Old Time Fox Trotters or Modern Day Fox Trotters?

By Dyan Westvang

As with any breed since the beginning of man’s involvement with the evolutionary process of horse type distinction, the Missouri Fox Trotter has changed in appearance, performance, gait and genetics since the original founders of the breed type first began selective breeding for this fine gait called the Fox Trot. While there was from the very onset a variance in style of gait, stride length, and general appearance of those early horses, for the most part they had in common the correct rhythm, timing, athletic ability, constitution and hardiness.

Over the course of time, as needs and wishes of those who breed these animals changed, so did the overall appearance, ability, and style as well as the genetic base from which the horses spring.

The old time fox trotting horses had a distinctive way of raveling in gait which left prints in the dirt showing the hind foot capping the track of the front foot . Some of the horses would step slightly over the front print, or some would step on the front print and slide through. But capping the track was the accepted way for a fox trotting horse to travel. This mode is extremely sure footed and balanced though perhaps not so reaching as a big overstrided horse. In the early days of the show ring, the horses were expected to stay true to the gait and capping the tracks was highly desirable.

When the show ring began to take precedent over the need for a good ranch horse, the daisy clipping easy gait of the old time foxtrotting horse began to be replaced by a horse with more knee action, some with a good deal more lift than the old timers had.. When speed at gait became more important than the surefootedness of the animal, more and more lateral blood was introduced into the breed in order to stretch stride lengths to maximum rather than having a medium strided horse who kept it's feet more centered for maximum balance and athletic ability.

The foundation old time Fox Trotters were bred primarily from the old time Saddlehorse, forerunner of today’s American Saddlebred. Those horses were well boned, gentle natured, using horses who just happened to also have the soft gait to their credit. These horses generally had good heads, willing dispositions, and were used as general all around horses for family, farm and ranch work. In a time and region where there were few motorized conveyances, paved road systems, maintained highways, these ruggedly strong, athletic horses did all manner of work from carrying youngsters to school, to pulling the family wagon to town or church. The same horse might be found behind a plow, hay rake, or logging skid at one part of the day and at another be found herding cows or being roped from. The same animal was often then used in the evening to take a fellow courting or to town and yet was fresh and able to go back to his work the following day without harm.

In size the old time Foxtrotters were generally medium built horses ranging around 15 hands commonly weighing from 1,000- 1,200 lbs as a rule. There were exceptions as in any rule, but generally they were medium sized horses with good bone and sturdy builds. They were unusually hardy and thrived on the changeable often extreme climactic variances of the Ozark region and for the most part did not receive benefit of supplemental feeding or the modern day practices of worming or vaccination. For the most part these were no nonsense, “lets get the job done” horses.

When the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breeders Association was founded these were the horses still known as foxtrotting horses. But in the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s and until the book closed, the registry was still open to any horse who could prove under saddle before inspectors it could fox trot. The majority of those who were entered the registry after 1969 were of Tennessee Walking Horse breeding and though many of those horses indeed did do a good fox trot, many of them were actually laterally based horses who would stepping pace or running walk if the choice was left up to them. If some of those horses foxtrotted simply from training there was no distinction made between them and those who would foxtrot naturally. And of course those horses who foxtrotted merely from training were less likely to pass along a natural fox trot to their get.

Breeders often bred both Tennessee Walking Horses and Missouri Fox Trotters so the stallions were often double registered. That way if a foal didn’t do the proper gait for one breed it found a home in another making it more marketable. Also the stallion owners could garner stud fees from both breeds which was a welcome augment to their coffers. There were also a few double registered Saddlebreds within the registry, but far and wide the largest group to enter the registry during the last 13 years of open books were the Walkers, whereas the horses brought into the registry during the first 21 years were by a large margin Saddlehorses.

In general the Tennessee Walking Horses who would fox trot would also do a running walk or stepping pace at speed.. Many of the stallions admitted were quite lateral but would square up and fox trot if ridden in the right frame. On the other hand, the Saddle horses who fox trotted more likely racked or went to a square trot at speed.

With the introduction of the Walking horse blood the general appearance and handiness of the Fox Trotters began to change as well. One of the most noticeable changes was in the shape and size of the head. Many old time breeders rejected the Walking Horse blood because they did not like the coarser bigger heads of the Walkers. Some also claimed those earlier Walkers were slighter built and less able to do the work required than were the earlier Saddle Horses.

Conformation, bone structure, head and neck set, and gait timing changed. Stride length lengthened but with that came less distinctive timing of the fox trot. That “chunk of meat and two potatoes” beat began to sound more and more like a broken trot,with less pause between set down of the pairs. Contrary to that some fox trots became very closely akin to the stepping pace, longer strided and loose but much less square.

During this same time frame the Tennessee Walking Horse itself went through a similar change within it’s own registry. Where it had once been a fairly square gaited horse performing a square running walk naturally, it became a more lateral type horse who performed the running walk at less than a 50/50 ratio. It became a much leaner, slimmer, taller horse designed for speed and stride length and show rather than the compact general purpose type of the old Plantation Horse from which it sprang.

Eventually problems began to arise in both breeds from high percentages of foals being born pacing or doing lateral gaits rather than being born with clear cut soft gait. Besides that, many of the newer generation became hotter natured, less adaptable and less athletic in a general sense while at the same time they became taller, leaner animals with more speed and a good deal of overstride. In other words they were actually more of a sub group to the original type of horse.

Today, as in many other breeds there are those who prefer to preserve the original type of Missouri Fox Trotter. Those who more closely emulate the foundation horses of the breed, while others choose to continue to develop the type which has been labeled by many as the “show ring” type. Both types have their merits and uses. Both types have following’s who think that type superior over the other.

