Written by: Holle Abbee
I’ve owned and trained several horse breeds and have used all of them for trail riding. While practically any breed can be successfully trained for trails, some breeds naturally lend themselves to superior trailing because of their calm dispositions, even temperament, and physical agility. For a superior trail mount, you want a horse that doesn’t spook easily and one that will go willingly and safely through brush and water, up and down hills, and across uneven or slippery terrain.
These are my top 5 picks, based on years of experience:
#1: The Appaloosa
Appaloosas were bred by the Nez Perce Indians of northeast Oregon and Idaho. Unlike many of the horse tribes, the Nez Perce bred only the best studs to the best mares to achieve the colorful breed we recognize today as the Appaloosa. These mounts were valued for their ability to navigate surefootedly on rocky slopes, as well as for their stamina and hardiness. Chief Joseph and his band, mounted on their spotted steeds, were able to outrun and outmaneuver the U.S. Cavalry back in the 1800s, largely because their horses were better suited to the trail than were the soldiers’.
The Appaloosa seems made specifically for trail riding. It has a strong, compact body and tough hooves. Characteristically, many Apps have front legs that turn in slightly, giving them a better foothold for gaining traction on steep hills. Appaloosas that haven’t been crossbred with other breeds like Quarter Horses also usually have thin tails that are not easily matted with briars and burrs, another plus for trail riding.
In addition, most Appys are calm and willing. They’re intelligent animals and easy to train. A well trained Appy that trusts its rider will go anywhere it’s asked to go. And as an added bonus, these horses come in a wide variety of coat patterns and colors.
#2: The Quarter Horse
The Quarter Horse was developed on the King Ranch of Texas as an all-around work horse and for racing short distances. This breed is the most popular in the U.S., and today they’re used for timed events, pleasure riding, ranch work, racing, and as show horses. One of their top uses, however, is trail riding.
Quarter Horses make excellent trail mounts for several reasons. Their calm, easy going temperaments are legendary. They’re often selected as a first horse for children and for novice adults. Quarter Horses are powerfully built, with dense hind quarters that enable them to climb steep inclines with ease. They have tough hooves, resilient enough to withstand rocks and other hard surfaces.
Probably the most endearing quality of the Quarter Horse is its sweet disposition. It’s one of the easiest to train of all the breeds, and it is not easily spooked, a definite requirement for trail riding. This is a versatile breed that will excel in any discipline if properly trained.
#3: The Tennessee Walking Horse
For riders who want to combine comfort with trail riding, the Tennessee Walker is hard to beat. Their smooth, easy gait won’t wear out your bottom on long rides. Sitting a good Walker is like being in a rocking chair!
The Tennessee Walker’s Cadillac ride isn’t the only reason they make good trail horses, however. They originated in the mountainous area of Tennessee and were bred for their ability to navigate hilly terrain and to comfortably carry plantation owners around their large estates. Their smooth running walk covers a lot of ground quickly.
The Walker is one of the most elegant-looking breeds, but don’t let the beauty fool you. Beneath this flashy facade is a tough, hardy animal with plenty of stamina for challenging trails and hard hooves that will hold up to the demands of trail riding. Their short backs and strong coupling give them added strength. They also have wonderful temperaments and are easy to train. Their naturally docile nature makes them a top breed for beginners.
#4: The Arabian
One of the oldest breeds, the Arabian was developed in the deserts of the Middle East. These prized animals were treated like family members by their Bedouin masters, and only the most docile animals were kept for breeding purposes. Because of this long, close association with humans, Arabians are inherently easy to train and have a deep desire to please. They are one of the few breeds in which the U.S. Equestrian Federation allows stallions to be shown by children. The modern Arabian is one of the top ten breeds worldwide and is used for a variety of purposes, especially endurance trail riding.
The breed is compact, with only 5 lumbar vertebrae instead of 6, and only 17 pairs of ribs instead of the 18 pairs found on other breeds. This translates into a strong back, and even small Arabs are capable of carrying heavy riders with ease. They have very good feet, with strong, thick hoof walls and hard hooves. Even though they have a delicate appearance, the breed has strong bone and unsurpassed hardiness.
The Arabian excels at endurance riding because of their great stamina. These horses can go for longer periods without food, water, or rest than can other breeds, a testament to their desert history. In fact, Arabians and Arabian crosses dominate endurance competitions.
Arabians make wonderful trail horses not only because of their stamina and physical makeup, but also because of their willing nature. They are especially alert to their surroundings and to cues from their rider. Though some Arabians are high spirited, many individuals are calm, making perfect mounts for beginners.
#5: The Thoroughbred This breed is often overlooked as a trail horse, largely due to its reputation of being nervous and high strung. From my experience, however, a well trained Thoroughbred or a Thoroughbred cross makes an excellent companion for the trail, especially an older, more settled animal.
Thoroughbreds were developed in the 17th century by crossing English mares with 3 Arabian stallions. The breed was used for racing and fox hunting and still excels today in these areas, as well as in dressage, timed events, and jumping competitions.
Thoroughbreds are amazingly agile and athletic. Their small hooves enable them to maneuver and pick their way through difficult ground. Most importantly, the breed has what’s referred to as “heart.” In other words, a Thoroughbred will often tackle obstacles without balking or shying away. There’s an old saying about this quality: “The Thoroughbred throws his heart over a fence first; then his body follows.” This attribute is invaluable on especially difficult trails. A Thoroughbred will often go where other breeds fear to tread.
Thoroughbreds are prized mounts for steeplechasing, which requires the horses to navigate hills, water hazards, and difficult jumps, so trail riding Thoroughbreds makes perfect sense. The breed uses these same capabilities for trails, just at a much slower pace.