Rocky Mountain Horse Origin and Characteristics

Although this breed is named after the mountains that dominate the US and Canadian West, the Rocky Mountain Horse originated in the Appalachian Mountains. The initial breeding program for this unique horse was in Kentucky.

This breed was initially developed to be used as a driving and light draft horse, offering ranchers and farmers a multi-purpose animal that could save them some cash. A breed association was formed in 1986 and more than 10,000 horses are currently registered.

What makes the Rocky Mountain Horse so unique is its stunning coat, ambling gait, and willing personality. Families needed a horse that could pull their plows in the field and then pull their buggies when it was time to go into town. Working cattle was required along the Appalachian foothills and families needed horses to ride so their children could learn how to work with horses.

The Rocky Mountain Horse could do it all. The gentle disposition of this breed makes it suitable for riders who may have a disability. Most individuals demonstrate enough care to support elderly riders.

These horses still work in the Appalachian foothills. They also perform well in endurance riding events. The International Rocky Mountain Horse Show is held every September at Kentucky Horse Park, which is a great way to get to know this beautiful horse breed.

The History of the Rocky Mountain Horse

Around 1890, a stallion was brought from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians. The stallion came there as a colt and was referred to as “that Rocky Mountain Horse.” No written records exist for what happened next, but oral records from the region talk about how this stallion, which his chocolate coat and flaxen mane, were highly desired by ranchers in the area.

It was said that a traveler from the Rocky Mountains was trying to return home to Virginia. After running out of money, he traded his unique horse for the supplies he would need to make the remainder of the journey. The name of this traveler has been lost to history, but the story of the Rocky Mountain Horse was just beginning.

The stallion was bred to local saddle mares. Because the breeding area was quite small and contained, this allowed a local equine strain to begin to develop. This process would continue for the next few decades.

Around the beginning of World War II, another stallion named Old Tobe would begin to influence the Rocky Mountain Breed. Old Tobe was a direct descendant of “that Rocky Mountain Horse” and helped to reinforce the preferred look of this breed.

Despite the financial loss that his owner encountered, Old Tobe worked as a breeding horse until the age of 34. Sam Tuttle lived in Spout Springs and owned a horseback riding concession in Natural Bridge State Park. That was where he kept Old Tobe and the rest of his herd.

It wouldn’t be until 1986 that a formal effort to standardize the breed would take place. In the first set of registrations, just 26 horses were discovered. Since then, Rocky Mountain Horses have spread to almost a dozen different countries and 47 states. To be accepted as a registered member of the breed, all Rocky Mountain Horses must go through DNA testing.

At the age of 23 months, all Rocky Mountain horses are visually inspected to ensure that they meet the physical and gait characteristics that are required of the breed.

Characteristics of the Rocky Mountain Horse

The coat of the Rocky Mountain Horse is what catches the eye. Almost all horses have a black coat that is supplemented by the rare silver dapple gene. This creates a dark horse with light spotting throughout the coat, highlighted by a flaxen tail and mane. The dark “chocolate” color is the most desired, but any solid color is accepted by the registry. Some white markings are accepted, but no white may be present above the need.

The physical characteristics of the Rocky Mountain Horse are still quite variable because of the differences in the foundation horses that began the breed. Most individuals will stand at least 14.2 hands high, but horses as tall as 16 hands are still thought of as being common. They usually have a chin that is described as being “tea-cupped” and ears that are “foxed.”

These horses have a single-foot ambling gait that replaces the trot. It is performed at an intermediate speed, less than a gallop, but faster than a walk. This gait is similar to that of a walking horse, which eliminates the bounce a rider might experience while riding another breed. Rocky Mountain Horses have been observed moving at 7 miles per hour for extended periods using the single-foot gait.

On short stretches of smooth ground, some horses can achieve a speed in this gait of up to 16 miles per hour. Horses that can move at these speeds are referred to as being able to perform a “rack.” 

Rocky Mountain Horses are extremely social and have a good nature. They are highly intelligent, love to work, and crave attention from humans. Although they are not a heavy draft horse, they are still classified by many as being a cold-blooded horse. 

These horses have the highest risk of any breed for a condition called multiple congenital ocular anomalies, or MCOA. This condition can affect the vision of the horse. It isn’t a progressive condition and is believed to be tied to the silver dapple gene that is rare in other breeds, but not in the Rocky Mountain Horse.

Many who have owned or worked with Rocky Mountain Horses say that it is impossible to have just one of them around. They are calm, collected, and curious, always wondering what their humans are thinking or doing. It is no wonder why some have called this horse breed the “Labrador Retriever” of the equine world. 

They really are a horse that is well-suited to almost any task or ride. It is a horse for all seasons.