Choosing the Right Horse for Happy Trails

From the backyard ride to a 100-mile endurance race, trail riding can encompass a wide range of activities.

Photo: iStock

Tips for finding your best four-legged trail riding partner

The phrase “trail ride” brings to mind different things to different people. For one person it could be a relaxing afternoon ride sightseeing for a few hours in the rolling hills, while for another it’s a strenuous race stretching well beyond daylight hours and covering dozens of miles of sometimes-treacherous countryside. These pursuits require mounts to be sound and sure-footed, but for recreational trail riding, competitive trail, and endurance riding, certain equine traits rise to importance for each discipline, ranging from disposition to build. So how do you decide which prospects to pursue? 

We asked Greg Fellers, DVM, of Seal Beach, California, who serves as a judge for the North American Trail Riding Conference, and recreational trail riding veterinarian Chris Coudret, DVM, of London, Ohio, to share their tips on picking your best trail partner.

“You really do have a whole spectrum of involvement in trail riding,” says Fellers. “You might have someone who just rides out onto their property or into a park and may not ever get past a walk. Then the next person might be doing a competitive trail ride or a 100-mile endurance race. The key is to match the horse’s abilities with the desires of that rider.” Regardless of your goals, a few tips apply across all types of trail riding, Fellers says.

From the Ground Up

“To start, you need a horse with healthy feet,” Fellers says. “Healthy feet are critical. Examine the wear of the foot, and try to avoid horses that travel with a gait that interferes with itself (essentially, when the feet or limbs hit each other during movement). The angle of the foot (that which it makes with the ground) can tell you much about the horse’s conformation. Look for good conformation, and if you don’t understand good conformation, bring someone with you who does.”

Good conformation can include everything from how the horse’s neck comes out of its shoulder (ideally not too high or too low), the slope of the shoulder and  the pasterns, withers that are neither too flat nor too high, a short back that does not appear to be concave or swaybacked, as well as legs that are straight without toeing in or toeing out (when viewed from the front or back) or being over or behind at the knee (viewed from the side). Evaluating conformation takes a critical eye. Though you want a horse with a “clean” throatlatch, an intelligent look, and a kind eye, don’t get caught up in how “nice-looking” the horse’s head or face is.

Fellers also suggests looking for scar tissue on the knees or front fetlocks, which might indicate the horse has suffered previous injuries from stumbling. “Some of the most common injuries you’ll see on trail horses result from the wear and tear on the front legs below the knees,” he said. “Soft tissue injuries can include those to the suspensory and sesamoidean ligaments (both of which are vitally important to supporting the fetlock) and injuries to the fetlock and pastern joints.”

Between the Ears

“The second most important aspect of your trail horse is temperament—what goes on between the ears,” Fellers says. “You want a horse that is relatively quiet and responds to your direction, but you also want to know how this horse will deal with the surprises that you’re bound to come across on the trail—everything from wild animals to bikers and even the occasional walker who might come along with a llama (sometimes used as pack animals for trekking)—many horses are scared of llamas!”

For those riders who have a desire to compete, a competitive attitude in their mount becomes very important, he notes. “As you start to look at competitive trail riding, you want a horse that can stand hours of training and … has a desire to stay with the horses around them or even get ahead of them,” he says.

Size Matters

The size of your trail horse is an important consideration, Fellers says. “For people who are not so spry, a 16- or 17-hand horse can be a challenge,” he says, for mounting and dismounting on the trail. 

Taller horses can also be at a disadvantage. “I find the longer, taller horse can have less aptitude for the technical aspects of the trail such as rocks and rough terrain,” he adds. “As a result they can have more problems navigating the trail.”

Recreational Riding Breeds

The average trail rider has many horse breeds to choose from when searching for a suitable mount. “Morgans work well,” Fellers says. “I find the Morgans are a little more refined in their body structure and they have the stamina to go a little further. 

“In my area, we have a lot of people getting into trail riding later in life, as empty nesters with time and money,” he adds. “They find that having a comfortable ride is most important point to them, so they find the gaited breeds work really well.”

Even mules can be great for trail riding. “They are sure-footed and can handle any terrain or trail you tackle,” Fellers says. “You won’t be the fastest in the world, and there is always the potential with mules that they may not exactly agree with your plan for the day.”

