Trail riding is an excellent way to bond with your horse, provide plenty of exercise, and encourage the building of stamina and endurance.
Not all horses enjoy trail riding or are particularly built for it, but several breeds are simply born for it.
Whether you’re training for a competition like cross country or trek, or you’re just taking the time to enjoy nature together with your horse, trail riding provides ample opportunity for you and your horse to overcome challenges and obstacles together.
Plus, who doesn’t love spending more time in nature?
In this article, I’m going to offer you an overview of the best horse breeds for trail riding and also explain what makes these horses better suited for trail riding than others.
What are the Characteristics of a Good Trail Riding Horse?
Although you may think you can train any horse for trail riding, some breeds are already born with the qualities needed to measure up to the task.
Here are the most important qualities of a trail riding horse:
Some horses are built for speed, but trail riding horses need stamina and endurance to be able to cover miles on the road with limited food and water.
Horses can walk at a slow pace for up to 20 miles a day. When it comes to speed, horses can reach a top speed of 45-55 mph.
But speed is not what you want when trail riding for fun. And just because a horse is fast on short distances, it doesn’t mean it has endurance.
Therefore, for trail riding, endurance is viewed as a better quality in a horse as opposed to speed alone.
Likewise, some horses are really adept at conserving their energy and pacing themselves so that they don’t get tired too fast. These are the ones that are born for trail riding.
Being out in nature and on the road, presents obstacles and challenges, whether they’re related to the particularities of the terrain (rough terrain, tall grass, thick bush, etc.) or sudden changes in weather (e.g., rain).
An adaptable horse will easily overcome these challenges and stay focused on the task at hand. If the trail is such that the environment changes a lot (e.g., a clearing followed by woods or areas with tall grass, etc.), horses should not be scared of changing conditions.
A well-adjusted and adaptable horse is crucial for a pleasant trail riding experience for everyone involved.
– Good temperament
Horses that get spooked easily don’t make good trail riding horses. Horses with high stress levels or neuroticism aren’t fit for trail riding.
As I mentioned above, from changes in the scenery to changes in weather conditions, a horse that isn’t well adjusted can get scared of strange noises, smells, sudden movements in the grass, and so on.
A horse that’s used to changing environments and desensitized to weird sounds will make a much better trail riding companion than a horse that gets spooked easily.
Not to mention that it’s not safe for you or the horse for it to be jumpy and uneasy when on a long road.
A calm horse that can be ridden and handled with ease both by adults and children is a much better fit for trail riding than horses that won’t accept being handled or ridden by just about anyone.
Likewise, a horse that’s stubborn or headstrong can prove a difficult challenge on a trail ride.
On a long ride, there are changes not only in the scenery but also in the weather.
And while you should seek cover for you and your horse during rain, snow or heat, sometimes that’s just not possible.
In such cases, it helps a lot if the horse is adjusted to various weather conditions and can soldier through until you can find cover or a good place to rest.
Changing terrain means your horse needs to be able to walk with a sure foot in a variety of conditions. A horse that stumbles a lot or is not sure of itself can injure itself or cause accidents.
A horse that won’t trip on uneven ground and carries itself with confidence is an excellent companion for trail riding.
Which Horses are Best for Trail Riding?
In what follows I’m going to cover 10 of the best horse breeds for trail riding and the reasons why these horses can be viewed as naturals when it comes to being on the road.
With spotted coats that make them stand out from the crowd, Appaloosas are excellent trail riding horses with one caveat – they can be stubborn.
Therefore, I recommend them only for experienced riders who know what they’re doing. While the Appaloosa may not tick off all the boxes in the qualities needed for a trail riding horse, they do have other remarkable qualities that make them well-suited for trail riding.
Bred by Nez Percé Indians, Appaloosa horses were bred for their stamina, sure-footedness and speed.
These traits are also present today and even more so pronounced in Appaloosas with Quarter Horse bloodlines in them.
Appaloosas were used for travel and fighting, so they’re hardy and adaptable. They don’t mind changing weather conditions, nor uneven terrain.
You can count on Appaloosas to get you where you want to go and back. But as I mentioned, you need to know what you’re doing.
Another trait that I find important in Appaloosas is that they’re brave and confident, both of which are essential qualities in a trail riding horse.
I don’t recommend them for inexperienced horse riders, however, since the Appaloosa can often have a mind of its own. And if you don’t know how to handle them, you’re going to have a bad time trail riding.
2. American Quarter Horse
Energetic yet calm, the American Quarter Horse is a natural-born trail riding horse due to its amazing endurance and ability to conserve its energy.
Add to these traits the fact that these horses were also built for speed, making them excellent for racing as well, and you’ll see why the Quarter Horse is one of the top picks for a trail riding horse.
Besides their stamina and speed, there are other factors as well that recommend the Quarter Horse as a trail riding horse, including:
- Bravery and confidence: Just like the Appalossa, the Quarter Horse does not get spooked or nervous easily, making it suitable for being on the road.
