Missouri's official horse was bred for utility and comfort
To a lot of people, “fox trot” is a Roaring Twenties-era dance. Not so in horse country. Horsemen know that a fox trot refers to a smooth, rhythmic gait that’s easy on both mount and rider.
In the early 19th Century, when pioneers crossed the Mississippi River and began settling the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas, they wanted a riding horse that would be useful in the timbered, rocky hills. They began selectively breeding animals for an easy, broken gait often called the “fox trot.” In fact, the term gradually lent itself to a specific, home-grown strain of saddle horse, the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed.
Back in the days before hard-surfaced roads (let alone motor vehicles), the Missouri Fox Trotter, bred up primarily through American Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking Horses, quickly gained popularity among people who spent a lot of time in the saddle—people such as circuit-riding preachers, rural mail carriers, doctors and deputy sheriffs. Fox trotters also became a favorite of rangers in the Mark Twain National Forest. The medium-framed mounts often pulled double duty as harness horses hitched to buggies, buckboards or hay rakes. Ozark livestock producers also adopted the nimble, sure-footed mounts to herd and work cattle on rough and rocky pastures. Many ranchers still use them.
In recent times, the Missouri Fox Trotter has become a favorite of many trail riders.
“Trail riders want a mount that is hardy and sturdy but easy to handle,” said Janet Esther, whose late husband, Dale, was a co-founder of the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association (MFTHBA). In fact, the main show arena at MFTHBA headquarters near Ava, Mo., is named for Dale Esther. “And trail riders also want a horse with an easy gait. That’s a big reason Fox Trotters have gained in popularity nationally in the past 15 to 20 years. The better the horse, the better the time for the rider.”
In 2011, a Missouri Fox Trotter (from Missouri, incidentally) made it to the final 10 horses in the America’s Favorite Trail Horse national competition. “The New Yorker,” a five-year-old gelding owned by Julie Moore of Rogersville, Mo., won out over hundreds of horses of virtually all breeds—even mules—as trail riders sought to determine the best.
“The final 100 nominated horses gathered for a three-day competition in Texas, to come up with the final 10,” said Moore. “They had to compete on trails with varying obstacles. It’s pretty gratifying to own a horse with this much versatility.
“I like Missouri Fox Trotters mainly because of their disposition,” she added. “I got this horse when he was just a colt and waited until he was three years old to start working him. He has developed into a beautiful horse.”
Julie Moore serves as a judge at horse shows and trains horses for other owners. “I train horses to pay for my horse habit,” she said.
Although versions of the fox trotter had been bred for generations, the breed wasn’t formally named until the establishment of MFTHBA in 1949. A few years later, registration books were closed, so that only offspring of registered MFTHB sires and dams could be registered. Since then, the breed has spread to virtually all 50 U. S. states, Canada and several other foreign countries, and today numbers nearly 90,000. However, the hub of Fox Trotting Horses remains in south-central Missouri where the breed originated: principally Dallas, Douglas, Laclede, Webster and Wright Counties.
Breed requirements have no standard for size, but, most Missouri Fox Trotters scale in the moderate-sized 14 to 16 hands (56 to 64 inches tall at the shoulders). Nor are there requirements for hair color—you will see black, white and all shades in between, although there are few spotted Missouri Fox Trotters.
Regardless of height, hue or heritage, one unyielding quality is necessary: The animal must be able to fox trot.
“A fox-trotting horse appears to be walking with its forelegs and trotting with its hind legs,” said Clifton Matlock, who raises and trains Missouri Fox Trotters in western Laclede County. Matlock is a lifetime member and former director of MFTHBA.
Matlock explained that a fox trot is a diagonal gait; the animal’s body is at an angle to its direction of travel. “It resembles a fox trotting; that’s how the gait was named,” he added
In a classic fox trot, the horse also swings its head and tail in cadence.
It’s a ground-devouring gait of 7 to 9 miles per hour and a genuine fox trotter can keep it up for hours at a stretch. A fox-trotting horse has at least two hooves in contact with the ground at all times. This makes for a smoother, more comfortable ride than a bone-jarring conventional trot.
Most experienced Missouri Fox Trotters have other gaits, too, especially a flat-footed walk and an easy-swinging canter. But the signature gait is the fox trot.
Twice each year (sometimes more often), breeders, owners, riders and fans of Missouri Fox Trotters bring their horses to the MFTHBA headquarters just north of Ava, Mo. In late May or early June, they hold a Spring Show and Futurity. In September, MFTHBA holds its Fall Show and Celebration, which typically draws around 2,000 people to the l30-acre headquarters in Douglas County. After a week of stiff competition, the champion fox-trotting horses in several categories will be crowned.