, Bob, owned and bred a fine herd of Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Tennessee Walking Horses, and trained them for trail and ranch work for themselves and their clients. But within a few short months, they'd sold their entire herd, to concentrate on the family's new love: the Missouri Fox Trotter.
Jack purchased that first mare from Bill Free, 82, a local guru and an inductee in the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association Hall of Fame. Free became the Womacks' mentor.
"He trained us, and my mare, McCoy's Plain Jane," Jack says. "I've never known a horse with so much stamina and heart. That mare opened up an entirely new world to me; she's my once-in-a-lifetime horse."
Jack has earned two MFTHBA national championships with their horses - the same horses with which he rides into the mountains and works cattle. And they're the same horses on which Jack's sister's twin daughters, Gracie and Maddie Yakos, 3, learned to ride.
"Has anyone told you that Fox Trotters are excellent babysitters?" Jack asks, with a grin.
"I'm in the business of making dreams come true," says Nancy Alpert of Sunset Ridge Fox Trotters in Parker, Colorado.
"I breed and train trail horses, mostly for women who have always wanted a horse, and now that they've raised a family or succeeded in business, finally can have one. Fox Trotters are kind, personable horses that fulfill that dream."
Alpert, who has championed the breed for 25 years, says they make great mountain horses, in part because their hallmark gait carries them with surefooted ease over rocky or uneven trails.
"And they round their backs and know how to use their rear ends," she says. "You can't pull yourself over the Rocky Mountains, but you can push yourself over!"
Alpert's favorite trail ride is near Marble, a Colorado ghost town once home to one of the world's largest marble mines. It proudly provided marble for the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and many government buildings in Washington, D.C. and New York.
"Crystal Creek, fed by snowmelt and thunderstorms, dances over boulders of white marble - it's magical!" Alpert says. "In the spring and summer there's an explosion of wild flowers - larkspur, Indian paintbrush, columbine - too many species to mention. And groves of aspen provide shade for your picnics."
In addition to tending to and training her 30 Fox Trotters, Alpert also designs TrailMaster Saddles especially for women and their unique center of balance.
"In saddles, what works for guys doesn't necessarily work for women," she says. "But riding a Fox Trotter works for everyone."
Janet Aveni was looking for property to buy. The instant she saw the Spofford, New Hampshire, farm that's now home to her VJ's Blues Fox Trotters, she knew it was the perfect place for her.
"I can ride right out my gate and into a wonderland of trails," Aveni says. "I don't even own a trailer. There are rolling hills and steep climbs, tiny brooks and cascading streams with beautiful old bridges over them.
"My Missouri Fox Trotters handle everything the trail offers with a calm, mellow acceptance, she adds. "They want to please, on the trail or at home. And they're smart: even the babies seem to figure life out more quickly than other breeds I've owned."
In Indiana, Charla McCullough of Hidden Acres Fox Trotters couldn't agree more.
"Fox Trotters want to be your best friend," she says. "It's never a case of the horse being hard to catch: With Fox Trotters, there's competition to see which horse gets their nose in your halter first!"
McCullough, who owns 15 Fox Trotters, particularly likes riding at Potato Creek State Park, in northern Indiana. "There are miles of trails, many of them flat and wide, so friends can ride two or three abreast," she says. "There's a nice campground if you want to stay for awhile."
In 1997, McCullough met her main saddle horse, Blue, and fell in love. "It took me five years of begging, to convince friends to sell her. She's 24 years old now, and she's still the most thrilling ride I have. Blue hasn't slowed a lick!"
Two of The Trail Rider magazine's favorite people, Kent and Charlene Krone, explore this great country by horseback and share their experiences and insights in their Postcard From... feature in every issue. Their breed of choice: the Missouri Fox Trotter.
"We love their smooth ride and fast, ground-covering walk," Kent says. "We've never had any problems going over rocks and rivers, or through mud and bogs. My gelding, Buddy, is the smartest of the 30 horses I've owned, and the most interesting personality.
The Krones purchased the handsome buckskin from MFTHBA Hall of Famer Paul Senteney. For nearly a quarter century, Senteney provided Fox Trotters to the United States Forest Service employees throughout the Rocky Mountains, as well as thousands of grateful trail riders.
"Buddy, whose mom died when he was young, was bottle fed and raised with lots of human touch, and he's the most 'in your pocket' horse I've ever had," Kent continues. "I've taught him tricks like smiling, counting, and waving a flag, and he'll fetch a handkerchief I've thrown. We even gave a little trick show last summer at one dude ranch where we rode. Buddy's a real character."
Charlene's horse, Scout, was purchased from Montana legend Bill Free and is by his Fox Trotter stallion, Clouds Real McCoy. The Krones, who'll celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary in May, have traveled hundreds of miles aboard their Fox Trotters.
"We've had many memorable rides, but one of our favorites was through an old remount station near Perma, Montana," Charlene says. "We rode in the evening, under a full moon, and the old abandoned buildings looked ghostly. But you could imagine how it must've been during the 1930s, when it was bustling, filled with hundreds of mules and horses waiting to be shipped to cavalry posts across the country."
"One of my favorite memories is of riding across the eerie moonscape of the Badlands of North Dakota," Kent chimes in. "We rode at a fox trot, then a canter, while a group of wild horses paralleled us across a nearby hillside. How would Buddy and Scout react? We knew they were aware, they raised their heads a bit higher, but they didn't spook or attempt to run away. Farther along the trail, we rode through a buffalo herd." What a Wild West ride!
One unforgettable night, the couple camped high in the Montana mountains on the Continental Divide. It was August, and when their campfire died, they stretched out on the ground to watch fireworks above as the summer sky lit up with the Perseid meteor shower.
"After a while, we looked over to see Buddy and Scout laying down in their corral, just 10 feet away," Kent recalls. "We figured they were watching the shooting stars, too. It was a neat feeling.
"Our horses have given us the greatest experiences of our lives."
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