It is our contention that there need not be a competition between the two types as to which is superior. It is rather like comparing apples with oranges. Both are good for their own purpose, but just don’t try baking an apple pie using an orange. We feel both types should be recognized and appreciated for their own characteristics. However, it is also our desire to illustrate and call to the attention of prospective buyers and/or breeders that there ARE these distinctions. Without this distinction being recognized and type breeding maintained to preserve both types the two will completely merge. If that should happen what was known as the fox trot gait will become a thing of the past. It will cease to exist because lateral gait will overtake the square.

In a study conducted by several different colleges, it was found that if a pacing stallion is bred only to pacing mares, they will produce less than 1% trotting foals. However, if a trotting stallion ( Standardbred) is bred only to trotting mares (Standardbred) they will produce between 25 to 35% pacing foals. Since the original Saddlehorse stock used to develop the Missouri Fox Trotter stems strongly from the exact same root stock as the Standardbred it would stand to reason then, that this sort of breeding results could be expected in Missouri Fox Trotter as well. Then if you carry that further along, to where a pacing bred stallion is bred to a trotting bred mare that mating would have a much higher chance of producing a lateral gaited foal than a square one. Therefore, within a few short generations the square fox trot would be simply eradicated from the gene pool.

How unfair it is to breed an animal who is genetically programmed to do one thing, then expect it to do another that is foreign to it’s genetic make up. We feel it is a disservice to the animal and owner alike to breed a horse genetically programmed to perform a lateral gait, then through strict training, use of harsh mechanical “aides” and oft-times cruel equipment force that same animal to conform to a motion and gait not natural to it. We prefer instead to attempt to breed horses who are born naturally performing the desired gait, continue to perform that gait throughout it’s lifetime barring interference from man, or injury…. A horse that will naturally gravitate to the use of this fine, sure-footed easy gait on it’s own when put to saddle and that any person novice or experienced can ride without fear of “loosing” it’s gait. We also prefer to preserve the natural athletic ability of a general all around using type horse.

There are small pockets of this old type breeding still within the breed and we have made it our mission to seek out breeding stock from such. Horses who have been bred for generations to be fox-trotting horses who use their bodies efficiently, have coordination and proper “wiring” to be a natural athlete as well as a smooth ride.

The original Saddlehorse base for the Missouri Foxtrotter stems from Ancient Thoroughbred, Morgan, Canadian Pacer directly. Indirectly they were influenced by the Narragansett Pacer which went extinct nearly 100 years before the Saddlehorse Registry was formed. The biggest base of this type of horse were square travelers that were modified by pacing stock.

The Tennessee Walking Horse was coined from Standardbred, Canadian Pacer, and some Morgan but was formed from in the majority from direct pacing pacing stocks. The Tennessee Walking Horse stemmed from horses bred to pace.

Pacing horses use their hind ends differently than trotting horses in that in pacers the hind leg sweeps forward with little hock action and achieves a longer stride which allows for overstride. It would be difficult for such a structure to square up and shorten enough to perform a correct, capping stride, Foxtrot.

Trot based horses use far more hock action which allows for a different timing at the foxtrot and also sets the horse up better for the capping track style of Foxtrot which is the athletic, well-balanced gait for which the breed was originally formed.

Beyond that, the square bred horses are far more likely to breed true because the pace genes within them are much more diluted by trot base than are those of Tennessee Walking Horse breeding. That means the trend to gravitate toward pace between generations is less likely with the Saddlehorse original type of Foxtrotter than it will be in the Tennessee Walking horse cross outs.

Unfortunately when the influx of Tennessee Walking Horse blood was allowed into the breed after 1969, no one kept track of where that blood went and how drastically it began to dilute the original base of Saddlehorse blood. By 2000 the large majority of Missouri Foxtrotters carried more than 1/2 Tennessee Walking Horse blood while at the same time it became nearly impossible to locate any living horses that did not stem in part from Tennessee Walkers. That is a direct contrast to the original base for the breed.

Today their are countless owners of Missouri Foxtrotters who have no idea in the world they are actually riding a Tennessee Walking Horse. At the same time it becomes more and more difficult to locate ANY horses of pure foundation breeding within the registry. What a pity.

We feel that if someone does not preserve the original type horses, eventually the entire breed will become so lateral that the only way you will ever see a fox trot is on a horse trained by a professional, ridden by a professional who can hold it in that gait, rather than by the common pleasure rider.

Pace is stronger than trot. It has little to do with what an individual horse does...it has to do with genetics and at some point genetics will win out. The only way to balance the genes for a natural foxtrot gait is to protect the trot base of the original type Foxtrotters. Once diluted out of the breed, that trot base cannot be replaced or bred back in without crossing out to a trotting style horse.

The only thing that has slowed the gravitation toward pace in this breed that has not been present in other gaited breeds, was the strong trot base of the original horses. That slowed process will, however, change with each generation as the trot base becomes more and more diluted by pace.

Along with that gravitation comes a change in utility of the type itself. The original horses were multi-purpose individuals who were able to work as stock horses or ranch stock and stay balanced and sure footed on the most difficult of terrain. The Tennessee Walking Horse was developed for a totally different purpose which included faster traveling in far less rigorous conditions. They were not primarily developed to be stock horse types, nor to be as athletic and sure footed as the original Foxtrotters.

That does not mean one type is good and the other bad...it simply means they were designed to different purpose.

What a pity it will be, however, if the original type of horse for which the MFTHBA was developed to preserve and promote became extinct only to be replaced by a type that already exists within a different registry. It seems that is more in keeping with reinventing the wheel!



© Copyright Dyan Westvang ~ All Rights Reserved~ No portion of this article may be reprinted or distributed electronically or by other means without the written consent of the author. Foxvangen Farm





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