The History of the Mountain Horse
The humble beginnings of gaited Mountain Horses evolved alongside the Appalachian heritage of the people who settled in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. The Kentuckians’ principle objective was to breed a multi-purpose horse that could work the land, be ridden in style and comfort, and serve as an important economical asset. The horses had to be tough to survive the rugged mountain lifestyle, versatile to perform multiple tasks, and have a gentle, willing nature.
Gaited Mountain Horses descend from the Narragansett Pacer, Spanish Jennet, and ambling Galloways of Colonial times. These breeds were well known for their comfortable gaits and willing attitudes, which were an absolute necessity if you spent countless hours in the saddle as your primary mode of transportation.
According to oral history, there was a gaited colt brought from the Rocky Mountain region of the United States to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Kentucky around 1890. He was referred to as “the Rocky Mountain Horse” by the local Kentucky people because of the area of the country from which he had come.
Little is known about this foundation stallion, but oral history indicated he was chocolate-colored with flaxen mane and tail, and he possessed a superior gait. The stallion was bred to the local Appalachian saddle mares in a relatively small geographical area where the basic characteristics of the strong genetic line we know today was established. This prized line of horses increased in numbers as years went by, branching out in similar, yet distinctively different ways. These are the horses known today under the registries of Mountain Pleasure Horse, Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse, and Rocky Mountain Horse.
Many people seem confused by the various terms for what appears the same horse. This has to do with having more than 1 breed registry that overlaps with many of the same horses. Each breed registry has their own breed standard and series of requirements that allow a horse to be registered. 2 things that impress us about both the Rocky Mountain Horse Association and the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association is that any horse registered and certified to be used for breeding must be visually inspected by a breed representative to see that it qualifies for conformation, color & gait. Think about that - every single mare or stallion MUST be certified. That means that every horse has to be broke, and possess the correct gait - or it will not qualify. Very few animal registries have such strict requirements, and this ensures that a registered horse means something.
The distinctive, easy riding gait is difficult to describe, but once you’ve experienced it, you won’t settle for anything else. The horse does not trot; but instead moves each foot independently and laterally – left hind, left front, right hind, right front absorbing the bounce of the gait in its ankles, rather than passing that bounce along to the rider.
The Rocky Mountain Horse Association’s definition of this gait is “an evenly spaced, four beat lateral gait with moderate forward speed and extension, without exaggerated knee and hock action.”
The gait is natural. It is maximized by careful selection and responsible breeding and refined through proper training, consistency, and repetition. One of the joys of breeders of Gaited Mountain Horses is to see a young foal “hitting a lick” as it keeps up with its mother’s long strides.
As a rider gets to know his or her mountain horse, they will find the horse can be ridden at varying speeds while maintaining the same smooth, comfortable gait. And there’s nothing quite like the “pick-a-pock-a” sound of a Mountain Horse gaiting down a blacktop road.
Versatility of the Mountain Horse
Today, Rocky Mountain Horses and Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses are being used as pleasure horses, ranch horses, for a trail, competitive or endurance riding, and for show. These horses have a lot of natural endurance; they are sure-footed on rough ground and, because of their gait, they require a minimum of effort by both horse and rider so that together they can cover a greater distance with less tiring.