Breeding a Montana mountain horse

Horse breeder mixes traits of Trotters, Quarter horses, to create a better mountain horse

Ray Knotts montana mountain horse, tennessee walker cross breed quarter horse, montana living magazine, david reese 


By David Reese/Montana Living

Ray Knotts looks out at the big, sprawling mountain range that borders the Flathead Valley and sees questions.

One question is: why isn't a horse that could handle the rough terrain of Montana's mountains, while having the stamina to go at it all day?

At his horse ranch north of Kalispell on Whitefish Stage Road, Knotts is starting off on a journey that may lead him to that answer. He's breeding a different kind of horse that he thinks will be perfectly suited to the conditions of northwest Montana: all kinds of weather, rugged terrain, and the need to pack heavy loads.

That horse is the Montana Mountain Horse. It's a breed that Knotts has only recently started to work on. He has taken purebred Canadian horses and is breeding them with Missouri Fox Trotters in hopes of finding the perfect mix of stamina, smooth riding and strength.

Knotts had been looking for the right kind of saddle horse when he saw a Canadian Mounted Police officer riding a Canadian horse at the Calgary Stampede. His first questions was "What kind of horse is that you're riding?" the officer replied, "A Canadian." "Well, what KIND of Canadian?"

Actually, it is just that: a Canadian. The Canadian is a pure breed, descended from the line of horses brought to North America from France by King Louis XIV. Almost each of the 3,000 Canadian horses that exist today — including the three stallions in Knotts' ranch — are three of eight blood lines that can all be traced to the king. The Canadian is actually one of the oldest breeds in North America, according to Knotts, who said his Canadians are the only ones in Montana.

Knotts, 55, retired to the Flathead Valley from the southeast and now owns a 40-acre ranch about 5 miles north of Kalispell. There he's built a custom 20,000-square-foot indoor arena and stables, and inside this facility are his dreams: three Canadian stallions and three Trotter mares that have already been covered (bred) by the stallions.

The mares should foal in March, and it will be around next September that he'll be able to see the first results of his breeding program. By September he'll be able to see what kind of traits the cross breeding has achieved, whether there's too much Trotter and not enough Canadian. If he desires one of the traits that is missing, he'll breed the offspring with more Canadian or Trotter. His goal: a horse with stamina, strength and easy riding.

These qualities — excellent respiratory capability, strength and stamina — should combine with the walking gait of a Fox Trotter to make the perfect mountain horse, Knotts says: a Montana Mountain Horse. "You're trying to lock in the likelihood that in two to three generations this new breed will exhibit these physical traits and these performance traits," Knotts says. "It's a refining process." Canadian horses are around 15 to 17 hands tall, and are usually black. They are recognized by their finely chiseled heads, small ears, arched necks and long, thick tails. They have sturdy legs, a large chest cavity, heavy bones and exceptionally strong feet.

So strong, in fact, that Knotts never shoes his. "Their feet are like iron," he says. "My dream is to get back to a horse that doesn't need shoes." This concept has been tried before by people trying to find the perfect mountain horse. They've crossed Percherons with Tennessee Walkers — without success — Knotts says. He's working on it full time. "I don't know why anyone else hasn't tried this," he says. "It seems very clear to me." Knotts says he thinks that if he can perfect the mountain horse, more people will stay with riding.

"A lot of people move to Montana, buy a place and then buy a horse," he says. "Then they take it up into some of the roughest terrain on God's green earth and what happens? They get beat up; they both get beat up. And soon enough that horse ends up at the auction barn."

Knotts himself is a big man; he stands at 6-foot-5-inches and tips the scales at 255. Add a rifle, scabbard and saddle bags and he's pushing the limits of his horse on a long day hunting.

That's one of the reasons he wanted to try this. "Ultimately what we're after is an improved mountain horse," he said. "What I'm hearing from people is that if I can pull it off, it will be one heck of a combination. It's pretty much a wait-and-see-game now. But if I spend the next 10 years developing this breed, it will be time well spent."

The Fox Trotter has the gait of a its namesake, the fox. It has long-reaching front strides, and quick stepping rear legs. The tempo and rhythm of this four-beat gait combine to make a horse that's easy to ride. He'll ride at 4-7 mph and "can do it all day," Knotts says.

He chose the Trotter over the Tennessee Walking Horse because the Trotter doesn't swing as much — something you don't want on a narrow mountain trail. The American quarter horse has evolved into a perfect horse for team penning, calf roping and cutting, and is very popular in Montana. It can stop quickly and outmaneuver a calf.

And just as the quarter horse has been bred for a specific purpose, Knotts says he thinks his horses may one day fill the need for the perfect mountain horse. "That's where we're headed," he says. "Nobody knows until we get there. We just might be whistling Dixie, but it's a pretty good challenge."

— This article appeared in a 2002 issue of Montana Living magazine. Mr. Knotts has since passed away.

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