Breeding a Better Horse: the Montana Travler
July 23, 2008
By: Rebecca Ondov Blasing
Say “Montana,” and one might think of big, blue skies, snow-capped peaks, and horses standing on grassy hillsides with the wind tussling their manes. Now there’s a horse that’s truly fit for such a picturesque scene. Montanan Tom Eaton developed the Montana Travler breed by combining Thoroughbreds, Hamiltonians, Morgans, American saddlebreds, and Tennessee walkers. He wanted a horse that captured the heart and spirit of the country on which it roamed—people-friendly, surefooted to accommodate the rugged terrain and of sound mind. Additionally, he needed a horse with enough withers to hold a saddle in the mountains, great lung capacity for Montana’s high altitudes, endurance and a long stride to cover the country.
Eaton began working on such a horse in the 1930s when a friend gave him a Thoroughbred-Hamiltonian cross mare which Eaton then bred to a Morgan-Hamiltonian cross stallion. When WWII beckoned in 1942, Eaton didn’t want to sell his small herd of exceptional horses, so he turned them out to pasture near Billings with a Morgan-American saddlebred cross stallion. In 1946 when he returned from the war, he faced a daunting equine task—breaking 45 head of horses. To his surprise not one of them bucked. He loved the horses that he rode, and started a pack train business taking as many as 50 people at a time into the Beartooth Mountains and Yellowstone National Park.
Because he wanted to provide his guests with the smoothest and most gentle horses, he bred only the best riding and pack stock. He removed all horses that kicked or bit. For the next three decades Eaton developed an intensive interbreeding program, crossing his stock with Tennessee walkers, Morgans and Thoroughbreds. He concentrated on breeding horses with narrow chests for ease of riding, a deep girth for exceptional lung capacity, a ground-covering smooth walk, a gentle disposition, stamina and hard, sound feet.
In the spring of 1974, a colt unequal to any before it was born. After 30 years of selective breeding, Montana Travler, recognized by every horseman who saw it as having something different, something special, became Eaton’s foundation stallion and the horse after which the breed was named.
The colt grew into a 16.1-hand, flashy chestnut with its own distinctive conformation and an eight-mile-per-hour flat-footed walk. (The average horse walks three to four miles per hour.) Eaton, who died earlier this year at 86, was fond of saying, “There are stallions, and there are sires; and he’s a sire. His genes become dominant in the breeding program.”
The American Horse Council recognized the Montana Travler as a new horse breed in June 1984. That same year Senator John Melcher congratulated Eaton, saying, “The many patient years of breeding have certainly paid off. Producing the first unique breed of horse developed in the state of Montana is certainly a worthwhile accomplishment and I wish you the best of luck.” Five years later in 1989, Montana Travler became the official Montana Centennial breed.
Presently, the Montana Travler Horse Association (MTHA), which Eaton also helped found, boasts 307 horses on its books. It keeps a close eye on the breed in order to preserve its integrity, thus it offers two distinct registrations. A provisional registration allows any descendent of Montana Travler to be papered. This paper acts as a temporary registration until the horse is old enough to complete its official registration. In order for a horse to be officially registered, it must be a descendent of Montana Travler and exhibit his conformation, plus be at least three years old, ridable, and presented to three MTHA directors who approve it. The horse must have a gentle disposition, thick-walled feet, respond well to training and it must “travel” with a flat-footed running walk with a long over stride.
Mark Engle, Montana Travler owner and vice-president of the MTHA, says, “When you ride them, they have a second gear. You will absolutely know that you’re on a horse that’s going eight to ten miles per hour. He’s not trotting, he’s not loping, he’s just walking.
“These are real Cadillac horses,” he adds. “A cruising machine. And gentle.”
As gentle as the Travler is, it’s also full of stamina, which makes it Dave Warwood’s choice mount for Bridger Outfitters, his outfitting business located outside of Belgrade. “I used to think that if you had a horse that could go all day in rough country, he had to be covered with foam and prancing sideways,” Warwood says. Once discovering the Montana Travler, he realized he didn’t need “those crazy horses that have a brain the size of a pea. Travlers have got great disposition, the stamina that goes with it and that smooth ride.” Warwood adds.
Due to the limited number of horses for sale each year, Montana Travlers have remained concentrated throughout Montana and North Dakota where folks wanting dependable horses snatch them up for pleasure, endurance, ranch work and packing. Montana Travlers tend to be tall like a Thoroughbred, and they come in all different color phases.
Nicknamed Cadillac horses and cruising machines, These horses have proven their versatility from the mountains and the show ring to cutting and moving cattle, and from pleasure rides to endurance rides. Through Eaton’s discriminating breeding efforts, he created a legacy that exhibits the spirit and soul of Montana— and it’s standing on a hillside waiting to share why it’s special.
For more information, go to www.montanatravler.com