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Breed Spotlight:  Mountain Horses

By Jeffrey Rolo

First, what is a Mountain Horse?

When I use the term "Mountain Horse," I am actually referring to horses registered under one of these three horse registries: the Rocky Mountain Horse Association, the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association and the Mountain Pleasure Horse Association. The Rocky Mountain Horse Association was the first of the three associations to be created in 1986. In 1988 a group of mountain horse owners formed together to form another registry - the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association. Finally, one year later, the Mountain Pleasure Horse Association was created.

For all practical purposes, there is little if any variation among the horses in each of the registries. Many Mountain Horses are double or even triple registered among these registries. Sir Paul, my stallion, is a member of all three associations. Therefore, I have always placed the emphasis on the horse rather than the registry when working with these horses. I don't care which registry the mountain horse belongs to, as long as it possesses the qualities a Mountain Horse should. This isn't to say the philosophies of each registry are the same - there are indeed differences in the outlooks of each registry - but overall the horses themselves show no real differences.

When evaluating a Mountain Horse I look for the two qualities that make Mountain Horses stand apart from other breeds: disposition and gait. If they possess both qualities, they are great candidates for a riding horse or pet, regardless of which registry or registries they belong to.

What makes the Mountain Horse so special?

There are many qualities that make the Mountain Horse so unique, the foremost of these qualities being their natural gait. Add to this gait beauty, an uncanny agility, a strong endurance, a natural grace and a calm, caring disposition and you can quickly see why Mountain Horses are so special.

Originally Mountain Horses were used primarily as work horses, aiding farmers in the Appalachian Mountain areas of Kentucky with plowing their fields, etc. These horses were ideal workhorses for several reasons:

bulletStrength and endurance - Mountain Horses have a strong natural endurance that enables them to ride/work longer than many other breeds.
bulletGait - The Mountain Horses' natural four-beat gait gave the farmer a comfortable and easy ride, whether at work or enjoying a leisurely trail ride through the woods.
bulletAgility - Mountain Horses possess a natural agility few other breeds can hope to match. This was necessary for many Kentuckians as the Appalachian Mountain area was rough, untamed land. One couldn't own a horse unable to walk or gait in this type of terrain.
bulletPersonality - Most Mountain Horses are calm and quiet, and have no aversion to working.
bulletVersatility - Due to the above traits, the Mountain Horse could be used for just about anything one can think of - pulling small plows in fields, drawing wagons or buggies, trail rides for adults or children, etc. The Kentuckian didn't need to own draft horses for the fields and gaited horses for pleasure riding - the Mountain Horses were a package deal offering both services to their owners.
bulletMinimal upkeep - Mountain Horses needed little to no shelter. They could be thrown in a field with nothing but a lean-to for the coldest of days, and they could survive primarily on grass and hay, needing little grain.

Nowadays, tractors have for the most part taken over "field duty", but Mountain Horses are still used on some small farms for this purpose. Due to their natural agility and endurance, Mountain Horses are also used today for competitive trail riding; many a mountain horse owner has walked away with the blue ribbon from these events. In the Kentucky/Ohio region Mountain Horses are also used for competitive showing purposes, but in the other areas of the nation there are little to no registry-sponsored shows. Though the Mountain Horse can cater to the above types of people, the majority of Mountain Horse owners use them simply as personal or family pleasure horses - they are the perfect "pet" in many a horseman's eyes.

What is special about their gait?

The Mountain Horse has a unique single-foot gait, meaning each foot hits the ground separately. One can actually count out the four beats of the Mountain Horse's gait if they listen carefully. A Mountain Horse that is in prime shape can gait throughout the day without any problem, which is why competitive trail riders are seeing the value in Mountain Horses. The gait is not overly animated such as some other gaited breeds, so they don't expend nearly as much energy gaiting as some other breeds, nor is any stress placed on their joints.

The Mountain Horse's gait is 100% natural from birth. Training "aids" such as chains, soring, corrective shoeing, etc. are not permitted in this breed - if the horse doesn't have a natural gait from birth, it isn't qualified to be a Mountain Horse.

The horse's gait is often judged by watching the rider's head and shoulders. When watching someone ride a Mountain Horse, you should observe little to no bouncing from the rider - the rider's head and shoulders should be level throughout the ride.

Most Mountain Horses are partners rather than "employees" - they work with you rather than for you, and this makes all the difference in the world when riding or interacting with a horse.

Are most Mountain Horses that chocolate color?

No! Though many Mountain Horses possess a chocolate coat, it is by no means the "normal" or primary color of mountain horses. Mountain Horses come in a wide range of colors; chocolate is but one of them.

The chocolate color is made possible by a gene many of these horses possess called the silver-dapple gene. Not all Mountain Horses possess this gene, and not all foals from parents that do possess this gene will be chocolate. Any Mountain Horse with the silver-dapple gene has a chance of throwing a chocolate foal, regardless if he or she is chocolate himself/herself.

I do not advocate breeding for color. The goal should be to keep the Mountain Horse pure by breeding solely for gait and disposition. It's a very bad idea to try and turn this breed into a "glamour breed" - emphasizing the flashy chocolate color while losing the very qualities that sets these horses apart from other breeds is an immense disservice. I love the chocolate color as much as anyone, but color means nothing if the horse loses the very qualities Mountain Horses should possess through irresponsible breeding practices.

If you have your heart set on a chocolate Mountain Horse, be careful about whom you buy from and what horse you purchase. If the breeder you are considering purchasing a horse from encourages or guarantees chocolate foals, it could be a red flag that irresponsible breeding is being used to place color above quality. Also make sure to examine the papers carefully and look for excessive inbreeding. Equally important is to ensure the horse is not ASD-afflicted or, should you be looking for a brood mare or stallion, ensure you know the horse is not a carrier for ASD, as it is important to know these things as a breeder. And finally, be prepared to pay thousands more just for the color alone in most cases.

What should I look for when buying a Mountain Horse?

Purchasing a Mountain Horse is extremely easy as there are only two things you need to actually look for in our opinion:

bulletGait - Does the horse have a smooth natural gait? Is the horse doing an even four-beat gait with no sign of pacing? If the horse is gaiting properly and easily, the first requirement it needs to meet has been met.
bulletPersonality - Is the horse as good on the ground as it is under saddle? Does the horse naturally like people, or does it accept work grudgingly? Remember, you're looking for a horse that wants to work with you; you aren't looking for a horse that will simply work for you. If the horse enjoys being worked with and shows proper manners in all situations rather than just under saddle (many make the mistake of judging a horse entirely by how it rides), it has met the second requirement.

Many of you may be thinking right now, "Gee, he forgot the most important one - for the best pet it should be a gelding!" Well, I haven't forgotten this notion - I have dismissed it for it is generally incorrect with this breed. Unlike most other breeds, mares and even many stallions are every bit as dependable and gentle as geldings. So far in the years I have worked with these horses, I haven't found even ONE mare that acted "witchy" when in heat... in many cases, one really won't even know if the mare is in heat unless he carefully watched for it. I have taken my stallion, Sir Paul, out on the trails during his active breeding season with mares in full heat alongside him, and not once has Sir Paul or the mares acted up.

So if you see a Mountain Horse you like, I suggest you disregard the sex of the horse since it matters little if you're simply looking for a good pet. If the horse aims to please, and has a solid gait - it's a winner.

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