- Sure-footedness: The Quarter Horse is confident in its movement and isn’t likely to trip or stumble on uneven ground.
- Conserves energy: These horses know how to manage their energy levels so that they don’t tire easily.
Quarter Horses are not afraid to ride through herds of cattle, which is yet again a testament of their adaptability and bravery.
These horses are intelligent and easy to train. They can be handled by adults and age-appropriate children as well.
By choosing the Quarter Horse for trail riding, you can be confident that you’re making an excellent choice and you’re in for a rewarding experience.
3. Tennessee Walker
As one of the most popular gaited horse breeds, the Tennessee Walker is known to offer a smooth ride that can be a highly appreciable trait for trail riding horses.
But its gait is definitely not all that recommends the Tennessee Walker as a top trail riding horse.
First, they’re versatile horses with a calm and composed demeanor. Because they don’t get spooked, nervous or jumpy, they’re temperamentally fit for trail riding.
Besides their balanced psyche, the Tennessee Walker also excels in its physical traits. This horse is built for speed and stamina. They can cover a lot of ground before they become tired.
One of the traits that I find the most remarkable in the Tennessee Walking Horse is its forgiving nature. This is a horse breed that I can wholeheartedly recommend even for beginners.
They’re so in tune with their riders and respond so well to commands that it’s not surprising that they’re so often chosen as the go-to horse for beginners.
Not to mention they are friendly and have a meet-you-half-way type of attitude.
With versatile capabilities and a forgiving and tolerant nature, the Tennessee Walker is a versatile choice for a trail riding horse, one that you’re unlikely to ever regret.
4. Painted Horse
With marvelous coat patterns and a relaxed disposition, the Painted Horse is either a pureblood or has a lineage that includes a Thoroughbred or a Quarter Horse.
With such a lineage, it’s understandable that the Painted Horse is one of the best trail riding horses out there.
Whether it’s the speed and versatility of the Thoroughbred or all the excellent traits of the Quarter Horse, the Painted Horse has a lot of traits to recommend it as a trail riding horse.
Their intelligent nature makes them highly trainable. These horses like to think for themselves yet don’t mind being led either, a testament to their peaceful and adaptable nature.
Another important trait of the Painted Horse is its patience and calm demeanor. They also offer a pleasant riding experience because of their sure-footedness.
Because they’re athletic horses, I wouldn’t recommend them for beginners. If you’re going to choose the Paint Horse for a trail riding horse, make sure you have some experience under your belt.
The fact that these horses don’t get spooked easily and aren’t wary of other animals they might see on the trail, also recommends them as a reliable choice for trail riding.
5. Spotted Saddle Horse
A friendly horse both in its aspect and personality, the Spotted Saddle Horse – like the American Paint Horse – has beautiful, white-spotted coats that makes this breed instantly recognizable.
Their temperament and athletic abilities aside, this breed is one of the gentlest horse breeds out there. But don’t confuse their gentleness for meekness – the Spotted Saddle Horse is fearless.
Because they’re gaited horses, you can rest assured that your ride will be comfortable and even. A comfortable ride can be an added bonus for the rider and often for the horse as well.
Because they’re determined in every step they take, you won’t need to worry about them tripping or becoming disbalanced on uneven terrain.
Spotted Saddle Horses enjoy the company of people and because of their intelligence and relaxed disposition, they’re responsive and easy to train.
These traits also make this breed suitable even for beginners. So, if you don’t have experience but enjoy the Paint Horse, the Spotted Saddle Horse can be a great alternative for you.
Although they’re gentle and calm, they’re fearless and can ride long periods without tiring. They also don’t mind being out in all weather conditions.
6. Icelandic Horse
While at a height disadvantage compared to the horse breeds, I covered so far, standing at somewhere around 52-56 inches tall, the Icelandic Horse is a tough breed that doesn’t mind being ridden on rough terrain.
Used for rounding up livestock, the Icelandic Horse is a working horse through and through. They enjoy being out and about and even have a built-in compass that will get them home should you find yourself lost on a trail.
Because they’re originally from Iceland, they’re already accustomed to harsh weather conditions and even grow an extra layer of coat to protect them from the elements.
While you might think that their height is a disadvantage, you’ll be surprised to find out that their stout build allows them to carry most riders and their comfortable gait offers a smooth riding experience.
They also have no problem keeping up the pace with taller and larger horses, in fact, they might even outlast them in terms of energy levels and endurance.
They don’t tire easily, not even after a few days on the road. They’re excellent at conserving their energy levels, a skill they’ve honed, in the cold winters of their country of origin.
7. Missouri Fox Trotter
Stocky yet athletic, the Missouri Fox Trotter is another excellent breed for trail riding. Because they’re gaited horses, you can rest assured they’ll offer a comfortable riding experience.
