Mountain Horse Breeds

Smooth-gaited Mountain Horse breeds are perfect for trail riding. Here’s what you need to know about these surefooted breeds.
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Mountain Horses - Rocky Mountain Horses and Kentucky Mountain Horses - are people horses perfect for trail riding. If you doubt this, 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 the truly the Golden Retrievers of the equine world."

The Hartongs, who own 14 Mountain Horses, were initially attracted to the horses' mellow temperaments, but soon discovered that the breed offered so much more for the avid trail enthusiast: a naturally smooth gait, intelligence and calm in challenging situations, and hardy constitutions that make them easy keepers, even when long, frosty winters darken the Northeast Kingdom.

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Earlier in the year, when fall foliage ripens into lush reds and oranges, the Hartongs often host as many as 20 friends and their Mountain Horses at Cedar Grove Farm. They spend crisp autumn days exploring more than 30 square miles of trails around the charming village that Yankee magazine called the best village in New England. Winter doesn't put a halt to the fun: Their Mountain Horses pull sleighs through the snow.

"I usually train youngsters myself," says Mike, a surgeon. "I handle and imprint them at birth, as the mothers watch. There's a lot of trust. It's a very gratifying experience."

Out of the national spotlight until just two decades ago, more and more trail riders are discovering the Mountain Horse. "I've had people drive six hours just to see one!" Mike says.

Humble Origins
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."

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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. According to its informational materials, it registers "the Mountain Pleasure Horse, 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. Long before the other gaited breeds were in existence, a particular type of horse was being bred on the steep hillsides to work the fields and provide the best ride." The MPHA is a closed registry, open only to horses with registered parents.

Surefooted Grace
Gordon Rife of Stanton, Kentucky, organizes trail rides for a third Mountain Horse registry, the Mountain Pleasure Horse Association. Rife, owner of Upper Cane Creek Stables, is a big fan of the breed's gliding gait and willingness to please.

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, from ankle to belly-deep, with hills to climb, and valleys to meander through, and the Mountain Horse will carry you safely wherever you ask him to go," Rife says. "Much of the Gladie Creek Trail is ridden under a canopy of oak and beech trees, with pine and mountain laurels, too, so it's comfortable even in summer heat."

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A Family Affair
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 ten 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."

Today, with his children and grandchildren helping run the farm, Derickson continues to share the history of the breed and the insights of a lifetime spent with horses. Old friends as well as newcomers to the breed find the welcome mat is always out at Van Bert Farm.

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.

"We have compiled a tremendous data base of information on horses and bloodlines," Crowe says. "In sharing it, we hope to encourage better-informed breeding practices. It's a great tool for breeders, and we hope it'll also help prospective buyers with their decisions."

The UMH/AGMH has recently purchased 182 acres, part of an historic farm, near Clay City, Kentucky, where they plan to construct a Mountain Horse Equestrian Center.

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Trail Partners
Sometimes, horses bring people together; Mountain Horses did just that for Jane Gean and Sharon Dalrymple. Jane and her husband, Bob, own Dreamcatcher Enterprises in Lexington, Kentucky; she met Dalrymple in 1999.

"I grew up watching Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger," Dalrymple remembers. "I'd worked in the family business for over 30 years when I decided it was time to follow my heart and get a horse. I bought my first, a Quarter Horse, when I was 48 years old."

Unfortunately, she had a riding accident and broke bones in her back. Suddenly, jogging her horse was excruciatingly painful. A friend suggested gaited horses.

"But I didn't know what a gaited horse was!" Dalrymple says. "I sought out three different gaited breeds, but none of them captured my imagination. Then I saw Jane's website. I drove to meet her, got on a Mountain Horse, and everything clicked! Her horses had a gentle disposition, smooth gait, and there wasn't a wasted movement as they traveled down the trail. I realized: I can do this.

"I just fell in love with the Mountain Horse. And for a while, I thought I needed to raise enough for everybody in the country to own one!"

In actuality, Jane Gean and Sharon Dalrymple pooled their resources to create a Mountain Horse breeding business. At one time, they had 85 horses.

