Carole Mercer of Eagle Point, Oregon, kept track of the hours she rode her Morgan Horses on the trail until she tallied a whopping 10,000. "Then I stopped - logging hours, that is - I'll never stop trail riding!" she says emphatically. "I suspect I'm probably up to 20,000 by now."
The Northwest horsewoman fell in love with the Morgan breed nearly 30 years ago; today, she has three registered Morgans in her barn. In addition to trail riding, Mercer drives her Morgans, does ranch work, and performs dressagemusical kurs, which she calls "line dancing with horses."
One of Mercer's favorite pastimes is to pack up her Morgans and her two dogs (a Jack Russell Terrier and a Labrador-Schipperke cross), and head for nearby Mt. Ashland, in the Siskiyou Mountains.
"Near the summit, there's a ski-resort parking lot where I unload, then I have the choice of heading out on Forest Service roads or the Pacific Crest Trail," she says. "Either way, we ride through forests of tall Douglas fir and huge ferns. At the top, there's a breathtaking 360-degree view, which takes in Mt. Shasta. Morgans are perfect trail partners, with the stamina, courage, and willingness to share every adventure with you."
Mercer is just one of the several thousand avid trail riders who enjoy the American Morgan Horse Association's Pathways Program, which rewards its members for hours spent pleasure riding and driving, and the AMHA Open Competitive Program, which awards participants in endurance and competitive trail events.
The AMHA also touts the breed's rich history, which traces back to the late 1700s and Justin Morgan, a music teacher in Randolf, Vermont. Morgan owned an eye-catching bay colt named Figure. (See "Morgan History" on page 52.) The Morgan horse's ability to outperform every horse in the area, whether trotting, running, or pulling, soon became the stuff of legends. And his ability to pass his remarkable talents to the next generation ensured his place in history.
More than 200 years later, we still celebrate Justin Morgan's gallant little horse in books and in film, while his descendants are cherished by trail enthusiasts for their versatility, hearty constitutions, and kind natures. Read on to learn more about the Morgan Horse, a true American original.
MaryAnn Schafer of Lake City, Florida, owns Bowood Elusiv Dream, the first Morgan mare to earn the AMHA's Sport Horse Award, and trail was a large component of it. In their quest for the award, the duo had to post top honors in competitive trail, combined driving, and combined training. In the latter, they had one horse trial with three components that stood between them and the coveted Sport Horse Award. They aced the dressage, went clean in the cross country, and had just the show jumping left to tackle.
Schafer and Dream had entered the jump course and cleared the first obstacle when a herd of deer bounded into the arena, and dashed right between them and the second jump. "Dream's only reaction was to look up, then shorten her stride so she wouldn't run right into the deer!" Schafer says. "She didn't waver or spook, and we continued on and cleared every single jump." Such poise under pressure is "typical of the unflappable nature of the breed," she declares.
Trail riding is Schafer's favorite activity. She reports that north central Florida, where she lives, is very equestrian-friendly. "Many state parks have beautifully maintained riding trails that are separate from those for motorized vehicles, and an annual family pass for unlimited access is just $80. There are hitching posts, and barn stabling is often available for a nominal cost. We love to go to O'Leno State Park, along the Santa Fe River. There are shade trees for comfort in the summer, and gently rolling terrain with trails that are wide enough for carriages.
"And sometimes," she adds with a smile, "deer cross our path."
Michigan schoolteacher John Quaderer owns three generations of Lippitt Morgan mares. Lippitts are registered Morgans that trace to the breeding program of Robert Lippitt Knight and carry a high percentage of Justin Morgan blood, through specific horses designated and approved by the association. "It's a small gene pool, characterized by stocky, short horses with great stamina," Quaderer says.
A couple of years ago, Quaderer rode his Morgans for 233 miles across the state from shore to shore: Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. This summer, he plans to repeat his journey. "It was an amazing experience, and the horses were just as fresh when we finished the ride as when we started. Morgans are easy to live with, and out on the trail, they have a lot of go."
Linnea Sidi of Loveland, Colorado, couldn't agree more. Sidi, who's owned and bred Morgans for 23 years, has 18 Morgans at her farm, Meadowlark Morgans. She's also the president of the Western Working Morgan Horse Club, a 250-member group dedicated to preserving old Morgan bloodlines, particularly those used for ranch work and trail riding.
