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Can Any Horse be a Trail Horse? – Northwest Horse Source, Jan 2014

nwhsjan2014What makes a Good Trail Horse?

As Published in The Northwest Horse Source – January 2014

A good trail horse. What defines that mystical beast? Plato and Descartes might have suggested that a good trail horse is born with all of the innate abilities required to safely make its way through the wilderness, after all equines have existed for millennia without humans to train them. A competing view might be found in John Locke’s Tabula Rasa idea of a blank slate where everything is a result of experience or training.  Regardless of our views on the nature versus nature debate we can all agree that a good trail horse is worth his weight in gold.

Since we’re in agreement that it takes a special (I believe superior) horse or mule to handle a boundless arena with constantly changing conditions and unique interactions with other creatures, what do we look for in a good trail horse that can take us into deep into the backcountry and return safely?

Let’s start with nature and those things that are determined in large part by heredity and genetics. Conformation or the relationship of how the animal’s body is put together is important if we want our mount to be physically able to handle the stresses of the trail and long miles and days under saddle. What may be a “flaw” in an arena setting can be quite excusable as long as the flaw does not lead to unsoundness down the road. For trail riders beauty is as beauty does and a good horse is never a bad color.

Some of the things that I look for include good feet that are healthy and proportional in size for the horse.  The old adage “no hoof no horse” is just as true today as it was in the 1800’s.  If you care about how well the saddle rides, or doesn’t, withers are to be considered.  While most mules and my horse have ill-defined withers, well defined withers will help to keep a saddle upright and resist rolling from side to side.  Another nature aspect that is commonly ignored is size. The height of your mount will greatly affect your rides. While many riders seem to think that bigger is better they won’t find many mounting blocks in the backcountry.  A good trail horse should be big enough to get the job done while also being short enough to easily mount without aids.

A horse with the best confirmation in the world is without value if it doesn’t have a good disposition. The abilities to get along with other horses, stand quietly and patiently, and “Horse Sense” are all qualities that in my opinion are just as important as physical traits. My horse has ok feet and lousy withers; his eagerness to hit the trail and his mountain goat like demeanor more than make up for those deficiencies.

Qualities that I look for that can be considered as nurtured or trained include trailer loading, hobble training, and bridge crossing. Another trainable skill is the ability to ride away from other horses without an argument.  While these skills and many others are most certainly trainable, personally I like a horse that I can get on and ride. That brings us to the point of age.  A well cared for 10-12 year old horse has many years and miles left in him and has, hopefully, many trail experiences under his saddle already.

A common question we hear when trail riding is “what kind of horse is that?” The best answer I’ve come up with is “one with four legs”. Although there are many different breeds I’m convinced that any breed can make a great trail partner, if it has the traits that we’ve talked about.  One caveat to that is if you commonly ride with a group or have a favorite trail riding friend, it’s nice if both animals travel at about the same pace. My wife and I both ride gaited horses with similar natural gaits and speeds. This combination makes for a very pleasant ride for all concerned.

Here’s to a trail riding New Year! As always, for more information about trail riding and North America’s largest directory of horse trails and camping areas in the U.S. to visit with your new horse or mule, visit