Sally Scott, 76, sits astride her chestnut-colored mare, nudging her forward until the horse shifts into a nimble fox trot inside of a competition arena in Ava, Mo. (pop. 2,993).
Head bobbing and tail swishing, Scott’s horse, named Thrill a Minute, walks with her front legs and trots with her rear ones to produce a gait so smooth that Scott appears motionless in the saddle.
“The most important thing about the fox trotter is its smooth ride,” says Scott, of Rogersville, Mo., who is neither jarred nor bounced as her trotter trots.
“She’s a Lamborghini, not a jeep.”
Every September, Scott joins 4,300 fox trotter enthusiasts who converge on Ava for the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association Celebration, featuring about 700 of the gentle, sure-footed horses. Located in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, the town has been associated with the fox trotter since settlers in the region developed the multipurpose breed 150 years ago.
“The settlers needed a versatile horse,” says Jim Mann, 68, past president of the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association. “They couldn’t afford a different horse for each purpose. They used just one for hauling, riding, and then hitched it to the buggy on Sunday [to go to church].”
The settlers also needed an easy-riding horse to drive cattle over the Ozarks’ rocky terrain and dense forests to markets in St. Louis. Thus, the fox trotter was bred to serve both as a working horse and a traveling horse.
“The smooth ride comes from a broken four-beat gait,” explains Duane Scott, 73, who with Sally has bred and trained fox trotters for 55 years. “The right front foot hits the ground just a few seconds before the left rear foot.”
In 1948, after years of breeding for the fox trot gait, several Ozark horsemen organized a fox trotter registry in Ava, the only town in southwest Missouri’s sparsely populated Douglas County. Ava has hosted the breed’s world championships since the first competition took place on the town baseball diamond in 1959.
The weeklong competition now is on the association’s nearby 130-acre campus, which includes multiple arenas, 17 barns and 300 campsites. The event offers 178 classes to evaluate the horses’ gaits and body structure, as well as their versatility in competing in barrel racing, pole bending, cattle cutting and English pleasure riding.
“It’s part of our heritage,” says Bonnie Stafford, 36, of Ava.
Stafford’s great-grandfather bred fox trotters, while her great-grandmother, a midwife, rode them throughout the county to deliver babies. Now Stafford, like locals who purchase box seats to the annual event, look forward to celebrating their horse heritage each September.
“The celebration is very important because fox trotters are the Missouri state horse,” says Mandy Mackey, 31, executive director of the Ava Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s an honor to have them here.”
About 96,000 fox trotters are registered in the United States, Australia, Israel, Canada, the Dominican Republic, France and Germany, and today most owners use the breed for recreation.
“Germans call the fox trotter the freizeit-pferd horse—the free-time horse,” says Lothar Rowe, 75, who sells the horses to German customers from his ranch in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It’s the world’s best pleasure horse. It has the best mind and is easy to train. In the mountains, it goes like a mountain goat.”
Little wonder, then, that the breed is popular at trail rides, fairs, parks and farms.
When Mann hits the trail near his home in Fair Dealing, Mo., he likes to sit his 3-year-old granddaughter, Cori Duncan, behind him atop one of his six fox trotters.
“We’ll ride two to three hours,” he says. “She couldn’t do that on a quarter horse or saddle-bred, but she can on a fox trotter.”