What Are The Best Horses For Trail Riding?

Some equestrians think of trail riding as a casual sort of horsemanship that doesn’t take much preparation or any special skills and abilities on the part of the horse or the rider. The fact is, nothing could be further from the truth.

When you’re out on the trail, you don’t have the constraints or the safety of the round pen or the show ring. Both you and your horse must be prepared to deal with unexpected circumstances and to endure a certain amount of hardship. This takes a calm and reasonable temperament and a great deal of horse sense on the part of both horse and rider.

In this article, we discuss the best horses for trail riding. Read on to learn more.

Most Important Qualities In A Good Trail Horse

Most Important Qualities In A Good Trail Horse

Good training is very important for a good trail horse, but training is worth nothing without a good foundation of physical, mental and behavioral traits including:

  • Ability to cover ground smoothly and steadily at about 3 or 4 miles an hour
  • Ability to work and play well with other horses
  • Patience to stand quietly while tied
  • Calm and reasonable disposition
  • Strong, sound hooves
  • Solid conformation

A horse who begins with this sort of good, solid foundation can be taught the things that he or she needs to know to become a good trail horse. These learned behaviors and skills include:

  • Wear hobbles without struggling when turned out to graze
  • Stand quietly when tied with other horses on a picket line
  • Follow a trail and be able to turn easily on a narrow trail
  • Load up and unload quietly and without problems
  • Cross bridges, mud and water without resistance
  • Stand patiently with no pawing when tied alone
  • Separate from other horses without struggle

In addition to these skills and traits, you may need a trail riding mount with different abilities and attributes depending upon the setting where you wish to ride.

Is It Better to Have A Young Or Mature Trail Horse?

For trail riding, a mature horse who is experienced is usually far preferable to a young horse. Even so, some riders like to train their own horses right from the get-go, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re not experienced yourself, you’re better off with an experienced and mature horse.

It’s ideal if you can find a horse who is perfect to start out with right away, but this is unusual. Realistically speaking, if you can find a good, sound, strong horse who is ten or twelve years old, well-trained, sensible and agreeable, you have plenty to work with to train and perfect your ideal trail horse.

What Breed of Horse Is Best For Trail Riding?

What Breed of Horse Is Best For Trail Riding

There is no particular breed of horse that is ideal for trail riding. Generally speaking, the sturdier, more compact horses (purebred or grade horses) will make better trail horses that hot, high strung, tall, thin horses.

Many people prefer gaited horses for trail riding (e.g. Missouri Fox Trotters or Tennessee Walkers) for sheer comfort. Mules and donkeys also make very good trail mounts.

Horse Breed For Trail Riding

Here are some of the more popular mounts for trail riding.

1. Quarter horses are very popular for general riding throughout the United States. They are muscular and have very strong hindquarters and are not especially big at 14 to 16 hands high. In addition to their strong, reliable physiques, they also are known to be levelheaded and calm tempered.

2. Appaloosas are loyal, obedient, intelligent and generally gentle. They usually have great personalities and are certainly easy on the eyes.

3. Tennessee Walking Horses have a very comfortable and enjoyable four-beat running walk. These fairly compact horses are lovely to look at and move along at a quick and steady clip.

4. Arabians are beautiful, strong and rugged. They were originally bred to be able to travel for days in the desert, so they have a great deal of strength and stamina. They are also quite loyal and have very interesting personalities.

5. Morgans are strong and small (14-15HH). They are known to be steady, calm and to have very gentle temperaments.

6. Mules and hinnies are crosses between horses and donkeys. A mule has a donkey for father and a horse for a mother. A hinny has a horse for a father and a donkey for mother. Hinnies are more horse-like than mules.

Both hinnies and mules are hardier and smarter than horses. They work well and for longer periods of time in hot climates and are more surefooted than horses. They are longer lived than horses and are generally stronger and have sturdier legs and hooves. A mule or a Hinny is a good choice as a mount for a (reasonably) heavier trail rider.

Trail Riding Mules & Horses

7. Donkeys can be excellent trail mounts for children, less experienced riders or for those who simply don’t want a lot of drama. Donkeys have a very different personality than horses in that when they encounter an unusual situation they will tend to stop and think about it rather than running away.

Donkeys come in miniature, standard and mammoth sizes, with minis standing 9HH or less, standard donkeys standing about 11 or 12HH and mammoth donkeys standing about 13 or 14HH. Minis are suitable for pets, or for activities such as driving. Standard and mammoth donkeys are well suited for trail riding.

Donkeys are very strong, and a standard donkey is perfectly capable of carrying a small to medium-sized rider, long distances over challenging terrain. A mammoth donkey is an excellent mount for a (reasonably) larger rider.

Packing Out With Donkeys

Will Your Trail Mount Blend In?

Once you have an idea of what sort of horse, donkey, hinny or mule you want to find for trail riding, think about how the animal will fit in with your trail riding group. For example, if your group tends to move along at a brisk clip, you may not want to choose a donkey. On the other hand, if they tend to amble and meander, you may not want a Tennessee Walking Horse.

Another aspect to keep in mind when it comes to getting along with the crowd is gender. Generally speaking, geldings get along pretty well with everyone and make a good choice as a riding horse. If you choose a gelding, you won’t have to worry about any sort of hormone related drama or problems.

A mare can also be a good trail riding horse, but keep in mind that some mares will be a bit flighty, moody and/or unpredictable when they are in heat. A stallion is never a good riding horse for riding out in the open, in a group. The same is true of a donkey jack or an intact male mule or hinny.

Buyer Beware!

When you settle on a mount you wish to consider buying, see if you can have a trial period. Trail riding is a complex, lengthy, deeply interactive type of horsemanship.

You need to be able to take your prospective mount out on the trail and see how he or she does in a variety of circumstances when interacting with you, other riders, other horses and new and unfamiliar situations. Also, don’t forget to take with you a few important things, including a good GPS.

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


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