Trail Riding Horse Breeds: Top Horse Breeds For Trail Riding

Best Horse Breeds for Trail Riding

Trail riding can be used to condition horses for endurance and stamina while also providing horses and riders with new challenges and obstacles. Trail riding can also translate over into competitions like trek, mounted orienteering, cross country, endurance, and trail classes. When it comes to trail riding, you want to make sure you have a horse that can handle the obstacles, distance, and terrain you may face.

So, what are the best horse breeds for trail riding? Here is a list of some of the popular horse breeds you will see on the trails:

  • American Quarter Horse
  • Arabian
  • Appaloosa
  • Icelandic Horse
  • Missouri Fox Trotter
  • Mustangs
  • Tennessee Walking Horse

 

While any horse can be trail-ridden, these breeds are known for producing hardy horses that excel in the challenges that come with trail riding. In this article, I’ll share the specifics of each breed and what makes them great for trail riding. Keep reading to learn more!

American Quarter Horse

Average Height (in hands): 15 hh (ranging anywhere from 14 hh – 16 hh)

Average Build: While the build of a Quarter Horse can vary depending on the breeding, most quarter horses often have a stocky build with a well-muscled body. Their short compact bodies make them great for disciplines that require agility and speed. Quarter Horses can come in a variety of colors, anywhere from a standard bay or grey to a grullo or cremello.

Origin of the Quarter Horse:

The popular Quarter Horse breed you know today originated in America during the 1600s when colonists decided to breed Thoroughbreds from England with the native horses they found in America; hence, they found themselves with a horse that had the speed of a Thoroughbred yet the build and hardiness of a wild horse. From then on, the Quarter Horse became America’s Horse, seeing the founding of the United States to Westward Expansion, and now today, where they are used as everyday riding horses. 

Reason Why Quarter Horses Make Great Trail Horses: 

As one of the most popular and populous breeds in the USA, you will often find a Quarter Horse in any barn you go to in any of the 50 states. There are many great reasons why Quarter Horses make popular trail horses:

  • they are hardy sure-footed horses that can handle a variety of terrains 
  • their stocky compact bodies give them a better center of balance, helping them over obstacles and uneven terrain
  • usually well-muscled, Quarter Horses can easily develop muscles needed to handle challenging rides
  • their versatility enables them to easily conquer any obstacle or situation you may find on the trail
  • Quarter Horses are known for being level-headed and easy-going

 

As you can see, there are many reasons to consider a Quarter Horse when it comes to choosing an equine partner, and not just for trail riding! That being said, if you’re looking for a trustworthy breed of horse that is hardy enough for the trail, consider a Quarter Horse.

Arabian

Average Height (in hands): 14.2 hh (Arabians are often large ponies or small horses)

Average Build: One thing that sets Arabian Horses apart from other horse breeds is their very distinct look. Arabians have a dished face, a short back (they have one fewer vertebrae and one less rib than the average horse), and a high tail set that makes them easily recognizable as a breed. Arabians commonly have a bay, grey, black, or sorrel coat. 

Origin of the Arabian:

The Arabian Horse is one of the oldest horse breeds that still exist today, being traced back as far as 3000 BC to the Arabian Peninsula. Originating in an arid environment, these horses were designed to go long periods of time without adequate food or water and travel vast distances over the sandy desert. The Arabian Horse can usually be traced back as one of the founding horses of just about any horse breed.

Reasons Why Arabians Make Great Trail Horses:

While the Arabian Horse may not be the first horse you think about when it comes to trail riding, Arabians are one of the most popular horses for endurance riding. Here is a list of the reasons why Arabians make great trail horses:

  • these horses were bred for endurance; they have the stamina to cover a long distance at a good speed
  • although elegant, these horses were designed to survive in barren environments, making them hardy for the trail
  • Arabians are known to be one of the most intelligent horse breeds, making them great at problem-solving new obstacles
  • their willingness to please leads these horses to try their hardest at anything thrown their way.

 

I feel like Arabians are often discriminated against in the horse world because there’s a notion that they are high-strung and dangerous. This couldn’t be farther from the truth! I’ve owned or leased a few Arabians, and each of them had a kind soul that tried their best at any new challenge. Don’t discount these horses when it comes to looking for your trail partner!

