WHEN THOUGHTS TURN TO KENTUCKY’S horses, they normally include images of large expanses of white fencing, Thoroughbred broodmares grazing (quietly while their foals gambol, and palatial barns in the distance. But that’s not the whole picture. While Thoroughbreds are populous in the Bluegrass State, they’re not the only cherished equine.

In the early 1900s, a type of gaited horse emerged in the eastern part of the state of Kentucky, near the foothills of the rugged Appalachian Mountains. This Southern treasure is beloved by all who have come to saddle it up and go for a ride. Although small in numbers, its following is fiercely devoted. Today this breed, the Rocky Mountain Horse, is being used for pleasure, on the trail, and for competitive and endurance riding. As a show horse, the breed is rapidly gaining in popularity because of its beauty and unique way of stepping out.

Possessing extraordinary natural endurance, Rockies are also surefooted over rough terrain and, because of their gait, they require a minimum of effort by both horse and rider so that together they can cover a great distance without tiring.

The main reason people are so true-blue about their Rocky Mountain Horses is not only because of their gentle, wanting-to¬please natures, but also for their comfortable, ambling, four-beat gait. Because the horse was such a smooth mover, folks in the Appalachian Mountains selected it to work the farms nestled in the rugged foothills. But this was not merely a workhorse. Even though the Rocky Mountain Horse could easily handle all the plowing and cattle work of the farms, he also doubled as the snappy transportation needed to get into town on the weekend. The horse’s temperament was even ideal for the farmer’s kids to ride. Its gentle attitude became legendary. And talk about an easy keeper. Unlike some of its delicate cousins, the Rocky Mountain Horse didn’t require warm, air-tight stables to flourish through the winter. Even during the frigid, snowy winters in the foothills, this horse could tolerate the cold just fine.

Breed History

Ayoung stallion, whose name is not recorded, bearing a chocolate-colored coat and flaxen mane and tail, was born in the early 1900s in Kentucky’s Appalachians. He was brought to the eastern portion of the state where his owners began using him as a breeding stallion to cover their Kentucky-bred mares.

His foals also bore his unique coloring, and had his wonderful nature and unique four-beat gait, to hoot. With subsequent breedings it became clear that these horses of the Kentucky mountains, isolated by their geography, were an actual type.

A few years later, a breeder named Sam Tuttle bought a Rocky Mountain mare and used her to produce several foals, which he used on his trail string at the Kentucky Natural Bridge State Park.

One colt, christened Old Tobe, was a fine specimen of the mountain horse, and became the foundation stallion of the breed. And the Rocky Mountain rental horses! They began to garner interest from the public, who were quite taken with this medium-sized horse with the effortless gaits and the silky dark coat.

Over the years, more people began referring to this horse as a breed, with its own genotype. And people began crossing their other horses to the Rocky Mountains. Many breeds, when they have their gene pool diluted with the blood of other horses, suffer. However, the Rocky Mountain Horse was able to retain its main characteristics and its conformation. But, with no breed registry, no record-keeping, and haphazard breeding practices, the breed was in danger of losing what purity it had. If the horses did not have a studbook-an official registry to maintain and promote the breed-the horse might disappear from the face of the earth. So in 1986, a group of enthusiasts formed the Rocky Mountain Horse Association (RMHA). They worked to locate individual Rocky Mountain Horses scattered throughout Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. The organization sought to find ways to increase the horses’ small numbers, as well as let the rest of the world in on this well-kept secret from the South. Lastly, the organization established the breed’s official characteristics.

Breed Characteristics

Rockies usually stand between 14.2 and 16 hands tall, with most ranging around 15 hands. They have a wide chest, a graceful, sloping shoulder, and compact frame. They possess a straight profile, with kind, expressive eyes, and well-proportioned ears. Rockies also bear a graceful, arched neck, proportionate to the body and set at an angle for naturally upright carriage. Many say that it is apparent that Rockies have Spanish forebears, since their appearance is often similar to Iberian horses. They sport a solid body color, although a little white on the face is okay as long as it isn’t overwhelming. Legs can also be white up to the knee or hock. Most are a rich, dark chestnut    almost a chocolate color-with a flaxen mane and tail. The horse also is required to have its trademark even temper and willing nature.

Rockies are particularly popular with older adults who look at their equine partners as trusted companions in leisure pursuits. Rockies are great for novices who are just finding their feet in the horse world, but competitive riders are also drawn to their versatility and ability to perform.

As important as its beautiful looks and conformation is its way of going. A Rocky has to have a natural ambling four-beat gait, with no lateral pacing. This means that when the horse goes into its gait, you can count four distinct hoof beats that are similar to the cadence of the walk. Their gaits allow them to travel at a good clip, going anywhere from seven to even twenty miles and hour when they’re really flying. Their gait shouldn’t be enhanced by training aids or built-up shoeing, and the breed association doesn’t allow soring of the horse to produce artificial front-end action, either.

During the late 1980s, a genetics researcher looked at one hundred foundation horses in order to establish the breed’s genetic identity. He found five unique markers indicating pure bloodlines that were a result of the breed’s isolation in the Appalachian foothills. Because of this seclusion, the horse maintained its own unique appearance, and an unusual way of going.

Today, more and more folks are drawn to the Rocky Mountain Horse because of its model-horse coloring, its personality, and easy, floating single-foot gait. There has been increased awareness of the breed, and with that an increase in demand as well, with many breeders needing to put clients on waiting lists for their spring crop of babies.

Rockies are surefooted and sensible on the trail, and because of this, more are participating each year in events such as competitive trail riding and even endurance. But make no mistake-they can also perform in the show ring under the lights in a variety of disciplines.

The International Rocky Mountain Horse Show is held
in September at the Kentucky Horse Park, with Lexington’s rolling
green fields as an elegant backdrop.

Rocky Mountain Horses have a plethora of classes to help display the breed’s versatility. Competing in rail classes, such as western and English pleasure, as well as games events like pole bending, they also have classes in which to show off the breed’s trademark gait. The Rocky Mountain Horse is judged at the show walk, the Rocky Mountain pleasure gait, and the trail walk.

The show walk is described as a deliberate four-beat lateral gait performed at medium speed with a smooth, even rhythm. The horse moves with activity, but not speed. In dressage circles, you might describe it as the horse’s “working walk.” When the horse shifts into the pleasure gait, he shows greater action and speed than at the show walk. The trail walk is different still-it is calm, relaxed and natural. It is performed on a loose rein and natural headset, and the horse will he penalized if he shows nervousness or agitation.

Rocky Mountain Horses cannot be shown with exaggerated weighted shoes or artificial training or action devices, and are considered a natural breed. Rocky enthusiasts wish to preserve it as close to the real McCoy as possible, keeping it part of the South’s legacy. Rich gaits, rich color, rich history. The Rocky Mountain Horse provides its riders with Southern comfort unlike any other.

RMHA
4037 Ironworks Parkway, #160
Lexington KY 40511
www.rmhorse.com 859.243.0260

–Reprinted with the permission of the Lyons Press from America’s Horses:
A Celebration of the Horse Breeds Born the U.S.A. by Moira C. Harris