Check out these suggestions for assessing the training level of your potential new equine, as well as some red flags and what to stay away from.
Buying a new horse is a complicated endeavor. Along with deciding on breed, size, color, bloodlines, age and sex, you must also decide if the horse’s training is sufficient to meet your needs.
Know What You’re Looking For
If you are an advanced rider looking for a performance horse trained to an upper level (be it jumping, dressage or reining) you should already know what you are looking for or be able to enlist the help of your coach/trainer to help you find what you need.
If you’re after a good basic horse, perhaps one at a novice competitive level or a recreational horse, and you do not have anyone to help you, then you need to know how to assess the horse’s training for yourself before buying.
Having purchased horses for a police unit, I can tell you that finding out what a horse knows is critical to your success down the road. Be aware that not everyone will tell you the whole story about their horses. When that happens, a little sleuthing on your part can determine where the horse’s training is at and whether he will be suitable for you.
Don’t Get Caught By Catch Phrases
Whether I’m reading a classified ad or talking to someone about a horse on the phone, there are a few phrases I watch out for. These phrases try to sum up a horse’s training without actually really telling you anything.
• “This horse is kid safe.” Plenty of horses are kid safe, but many others are not, even though the picture in the ad might show a child sitting on the horse. I can put children on a lot of horses that wouldn’t necessarily be the best riding animals for you. One reason is that a lot of kids don’t ask much of the horses they’re riding – and the horses are more tolerant as a result. Just because the horse will take a kid on a trail ride doesn’t mean anything. “Dude ranch” horses will take almost anyone on a trail ride. However, try riding that “dude ranch” horse away from the herd, and you might find a different animal under you.
• “He has bad ground manners, but he rides fine.” This is a real red flag for me. If a horse’s ground manners are poor, there’s a good chance that sooner or later you’ll find out just how bad his riding manners are. What happens on the ground usually repeats itself from the saddle when the conditions are right.
• “He’s a little underweight, but he’s docile as a lamb.” When a horse like this gains back 250 pounds of lost muscle and actually has the energy for an argument, you might be surprised just how determined he can be to get his own way.
Wherever possible, during the initial interview and before going to see the horse, ask some basic questions about his training. When I was horse shopping, I used an extensive questionnaire that I developed. I asked questions in a relaxed manner, and made light of most bad behaviors/ vices. I found people were more honest in their answers if they thought bad habits weren’t a big deal to me.
Inquire About The Following:
• Does the horse have nice ground manners?
• Does he ever rear, pull back or bolt while being led?
• Does he value your space, or is he “kinda pushy”?
• Does he bite?
• Does he ever strike or kick out?
• Is he good with farriers and vets?
• Does he bathe, load and tie nicely?
• How often have you bathed him?
• When was the last time you loaded him? And more importantly, when you haul the horse to a new location, does he “reload” into the trailer easily? I have known horses that would get on a trailer at home, then not want to leave the new location. More than one person has spent hours loading a horse at the end of a competition. Make sure the horse ties to the type of tie system you use. Some will stand quietly in cross ties, but pull back when tied to the side of the trailer. Don’t assume anything – ask questions so you know.
• How does he accept the saddle?
• Does he stand still for mounting?
• How well does he accept a bit?
• What is needed before you ride? This is a loaded question and very subjective, so you need to ask some detailed questions. Start with: “Do you have to lunge him before you ride him?” If you have to lunge the horse every time you want to ride there is something missing in his training as far as I’m concerned. There is lunging to warm up, and then there is lunging to get the kinks out. Lunging to warm up is one thing and quite honestly shouldn’t take 20 minutes. You can warm him up while riding him. Lunging to get the kinks out is another matter, and a bad habit to let a horse get into.
• Also ask if he is “lazy”, “headstrong”, “stubborn”, “energetic” or “flighty” and determine his go-to reaction when frightened.
From the saddle
Next, ask about all the signals and movements you hope the horse knows for your particular discipline.
The trail mount
Your horse needs to know basic gaits – walk, trot and canter. But he also needs to know how to move laterally, since this is important for avoiding trees and other “knee capping” obstacles. Most importantly, he needs to know his “whoa” cue. Also ask if he spooks easily, and what he does when spooked. Some horses spook in place, some whirl, some jump out of their skin, etc.
The competitive horse
If you have been competing for any length of time, you know the specifics of your sport. If not, you need to have your trainer or coach help you. At the minimum, your trained horse should know two speeds at every gait – walk, trot and canter. He should be able to pick up both canter leads. He should have a soft backup. Additionally, he should have good lateral movement and be able to side pass left and right equally, as well as turn on the fore and haunches.
Beyond these basic movements, the rest is discipline specific. But any horse with these basics can move forward quite well.
The Test Drive
Now you get to go and test ride the horse you have chosen. Make sure the seller does not lunge him or warm him up ahead of time. You want to make sure what he/she has told you is accurate. Go see it all: watch the horse being haltered, groomed, saddled, warmed up and ridden. Then ride the horse yourself and see if you can get him to do everything you want.
This is not meant to be a 45-minute ride. You can find out what the horse knows in 15 minutes or less. He either can or can’t do movements like spins, side passing, shoulder in, turns on haunches or fore, picking up leads, etc. If the seller has to try five times to get the left lead and tells you it’s because the horse just needs to warm up a little more, he/she is fibbing. There is either something physically wrong, or the horse does not know his leads.
Now is the time to notice any discrepancies between what the sellers told you on the phone and what the horse can actually do. Just because the horse may not be a perfect match with how they described him doesn’t mean you don’t want him, but it does mean “buyer beware”.
When it comes to horses with certain “quirks”, to buy or not to buy is really based on your ability to train them. If you have never dealt with a problem horse, then you should stay away from those with any type of issue that needs to be retrained.
If none of the following issues was disclosed before you came out to test the horse, then I suggest you walk away. It’s different if they were disclosed and you went out anyway, because it means you are interested in buying these problems and fixing them.
• Rearing: If I see the horse rear for any reason, it is a huge red flag and odds are good I will walk
away. I can fix it, but I also know if the sellers did not tell me about it before I came out to see the horse, then they are likely hiding other issues.
• Bucking: A buck going into a lead pickup can simply mean a sore stifle or psoas muscle. However, bucking because the horse doesn’t want to do something is an elimination offense.
• Standing still: If the horse won’t stand still and seems to pace and dance around for mounting and/or saddling due to anxieties, then you can bet those anxieties will be worse away from the barn.
• Refusing to load into a trailer: I can come back when he knows how to load.
• Severe herd bound issues: If you can hardly ride him away from the barn then you will have bigger issues on the trail, and maybe in competition too.
Can these issues be resolved? Absolutely, and I have fixed them all. But if you can’t fix them or don’t know someone who can, then walk away or get the price lowered so you have the money to spend on fixing the problems (if you like everything else about the horse).
Horse shopping can be an exhausting endeavor, but it’s very rewarding when you finally find the perfect partner. By covering all your bases and getting to know each horse’s strengths and weaknesses before making a final purchase, you have a better chance at setting yourself up for a long-lasting partnership.
Scot Hansen is a natural horseman and retired mounted police officer, and has trained both riders and horses to work the streets. His award-winning Self Defense for Trail Riders clinics and training video have been widely accepted as the principal resource for safe trail riding and self protection. He has extensive knowledge of how horses think and learn, and offers professional training and clinics in Thinking Horsemanship and other topics for both adult riders and youths. Find out more at HorseThink.com. To ask about hosting a clinic in your area, call 425-830- 6260 or e-mail Sandy@HorseThink.com.