Appaloosa

Average Height (in hands): 15.1 hh (these horses often range from small to large horses)

Average Build: The build of an Appaloosa can vary depending on the breeding; some Appaloosas may be short and stockier like a Quarter Horse while others may have an athletic long body like a Thoroughbred. The unique characteristic of this breed is its spotted coats. Many Appaloosas have beautiful spotted coats that make them stand out from other breeds.

Origin of the Appaloosa: 

While there are records of spotted horse breeds in Europe before the 16th century, the origin story of the Appaloosa doesn’t really pick up until the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806 where journal entries discuss the Nez Perce Native American tribe selectively breeding wild horses to produce hardy strong horses with spotted coats. Later, the breed was refined by adding Arabian, Quarter Horse, and Thoroughbred bloodlines.

Reasons Why Appaloosas Make Great Trail Horses: 

If you’re trail riding, why not look good doing it? Appaloosas can be a nice addition to look at as well as to ride! Here are some reasons why you should consider an Appaloosa as your next trail partner:

  • with Arabian and “wild horse” bloodlines, Appaloosas can easily handle long-distance rides
  • Appaloosas are known to be versatile, competing in many different types of events
  • every Appaloosa I’ve known has been bold and brave when tackling new situations and obstacles
  • they’re a popular mount for both kids and adults

 

If you’re looking for a versatile horse that can boldly approach anything on the trail, I highly recommend getting an Appaloosa. These horses often have tons of character that will easily tackle anything that comes in their direction.

Icelandic Horse

Average Height (in hands): 13.2 hh (although they are pony-sized, they are officially registered as horses.)

Average Build: Icelandic Horses are usually small with short legs and stout bodies. They also have short broad necks and low withers. Although small, their stocky build enables them to carry a higher percentage of weight than most other horse breeds. These horses have a thick mane and tail and they grow a heavy winter coat to deal with the extreme conditions in their native land of Iceland. Icelandic Horses can be found in any coat color pattern.

Origin of the Icelandic Horse: 

The Icelandic Horses originated from Norse travelers bringing horses from the mainland over the newly discovered Iceland. Over time, these horses adapted to live in the harsh environments that Iceland was accustomed to, from rocky terrain to extreme temperatures. Although small, they have always been used to transport people and supplies across Iceland. Their breed is unique due to another gait they perform that other breeds cannot. Icelandic Horses can perform a tölt, which is almost like a trot, but the horse is able to accelerate to very fast speeds while doing this gait.

Reasons Why Icelandic Horses Make Great Trail Horses:

While Icelandic Horses are the only horse breed in Iceland, you can find them all over the world today. They are becoming more and more popular in the USA as capable trail riding mounts. Here are some reasons why you should consider an Icelandic Horse to be your trail partner:

  • Icelandic Horses were bred for extreme conditions, making them hardy and surefooted where they can easily navigating extreme terrain
  • they are strong and can carry a higher percentage of weight compared to their size, making them great for both you and adult riders.
  • Icelandic Horses are known to be comfortable rides designed to cover longer distances

 

While you may have to look a little bit more diligently for an Icelandic Horse in the USA, there are now breeders throughout the country who provide purebred Icelandic Horses. These horses are becoming more and more popular for trail riding, endurance, and even everyday riding.

Did you know that the Icelandic Horses made my list for one of the most fantastic horse breeds? Check out my article Fantastic Horse Breeds and Where to Find Them.

Missouri Fox Trotter

Average Height (in hands): 15 hh (these horses tend to range in height from 14 – 16 hh)

Average Build: As a gaited horse, Missouri Fox Trotters have large shoulders with high withers and a neck set more upright than other breeds. These horses tend to be big-boned or stocky, but still athletic. Gaited horses tend to move differently compared to other horses. Visually, it looks like the legs on each side of the horse are moving in unison; in actuality, one foot is remaining on the ground at all times.

Origin of the Missouri Fox Trotter:

Missouri Fox Trotters originated in none other than the great state of Missouri in the 1800s.  They were originally bred to handle the everyday labor of working cattle, tending the farm, and traveling long distances. A unique aspect of the breed is that they were gaited and performed a “foxtrot,” which can be compared to walking with their front legs and trotting with their hind legs. In reality, the horse keeps one foot on the ground at all times. This enables the Missouri Fox Trotter to move faster with little effort, which comes in handy when covering a long distance.