Sidi's most memorable ride was in 2002, when she joined a group of 50 Morgan Horse owners who traveled to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, for a trail adventure.
"I'll never forget the day we'd covered half a mile of steep, narrow switchbacks en route to a spectacular vantage point," Sidi says. "Although it was straight up or straight down on either side, no one had a problem with the challenge. I was at the lead, and at the top, I looked back and saw the entire string of 50 Morgan Horses climbing up the mountainside. It was unforgettable. Morgans want to please you - just point and go!"
Hearty and Handy
Ken Thomas' grandfather owned Morgan Horses; Thomas has owned and loved Morgans as long as he can remember.
Today, the Richfield, Utah, horseman is the president of the Morgan Single-Footing Horse Association.
"'Single-foot' is an umbrella term for any four-beat gait, from a foxtrot to a stepping pace," Thomas notes. "Some Morgans are naturally single-footed, and we serve to educate and promote thenaturallygaited Morgan. Our club members are primarily trail riders."
Several years ago, Thomas packed into the Teton Range of the Rocky Mountains with his father and brothers. "Of course, we all rode Morgans. They have heart and stamina: day after day, they give you everything they've got, which is welcome in challenging backcountry.
"We came in from the Idaho side and crossed into Wyoming. The country was gorgeous! It was August, and we rode through valleys that had been carved out by glaciers, and were covered with wildflowers. We climbed into the high country, above the tree line, where you could see forever. And all the while, our Morgans did us proud. They didn't miss a step."
Helga Lonkosky, too, grew up in a family that raised Morgan Horses. She's the owner of Beacon Morgans of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and president of the Archival Morgan Horse Record. The group originated in 1995 to register Morgans that were excepted from the AMHA due to high white markings, even though they were purebreds and had been DNA-typed.
Lonkosky is also an avid competitive trail rider. She'll never forget her first ride with a beautiful Morgan mare she'd found languishing in a mostly Thoroughbred boarding barn and brought home.
"I was relatively new to the sport, so I concentrated on negotiating the course safely, without taking note of how we finished in the pack," she remembers. "My mare was a wonderful athlete and had a sweet, willing personality, and we had a blast! That night, I went to the awards ceremony, and was completely shocked to find we were second overall in the novice mid-weight division, and first place novice horse and first novice rider!"
"Every show horse I have is a trail horse, too," says professional trainer Eitan Beth-Halachmy, who, with his wife, Debbie, owns Wolf Creek Ranch in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. He's trained many Morgan national and world champions, and has produced the popular Cowboy Dressageinstructional videos.
"How long can you ride in circles?" Beth-Halachmy says. "I ride through our gate and out onto the trail. It's good for your horse mentally and physically, and for you, too.
"When we're on the way to the world show, I tell people that we trail ride to Oklahoma. We stop in Gallup, New Mexico, and stay where we can head out on a trail in every direction. Morgans have many qualities desirable in a trail horse. Their size, between 14.2 and 15 hands high, means they're not so tall that you'd have difficulty climbing back on if you dismount on the trail. And they're aware and interested in their surroundings, but not spooked by new scenery.
"I love the look of a Morgan Horse - pretty, with beautiful, kind eyes. With their great looks, they also have a strong, sensible nature and the athletic ability to do anything that you might ask."
Beth-Halachmy has spent much of his career evaluating and buying Morgan Horses for clients; he offers these smart-shopping tips:
• Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about Morgan Horses. You'll find valuable information on the AMHA website.
• Find a mentor.Find someone who'll tell you the unvarnished truth, whether it's a trail rider, Morgan breeder, or a trainer.
• Ask the sellers why they're selling.
• Sleep on it.Don't buy the first horse you see. Even if he's wonderful, go home and make your decision away from the emotion of the moment.
• Go on the trail.Ride your trail horse prospect on the trail. Don't be satisfied with circling around an arena - see how the horse reacts in the great outdoors.
• Negotiate a 30-day trial period.The seller should be as interested as you that this new partnership will work.
• Check tack fit.Every horse is unique, and some Morgans have broad, short backs, so you may need a saddle with a wide tree and short bars.
Then, enjoy the ride of your life on a Morgan!
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