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- General Interest
Race car fans have Indianapolis and Daytona. Harley riders go to Sturgis. Golf fanatics descend on Augusta. For fanciers of the Missouri fox trotter, there is no place like Ava, Missouri.
The anticipation builds as the sun begins its descent toward the horizon and campers abandon lawn chairs to prepare for the evening’s events. An announcer checks the sound system and food shacks do a banner business in cheeseburgers and homemade pie. Horses are brushed and saddled while riders don top coats or sparkly tops and check the tilt of Western hats in pickup truck mirrors.
The Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association’s Spring Show and Futurity is under way and the faithful have come to Ava in full force. Horses enter the Dale Easter Arena and begin to circle the track as riders sit expressionless and erect in their saddles. An organist plays a steady tempo while judges, scorekeepers and photographers hold court in the Bob Crafton gazebo at the center of the ring. An announcer calls instructions in a soothing baritone voice:
“Flat-foot walk, please, flat-foot walk.
“Riders, now fox trot. Fox trot your horses
“And now reverse direction please, reverse direction.”
Group after group of riders and horses walks, canters and fox trots under the watchful eyes of skeptical judges as the week progresses. Pride, and just a trace of apprehension, is evident in each rider’s face as they present their horse for evaluation. Each has come to this place in hopes of receiving a blue ribbon as best in class.
Named for its distinctive gait, the fox trotter breed was first developed in the rocky hills around Ava. In 1948, local horsemen created a registry and began tracking horses that exhibited an innate ability to fox trot, a unique pattern of stepping that is easy on the rider and allows a horse to travel great distances over uneven terrain without tiring.
“I think we probably have one of the best breeds that there is,” says Keith Mizer, who has shod horses at fox trotter association events for 42 years. “They’re a good versatility horse, a good family horse, a good show horse. They’re just a good all-around horse.”
At 68, Mizer has traveled around the world conducting workshops and shoeing horses. Based in Lebanon, Mo., he’s worked in the Hollywood movie industry and taught on college campuses, but nowhere is the farrier more at home than in Ava. Despite heart surgery and hip replacement, Mizer says is determined to be on hand when fox trotters gather here.
Two events bring diehard fox trotter fans to southwest Missouri each year. The annual Spring Show and Futurity is the equine equivalent of a debutant ball. The world championship Fall Show and Celebration, lasts a week and draws 1,500 equestrians to the headquarters of the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association in September.
With 850 private stalls and multiple show rings, the association’s 130-acre facility is ideal for exhibitions, but it’s not the show grounds that attract visitors from Europe, Central America and nearly every state in the nation. These bi-annual pilgrimages to Ava are spurred by an undying devotion to the Missouri fox trotter breed.
“We’ve got families that have been in this thing for two or three generations. They’re very passionate about this breed of horse. They become, sometimes, almost fanatical about it,” says Jim Mann, president of the association. “They take it serious, really serious.”
Missouri’s official state horse, the fox trotter is a product of the rugged Ozark Mountains. With the rocky soil of southwest Missouri yielding little grain for forage, early pioneers couldn’t afford the luxury of specialized horses. One animal needed to perform multiple tasks.
“You wanted a horse that could do everything: pull the buggy or a light plow and work the cattle. It had to be the local transportation,” says Cecil Huff, a horse trainer, guest ranch owner and fox trotter enthusiast from Ava. “It had to carry the judge and the sheriff and the preacher. Some of the old county officials would cover 50 miles a day and they wanted a horse that wouldn’t beat them to death. They started selecting smooth-riding horses that were sure-footed.”
It is the fox trotter’s smooth ride that continues to sell horsemen and horsewomen on the breed. Unlike a quarter horse, which leaps and lands with each stride, the fox trotter keeps one foot firmly planted on the ground at all times. By avoiding free fall, the fox trotter provides a smoother, less jarring ride.
While other horses’ legs move laterally, with front and back hooves on each side stepping in unison, the fox trotter’s left front leg moves just slightly ahead of its right back leg and vice versa. “It’s a broken diagonal gait,” Mann says. ”They’re walking in the front, and trotting in the back.”
Although it looks unusual, the fox trot gait results in a more stable stance on hills and rocky ground. The easy-riding, rhythmic nature of the Missouri fox trotter makes the breed popular with recreational trail riders, Forest Service rangers and other back-country or endurance horsemen.
“The fox trotting horse is a traveling horse,” says Duane Scott of Rogersville. A lifelong horseman, Scott recalls boyhood rides to swimming holes and taking trips to town on a Missouri fox trotter. Today, the 71-year-old cattleman uses fox trotters to survey his pastures and round up livestock.
“We like them better than the quarter horse because we can cover so much more ground without loping all the time,” Scott says. “If I rode a quarter horse, I’d either have to stand up in the stirrups or take a beating. I can just sit down and ride this one like a gentleman.”
After a century of use by Ozark settlers, the fox trotter became a recognized breed when the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association formed. Initially, any horse that fox trotted could be entered into the breed registry. By 1983, only foals from both a registered fox trotter sire and dam were recognized.
Interest in the fox trotter – named Missouri’s state horse in 2002 – has grown exponentially in recent years. In 1978, the official fox trotter registry totaled 15,000. Today, there are nearly 96,000 registered fox trotters worldwide and the association has affiliate organizations in 26 U.S. states, Europe and Canada. In April, Chinese envoys visited a Missouri fox trotter farm to evaluate the breed in hopes of fulfilling a rising demand for recreational horses in China.
“The fox trotter is an outstanding ambassador breed with a lot of potential for export to other countries,” says Director of Agriculture Dr. Jon Hagler, who starts fox trotters for trail riding on his farm near St. James. “I believe trail riders and recreational horsemen the world over could not ask for a better horse than the Missouri fox trotter. It’s great to see riders across the globe realize what we’ve known in Missouri for generations.”
While the popularity of fox trotters has grown, the breed association has made great strides as well. In 1959, the inaugural year for the Fall Celebration, the group gathered at Ava’s city fairgrounds. In 1976, the association bought land and began constructing its own facility. Today, the show grounds include 17 barns, more than 300 RV sites, a restaurant, an office building and the Fox Trotter Hall of Fame.
Fox trotter enthusiasts appreciate the facilities, but it’s the chance to prove their horse in international competition that brings dedicated fox trotter owners to Ava. A wide variety of contests at both the spring and fall events reflect the versatility of the fox trotter breed. In addition to traditional pleasure riding and showmanship categories, riders and horses vie for ribbons and bragging rights in cutting, roping and other Western skills, hunter-jumper classes, trail riding techniques and driving and hitch competitions.
Both events feature non-competitive trail rides and seminars to provide recreation and learning opportunities for all attendees. While both shows swell the population of Ava, it’s the Celebration that’s most anticipated by fox trotter fans. It is here, at the birthplace of the breed that riders and horses compete for the ultimate recognition.
“At no other place can a horse be a world grand champion fox trotter but right here,” Mann says. “If you want to go to one fox trotting event a year, you want to go to the Celebration.”
The 2010 Fall Show and Celebration is scheduled for September 4-11. For more information, log onto the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association website at mfthba.com
(This feature article and the accompanying photos were provided to the Douglas County Herald by the Missouri Department of Agriculture and are published with their permission. If you have questions or comments, contact Misti.Preston@mda.mo.gov)