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Rural Missouri Magazine

Missouri's horse
Fox trotters were bred for the Ozarks

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by Jim McCarty

Fox trotters are known for their ability to do just about anything and go anywhere. From left, Jim Mann, Carla Moore, Jerry Skaggs and Charles Bunting water their horses in the Little Black River.

Ask most Missourians to name the state horse and they are likely to pick the mule, which is actually the state animal. But pose the same question to owners of Missouri fox trotters, and they will tell you that only their breed, developed by selective breeding in the Ozark hills, can hold that distinction.

It wasn’t until 2002 that the Missouri fox trotter became the state horse. But the breed got its official start in 1948 when a group of Ava businessmen — who realized the advent of the automobile could spell the end to their breed — started an official fox trotter registry and formed the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association which is still based in Ava.

Early settlers in the hills around Ava brought the ancestors of the fox trotter to the area, then worked to breed horses more suited to the rugged landscape of the Ozarks.

“I suppose it’s more a gait than anything,” Southwest Electric Cooperative President Ken Morrison says of the fox trotters he raises near Humansville. “They were a smooth-riding horse, they could cover a lot of miles and they wouldn’t wear you out. They were just kind of an all-around horse. You could tie them to a buggy. You could plow corn with them and then show them at night.”

In the early days, someone wanting to register their fox trotter had to prove the horse carried the fox-trot gait before the papers would be issued. In time, the registry was closed and only the foal of a registered sire and dam could be added.

“I remember when the breed started, I was 13 and I had a good gelding,” says Bill Sanders of Gainesville. “I wanted to register him so bad, but my dad wouldn’t let me. He said, ‘It costs $10 to register that horse. Why, you could go out here and buy an acre of land for $10.’ It didn’t look like a good deal to him.”

Jamie Johnson shows off the distinctive fox-trot gait in the Dale Easter Arena at the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association.

Interest in the fox trotter has grown over the years. Today, there are more than 96,000 horses on the association’s registry. The association has 5,243 members, and there are affiliate organizations in 26 states, Europe and Canada.

Fox trotters have been used for everything from six-team stagecoach hitches to field trials with gun dogs to mounts for the U.S. Forest Service, which discovered fox trotters let them cover in one day what it used to take two days to ride. A German breeder used Missouri fox trotters to make the first descent of the Grand Canyon’s north rim by horses.

Most owners point to the smooth gait as the best selling point of the fox trotter, which moves in a rhythmic, diagonal pattern. Unlike most horses, the fox trotter always has one hoof firmly planted on the ground. This provides a smoother, less jarring ride.

When fox trotting, the horse appears to be walking with its front feet and trotting with the rear. Show horses also must have a flat-foot walk, and when they reach four years old, a “rocking horse” canter, in which the front of the horse bobs up and down while the rider remains steady.

Bloomfield’s Carla Moore, a director from SEMO Electric Cooperative, is a recent convert to fox trotters. “I always rode quarter horses before,” she says. “I hear a lot of talk from people who rode quarter horses. Now they want something a little smoother. If you want to enjoy the ride, get a fox trotter. It’s the difference between a Volkswagen and a Cadillac.”

Jerry Skaggs, a fox trotter rider from Poplar Bluff, says his horses are in demand with cowboys on Western ranches. “They’ve ridden them on the trails out there,” says the Ozark Border Electric Cooperative member. “Now they are buying them for ranch work because they can check fences, work cattle and do it faster and more comfortable, too."

No matter where you go in the Ozarks, a fox trotter provides a comfortable ride.

But Dale Lawson, who owns Fox Gait Farms in Ava, says there is another endearing quality to the breed. “I think the main thing people talk about is the smooth ride. But they don’t talk about how fast they can go. Fox trotters are deceptively fast. You watch him, they over reach when they are trotting or walking. If I’ve got a 12-inch over reach and we are walking side by side, in 5,280 steps, it won’t be long before I’m a mile ahead of you.”
In fact, riders mounted on fox trotters often have trouble riding with friends on other breeds.

Those in the know can tell a fox-trotting horse from the sound it makes. “I’ve heard people say it sounds like someone saying ‘hunk a meat and two potatoes,’” Sanders says. “I don’t know about that, but I’d know it if I heard it going down the road. You don’t have to see it. If you know one, you can tell a long ways away if he’s fox trotting.”

Fox trotters from across the U.S. descend on Ava twice a year for horse shows put on by the association at its 130-acre facility. In June, the annual Spring Show and Futurity is held. Each September, the association holds its annual Fall Show and Celebration, which attracts more than 1,500 people to the south-central Missouri town.

Here the association will crown its world grand champions after eight days of tough competition. Riders often represent the third generation of their family to show at the Ava grounds, which features five arenas, 850 private horse stalls and 334 full-service RV sites served by White River Valley Electric Cooperative.

Those who ride fox trotters are understandably proud of their horses. “These horses have been good to us,” Morrison says. “We didn’t make a lot of money on them, but we sure made a lot of friends.”

The 2010 Fall Show and Celebration takes place Sept. 4-11 at the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association show grounds north of Ava on Highway 5. Spectators are welcome. For more information, call 417-683-2468, send e-mail to foxtrot@mfthba.com or visit www.mfthba.com.

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