The Right Horse for the Trail Rider
It’s a brand new year and maybe time for 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 a few 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 about as rare as the fabled Unicorn. 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).
Any time choices for trail horses are discussed the topic of mare or gelding comes up and the conversation can get heated quickly. Both can be excellent mounts and although I ride a gelding I try hard not get too stuck on one or the other and instead place a heavy emphasis on the animal’s personality. Lots of folks say that geldings are the only way to go but I’ve had the pleasure of being in the company of some outstanding mares as well. For me it’s not an issue. I’ve seen mares that seem to bond with their riders better than a gelding might. Again I think it comes down to an individual’s personality. I would avoid definitely a stallion as a trail mount. He might be very well behaved and the greatest beast at the stable but all of those good qualities can fly out the window in an instant on the trail.
Age 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. An impromptu rodeo 10 miles from the trailer is no fun. That being said buying an older horse is no guarantee of a solid horse. There is no substitute for good disposition, training and miles. For example a 4 year old horse that has lots of real trail miles under him might be a better choice than a 15 year old that has rarely left the barn lot. The younger animal has a solid foundation to continue building upon where the inexperienced beast will have a steep learning curve.
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.
If you are looking at gaited horses, select one that has a ride that is comfortable for you. Nearly every horse will feel a little different in the way it moves. You may not like the ride of one horse, but the next rider that comes along may think that it’s just perfect.
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. You can avoid many unfortunate and unpleasant happens by having your veterinarian give the prospect a thorough examination prior to purchasing. I would especially recommend this if you’re looking at an older animal.
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. A good point to remember is to try to never buy a horse on your first visit. The more time you spend with the horse prior to making a decision, the more likely you are to make the right selection for you and the horse. 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 North America , as well as trail riding tips , and more please visit www.TrailMeister.com