For Coudret, the Quarter Horse has been her breed of choice for trail riding. “For me, trail riding is a way to relax,” she says. “I enjoy the laid-back, quiet temperament of my Quarter Horses. I like to just ride along and look at nature, and they allow me to do that. I also find my Quarter Horses are heavily muscled and can handle the terrain. They also have pretty good stamina to go on longer rides.”

Coudret rides primarily in Ohio state parks and area metro parks in West Central Ohio and occasionally takes overnight camping trips on the trail. “As I go around the state, I see quite a few Quarter Horses, a few Paints, and a few gaited horses like Tennessee Walking Horses and Paso Finos, but I’d say I primarily see stock horses,” she says. Stock horses also tend to be shorter in stature, as are Arabians and Morgans.

About Competitive Trail Riding

Competitive trail riding might be of interest to trail riders who want to learn to work better as a team and add some competition to their riding. In these events, judges evaluate both horses and riders as they encounter natural obstacles such as creeks, boulders, steep banks, or inclines.

“Horses are judged on their fitness as they cover the course, including their heart rate recovery and soundness, as well as their attitudes and how well they listen to the rider,” says Fellers. “Riders are also judged on their use of proper safety and horsemanship skills.”

While Fellers says he sees many breeds in competitive trail riding, he notes that as distance increases, certain builds have an advantage. “The lighter frame of some horses means they have a greater surface area to body mass ratio, which allows them to cool down and recover more efficiently,” he says.

Two national organizations promote competitive trail riding clinics and events. You can learn more by visiting the North American Trail Ride Conference at natrc.org and the American Competitive Trail Horse Association at actha.us.

Arabians Rule Endurance Riding

Endurance rides test and time an individual horse and rider team's ability to traverse a marked, measured cross-country trail over natural terrain for a distance of 50 to 100 miles in one day.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

For riders who want to take trail riding to the extreme in competition, endurance fits the bill. Endurance rides test and time an individual horse and rider team’s ability to traverse a marked, measured cross-country trail over natural terrain for a distance of 50 to 100 miles in one day. Endurance riding has been a Fédération Equestre Internationale sport since 1978.

Unlike competitive trail riding, where the horse and rider are judged, in endurance riding horse and rider pairs must pass a number of veterinary check stations along their route and complete mandatory “holds” during the ride where the horse’s heart rate must decrease to meet a specific parameter before they can continue.

Fellers, who for many years has served as the head veterinarian for the Tevis Cup, considered by many to be the world’s best-known and most difficult endurance ride, sees one particular breed with a huge advantage in endurance riding.

“If you look at the top 25 finishing horses in the Tevis Cup, probably 20 of them are Arabians or Arabian crosses,” he says. “They are just genetically wired to keep going and going. When you look at the breeds of horses and their use of slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscles, this makes sense.

“Horses with fast-twitch fibers can generate greater power and speed, but they have less ability to sustain their activity for long periods. You see the best examples of this in Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse breeds. 

“The Arabians have the most slow-twitch fibers of any breed. At the top end of the competition in endurance riding, there is no question—there is a huge advantage. No other breed can hang with them because of their ability to compete at both distance and speed. If you are going into endurance riding, I would choose the Arabian or an Arabian cross.”

To learn more about this endurance discipline, visit the American Endurance Ride Conference, the official national governing body for endurance riding in North America, at aerc.org.

Get the Prepurchase Exam

No matter what aspect of trail riding you’d like to pursue, Fellers recommends all riders have a qualified veterinarian—preferably one knowledgeable about trail horses—conduct a prepurchase examination prior to buying a horse. 

“Make a scale of the desirable traits that are most important to you based on the purpose you’ll be using the horse for, and share those with the veterinarian,” he says. 

Take-Home Message

From the backyard ride to a 100-mile endurance race, trail riding can encompass a wide range of activities. Here’s hoping these tips can help you select your best trail riding partner yet. 

About the Author

Connie Lechleitner

Connie Lechleitner is a freelance writer who lives in New Philadelphia, Ohio. She has worked in the equine association industry and has been a horse owner and breeder for many years.

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