Rocky Mountain Horse: Breed Profile

Training, Grooming, and Care Tips

Rocky Mountain Horse in a pasture during winter

Dotana / Getty Images

Good-natured, surefooted, and hardy, riders love the Rocky Mountain Horse for many different reasons. But one of the horse’s most appealing characteristics may be its four-beat single-foot gaited. That gain conserves the horse’s energy but makes for a smooth, enjoyable ride, making the horse suitable for endurance riding, trail riding, and more. But that’s far from all the Rocky Mountain Horse does–you’ll find this breed pulling carriages and plows, competing in the show ring, tackling tough mountain trails, and much, much more.

Breed Overview

Weight: 850 to 1,000 pounds

Height: 16 hands (64 inches)

Body Type: Muscular body; deep chest; small head with wide forehead and flat profile

Best For: Competitive riding and families

Life Expectancy: Up to 35 years

Rocky Mountain Horse History and Origins

The Rocky Mountain Horse’s heritage is attributed to stories that have been passed from generation to generation. During the 1800s to 1900s, horses emerged in eastern Kentucky and became known for their gentle temperament and, more importantly, for their four-beat gait. That gait was comfortable to ride, but the horses showed versatility in being able to pull plows, work cattle, and serve as buggy horses, too. Their easygoing temperament also made them suitable for children to ride.

Gradually, the number of horses in the area increased, and while some were bred with horses of other breeds, the Rocky Mountain Horse retained its desirable characteristics. Because the owners of these horses were not rich, they could only afford minimal upkeep on the horses. The weaker horses didn’t survive the winters, but the horses that did survive were hardy, and they passed that hardiness down to their offspring. 

One of these horses was brought from the country’s Rocky Mountain region to eastern Kentucky and is regarded as the foundation stallion of the breed. Sam Tuttle, who lived in Spout Springs, Kentucky, used this breed as riding horses for years and preferred them for their ability to safely carry even inexperienced riders over rough trails. Tuttle’s stallion, Old Tobe, was known as being the most surefooted and gentle horse, and he passed his characteristics on to many of the Rocky Mountain Horses of today.

In 2005, the Rocky Mountain Horse Association was created and today, over 12,000 horses have been registered with the association.

Rocky Mountain Horse Size

The breed standard requires that these horses stand at least 14.2 hands and no more than 16 hands high. This breed has a deep chest, sloping shoulders, and a short back. The horses have well-shaped, well-defined ears and a medium-sized head. Their necks are arched and positioned to allow a natural break at the poll. Because these horses are gaited, their hind legs and hooves are slightly angled to enhance and support that gait.

Breeding and Uses

The Rocky Mountain horse is highly versatile, and its uses today reflect that versatility. This breed is highly preferred as a pleasure horse, thanks to its comfortable gait and excellent temperament. It’s also a great choice for trail riding, and its surefooted, hardy nature makes it well-suited for tackling even the most demanding, uneven trails. Because the horse’s gait allows it to cover great distances without tiring, many riders seek out this breed for competitive trail or endurance riding.

These horses are also becoming increasingly popular in the show ring. They have an impressive way of moving, and their beauty captures attention. They’re often ridden saddle-seat.

The Rocky Mountain Horse is docile and well-mannered enough to be a good kid’s horse. These horses are also often used as cattle horses, since they’re level-minded and their gait allows a rider to comfortably spend hours in the saddle.

Colors and Markings

Rocky Mountain Horses should have a solid colored coat, the breed is often characterized by a chocolate coat color and a flaxen mane and tail. Black, bay, palomino, and chestnut colors are also common. The Rocky Mountain Horse Association will not register horses that have white above the knee. Horses also can’t have excess white on their faces, such as a bald face marking, to be accepted into the registry.

Chestnut Rocky Mountain Horse in the snow
Image by J. MacNeill-Traylor / Getty Images.
Rocky Mountain Horse being shown in hand
Image by Kondakov / Getty Images.
Rocky Mountain Horse wearing an English bridle
Image by Kondakov / Getty Images.

Unique Characteristics of the Rocky Mountain Horse

The Rocky Mountain Horse’s natural ambling gait, the single-foot, is a four-beat gait. This gait replaces the trot, but because the horse follows a four-beat footfall pattern, it always has one foot on the ground to create a smooth ride with minimal movement. The horse can conserve energy during the single-foot, allowing it to travel great distances at this gait without tiring.

There are about 20,000 of these horses in the country today, and you’ll find about half of them in Kentucky.

Diet and Nutrition

Rocky Mountain horses require a healthy balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, and water in their diet. They can sustain on fresh grass, hay, rolled oats, and other grains, such as barley and bran. Treats, such as carrots and apples, can be given in moderation.

Common Health and Behavior Problems

Rocky Mountain horses are typically highly trainable, gentle, and eager to please. But they are prone to certain health issues, including hyperkalemic periodic paralysis, polysaccharide storage myopathy, and malignant hyperthermia.

Grooming

Daily grooming can help a Rocky Mountain horse maintain a healthy coat and clear skin. Before a ride, brush the legs, face, girth, and saddle areas to ensure the horse is comfortable and all the oils have been evenly distributed on its body. Grooming a horse after riding can also help distribute the oils and sweat, especially in the summer. Try a detangler to brush out the horse's tail, which will make it bushier and more adept at swatting away flies. In the winter, use a waterless shampoo to clean, condition, and detangle the horse's mane and tail.

Pros
  • Calm and good with families

  • Natural ambling gait

  • Good trail horses

Cons
  • Can't or won't learn other styles like trotting or cantering

  • Can develop chronic lameness if overworked or overridden

Champion and Celebrity Rocky Mountain Horses

Old Tobe, Sam Tuttle’s stallion, can be found in many of the bloodlines of today’s Rocky Mountain Horses. He sired many horses until he died at age 37 and was known for his incredible surefootedness and gentle, calm nature. His influence can still be seen in many of the Rocky Mountain Horses of today.

Rocky Mountain Horse being shown in hand
 Image by Kondakov / Getty Images

Is the Rocky Mountain Horse Right for You?

This breed is known for its great temperament, and that means it can be a great fit for kids, adults, and beginning riders. However, it also makes a great mount for advanced riders. This horse’s versatility means it can easily cross disciplines, and you could expect to take the same horse trail riding, into the show ring, or even train it to drive.

The breed’s gait is appealing to many riders. Older riders who suffer from joint or back pain often find riding a Rocky Mountain Horse to be more comfortable than riding a non-gaited horse. Endurance riders and riders who spend many hours in the saddle at the same time also tend to prefer the breed for its smooth ride.

Since the horse is so hardy, it’s well-suited to many different environments, too. This breed will fare well in the cold and can do well in a pasture board situation without requiring a stable, blankets, and other more intensive care.

The Rocky Mountain Horse is limited in numbers, so finding a horse may take some time. These horses also tend to cost more than more common breeds because of their limited availability and their overall appeal. However, if you find a Rocky Mountain Horse who’s right for your needs, you’ll have a versatile partner willing to tackle all sorts of different disciplines and activities with you, and that’s well worth the investment you may make in the horse’s purchase price.

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