Best Trail Horses and Mules

Trail horses come in all colors, shapes, sizes and breeds, but the best definitely have seven things in common.

1) They have experience. Trail horses are not born — they’re made. Ideally, they’ve gained their experience working for excellent riders.

2) They have thoughtful and gentle dispositions. Highly reactive horses are dangerous on steep trails or in thick woods. Every horse has the instinct to flee first and ask questions later, but the best trail horses will either take it upon themselves to quickly assess the danger or they have enough confidence in their rider to react to the rider’s cues. They haven’t been abused or spoiled to create defensive habits. They trust people and like to be around humans. If they get loose, they’re apt to be caught again.

3) They’re athletic and balanced enough to maintain willingness for the entire ride. They don’t waste energy, but they do have stamina. They’re not looking to quit until the end of the day. Please understand that this has a great deal to do with an animal’s physical fitness: if a horse is in pain, they’re no more likely to enjoy a trail ride than you would if you have blisters, a bad back or a bum knee.

4) They’re not picky, but they’re also not always trying to snitch a bite at every opportunity. They settle down to eat whatever is available. They drink strange-tasting water. But they don’t try to graze when they’re on the move.

5) Their size matches the rider. A horse should carry no more than 25% of its body weight on a trail ride, ideally less. So if the rider weighs 210 pounds and the tack they use is another 40, the horse should be one which is at least 1000 pounds — which is, not coincidentally, a common weight for 15-hand quarter horses. Things change, however, if a rider of the same weight is too short to mount a 15-hand horse. The rider may prefer a 14-hand horse, and in that case, a heavier-build horse like a Fjord horse or a large, draft-type pony would be best.

6) They have naturally good feet. If shod, their hoof wall holds a nail. If barefoot, they have well-shaped feet that can keep a hoof boot on.

7) They’re team players. They want to stick with their humans and their herd mates. Although they may be herd-bound when at home, they’re happy to check out new horizons when they’re with their people.

What Makes a Great Pack Horse or Mule?

Your pack animal does not have to be smart and it doesn’t have to think too much. Many times younger horses are packed for a year or two to gain experience on the trail. So why, then, are mules such a favorite for pack animals? Anyone who has spent any time whatsoever with mules knows that they are smarter than most horses. I believe it’s because once a mule learns its job, it does everything it can to do it well.  Also, it’s tendency to put up a fight instead of flight in a tricky situation helps. Mules’ sure-footedness is legendary and they take care of themselves in the pack string. And finally, for some reason, mules have an affinity to follow horses around.

Whether your pack animal is a horse or a mule, you’ll want to have trained it to follow your saddle horse, no questions asked. Pack animals need to be thoroughly desentized to carry whatever you put on them no matter how much noise the load makes. And pack animals need to be comfortable dealing with trail obstacles such as crossing swinging bridges, roaring rapids, and ignoring traffic and on-coming pack strings.

American Quarter Horse

American Quarter Horses and Paint Horses

American Quarter horses and Paint horses are the breeds of choice for most American trail riders because of their utility, their strength, their character, and their availability. Both breeds are stock horses–paints may have color but many are solid and undistinguishable from their Quarter horse relatives. An average working-bred quarter horse or paint should be between 15 and 16 hands, have powerful hind quarters, a low head, and a soft eye. Temperament should be calm, patient, and highly trainable. Although the quarter horse is named after the quarter mile race for which it was originally bred, speed is not necessary in a trail horse, but the stock horses’ easy-to-ride walk and canter gaits are a plus.

Appaloosa Horses and Pony of Americas

It seems like every time I’ve talked to someone who had an Appaloosa trail horse at some time, that horse was one of their favorite horses. Pony of Americans are smaller Appaloosas (14 hands or shorter) and they seem to be equally as good. 

Mustangs

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Arabian Horses

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Mules

For the purposes of simplicity, I mean to include mules in with every reference to trail horses in this website. But for those of you who have had the opportunity to be acquainted with a mule, you’ll know they most certainly aren’t horses.

Draft-Cross Horses

Draft Cross horses are the best choice for carrying large riders. Most purebred drafts aren’t ideal on the trail because of their height and their slower speed.

Morgan Horses

Old-style Morgan horses seem to be preferred, but that doesn’t mean that other more modern types aren’t fine as well.

Standardbred Horses

Standardbreds might not be the first breed you think of for a trail horse, but of all the horses pulling Amish buggies in America, the Standardbred is preferred for good reason: trainability, good sense, and stamina. They aren’t the prettiest, they generally come in generic browns, and nobody will be able to guess what breed they are. Most of them have never been raised anywhere near a mountain, yet it’s surprising just how well they take to packing and trail riding. No matter where they are people-pleasing and easy-going. I’ve frequently noticed an Amish standardbred standing patiently at a hitchrail next to a busy road outside the grocery store. Standardbreds particularly excel at distance racing and are one of few breeds who can compete with Arabs. 

Norwegian Fjord Horses

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Austrian Haflinger Horses

The Austrian Haflingers, like the Norwegian Fjord, is a small, strong mountain horse, perfectly suited to someone who wants a rugged trail horse in a short package. They all come in one color: sorrel with a flaxen mane. The ones I’ve met have draft horse characteristics, but they seem quicker and more sure-footed. 

Rocky Mountain Horses

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Tennessee Walking Horse

In my mind, the breed with the kindest disposition has got to be the Tennesee Walker. How they’ve put up with the abuse Big Lick show people have put them through in the past generations, I’ll never know. I used to go watch the Tennessee Walker show every summer at the State Fair when I was a kid and I was thoroughly amazed by those quivering bodies, those flared nostrils, and those sad, sad eyes. 

At Tennesse Walker on mountain trails is an entirely different animal.

Icelandic Horses

 Icelandics

Missouri Fox Trotters

Missouri Fox Trotters, Icelandics, Peruvian Pasos, Paso Fino, Spotted Saddle Horse

Donkeys

For something completely different, donkey made terrific trail mounts. They range in size from Mammoth Jacks for adults down to miniatures for young children.

Ponies

Welsh ponies have been a favorite in our family.