"Jane grew up with horses and had practical knowledge, and I had the business experience," Dalrymple says. "Every birth was a miracle. When a baby was due, I slept in the barn and imprinted the foals. It was a magical experience. We raised wonderful Mountain Horses."

Recently, Dalrymple heeded the call of the White Mountains of eastern Arizona and purchased a ranch located at 7,200 feet elevation, nestled in Ponderosa pines. She named it Rocky Range Ranch.

"We sold many of our horses, and I brought eight horses to Arizona, and left eight with Jane and Bob," Dalrymple says. "Jane also found me the horse of my dreams, a Spotted Mountain Horse gelding named Cisco, who's the smoothest horse I've ever ridden."

A recent ride took Dalrymple to trails near Tombstone, Arizona, and the Tombstone Livery. She highly recommends it, along with the Big Horse Mountains in Wyoming. "Wonderful riding," she exclaims. "Both make you feel like you're in the Old West. And a Mountain Horse is just the partner to take you there!"

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Versatility Plus
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, full of fun and folk wisdom.

"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."

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."

Distinctive Personalities
Two sorrel half-sister mares from Vernon and Joyce Stamper's farm are part of Sarah Bushong-Weeks' foundation herd at 8th Heaven Gaited Horses in Castle Rock, Colorado. They're both out of his mare, memorably named Stampers Peaches.

"Miss Butterfinger and Mountain Marriage (known as M&M) each have distinctive personalities, but both make the cutest babies and are super mothers," Bushong-Weeks says.

Just a few short years ago, she decided to follow her lifelong passion for horses and create an equestrian haven; a calm, safe environment where horses and humans had the opportunity to develop lasting partnerships.

"Quick-fix techniques, like harsh bits, chains, or chemicals, are just not acceptable," Bushong-Weeks says. "We're not wedded to any one training method, but we use those taught by Pat Parelli, John Lyons, and Mark Rashid, among others, as well as Roger Kyle, our talented trainer.

"Each horse is unique, and we tailor the training to enhance their special talents. Rigid, uncompromising training doesn't allow for the uniqueness of the horse and limits a rider's ability to use the horse for different activities. We train for the well-rounded horse."

Bushong-Weeks' pride and joy is Tomas T, her 8-year-old Rocky Mountain Horse stallion. "He's athletic and self-assured, with a beautiful, baroque arch to his neck," she says. "He's been recognized as the 'epitome of the Rocky Mountain Horse' by the United Mountain Horse Association. My biggest challenge is taking his photograph; his nose is always all over the lens! I'm pretty sure that if he could, he'd make himself comfy in my living room."

Shopping Savvy
Derickson offers terrific advice for anyone contemplating purchasing a Mountain Horse:

Learn the cues. Take time to learn where your horse's "control buttons" are located. Each animal is individual, so learn what specific cues your horse answers to.

Learn the gaits. Particularly if you're new to gaited horses, learn how to ask for the appropriate gait, how to recognize it, and how to maintain proper form in the gait.

Find a good farrier. Contact owners of gaited horses in your area to find a farrier who works with gaited horses. Like any specialty, experience and common sense are valuable.

Choose a kind bit. Select your bit deliberately, and use it wisely. A bit is as severe as the hands it's in; even D-ring snaffles can injure sensitive mouth tissue. If you're unsure which bit to use, consult a qualified trainer or certified riding instructor.

Choose a saddle with care. The average Mountain Horse has rounded, not prominent, withers, so many saddles are too narrow and will pinch at the shoulders. Derickson uses a Canadian trooper saddle. Its tree sits on either side of the backbone (like a cavalry saddle) with a metal arch connecting the sides. It exerts no pressure on the backbone and shoulders. The savvy Derickson says this saddle type has eliminated sore backs.

Enjoy! Then enjoy one of the best friends a trail rider can have: the Mountain Horse! 

Ready to look for the right Rocky Mountain horse for you? Go to Equine.com, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, to search for the perfect horse!