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Finding The Right Horse for the Trail Rider – Northwest Horse Source Jan 2013

NWHS-jan2013The Right Horse for the Trail Rider – As published in the Jan 2013 Northwest Horse Source

It’s a brand new year and maybe a fresh start on the trail with a new companion. I’m often asked “What kind of horse is a good trail horse?” my usual answer is “One with four legs” and while technically correct this response certainly leaves more questions to answer.

Anyone who enjoys trail riding will tell you that a good trail horse or mule is worth his weight in gold and is just as much an athlete as any other performance horse. Anytime I look for a new trail mount to accompany me into the back country, I look for a combination of personality and conformational traits. To make sure that I was on the right track I visited Stride Right Farms and spoke to Mel and Deb Kulhman, and asked what traits they aim for in their Rocky Mountain trail horse breeding program.


We agreed that a horse, or mule, with a kind and willing disposition is much easier to work with and train for the myriad of new challenges that it will be asked to face. Unless you like drama on your rides look for a horse that is neither over reactive nor has an overly high flight instinct. A calm yet willing disposition will help a good trail horse to stand quietly while tied, remain calm on the edge of a mountain, and get along with other horses in camp (as well as cows, dogs, elk, and deer).

NWHS-jan20131Age and Experience
Age is always a factor and younger is not necessarily better. With a seasoned horse you can get on and go from day one. A healthy 10- or 12-year old horse still has many good years left in him and you can enjoy the trails right away. Likewise a mount with real trail experience can often be worth a higher purchase price, especially if you are just starting out or if you want a better chance of avoiding problems on the trail. A rodeo 10 miles from the trailer is no fun.


In trail riding, beauty is as beauty does and a good horse is never the wrong color. Conformation traits rewarded in the show ring for their aesthetic value mean nothing if they don’t help the horse get down the trail. I’ve seen horses and mules of all shapes and sizes succeed as good competent trail mounts. Most of them prove the rule that “form is function”: Structurally correct horses are more likely to stay sound over the many miles of repetitive motion and concussion that trail riding entails. Also, your mount should be big enough to do the job and as short as possible. A tall horse is impressive but the back country is woefully lacking in readymade mounting blocks.


Making your way into the back country is hard work and access to those stunning vistas is earned, not given. If the horse has a history of being unsound or of lameness he may not be sturdy enough to cover long miles of varied and rough terrain and you will only cause him pain and yourself heartache.

Try Him Out!
Once you find a horse that has the qualities you desire and that you think would make a great trail buddy, you try him out to see how he is in a few different situations. Mel and Deb at Stride Right Farms encourage people to take their time before buying to make sure they’ve found the right trail mount. Take the prospect out on a few trail rides and get to know the horse or mule in the environment you are going to be using him in to see if he enjoys the trails as much as you do. Hopefully, this will tell you just what level of experience he truly has and whether all those traits you saw at the barn are still there on the trail, when you really need them.

Wishing you a trail filled New Year! As always for the largest directory of horse trails and camping areas in the U.S. to visit with your new horse or mule, visit