In the mountains of the United States, gaited horses have been extremely popular since the regions were settled by homesteaders. With a smooth gait, the horse could offer a better ride over difficult terrain and allow workers to reach their livestock with relative ease.
The Mountain Pleasure Horse is one off the gaited breeds that reflects the tradition of breeding for specific characteristics in the mountains. Some horses within this breed, through written and oral histories, have bloodlines that can be traced back over two centuries.
What is unique about the Mountain Pleasure Horse is the sureness of this breed. When the association for the breed was formed, it became the first mountain-type horse breed association to require blood-typing. In order for a horse to be registered, absolute identification of the parentage is mandatory. Although DNA testing has replaced blood-typing today, the efforts to retain genetic strength have led to a well-developed breed that retains the characteristics so many wanted, so long ago.
Because of the exclusions that occurred during the establishment of the breed association, the Mountain Pleasure Horse is deemed to be a critically endangered breed.
Origins of the Mountain Pleasure Horse
The dates of the first Mountain Pleasure Horse breeding programs are unknown. The Mountain Pleasure Horse Association reports on comments offered by the Stamper family.
“We’ve been breeding and using the Mountain Pleasure Horse in my family clear back to Grandpa J.C. Stamper. I’m guessing now, but I believe he was born about 1815. We just called him the Mountain Horse back then. That ‘Pleasure’ part is new. Horses up here had to work for a living. They still do, for that matter. No one could afford a horse that only rode good, but wouldn’t work. People up here had families to feed.”
When the first settlers began to push westward in the United States, they brought with them several different breeds of horses with smooth gaits. Many of the horses were descendants of Hobbies, Pacers, and Trotters. The Narragansett Pacer, developed in New England, was especially popular and helped to establish new homesteads in Eastern Kentucky.
As the smooth-gaited horses began to lose their purebred status due to crossbreeding, the next generation of horses were simply referred to as mountain horses or saddle horses. Living in the rugged mountains of Appalachia, anyone with transportation needs found that a horse that was sure-footed, with a smooth gait, was an essential part of life. These traits began to be bred from the various horses that had been moved into the region, which allowed the Mountain Pleasure Horse to slowly develop.
Careful attention was paid to the qualities that were believed to make a good saddle horse in the breeding programs in Kentucky. Mares would be bred to stallions within the same branch of qualities that were desired, often within the same family or homestead as well. Although formal breeding records weren’t kept in the mountains during the 19th century, the family names and origins of horses were an oral tradition that was passed down, keeping the Mountain Pleasure Horse pushing forward.
Spirit Horse Equine Rescue shows off Rose, a Mountain Pleasure Horse, @ a benefit at Luke's Deli in Janesville. pic.twitter.com/y3VPYJYs9q— Neil W. Johnson (@JanesvilleNeil) June 3, 2014
Between 1900-1940, the Tennessee Walking Horse came into Appalachia and began to improve the mountain horses. The mountain horses helped to improve the Walkers. During this period, palominos were sought after with abundance and this introduced certain coat colorations into the mountain horses as well.
Additional bloodlines from American Saddlebreds and Rocky Mountain Horses were also added.
The informal nature of the Mountain Pleasure Horse continued until 1989, when a group of breeder in Kentucky decided an association would help to protect their best interests. To create the initial registry, the group held certification days on Saturdays where everyone could bring their mountain horses to be inspected.
From these inspections, a group of foundation stock was selected and every known pedigree was recorded. Proof parentage was then established through DNA testing and the Mountain Pleasure Horse was finally established as a breed. The registry books were closed in 1991 with 100 stallions and 400 mares.
In 2009, the books were opened again to create an appendix, but the registry was separated into two separate categories in 2014 because the appendix was having a detrimental effect on the breed.
Characteristics of the Mountain Pleasure Horse
The Mountain Pleasure Horse is a medium-sized horse, with most standing 15.2 hands high or less. There should be a balance to the proportions of the horse, creating a physical appearance that speaks of longevity, soundness, and sturdiness.
The horse should have a shoulder that is laid-back, preferably with an angle of 45 degrees. This will allow the horse to reach with their stride, providing a better overall movement profile. Accompanied by hind legs that are correctly angled to create a smoother gait, a sure-footedness is created so that steep or rugged terrain can be easily navigated by the horse.
Mountain Pleasure Horses should have a neck that is arched and an “attractive” head, with kind eyes that speak of a quiet intelligence. The horse should have a calm temperament, be good around children, and have common sense present in every situation the horse finds itself.
The gait of a Mountain Pleasure Horse is at the intermediate speed and is a 4-beat lateral gait with moderate speed. Unlike other gaited horses, there isn’t an exaggerated hock or knee action to the gait. This creates a smoothness in the ride that most other breeds cannot achieve due to the selective breeding that took place over the last two centuries on this specific characteristic.
Many foals are able to demonstrate their ability with this innate gait within hours of being born.
The Future of the Mountain Pleasure Horse
The Mountain Pleasure Horse is recognized as being the oldest gaited breed in North America by its breed association. The goal of the association is to preserve the bloodlines of the breed while developing and promoting it the general public. Then the emphasis is to grow the population levels of this rare horse.
There are still mountain horses with ambling and smooth gaits that can be found in the mountains of the United States. Some rural farms and ranches still rely on the oral breeding histories of their horses to create specific characteristics. Although the breed has been formalized and genetics verified, the traditions which started the Mountain Pleasure Horse remain and will likely do so for as long as time exists.