Reasons Why Missouri Fox Trotters Make Great Trail Horses:

As our first gaited horse on this list, there are many reasons why you should consider a Missouri Fox Trotter for trail riding:

  • as a naturally gaited horse, the topline of the horse moves as little as possible when in motion. This makes them extremely comfortable to ride.
  • Missouri Fox Trotters can move at faster speeds with little effort, enabling them to travel farther and conserve energy
  • these horses are hardy and surefooted, as they were originally bred to handle the mountainous terrain of the Ozarks.
  • they have a proven track record as one of the most trustworthy trail riding mounts in America, being used by Forest Rangers and by Grand Canyon outfitters.

 

If you’ve never ridden or been around gaited horses, you may be reluctant to consider a Missouri Fox Trotter as a trail riding partner. However, I highly recommend looking past any prejudices you may have, as these horses are just as capable, and way more comfortable, than any other horse you may find.

Mustangs

Average Height (in hands): 14 hh (these horses can vary greatly in height, anywhere from 12 – 16 hh)

Average Build: As one of the few types of horses still roaming free in the USA today, Mustangs are built for the wild. They often have big strong hooves made to cover the arid and sandy deserts of the West. Mustangs are wide through the girth and have short backs with a rounded croup. Lastly, they are designed as easy keepers, relying on sparse shrubs and greenery for their sustenance and traveling long distances to find water. 

Origin of the Mustang:

It’s said that Mustangs are the descendants of the horses from Spanish conquistadors who traveled to the Americas dating all the way back to the 1500s. That being said, the Mustang we know today must have originated from many different horse breeds that were imported to the New World. Some of them have been tested and found to have Thoroughbred bloodlines while others have been tested and found to have Draft Horse bloodlines. 

Today, Mustangs still live wild in parts of America, although the herds are monitored by government agencies. To try and assist in population control, the government rounds up the horses and adopts them out. Wild mustangs have been taken and trained to excel in many different disciplines. While the idea of a wild horse is still valid, these horses are fast becoming the favorites and trusting breed to many riders across the USA.

Reasons Why Mustangs Make Great Trail Horses:

The Mustang is ingrained in America’s past and is looking to make an impact in the present and future riding worlds. There are many reasons why you should give a Mustang a chance as your trail partner:

  • these horses are rugged and hardy, designed for life in an arid desert environment.
  • they have proven themselves as trustworthy mounts in many different disciplines, despite the fact that most of them were born wild or without human contact.
  • Just go watch “Unbranded.”
  • Just go watch “Hildago.”
  • You can find well-started mustangs from TIP trainers all across the country, and usually at a decent price

 

There’s nothing as adventure-like as riding a Mustang through the wilderness. If you’ve never encountered a Mustang, I recommend contacting a TIP trainer in your area and reading about them on the BLM website to see how they may be a good fit for you.

Tennessee Walking Horse

Average Height (in hands): 15.2 hh (these horses tend to be larger than most of the other horses on this list. Tennessee Walking Horses can be as tall as 17 hh)

Average Build: The Tennessee Walking Horse is our second gaited horse breed on this list. This is a versatile breed that has been built for both the show ring and for hard work. That being said, these horses have a classy look on top of a capable build. Walking horses often have large shoulders and a short back with an elegantly shaped head. 

Origin of the Tennessee Walking Horse:

The Tennessee Walking Horse originated in the American South when gaited riding horses were bred with Spanish Mustangs to develop a nice riding horse with the hardiness and surefootedness of a wild horse. Out came a Tennessee Walking Horse. These horses were used for farmwork and showing, making them a versatile breed. 

Reasons Why Tennessee Walking Horses Make Great Trail Horses:

Tennessee Walking Horses are popular all throughout America, and it would be easy to find one to become your trail riding partner. To learn why they make great trail horses, read here:

  • these horses are known for their calm demeanors that make them trustworthy on the trail
  • as a gaited horse breed, these horses are more comfortable to ride, especially over a longer distance
  • Tennessee Walking Horses excel at endurance due to their ability to move at a faster gait while exerting little energy
  • due to the original breeding of a Spanish Mustang, these horses are most often surefooted over varying terrain

 

If you’re not familiar with gaited horses, it can be helpful to know that they are most often called the “4-wheel drive of horses,” meaning they are very surefooted and can handle any challenge thrown their way. 

It’s always important to be prepared when on the trail. If you’re just getting into trail riding, check out my article Horse Trail Riding Gear: Complete Packing List.

 

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