By Rebecca Ondov Blasing
In Billings, Montana, as a child, L. Tom Eaton snuggled in his ten-cent theater seat while the big screen flashed images of Tom Mix riding his trusty horse Tony through harrowing adventures.
Tom Eaton loved horses. When at home, he watched his parents found the Billings Polytechnic Institute. Through his parents example of investing their lives in others, Tom decided to devote himself to the philosophy that man should commit their lives to serving humanity through their works. Indeed he succeeded. Tom left behind shoes of extraordinary size. He taught school, coached, worked as a high school educator, saw that students—who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance at college—received scholarships, developed physical therapy programs and therapy machines for returning disabled WWII veterans, and founded a legacy that exhibits his spirit and captures the heart of Montana—the Montana Travler breed of horses.
Tom never intended on establishing a new breed of horses but it was the result of his search for the “perfect” Montana horse—a horse that loved people and could travel the roughest terrain with speed, surefootedness, and a sound mind. A horse that had enough withers to hold a saddle in the mountains, great lung capacity for the high altitudes and endurance to go the distance. It all started in the 1930’s when a friend gave him a part Thoroughbred, part Hamiltonian mare that he bred to a part Morgan, part Hamiltonian stallion.
In 1942 when he entered WWII, he didn’t want to sell his herd so he turned them out on pasture by Billings, MT with a part Morgan, part American Saddlebred stallion. When he returned in 1946, he faced a daunting task—he now had 45 head of horses to break. To his surprise, not one of them bucked. He liked what he rode and decided to use the stock to make another dream come true… he started a pack train business taking as many as 50 people at a time into the Beartooth Mountains and Yellowstone Park. Focused on providing his guests with the smoothest and most gentle horses, he bred only the best riding and pack stock—all horses that kicked or bit “went down the road.”
For the next three decades, Tom developed an intensive interbreeding program crossing Tennessee Walkers, Morgans, and Thoroughbreds with his stock. He concentrated on breeding horses with a narrow chest for ease of riding, a deep girth for exceptional lung capacity, a ground-covering smooth walk, a gentle disposition, stamina, and hard sound feet.
As he moved around Montana to different teaching, coaching and school administration jobs, he would pack up his choice stock and take them with him. By 1974 he was serving as principal of Garfield County schools, living in Jordan, MT. That spring, with the greening of the grass, a colt was born. A colt unequaled to any before him. Every horseman that saw him knew there was something different about him, something special. Tom knew his thirty years of selective breeding had paid off. It was the horse that he had devoted his life to developing—Montana Travler the foundation stallion of the breed. The colt grew into a 16.1 hand flashy chestnut with his own distinctive confirmation and with an eight mile-per-hour flat-footed walk. (The average horse walks three to four miles per hour.)
Montana Travler has proven himself. Tom was fond of saying, “There are stallions, and there are sires, and he’s a sire. His genes become dominant in the breeding program.” Truly Montana Travler’s descendents carry the mark of his distinctive traits.
In June of 1984, The American Horse Council approved of the Montana Travler as a new breed of horses. That same year, Senator John Melcher congratulated Tom 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.” In 1989 the Montana Travler became the official Montana Centennial breed.
In 1989 Mel Atkinson of Hazen, ND read an article about the Montana Travler in one of his farm journals. Mel says, “(it was) the kind of horse I’ve always visualized especially the conformation and the gait. Because I knew that someday I’d be looking for a horse that would be narrow, comfortable and had a lot of willingness because I was getting older.” Mel tracked down some Montana Travlers and immediately fell in love with them. After raising several he became more impressed. Now he’s one of the largest breeders. Mel says, “The Montana Travler gives you a horse that is easy to train, versatile (used for cutting and moving cattle, pleasure rides, hunting, and packing, etc.), and a sure-footed mountain horse with endurance and a desire to please.”
Mel’s not the only one who has fallen in love with them. Mark Engle, the Montana Travler Horse Association’s (MTHA) vice president, says, “When I have my Travlers around, people are always asking what kind of horse I’m riding. When you ride them, they have a second gear that 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. A cruising machine. And gentle. The horse speaks for himself.”
Mark owns a stallion named Cisco with a robust personality. When Cisco was young he would play tug of war with his dog. Cisco would bite onto a towel and his dog would grab the other end and the two of them would tug for all they’re worth. Mark says, “My dog was his buddy. All my dogs have been his buddies. And Travlers are real people-lovers too.”
Chuck Donovan, the MTHA’s president, says a black and white stallion named Sprite not only likes people but he’s got a sense of humor too. When Sprite’s owner goes into the pasture to fix fence, Sprite waits till his back is turned then sneaks in and steals the fencing bucket. Sprite hides it just like a dog with a bone. Then he stands back waits for his owner to turn around and find the bucket.
As gentle as the Travler is, he’s also full of stamina, which makes him Dave Warwood’s choice of mount for his outfitting business outside of Belgrade, MT. Dave says, “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. When I found these Travlers it turns out that you don’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.”
The Montana Travler has proven it’s versatility from mountain work, show ring, endurance rides, jumping events, ranch work, and pleasure. Through Tom Eaton’s search for a “perfect” Montana horse he created a legacy that exhibits his spirit and captures the heart of Montana—one of determination, love of life, willingness to train, endurance, and is Montana’s namesake.
Tom’s son says, “If you want to know what’s special about them, you have to ride one.”