But beyond that, this breed has a long list of traits that make it suitable for trail riding. Here are my top reasons to recommend the Missouri Fox Trotter as a good equine companion for trail riding:
- Moves fast while conserving energy making it suitable for covering long distances
- They’re working horses, accustomed to effort and exercise.
- They’re hardy horses that can handle a variety of terrain types including mountainous terrain.
- They’re also a top pick of forest rangers.
- They’re trainable and obedient.
The Missouri Fox Trotter is also level headed and won’t spook easily, probably a trait they’ve developed while working with cattle.
The fact that horses won’t spook easily or get jumpy at the slightest disturbance, makes them particularly well-suited for the trail.
So, whether it’s rock, gravel or a steep incline, you’ll be on solid footing with the Missouri Fox Trotter.
If you’re wary of gaited horses, don’t be – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more comfortable ride, regardless of the difficulty or unevenness of the terrain.
A versatile breed with a muscular frame and extreme strength, the Morgan is friendly and gentle. They’re known for their quick wit and great ability to form bonds with their owners.
An aspect that I haven’t mentioned as a potential prerequisite for a trail horse is the ability to carry weight.
Only when taking stock of the Morgan’s traits did I realize that the ability to carry weight can also be important. And the Morgan horse breed does not disappoint in this department either.
Not only can they carry a lot more weight than you’d imagine for a horse its size, it can also pull a lot of weight.
But these aren’t what make the Morgan a horse suitable for trail riding. There are plenty of others to focus on, namely:
- Intelligent breed that’s easy to train
- They’re strong and can navigate even challenging trails
- They’re happy to be lead and are willing to listen to commands
- Can be ridden by both adults and children
- They have a great personality
Because the Morgan has contributed to the development of other horses used for trail riding such as the Tennessee Walker, it’s not accidental that they’re on this list of best horse breeds for trail riding.
9. Australian Stock Horse
Bred to work cattle, the Australian Stock Horse is a work horse through and through. Its stamina and strength recommend them as a trail riding horse as well.
This breed is also courageous and able to cope with rough conditions in terms of climate and terrain. Being accustomed to the Australian climate and terrain, they can take on a challenge with grace.
It’s an athletic, lean and strong horse with stamina to last for days, just what you’d need on a trail. It’s no doubt a multi-purpose horse that will excel at multiple disciplines.
The Australian Stock Horse is often compared to the Quarter Horse because of their similar traits and personalities.
I can confirm that this is a rightful comparison and they’re very similar in their abilities and personality.
You can definitely rely on the Australian Stock Horse on the trail to offer a safe ride and an enjoyable experience.
They’re willing horses that listen and assess and won’t spook away from strange or unfamiliar situations.
Because they’re happy on any terrain and willing to cooperate, they’re a well-suited choice for trail riding.
Don’t get fooled by my choice to discuss the Arabian last. It has nothing to do with its suitability as a trail riding horse.
But you may be right to have reservations about using this horse for trail riding because of their high-spirited personality.
Indeed, some Arabians have strong personalities that need an equal match in a rider. So, I don’t recommend them for beginners.
With this caveat out of the way, the Arabian possesses all the traits needed to qualify among the best trail riding horses – endurance and strength.
They’re also intelligent (hence their strong-willed nature), love being among people and they’re extremely loyal. They move quietly and with confidence and excel both in terms of speed and stamina.
If you’re new to trail riding or new to horses in general, the Arabian should not be your top pick.
If you’re experienced in both matters, you can find a loyal and personable trail riding companion in the Arabian horse.
Other Horses Suitable for Trail Riding
Besides the horse breeds I discussed so far, there are also others that can be just as good of a choice for a trail riding horse.
Here are some other picks if the ones I mentioned didn’t click with you:
- Rocky Mountain Horses
- American Saddlebreds
As you can see, there are plenty of choices. The question it all comes down to is: “Which horse would you like as a trail riding companion?”
Can All Horses Be Trained for Trail Riding?
While trail riding can seem like a simple discipline, there are a lot of unknowns, especially if your horse is not socialized well or desensitized to sounds, smells, sudden movements, etc.
From where I’m standing, I’d say not all horses can be trained for trail riding. Some horses are just too jumpy or too sensitive to certain stimuli, making them unsuitable for this endeavor.
That said, just because a certain horse breed seemingly has an innate ability for trail riding, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t need prior training for trail riding.
A calm demeanor, being of a certain age (4-5 years of age), stamina, the ability to carry the weight of the rider, the ability to listen to commands and overcome its fight response are crucial for a safe and pleasant trail riding.
As you can see, a lot goes into preparing a horse for trail riding. Indeed, a lot of it rides also on the personality and innate traits of the horse, but many things should also be taught to the horse.
Eventually, what this means is that neither breed alone, nor training alone can be enough to make a trail riding horse.Horse Breeds